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Things to Do in Bradenton During Spring Training 2018

Things to Do in Bradenton During Spring Training 2018

Every year at the start of Spring Training, I post a “Things to do in Bradenton” guide for those of you who are making the trip down. Every year, the article gets bigger and bigger as I try new places while living in the Bradenton area. These are places I go to on a regular basis, or places I absolutely take my friends to every time they come down.

Pitchers and catchers report today, so what better day to run this year’s article? If you’re coming down for Spring Training, be sure to bookmark this as a reference. If you see me over at Pirate City, feel free to say hello. And if you haven’t purchased a Prospect Guide, you can buy the eBook here, or buy the limited paperback version, with the full book being released in the next day or two.

And of course, the best way to follow the Pirates is to subscribe to this site, where we will be providing coverage all Spring, with articles from myself, Alan Saunders, and Matt Gajtka.

LECOM Park

I get asked a lot about advice on things to do or places to sit inside LECOM Park, and I’m just not the person to ask for advice on this subject. Most of the time I’m getting to LECOM from Pirate City in the 5th inning, and I’m usually conducting interviews during the game, or after the game. When I’m not doing interviews, I’m working in the press box. I’d imagine you’re there to watch the game, so there’s not much advice I can give you beyond that. I will say that a good spot to watch is on the boardwalk in right field. That overlooks the bullpen down below, allowing you to look down and watch the pitchers warm up.

There are two breweries near LECOM. I’ll review them below in the “Beer” section.

Pirate City

If I had to pick one place to be during Spring Training, I’d choose Pirate City. It’s not just because I cover prospects. It’s because I think the action at Pirate City is much better than LECOM in every way. LECOM has the Major League players, but you’re only seeing them for about 5-6 innings. Outside of that you’re paying for the game, sitting in an assigned seat, and watching just one game.

Pirate City is free, and usually has 2-3 games going on at the same time, with all of the games starting at 1 PM. Plus, the view at Pirate City is like having seats to a Little League game, as there is usually only a fence between you and the field. If you stand in the right spot, you can watch three games at the same time. Or you can stand between the fields and watch two games at once, which is more manageable. The schedule (which I’ll post when I get it) either has the Triple-A and Double-A teams at home, or the two A-ball teams at home. The short-season players will sometimes play an intrasquad game, which means you could see four minor league teams at the same time on any given day.

The Pirates don’t have names on the back of their minor league uniforms, so be sure to pick up a roster sheet. You can either get this from the security at the entrance, or in a box on the tower between all of the fields. This will let you know which player is wearing which number. I also recommend buying the 2018 Prospect Guide, and not just for shameless plug reasons. I designed the Prospect Guide specifically for places like Pirate City. You’ve got a ton of minor league players that you’re watching, you want information on them, and the Prospect Guide is a digest-size handbook that has all of that information.

There isn’t much around Pirate City as far as food. I usually eat at Mixon’s, which is right down the road. If you’re going to Mixon’s, you have to try the orange juice (they have free samples), and I recommend the orange swirl ice cream, made with their orange juice.

Food

If you’re like me, then Spring Training involves the following things:

1. Find a place to stay

2. Go and watch baseball

3. Find a place to eat

4. Maybe visit a beach (this actually isn’t like me, because I typically skip the beach for more baseball)

I can’t give any recommendations on finding a place to stay, except try to find something west of 26th St W or east of 15th St E, or somewhere in the downtown Bradenton area. Pretty much everything is close to either Pirate City or LECOM. If you’re going to Pirate City, I recommend somewhere by interstate 75. If you’re going to LECOM most of the time, I recommend staying closer to the beach, or in downtown Bradenton.

When it comes to places to eat, I tend to avoid the touristy places, and most places on the beach, since the food at these places isn’t as good. If you want a good view on the beach, go for a sunset after eating dinner at a place that has good food, rather than eating on the beach at a place with over-priced and lower quality food.

I will say that none of the places below have paid me for these reviews. I will definitely accept free food as a payment. I’d totally take that from any of these places, if any of them are reading this. These are all places that I eat at on a regular basis down here, and you’re not going to find any national chain restaurants.

My girlfriend and I typically have outings where we pair a local brewery with a cool food place nearby. I included all of those food places in the beer section below. If I’m going to one of those breweries, there’s a 90% chance I’m also going to the food place the same day.

Seafood

Before I moved here, the most popular places I heard about were places that were on the water. A lot of people go to The Beach House, which is located on Bradenton Beach. I’ll admit that I used to take guests to The Beach House the first time they come down, just for the novelty of eating on the beach. They have a deck behind the restaurant, with a great view overlooking the water, and a beach on either side. However, the food isn’t that good, and you’re paying extra for the view.

My favorite seafood place down here would be Starfish Co. (located at 123rd St Court West off Cortez). The food is much better, more reasonably priced, they have cheap bottles of beer, and you even get a view of the water on the docks. Starfish is located just before you cross over to the island, and is located on the water on the inlet. It’s cash only, so if you’re like me and never carry cash, you might want to stop by an ATM before you go. After you order your food at the counter, you can find a spot at one of the picnic tables on the dock overlooking the water. The place is pretty busy, so you’re probably going to be sharing a table with another group (unless you are the group), and you’re probably going to be waiting awhile for your food. I recommend getting the Stone Crab and corn chowder and a beer for your wait (they serve both immediately). To give an idea of the wait, I’ve gone during the busy season and have waited an hour in line, followed by an hour at the table for the food. It’s totally worth it.

As far as the price comparison, here is an example. An order of crab cakes at The Beach House will cost you $25.99. A “hearty” order of crab cakes at Starfish Co. will cost you $13.99. And if you need more than my recommendation for the quality of the food, consider that Starfish was named one of the best seafood restaurants in the US by Travel and Leisure. I always go with the blackened grouper sandwich, stone crab and corn chowder, and a beer, which comes out to around $20.

My second favorite seafood place in the area is Owen’s Fish Camp in Sarasota. This is another place where you might have to wait a long time. I tried going a few weeks ago and was told the wait was two and a half hours at around 8:00. The good thing is they’ve got a cool outdoor area where you can grab a beer and order an appetizer, and wait for your table. They’ve got some great local craft beers on tap, and the food is great. If you time it perfectly, you can be eating at a normal time, and the wait wouldn’t feel that long due to the outdoor area. For dinner, I recommend getting the Low Country Boil. It comes with King Crab legs, shrimp, mussels, clams, sausage, potatoes, and corn, and is a meal for two.

The Low Country Boil at Owen's Fish Camp.

The Low Country Boil at Owen’s Fish Camp.

Another good place for seafood is Anna Maria Oyster Bar (6696 Cortez Road or 6906 14th St. W). They started on Anna Maria Island, but now have moved inland. The prices are good, and the food is great. I love their Oysters Rockafeller, and they have really good fish and chips.

Siesta Key Oyster Bar is located on Siesta Key, which is about an hour south or more from Bradenton when you factor in the traffic this time of year. They’ve got some great seafood, including half off deals on oysters and crawfish from 3-6 PM everyday. They’re on an island, but they’re a small place and not right on the beach, so you’re paying reasonable prices, rather than paying for a view.

Cuban Food

I had never really eaten much Cuban food before moving to Florida. Now? Anytime I return from up north, my first meal back is at a place that has fried plantains.

My favorite Cuban place in the area is West Tampa Sandwich Shop, although if you’re in Bradenton, you might not want to drive up to Tampa for a Cuban. There’s a really good Cuban restaurant in Bradenton called Cafe Havana.

My favorite in the Bradenton area is Columbia Restaurant, located in St. Armand’s Circle. It’s not the same type of Cuban food you’d get at a place like West Tampa, although they do have Cuban sandwiches. They also have great drinks and a lot of finer dining options. I recommend getting the mojito:

Columbia Restaurant Mojito

The unique thing about Columbia is how they prepare most of the food. If you’re getting a Cuban sandwich, they’ll just bring it to the table already made. But if you’re getting their signature 1905 salad, they will make the salad table side. They do the same if you order a pitcher of Sangria or a mojito pitcher — they’ll bring all of the ingredients out and prepare the pitcher at your table. If you order the creme brulee, they will bring it out to the table, add the sugar on top, and caramelize it with a blow torch at the table. You get the idea. They also give you a free portion of their Cuban bread, which is amazing. It’s served hot out of the oven, and comes with butter that is almost as cold as ice cream.

Basically if you’re looking for a place with a good atmosphere, good food, and great drinks, I recommend Columbia. There are several locations in the Tampa area. The one at St. Armand’s is the closest to Bradenton, and is my favorite due to the proximity of Lido Beach (which I’ll get to in a bit). There are two sides to the St. Armand’s one. The first side is more casual, and fine if you’re coming down from the beach. The other side is more formal. The food is the same on either side.

Burgers

For me, nothing beats a good burger, and I have a simple process to test a good burger. If you watch “How I Met Your Mother”, you might remember the episode about the Best Burger in New York. Anytime I watch that episode, I want a burger, but not just any burger. I want the best burger in the area. I want to bring the burger home, turn that episode on, and just spend some alone time getting familiar with the (almost always) bacon topped sandwich.

My favorite burger place in the area is actually up in Tampa. It’s a food truck called Burger Culture, although they have recently opened up a permanent location. They have some creative burgers, including one that is served between two belgium waffles, topped with blueberry compote, goat cheese, and honey drizzle. Or there is the black and blue, which is a burger topped with Bleu cheese, granny smith apple slices, bacon, and BBQ sauce. The burgers are perfectly seasoned, and the new store is right down the road from my favorite brewery (more below), which means you can pick up some burgers, then take them to the brewery for an amazing afternoon.

The waffle burger at Burger Culture

The waffle burger at Burger Culture

The Black and Blue burger at Burger Culture

The Black and Blue burger at Burger Culture

Full Belly Stuffed Burgers (located on State Road 70 going East, just past I-75), as the name indicates, serves burgers that are stuffed. All of their toppings are in the middle of two 6.5 ounce burgers, pinched together. Anyone familiar with a Juicy Lucy knows the concept, although they take it to new extremes. My favorite is The Matty Matt, which is a burger stuffed with peanut butter and bacon. Try it with the spicy maple syrup and a side of sweet potato tots. They also have interesting deserts, like a “Full Belvis”, which is a peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich, deep-fried in pancake batter, topped with chocolate sauce, and served with ice cream. There is also The Belly Buster, which is tater tots smothered in Mac and cheese, and topped with bacon, sour creme, and scallions. It is as fantastic as it sounds.

I’ll also throw in an additional option: Gecko’s Grill and Pub. They’ve got your traditional restaurant burger, and while it’s good, I wouldn’t pick them over Full Belly. What I do like about Gecko’s are their homemade potato chips. They also have a ton of TVs, all tuned into sports, so it’s a great place to go for March Madness viewing. And they’re one of few places open after 10 PM.

Pizza

You usually don’t get pizza when you’re out of town on vacation. Or at least I don’t, unless I’m in New York or Chicago. Fortunately, Bradenton has good pizza from both cities.

If you like New York pizza, then Danny’s Pizzeria (located at Manatee Avenue and 75th Street W) is the way to go. Danny grew up in New York, and worked in New York pizza places starting at age 14. His passion for good New York pizza really shows in every bite, and after I found out his approach, I realized that his pizza can only be a result of a deep knowledge of what makes New York pizza great. It really comes down to the water, which is why he not only invested in a top of the line water filtration system, but he also uses ice water to make the dough. Why ice water? Because tap water in New York comes out cold, while tap water in Florida comes out warm. The dough and the sauce are made daily, and as an avid New York pizza fan, it’s the best I’ve had outside of New York. The wings are also great, especially if you like crispy wings. My favorite flavor is the mango habanero.

If you want Chicago style pizza, the place to go is Fratello’s. There’s another place called Joey D’s, which isn’t bad, but Fratello’s models their pizza after Lou Malnati’s, which is my favorite Chicago pizza chain. This approach makes their pizza better, with the crust being much better, and better sauce on top of the pizza (chunky, rather than a thin layer of sauce that often becomes baked into the bread at Joey D’s). You can’t go wrong with either option, but Fratello’s gets the edge for me.

There’s also a cool pizza place in south Bradenton near the University Town Center mall called Oak & Stone. They have woodfire pizzas, along with a craft beer wall. You get a wrist band and can touch it against any beer tap to pour as much as you want, charged by the ounce (they cap you at 40, and while I’ve never reached that, I’ve heard you can ask for more). It’s a cool way to try a lot of different beers, while enjoying some good pizza.

Beer

I’ve expanded the beer section this year, and I’m including a lot more places outside of Bradenton. You can’t throw a full bottle of Bud Light around here (the only thing to do with a bottle of Bud Light) without hitting at least two breweries, so there is plenty to choose from. I’m going to focus on the best in the area, and places I typically go to.

Tampa

Cigar City Brewery – Cigar City is the biggest brewery in the area, and the one that most of you know about. I actually don’t go there much anymore, as they don’t have a lot of variations on their taplist. That’s a problem if you live here and you want something new that you can’t find in stores, or that you haven’t tried in previous visits. But if you’re coming in from out of town, especially from a place that doesn’t get Cigar City yet, then it’s worth a visit. The taproom is located near the Tampa airport, so it’s a good place to stop after you fly in, or before you fly out.

Angry Chair Brewing – This is one of my favorite breweries in the area, to the point where I’ll make the 45 minute drive to Tampa about once a week to have their beers. They specialize in dessert stouts, which are typically saved for bottle releases. Those releases happen maybe once a month on Saturday mornings at 9 AM, and usually see a line of hundreds of people getting there before that time, with bottles selling out in 30 minutes. The good thing is that you can usually get some of their stouts on tap. They also do some good New England style IPAs, and some good sours. As for food, there are a lot of good farm-to-table places nearby in the Seminole Heights area, with my favorite being The Rooster & the Till, across the street from Angry Chair.

Garagiste/Hidden Springs – I’m pairing these two up because they’re right next door to each other in Tampa. Garagiste does amazing meads, with the highlight being their Reboog series — a peanut butter and jelly mead that clocks in around 14%, and tastes like you’re drinking a PB&J. That’s not always on tap, but their other fruit meads are still good. Hidden Springs does some of my favorite sours in the area, along with some good stouts. Right across the street from Hidden Springs is a cool food spot called The Hall, which is a collective eatery where you can order food from five or six different mini-restaurants. My favorite thing there are the waffle fry nachos.

7venth Sun – They have two locations, one in Dunedin and one in Tampa. I usually go to the Tampa one, since it’s near Angry Chair. They have a large tap list, with good options across the board. They also sell some stuff in cans to go.

St. Pete

Cycle Brewing – This is another favorite of mine, located in St. Pete. Cycle also does some good bourbon barrel aged stouts, although they rarely have them on tap. Your best chance of trying their best stuff will be during Tampa Bay Beer Week, March 4th-11th, when they will be releasing six bottles, and typically have those beers on tap. Otherwise, they have some good IPAs, and have a few regular stouts, with the standout being “Hazelnut Cream & Sugar, Please”, which is a hazelnut coffee stout. As for food, there’s a good Mediterranean restaurant across the street, and a place for Cuban sandwiches nearby called “Bodega” which I haven’t tried yet, but gets good reviews.

Green Bench – This is another one of my favorites in the St. Pete area. Their best stuff is in the sour and mead department. They also do some good IPAs, although I prefer places like Angry Chair and Calusa in that department.

Rapp Brewing Company – This one is in St. Pete, up north near the St. Pete airport. It’s one of my favorites in the area, with their chocolate peanut butter stout being their best beer. They also have a great chocolate hazelnut porter on occasion. Their taplist has 40 beers, spanning a lot of varieties, and they are surprisingly good across the board.

Arkane Aleworks – Located in north St. Pete, and kind of out of the way. They do some really good sours and stouts, getting creative with the flavors. At Halloween, they did candy bar stouts, with flavors like Snickers, Heath Bar, Butterfinger, Reese’s Cups, and more. They also did candy sours, like Skittles, Sour Patch, and Warheads. Those were amazing, but they rarely have those beers outside of October. Their other sours and stouts are worth the trip, especially if you’re already in the area (12 minutes from St. Pete airport).

Bradenton/Sarasota

Calusa Brewing – Calusa is located in south Sarasota, which is about a 20-30 minute drive from most places in Bradenton. However, it is worth it. I go here at least once a week. They have the best IPAs in the state of Florida, and some of the best in the country, and they’re just starting to get noticed for that, which sucks, because I enjoyed the times where I could go in a few weeks after a release and still pick up a 4-pack of cans. They’re also well-rounded, doing some really great sours, and making some good stouts. If you’re an IPA fan, you’ll want to go here, and start with anything in the Citronious category. Focus is my favorite IPA of theirs, if they have it. The stout they have most often is Dissonance, which is a breakfast stout. There’s not much around Calusa, but they usually have a different food truck every night of the week.

Darwin’s Brewery – This is one of two places near LECOM, located right across the street. I like this over Motorworks, as their beers are much better, while the selling point for Motorworks is more about the space. You can also get their beers inside LECOM. Ayawasca, a belgian dubble, is one of my favorite beers here.

Other Breweries – This is where I’m going to list the breweries in the area that are more generic, and that don’t really stand out in comparison to some of the others around them. Coppertail is really good, and their Unholy Trippel is one of my favorite beers in the area. They are located in Tampa, and worth a visit if you’re brewery hopping (not far from Hidden Springs). 3 Keys opened about a year ago in Bradenton, and they’re not bad for a new brewery. They have a new program where they release a unique beer on Tuesday’s, which is about the only time I will go. However, that’s a once a month stop, at best. Big Top in Sarasota is a good one, with their chocolate peanut butter stout (Decklin’s Indulgence) being one of my favorites in the area. You can also now find that in cans at Total Wine, which is a place I recommend if you’re stocking up on local beers. Also, if you’re looking for a good bottle shop outside of Total Wine, I recommend Shep’s in St. Pete.

Miscellaneous

Taco Bus – Taco Bus is a former food truck that now has several locations in the Tampa area. I always go to the one in Brandon, followed by a trip to Top Golf.

These are very close to authentic Mexican street food, with my favorite being the grouper fish tacos. My other favorite is the Rajas Con Queso (strips of roasted poblano peppers in a creamy sauce with Mexican White cheese, salsa ranchera, and sweet corn). Both are pictured below. I’m not telling you how to live your life, but if you find yourself with a free day down here, go up to Tampa, stop at either Taco Bus or Burger Culture (or both), then spend a lot of time brewery hopping. It will be well worth your time.

The tacos at Taco Bus

The tacos at Taco Bus

Poppo’s – A more local taco place is Poppo’s in Bradenton. They have organic and locally sourced ingredients and very fresh tacos. They’re so fresh that they press and grill the tortillas right before making your taco/burrito/quesadilla/etc. You can then get your choice of meat and toppings, kind of Chipotle style, only better quality.

Sweetberries – You’ve probably heard me mention Sweetberries about ten million times. It’s a frozen custard place on Manatee Avenue, between 43rd and 51st Street W. They’ve got food as well, but I’ve only had their custard. It is outstanding, to the point where it can ruin your life. During the summer, Florida is insanely hot, to the point where it’s 90+ degrees with 90% humidity, and you always have a gallon of sweat sitting in your underwear. For that reason, I usually have a few quarts of custard from Sweetberries at all times in my freezer. I recommend a concrete, which is candy mixed into the custard. If you’re getting one of their massive sundaes, then I’d recommend the Utterly Reese’s, which is a peanut butter fan’s dream. It’s vanilla custard topped with peanut butter syrup, hot fudge, probably about 4 Reese’s Cups, whipped cream, and probably also diabetes. If you make your way down to Calusa, there’s a Sweetberries about a mile away.

Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe – If you go to the beach on Anna Maria Island (at the end of Manatee Avenue), they have a cafe at the top of the beach. Not that they don’t still have the cafe if you don’t go to that beach. What I like is that every day until noon (1 PM on weekends) they have All You Can Eat pancakes for $5.99. All I can eat is usually the first three they give you, but that’s all you need, as they’re each the size of a plate. I recommend following that up with a nap on the beach, because that’s all you’re going to want to do after that breakfast.

Sage Biscuit – Speaking of breakfast, my typical breakfast each morning involves a smoothie at home while reading Twitter. But when I go out, the one place I go is this place. The sage biscuits are great, especially in the biscuits and gravy. This is the best breakfast place in town, and they have a new location in downtown Bradenton about a mile from LECOM. My favorite thing here is the southwest quinoa.

The Donut Experiment – This is an amazing donut place on Anna Maria island, with a very simple, yet still creative approach. They serve cake donuts, and usually they’re right out of the fryer. From there, you customize it your way, choosing from five icings, and 25 toppings. My favorite is a maple bacon donut, which is dipped in a maple glaze, and sprinkled with pieces of chopped bacon. The toppings range from sprinkles to candy, and even include Sriracha. This is a must go, and one of the places where I take my friends every time they come down.

The donuts at Anna Maria Donuts. Maple bacon is in the back middle.

The donuts at Anna Maria Donuts. Maple bacon is in the back middle.

Beaches

I don’t go to the beach often. Before I lived here, I never went to the beach. My feeling was that I could be in the sun watching the water, and get sand all over myself and inside my car, or I could sit in the sun and watch baseball…and somehow still get sand in my car. I always picked baseball. I’m not much of a beach person, so I still don’t go often, even though I live here now. So I’ve heard Siesta Key is nice, but I have never really been motivated enough to drive down and spend a day there. That’s a line that I’ve had in this review every year, and it never changes.

My favorite beach would be Lido Beach, which is down from St. Armand’s Circle. The sand is white and the water is clear enough to see your feet at the bottom. I once saw a flock of sting rays swimming around when I took my brother there. We could see them from about 30 feet away, and they got within five feet of us.

Anna Maria can get pretty crowded on the main beach with the pancakes. If you’re looking for a less crowded beach, you should check out the top of the island at the point. It’s not good for swimming, since the rip currents are so strong, but it’s a good place to go and relax without having a ton of people around. Because if you go to a crowded beach, then inevitably someone near you will start feeding the birds (don’t feed the birds, ever), then every bird in Florida will swarm your area, and then you’ll want to murder the person who fed the birds, and that’s why Florida is in the news for crazy stories all the time.

Things to Do

Like I’ve mentioned many times, I tend to stick to baseball, so this section will be short. There are a few recommendations I have from personal experience, and they don’t involve Bradenton. The first is close to Bradenton, and is the Manatee Viewing Center up in Apollo Beach. That’s about a 30 minute drive from Bradenton, the admission is free, and you can just see manatees swimming around every day. Some days there are a dozen of them, and some days there are over a hundred. The spot is located right next to a power plant, which keeps the water warmer, which is why they gather there.

Florida is known for golf, and there is no shortage of available courses. However, my favorite golf place right now might be Top Golf in Tampa. It’s a three-story driving range where you can rent a pod for up to six people to play. You aim for targets all over the range, with each target shaped like a green. The further you hit it and the closer to the pin, the more points you get. They have clubs available after you pay the one-time $5 membership fee. They also have some really good food and drink options. So you can go with a group, grab a few beers and some lunch (I recommend the chicken and waffle sliders), hit some golf balls while playing a fun game, and enjoy the Florida sun. This is also next door to one of the biggest Bass Pro Shops, if that’s your thing as well. Who doesn’t like a good combo of golf and fishing? They’ve also recently added an Indoor Skydiving place.

Theme Parks

The final suggestion would be for anyone who is making a trip over to Orlando while they are down in Florida. One of the benefits of living in Florida is that the annual pass rates for the theme parks are very inexpensive. So I’ve got passes to Universal, and try to make it over about once a month (these “off days” always seem to work out to be the days where the Pirates make a lot of moves, which means John Dreker is usually busy, and I end up adding my analysis while waiting in line for a roller coaster).

Universal has really stepped up their game the last few years, designing two amazing Harry Potter theme parks, and that’s coming from someone who had never seen a Harry Potter movie until recently. When you walk into the new Diagon Alley park, it’s just like the scene in the first movie (the only one I’ve seen, still) where they’re walking into Diagon Alley. They got every detail correct. The Hogwarts Express that takes you to the other park is like a ride, with a different experience each way, and Harry Potter things happening outside your window, and outside the door of your car (including Harry Potter and his friends talking and walking by the door, and zapping some bad guys). The original Harry Potter park is also excellent.

What Universal has done well is creating “Worlds” where it seems like you’re in the movie or show that is featured. The Simpson’s World is another example of how they have done this well. They’ve got everything, from Lard Lad donuts, to Moe’s Tavern (where you can get a Duff beer), to the Kwik-E-Mart. They also built Skull Island for their new King Kong ride, and it’s a really cool ride that puts you in the middle of King Kong fighting three T-Rex dinosaurs that are trying to attack you (through the use of giant 3D screens on either side of you). The action is really intense.

As for the rides, if you like roller coasters, then Universal beats Disney. The best roller coaster is the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which allows you to listen to a song of your choice while on the ride. There is also a hidden song list, which you can access here, for more choices. The Hulk is one of my favorites. The Mummy is a very innovative indoor coaster that mixes a roller coaster with a theme ride, with the roller coaster taking you from scene to scene. Men in Black is also a great ride, allowing you to shoot aliens with a laser gun, and compete with the car across from you. I like this one because it’s a different ride each time, allowing you to try and beat your own personal best score, or just beat other people in your group.

If you don’t feel like paying for Universal, but want to get the experience of one of their best new creations, check out the expanded City Walk area (you’ll still have to pay the $20 parking to get into the park). They have added a lot of great new restaurants, with my favorite being Cowfish Burger and Sushi Bar. They feature great sushi, and some creative burgers, including an Elvis-inspired burger that has peanut butter, a fried banana, and bacon on top. If you sit at the bar, they have giant touch screens on the bar that allow you to play games while you eat. The bar is the place to be, because the drinks here are the best. I recommend the Buffalos and Bacon, which is Buffalo Trace bourbon, cherry liquor, honey, Angostura and orange bitters, and garnished with a piece of candied bacon.

The Buffalos and Bacon on the left.

The Buffalos and Bacon on the left.

The best milkshakes at City Walk are at the new Wonka Style restaurant The Chocolate Emporium. They have one brownie shake served with a brownie on top. Another one has a red velvet cupcake. One has a slice of key lime pie. You get the picture. If you eat in the restaurant, they have a bacon flavored milkshake, topped with chocolate and vanilla whip cream, chocolate covered bacon, bacon brittle, and bacon sprinkles. I’ve never made it through half of this, which is why I’m able to tell you about it today.

Disney is currently in a bit of a transition, as they try and create some worlds of their own. They built an Avatar world in Animal Kingdom last year, although it’s nothing close to the Harry Potter worlds at Universal. They’re currently working on Star Wars and Toy Story lands in Hollywood Studios, which might be better. Unfortunately, neither will be open this Spring. I’m a roller coaster guy, and Disney’s rides are much tamer. The Aerosmith roller coaster at Hollywood Studios is a really good one, as is Everest at Animal Kingdom. However, the makeovers with each park leave them pretty bare, and there probably wouldn’t be much else to do at either option right now, with a lot of rides closing to make room for the new stuff.

Epcot is a classic, and has some amazing food and alcohol options at their world showcase. One of my favorite things to do here is to go with a group of friends, stop at each world, and split a drink and a food item at each place. My favorite combo would be the nachos and margaritas in Mexico, which is the first world on your left as you enter from the park. As for rides, one of the best rides (Soarin) is currently undergoing a transition, so that’s another ride that is closed. Universal really put the pressure on Disney to upgrade, and that has led to some things being shut down in the short-term.

Finally, there’s the Magic Kingdom, which would be my favorite. I really don’t care about the Disney characters, so that aspect gets lost on me, although if you have kids, that’s sure to be a hit. Their roller coasters are tame, but still kind of fun. They’ve also got some great food options all around the park, with some of my favorites including a waffle sandwich filled with nutella, strawberries, bananas, and blueberries; a hot dog topped with pulled pork and cole slaw; and the Rice Krispy treats at the candy store on main street. None of these are healthy options, and that’s hard to find in theme parks. If you’re looking for a healthy option, I’d try to get in to Be Our Guest, which is the Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant. It’s extremely difficult to get in, as most reservations are made a year in advance. However, if you check early in the day, you might be able to get a last-minute table for lunch. The quinoa salad is my go-to healthy meal there, although I ruin it with their gray stuff cupcake at the end, with the “gray stuff” being a sort of Oreo cookie mousse.

I definitely go for Universal over Disney, but that’s because I care more about thrill rides, and don’t care about the Disney characters, which seems to tip the scales in favor of Disney for a lot of people. That’s not to say Disney is bad. If you’ve got a multi-day pass and can see it all, then you’ll be able to hit all of the best things in each park. But if you’ve got one day for theme parks, Magic Kingdom gives you the best mix of rides and food options at Disney, and I’d take Universal over Magic Kingdom (as it’s possible to do the big highlights at both Universal parks in the same day, while also eating on City Walk for dinner).

Got questions about anything else in Bradenton or the Tampa area? Leave them in the comments!

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Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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