In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

First look at Cabana Bay Resort: Universal’s newest on-site hotel is retro rad

b3Cabana Bay Resort at Universal Orlando Resort welcomed its very first guests on March 31, and I’m happy to say that I was among them. I’ve watched the hotel rise up near I-4 over the past 18 months, and I’ve steadily gotten more excited about its retro theming (yes, I’m old enough to remember when those 1960s hotels were the real thing, not just a quaint novelty).

I was very pleased to get an invitation to stay overnight at Cabana Bay Resort on opening day in one of the family suites.The hotel has regular rooms, as well as suites that sleep six, which means it’s going to be a very popular option with larger families. I’m grateful to Universal for the chance to try it out.

Even though this hotel is considered the value-priced option out of all the Universal on-site hotels, I can assure you that Loews didn’t skimp on the theming or amenities. Really, the biggest difference you’ll notice from the other hotels (other than the fact that the rooms in the currently open section all open to the outdoors instead of an interior hallway) is that you don’t get Express line access at the parks. But that’s something you can buy separately, and you don’t really need it if you travel in the off season, so don’t let it scare you away from this wonderfully retro rad property.

e9The 1950s/1960s feel hits you from the moment you turn into the driveway and see the retro sign. You’ll do a double take at the classic cars all parked along the curb by the main building. Inside, the decor is bright and neon-heavy. The lobby itself is spacious and sunny, and if you wander around a bit, you’ll find places like the Universal Gift Shop, the well-equipped Jack LaLanne fitness center, and my personal favorite, the Galaxy Bowling Alley. There’s also a large arcade with modern games that kids in the 1950s could only dream of, but hey, you have to keep up with the times.

Indeed, you’ll find all the modern conveniences in the hotel rooms, too. Sure, you’ll chuckle at the throwback alarm clock, the Zest soap with classic logo, and the Alberto V05 shampoo and creme rinse (none of that new-fangled conditioner here), but you’ll also love the flat screen TVs, builtin hair dryers, mini fridge, coffee maker, and microwave.

The rooms also have an ingenious design for the bathrooms that means three family members can use different parts of the facilities all at once. The bathtub is in one section and the toilet is in another, with the sink in between. When you put six people all in one room, and they’re all struggling to get ready at the same time, that bathroom is going to save some bloodshed.

d4I stayed in a comfy family suite facing the pool in the Starlight section. The pool itself looked so cool and inviting, and a DJ kept things lively all afternoon. I love the high dive-inspired fountain, and there’s also a water slide for soggy splashdowns. If you wanted some quieter water time, there was also a popular hot tub.

I love to swim, but I’ll admit that the biggest activity draw for me was the Galaxy Bowling Alley. I hadn’t bowled in years, so I won’t even share my abysmal scores, but I loved donning the brand new bowling shoes, selecting a neon colored ball, and attacking the pins with gusto. The bowling alley also doubles as a nice place to eat, with table service burgers, hot dogs, and the like.

The Jack LaLanne fitness center looked appealing, too, especially given the fact that I couldn’t pass up the top-it-yourself yogurt in the food court, The court has everything from sandwiches to salads to pizza to burgers to comfort food like Swedish meatballs and tuna casserole. I tried the latter, and it was filling and delicious, just as you’d expect. Also, the lemon bars are downright sinful. I really did need to visit Jack, but I ended up at the Swizzle Lounge instead for a night cap. This lobby bar is a very popular hangout in the evening.

e14Although I didn’t check it out, there’s a walkway from Cabana Bay Resort to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. If you don’t want to hike to the parks, there’s also bus service via retro themed buses. Although I haven’t seen it myself yet, I’ve heard there’s even a surf board painted on top of the buses to complete the theming.

How does Cabana Bay Resort compare to the other on-site properties at Universal Orlando Resort? They’re all Loews hotels, so you can expect a certain level of quality, but it’s hard to make a direct comparison because the theming is so different at each. I’ll confess that I’m fond of Cabana Bay, but that’s probably because I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, so I lived the era that many of the hotel’s guests only know through shows like “Mad Men.”

Would I stay at Cabana Bay if I weren’t here for a media event? Granted, I’m lucky enough to live only 15 minutes away from Universal, so I don’t generally need a hotel room, but if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a room here. When I lived in Chicago, I visited Florida in the off season. That means I could easily get away without having Express access to the rides. I’d definitely be attracted by the pool and bowling alley, as it’s nice to have onsite activities if you want to take a day off from the theme parks.

Cabana Bay would also be a great Halloween Horror Nights headquarters, Die hards who come down for the event are more interested in the haunted houses than in hitting the park rides during the day, so Express wouldn’t be a big loss. Most of the HHN fans I know would rather save money on their hotel and put it towards Express for the house lines.

f3I love Walt Disney World dearly, but dare I admit that I like Cabana Bay better than most of the Disney value resorts? I have a soft spot in my heart for Art of Animation, but I find the icons at the other value properties to be a bit overwhelming and in your face. At Cabana Bay Resort, the theming is very prominent, but it blends naturally into the property. It doesn’t need to be larger than life to accomplish its goal.

I really got a kick out of playing tourist at Cabana Bay, and tomorrow (Tuesday) I’ll be heading off for a two park VIP tour of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Back when I really was a tourist, I always did the VIP tours to make sure I’d see all the major rides in one day. I’m anxious to see if the tours are the same, so I’ll be doing a full report this week. Keep your eye on In the Shadow of the Mouse for all the details.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

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