The first section of Universal’s new “moderate and value priced property” opened on March 31st and I had the (mis)fortune of staying there on opening night to experience the Full Sochi firsthand. Enjoy the people watching here at the entrance as it’s the most we’re going to run into for the rest of our tour.
Ordinarily, the website would not review something in the first few days of opening because it doesn’t give an accurate representation of the service and quality one can expect once it’s running on all cylinders. And ordinarily, I wouldn’t review anything Universal because:
- Nobody cares about Universal
- Nobody cares about Universal
- Nobody cares about Universal
But as they got more and more desperate and sent me more and more offers that were lower and lower, I finally bit and booked a 430 square foot family pool view suite for $89. Note that this is in the middle of peak season and a 260 square foot “pool view” room at the All-Star Sports cost $170 on the same night.
As we’ll find out once we arrive in the room, this turned out to be an unwise decision.
Cabana Bay is retro-themed as guests “Splash back to the 1950s and 60s for endless family fun.” I guess you could say we are splashing around in the shower trying to get a drink of water.
As a whole, I’m a bit torn on the theming as we look down at the expansive lobby with its high ceilings. Disney’s Value resort lobbies are narrow corridors that rely heavily on harsh artificial lighting and dated props, while Cabana Bay is bright and open. On one hand, you could argue that it’s right out of one of the California episodes of Mad Men. On the other hand, you could argue that they succeeded in theming it to a tacky, cheap roadside motel.
For better or worse, there is nothing overtly “Universal” about it, much like Disney’s Moderate and Deluxe resorts. While Universal could have gone Art of Animation with a Despicable Me wing, Jurassic Park wing, Harry Potter wing, and Shrek wing, they’ve instead removed any tie-ins to their most popular intellectual properties. This may reduce overt kid appeal, but in 20 years they won’t end up with a resort themed to The Mighty Ducks and Herbie like All-Star Movies. Time will tell what it “feels” like after someone else finally checks in.
Back to the lobby, check-in is your usual 4pm with the usual theme-park-check-out of 11am. We arrived on-site right at 5pm, well after the fake media brigade had enjoyed their comped churros and consumed their talking points. Check-in was a breeze as the team member looked us and our cameras over nervously and handed us a free Universal tumbler probably meant for those much more important than us.
And unlike anything you’d see at Art of Animation, there’s a bar right off the lobby behind me serving Manhattans and Jai Alai on draft, among other things.
600 family suites encircle the 10,00+ square foot pool in the north courtyard. Another 300 family suites and 900 standard rooms coming in at 300 square feet each open in June, along with a lazy river and another pool bar.
The suites are spacious and well-appointed.
A large fridge is located underneath the sink on the right with additional storage above and below, in addition to the microwave and coffee maker.
Be sure to bring your pod-style-coffee-maker-hot-dog-recipe as these are the same dual-pod style machines you’ll find at the Daz. Note that our suite connects to the one on the right.
Comfort is in the body of the beholder, but the beds felt 94.2% as comfortable as sleeping on Stonehenge. Which is to say, not very comfortable, and the silly pillows on top need to be discarded somewhere before laying the head down for the night.
One of the two 40-inch Samsung televisions is mounted on the wall. It looks like it should be attached to a swivel to turn it one way or another, but that’s not the case.
The shower/tub, sink/mirror, and “water closet” are separate and located right across from one of the queen beds. As I sit here with my little feet perched at the end of the bed, I’m looking directly at the fictitious person getting ready in the morning/night. There’s no partition or door here to separate the sleeping area with the vanity.
The shower head is nice and high in what is otherwise a pretty standard shower/tub combo. There is an additional sink/mirror in here should someone need privacy while nobody else is waiting to rub a dub dub.
In what is the least themed area in the entire resort, the “water closet” consists of a toilet in a small white room with a coat of blue paint in the rear. Worse, the extremely thick door does absolutely nothing to keep the noise out.
A walk-in closet is located on the far end.
The air-conditioning didn’t work in our room and the only cool area was said closet.
We called it in and after several hours of drinking and picture taking, returned back to the room to find this guy working on the thermostat. He was unable to fix it, threw up his hands, and let us know they were “very busy” before walking out the door.
Our assumption was that he was going to do something about it or escalate our ticket in some way. This turned out to be false as we returned around 11:30pm to no air-conditioning. Another call resulted in a brief lecture about how air-conditioning worked, before I pointed out that we had already called twice and had a technician come out. The phone person apologized and told us someone would call back shortly. The same nervous sounding team member that checked us in let us know we could move three suites to the left and our room keys would work in the new room. They did and at 12:15am, we packed up our things and moved.
Read this one out loud. “Joshua Humphrey – It is our pleasure to have you as our guests [sic] and we hope you will have a pleasure [sic] stay with us. Our hotel is dedicated to make [sic] your stay comfortable, relaxing, and truly pleasant experience [sic].” One has to assume someone translated the Chinese wikipedia.com/vacations page to French and then someone translated that into English by hand.
Only one and a half of the lights in the bedroom worked.
This was probably due to the fact that they neglected to actually install lightbulbs in the lower half of each light. Despite never making a request, no fewer than three separate team members barged into the room with the idea that they were going to change some lightbulbs between 9am and 10:45am. One wanted to come in so badly that I had to raise my hand and say “Stop.”
Family suites sleep up to 6 in rooms that are 100 square feet smaller than family suites at Art of Animation. But a family suite at Animation would run you $424 on this particular night and rack rate is never below $298 per night. Regular pricing on a suite here at Cabana Bay is $174 – $209 per night, or roughly half depending on season.
The pool view from outside the original room. I would pay money to get as far away from the pool as possible. I’m not sure why no theme park hotel offers “the most remote room, furthest from the children.” The music from the pool was so loud that we could hear it in the morning with the door closed and the divider between the living and sleeping areas shut tight.
Rooms on the opposite side overlook Islands of Adventure and the screams that come from Dr. Doom in the distance. Don’t worry about noise from the theme parks bothering you once you return to the resort. Universal resorts are not known for staying open late.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available in room and around the resort. Premium was extremely fast, but speeds will slow once the resort fills.
The pool is one of the resort’s strongest features.
Disney artificially separates its resort classes by limiting amenities at its Values that no other hotel chain on the planet would dream of getting away with. Could Disney have built water slides at Art of Animation? Absolutely. Did they? No, because they need to artificially separate the resort classes. Should there be a $15 plastic coffee maker in every single Value room on property? Absolutely. Is there? No, because Disney needs to artificially separate its resort classes. There’s much less of that at Cabana Bay, where you’ll find a water slide, water features, hot tub, kids’ water play area, sandy beach areas surrounding the resort, and more.
The fire pit off to the side is a nice touch and something you won’t find at any of the Disney Values.
Off of the pool, there’s a sandy play area with billiards, corn hole, ping pong, ring toss, and other games. And just in case you want to pretend like you’re at Haunted Mansion when the ride is down, they have hula hoops too.
Cabanas are available around the pool for an undisclosed price.
An 8+ member band was playing poolside in the evening. I’m not sure if this was an opening night thing or if/when they’ll return.
A view of the pool from just outside the lobby.
Back inside the lobby, the bar alluded to earlier is The Swizzle Lounge:
Drinks here are a solid $5 less than the Universal Deluxes, while wine is the standard 200% to 300% markup, The Dona Paula Los Cardos Malbec is an $8 bottle for example, or $30 here. Still, it’s rare to see a bottle of wine at Disney for less than the $39 Beringer White Zinfandel price.
This is the menu at the Royal Pacific Resort lounge:
$15 is too much.
The draft beer list is pretty decent with the addition of Cigar City Jai Alai on draft, in addition to Yuengling, Fat Tire, Blue Moon, Sam Adams Seasonal, Kona Longboard, and Kronenbourg 1664.
The Manhattan – Jack Daniels, Solerno Blood Orange, Sweet Vermouth, with a Cherry Essence – $10.50. It’s always nice to see a bourbon drink on the menu and this fits well with the Don Draper vibe of The Swizzle. Excellent, though it is a step down from the $15 drinks made with the likes of Maker’s Mark.
Lisa’s Vodka Cranberry – a nice refreshing drink and an example that the bar can make you whatever you like.
The pool bar is just as robust.
TVs, chips, and a full bar.
PBR cans for $4 arrive in paper bag coozies.
Buckets of beer, 24oz beers, and $22 bottles of wine, none of which you’d find at Disney.
It makes a lot of sense to upgrade to the Cabana Bay cup, particularly on The Atomic Tonic.
A fact that I didn’t realize at the time. The Atomic Tonic was a nicely balanced cocktail with 2.5 ounces of liquor with just enough ice to keep the drink chilled without feeling like they filled the cup to cut the amount of the more expensive ingredients.
Lisa’s Pink Cadillac – Margaritaville Tequila, Solerno Blood Orange, Sour, and Cranberry was just as good. They otherwise have Pabst, Blue Ribbon, Yuengling, Corona Light, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Cigar City Jai Alai, and Coors Light on draft in addition to the full bar.
Galaxy Bowl is the 10-lane bowling alley located in the main building about half way between check-in and the quick service and immediately above Starbucks.
Subtly themed to the alley found in The Big Lebowski, it’s a pleasant setting that “feels” like you’ve been transported to either the 1960s or a date with Jesus Quintana.
Bowling runs $19 per person with the shoe rental. Splitsville at Downtown Disney is $15 with shoe rental on weekdays from 10:30am – 4pm and $20/person otherwise for a similar amount of time.
Food pricing is more than reasonable with all items but the appetizer sampler arriving under $10. Add cheese cake, lemon bar cake, or a brownie for $4 a pop. The drink menu is an interesting take on classic cocktails. It might be a little too intense as it seemed like people were ordering more beers than usual. Which was unfortunate, because their beer didn’t work. “10 Pin Mojito” and “Gutter Ball Margarita” might make it more clear.
We ordered two 32-ounce The 300s – Patron Silver, Solerno Blood Orange, Bols Triple Sec, Orange Juice, and Sour served in a 32-ounce Galaxy Pilsner Glass. These drinks are serious and unlike your typical Disney cocktail, they aren’t all bottled sour mix. There’s easily five or six shots of booze in here and it was impressively well balanced for a drink of this size. Unfortunately, the promised “glasses” are these relatively nondescript tall plastic cups. It would have been nice to have come away with an actual glass that said “Universal Cabana Bay” somewhere on it.
A $9.50 Margherita Pizza – Fresh baked crust, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, and roma tomatoes was just okay. It’s reminiscent of Disney Pizza Planet with a thick pillow-like crust, but benefited from better cheese coverage and a larger size. I will mention that I ordered a pepperoni pizza and was delivered cheese.
Lisa’s Spinach and Artichoke Dip with Tortilla Chips – $7.99. If we are talking typical bowling alley food, this was fine. It’s a handful of bagged tortilla chips with what was obviously frozen-at-one-time dip heated up in the oven and served lukewarm on a plate. Galaxy Bowl was originally billed as a “table service location” and there are a few tables off to the right of the alley where guests can sit and just order food and drink. We thought the food, selection, and atmosphere were considerably better at the quick service.
Bowling itself was a lot of fun with what “felt” like regulation lanes and a state-of-the-art system behind it. We had a really good time but it was an expensive hour – about $125 with bowling, shoes, food, drinks, tax, and tip. It remains a fun (and in Cabana Bay’s case, a convenient) way to cap off a day in the parks.
Bayliner Diner is the resort’s major quick service, located on the far side of the main building as far away from check-in as possible and past the gift shop and Starbucks. This is probably an attempt to make it as convenient as possible for both guests staying in the north and south courtyards. It was a five or six minute walk from our room on the 4th floor of the Thunderbird building furthest from the quick service.
The setup is virtually identical to the Disney Value resorts with several stations all serving different kinds of food.
It’s a nice selection of healthier seeming items along with the usual pizza, burgers, and hot dogs.
There’s a make-your-own salad bar.
And pastries, cookies, fruit, dessert.
Drinks, milk, single beers, and for the classy, Bandit personal-size boxed wine, in addition to Silk milk, yogurt, fruit, and the same chilled deserts that were available at the bowling alley.
Additional grab and go items.
Guests may elect to make their own frozen yogurt at a price around $9.99/pound.
Lisa enjoyed her concoction that cost $6.80 for a reasonable size portion.
Let’s not forget the dinky size gelatos Art of Animation is serving for $4.49 with far less interesting toppings.
Real life Icees are available. My large cost $3.49.
Speaking of Disney, Lisa’s Roast Turkey and Provolone Sandwich served on Focaccia Bread with Baby Lettuce and Cajun Mayonnaise – $9.49 was nearly identical to what’s served at Epcot’s Sunshine Seasons. Considering Seasons is one of Disney’s best quick services, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the bread was thick, there was enough meat and cheese inside so that each bite didn’t feel like it was a mouth full of focaccia.
My $12.50 Brazilian Beef Churrasco – Marinated and Grilled Flat Iron Steak Served with Chimichurri Sauce, Black Beans, and Rice was excellent.
The rice and beans were more flavorful than usual, helped a bit by the Argentinian chimichurri sauce, which had a nice garlic/parsley/oregano balance. Both items were as good or better as anything you’d get a Disney resort quick service.
The seating section is pleasant and gigantic with old-time clips played overhead.
Time will tell what it looks like come June when most of the resort opens.
Perhaps the funniest thing about Cabana Bay is that it uses the exact same Rapid Fill program that Disney installed across property throughout 2013 at the exact same prices:
- 1-day: $8.99
- 2-day: $11.99
- 3-day: $14.99
- Length of Stay: $17.99
And like Disney, the “day” ends at midnight. So much for the MAGIC.
In addition to the usual dispenser, Cabana Bay is outfitted with Coke Freestyle machines here and Galaxy Bowl. I am not sure how many people mess around with Coke Freestyle, but it’s nice to know you can get a Caffeine-Free Diet Raspberry Coke if the need arises.
Another option is the Starbucks, located just a few feet from the lobby.
Here, you’ll find the usual assortment of Starbucks treats and a large assortment of bottled and freshly made coffee products.
Pricing and availability should be similar to most other Starbucks location.
The Francois Henri LaLanne branded fitness center is airy and expansive, much like the rest of the resort.
The free weights were amusingly mismarked as right after I took this photo this child sprinted toward me carrying a 35lb dumbbell. I curled a 40lb a few times to increase my self esteem.
The resort store offers a wide variety of Universal merchandise, including Minion plush and Harry Potter wands and robes.
Along with resort-branded t-shirts, hats, glassware, etc.
Like Royal Pacific, Portofino, and Hard Rock, Cabana Bay Beach Resort is operated by Loews. Unlike the pricier deluxe resorts, Cabana Bay guests do not receive unlimited Express Pass. With nearly 2,000 rooms, just slightly fewer than the other three resorts combined, adding Cabana Bay to the Express Pass program would greatly reduce the utility of Express for those purchasing it or spending the $300+/night to stay in one of the rooms. On-site guests do enjoy the same early admission to the Wizarding World and what will most likely be an extra hour at Diagon Alley when it opens sometime in “summer.”
The resort offers a fleet of buses that transport guests between the resort and the front of CityWalk every ten to fifteen minutes from 7am – 2:30am. A pedestrian bridge is under construction to make walking to the theme parks more convenient. Currently, walking takes about 30 minutes along busy walkways. The bus is far more convenient, particularly as we look ahead to 90+ degree highs.
Unfortunately, parking is $10 per day for guests staying overnight. If there’s one thing human beings universally hate, it’s paying for parking. And it’s the last thing you’re going to do before leaving the resort. Our one night stay cost $21.30 in parking because your $10/day doesn’t include tax. It’s a pretty lousy way to say goodbye. Parking at Disney resorts and Downtown Disney remains complimentary.
Suite pricing is closest to Royal Pacific, where standard rooms come in nearly 100 square feet smaller at 335 square feet. That’s just 35 more square feet than a standard room at Cabana, which is nearly half the price. Royal Pacific would bring unlimited Express Pass for each guest on the reservation, in addition to a far wider list of amenities.
Cabana Bay has a lot going for it. It remains to be seen how the resort will operate come July when the rest of the resort is open and there are 8,000 people on-site instead of 67 bloggers, 66 of whom were enjoying an entirely comped stay. Our suite was large enough that a family of four could easily space out and enjoy a little privacy, perhaps with the exception of the water closet where there are no secrets. I’m having difficulty coming to a much stronger conclusion than we’ll have to wait and see how things develop. Parts of our individual stay were hilariously awful, from the lack of running water to the air-conditioning (or lack thereof) to the fact that we saw a total of 25 other guests during our entire stay. It’s highly unlikely you would run into the same problems further down the line. Cabana Bay is at times a beautiful, intelligently designed resort and it does afford a stay inside the Universal bubble, as quaint as it is, for a fraction of the price of the more expensive resorts. The lack of any Express Pass consideration is a major detractor, as is the parking charge. Perhaps we will see promotions down the line for three Express Passes per person, per day for attractions without Harry Potter in the name, like a certain unnamed resort complex down the road.
Thanks to being able to look at what works and what doesn’t work at Disney Value resorts, Universal did an excellent job with its first. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.