Universal Orlando And Cabana Bay Resort Mega Review
This review will be a roundup of our experience at Universal for 1 week in September 2018. This will include the theme parks in general, the resort, restaurants and more.
I have been going to Disney World for many, many years now. And even though Orlando has so much more to offer, I tend to just enjoy getting trapped in that Disney bubble for the time I'm there. I do occasionally pop outside for some shopping, visiting other theme parks (like Universal), but I've only ever stayed on-site at Disney World. So this is a review from the perspective of someone who has only ever stayed at Disney resort hotels.
As our recent 2018 trip was going to be a special one, I wanted to extend the trip to 3 weeks, but spend the first week staying outside of Disney. The (now) fiancée loves Harry Potter so I thought we could spend some of that extra time at Universal Orlando, and spend some days shopping in the malls and outlets in the area. So the first week we wanted to stay somewhere in that area, before we spend our 2 weeks in the Disney bubble.
We looked around at hotels in the area, and ultimately decided to stay at one of Universal's hotels. Our first choice was to stay at Hard Rock, but for a whole week it was a little pricey, even with the Universal pass included. If we were staying 2 or 3 days, we'd have probably gone to Hard Rock. As we were there for a week, and as much as we love staying at Pop Century, we decided to check out the Cabana Bay resort.
Cabana Bay Resort
We spent 7 nights at the Cabana Bay resort in the Volcano view room. The check-in process was average. The staff member who checked us in was nice enough, but after checking in, we had to go to another desk to pick up our park tickets. If you're used to Disney, you know they give you everything you need as you check-in, not bounce you around to another queue and another desk to pick up more of your itinerary. After a long flight, you just want as little friction as possible and get to your room to chill for a while as quickly as possible. What was worse is that the guy who was serving at the ticket pick-up desk was completely unenthusiastic. He was just not interested and the whole time was talking to his co-worker about his car while serving us — it quite rude I thought. Also, being used to Magic Bands, you notice that Universal are still using paper tickets. We were told to take a picture of them just in-case we lost them. What year is it?
Cabana Bay is marketed to be on par to Disney's Pop Century resort. As as Pop Century is our go-to resort, it's interesting to draw comparisons. In a lot ways, Cabana Bay is actually ahead of Pop Century. The hotel style isn't the same as the motel style that Disney adopts for its value resorts. Meaning that you enter your room from inside the building, not outside.
The room itself exceeded my expectations. The view to start with, was amazing.
We had plenty of room and storage space with a nice big TV (and the ability to check-out using your TV is a nice touch).
I really liked the overall theming of the room with the blues and whites. The beds were comfortable enough — no complaints here.
The sink area is well lit and has all the standard amenities including soaps, hairdryer and extra towels.
The bathroom is quite small, but not much smaller than your average hotel bathroom, and it had pretty much everything you need. Universal are still giving out little bottle of soap and shampoo, but I can't imagine it won't be long before they take the same route Disney has and putting up big bottles and pumps.
Cabana Bay sort of does the same trick Disney does with Caribbean Beach. The rooms right at the back of the resort (that nobody wants) is themed as pirate rooms. The same goes for Cabana Bay where the back resort rooms overlook Volcano Bay and are advertised as Volcano Bay view rooms. As awesome as the view is, it is a long walk back to the main lobby. But, at least it's inside and air conditioned. I would however, not opt for this room again.
Having Volcano Bay in your back yard is awesome, but the Volcano noise bell that goes off every now and then is annoying, as we can hear it inside our room. The ability to just go downstairs and exit out the back of the resort and be right at Volcano Bay was amazing.
The hotel staff were friendly but generally unenthusiastic. There's nothing more of a downer than staff members being drab when we're excited, but maybe that’s just how it is there. Something else I found quite awkward was the housekeeping staff. 99% of Disney employees will say hello to you, or you can say hello to them and they'll say hello back. At Cabana Bay, only around half of them do, so it makes for some awkward encounters. I said hello while walking past quite a few and they say nothing back. So it's hard to know how to act when you walk past them (which you do a lot).
We did however have a really nice housekeeper. We of course leave a tip, and she left us some nice notes for when we got back.
The facilities of the resort is fantastic. And actually made me feel I was missing out when I got to Pop Century the week after. There is a gym (which I didn't use), a bowling alley, and a Starbucks inside the resort itself. Having a Starbucks in the resort is actually really great. It was usually always quiet, so I could have my morning coffee before getting to the parks and having to wait in the long lines there.
We did use the bowling alley one night to see what it was like. It cost $15 per person (+tax) for about 45-50 minutes of play time. We managed to get through about 3 games during that time. There is a server at the alley where you can get you drinks and snacks. Although we found it was really tough getting his attention and ended up going without a second round of drinks (there were only 2 lanes being played on at the time).
There were two hotel pools, one had a little lazy river we tried out, but with Volcano Bay right next door, we used that as our hotel pool.
Cabana Bay Food Court
The food court area was quite impressive. There is a really good selection and the prices are not outrageous as they could be. They focus on self-serving offerings, which gives people a lot more options and flexibility to their meals. The salad bar is a good example of this. They have a fruit bar in the morning, a slush machine, and a self-serving ice cream machine (or frozen yogurt as they call it) with all the toppings you desire. I'm very fussy when it comes to salad, so it was really great to be able to choose what I want in it rather than the pre-packaged ones. Keep in mind though, is that the pricing is quite cheeky. At the time, the price of the salad was 60c/oz. But an ounce of salad is a lot less than you'd think. The (now) fiancée had quite a few drinks one night and wanted a salad box to take back to the room, she went a little overboard and the box was only half-full and it cost nearly $20. The pizzas were actually pretty good too (for cheap hotel pizza that is).
With only ever staying at Disney, I have their set expectation on security. So it was a little uneasy on how relaxed the security appears to be at Cabana Bay. I use the term appears because only they know what really goes on behind closed doors. As you may know, you cannot enter any Disney resort without going through the security checkpoint to show you either have a room reservation, or have a dining reservation. There didn't appear to be any check at Cabana Bay. Although technically anyone can sneak into anywhere if they really tried, and with the new policy (at both Disney and Universal) of being allowed to enter your room for security checks, it would be easier for an imposter to take advantage of this at Cabana Bay. Whether that is realistically the case, I'm not sure — but that's how it felt. What enhanced this was the every day we'd come back from our day out, our door would have pizza delivery brochures pushed underneath. Never had that at Disney, so it does feel like that do let anyone into Cabana Bay.
Resort Bus Transportation
The bus system is generally much better than the system at Disney. Although you have to keep in mind they're working with a much smaller scale at Universal. There was pretty much always a bus there waiting. Especially on the way back from Universal, there was always a queue of buses ready to take you back.
The drivers themselves leave much to be desired though, and it was actually quite infuriating at times. Sometimes the driver will tell us that we must exit through the front doors only (so they don't bother opening the side doors) other times they would open all the doors and let everyone out. On one journey I was stood up near the back side door holding onto the hand rail, the bus driver stood up and shouted "stop leaning on the door". I was nowhere near the door, and i'm not stupid enough to lean on the doors either. I wasn't really sure what he wanted me to do, so I just kind of made a movement (in no real direction) and he then sat down.
Most the buses don't have a sign on them to say where they are going, and as there is a shuttle to both CityWalk and Volcano Bay, we walked up to a bus one morning and it was a Volcano Bay themed bus. To see if it was going to CityWalk (where we wanted to go) I asked the driver as I got in and asked if this was going to CityWalk, he replied saying “sorry?” I asked again, then he replied “yes” in a low toned grunt. That sure filled me with confidence. They also sometimes run unbranded coaches, which felt a little bit dodgy, but they're legit.
Buses tend to always be there, but wait for a while before taking off. Even though they is another empty bus (or 3) waiting behind they don’t seem to just go when the seats are filled. It seemed we were waiting around a long time with a full bus of people and empty busses ready to take people behind us, which was unnecessary.
The buses tend to be themed quite well, a lot of them are Minion themed ones.
CityWalk + Entrance
To get to Universal Studios, you have to park at the CityWalk area or get dropped off there, and then you have to go through metal detectors and security checks to be let into CityWalk (sort of like Disney Springs) and then you go left for Islands Of Adventure or right to Universal Studios.
I have no issue with that metal detectors and security checks — the more security the better — but what was getting really irritating was the American Express/Amex salespeople as you head into CityWalk. Every single time they're there holding up signs, shouting, and trying to grab your attention as you go past. What they're trying to do is get you to open up a credit card and in return give you a free meal voucher or express pass. It's very intrusive and really started to annoy me more and more each time we'd pass through.
As you enter CityWalk you're greeted with shops and restaurants on both sides.
I found CityWalk's offerings in general lacking. There are a few interesting restaurants, but there isn't really a lot there if you think about it. Although it's placed in a genius location as you have to walk through it on the way to the parks and on the way out. It's like taking the gift shop at the end of the ride strategy to a whole new level. They also play quite loud music over the speakers before you get to the parks, which depending on your music taste, can alter your experience. Having to listen to One Direction playing for the whole walk up to the park will hardly spark any excitement for the day.
Universal Studios + Islands Of Adventure
The week we stayed at Cabana Bay was the week just after Labor day, and before Halloween Horror Night started. This appears to be a good time to go because it was really quiet. How much you enjoy Universal Studios probably depends on how much you connect with the IP (intellectual property). I myself am not a huge Harry Potter fan (the Fiancee is a huge one), but I can appreciate the effort put into the Harry Potter areas, which are incredible.
There is so much to see and do in those areas, and there are easter eggs and little details everywhere.
If you haven't already, it is worth going to Universal Studios just to see the Harry Potter area. Take Hogwarts Express over to Islands Of Adventure to see the other Harry Potter area over there.
The frozen Butter-beer drinks and the Butter-beer ice cream are just 100% pure pleasure.
All 3 of the currently open Harry Potter rides are all fantastic. It's amazing what result there is from lands where a lot of effort and care has been given. I just hope Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios can match the quality of this.
Moving on to other areas. As much as I don't care for Transformers at all, but I think the ride is a lot of fun.
I was a big fan of the old Mummy movies, and really love the ride too. The same goes for Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and the Hulk Coaster. Although I found the Hulk to be a little too intense and makes me feel a little dizzy afterwards. I had the same issue with the Men In Black ride, and as funny as the Simpsons ride is (which reminds you of old Simpsons) the projection screen really needs updating. The Despicable Me ride is also a bit of fun, although it's like you're watching a giant version of that minion mobile game.
The new Kong ride (again, I don't have much care for Kong) I thought was pretty good. The massive animatronic Kong at the end was most impressive. The new Fast and furious ride was just awkward, corny and terrible. It uses the same ride track system Kong uses but does nothing to add to it.
I admire the fact that staff members clap at the end of the rides to try and build some excitement, although none of the rides I went on had anyone joining in.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Universal Studios is the lockers. They are terribly designed locker rooms. It's so hard to move around when people are queuing in all directions to use the machines, and it feels like a fight every time you need to use one. Some of lockers require fingerprints, others require your ticket, there is just no consistency and it really is a huge mess. It's even worse at the Harry Potter locker room. Why they made the locker rooms so small and awkward to a ride that would be so popular is absolutely mind boggling.
One thing I noticed is that you see staff members walking around and on their way to certain attractions they're working at — you don’t get that at Disney. We saw a couple Krusty uniformed staff members leaving Starbucks and walking over to the Simpsons area. It's something you don't think much of until you release you'd never see a haunted mansion dressed cast member anywhere but at the haunted mansion. It doesn't necessarily bother me, it's just something I noticed.
My general consensus of Universal Studios is most of the attractions are great, but the atmosphere isn't quite there (other than the Harry Potter areas). After leaving the parks and Cabana bay, and even now at home writing this, there isn't a whole lot that is pulling me back there. There's just something about the atmosphere at Disney that just makes me keep wanting to go back.
As odd as it feels, after being so used to the crazy planning of a Disney holiday, how free you are to pretty much do what you want, when you want, was refreshing. You almost don’t know what to do with yourself. It is nice change to be able to do that. Does your feet ache? No worries, there's no reservation to miss, just go to a restaurant when you want to eat!
Volcano Bay is Universal's newest water theme park. Staying at Cabana Bay, it was in our backyard. We went twice over the week and most the staff members here were a lot happier than we found in the parks. We did have one bad staff member, though. When scanning our ticket to go in, she was gossiping to her staff member friend next to her, she took my ticket scanned it gave me the Tapu Tapu without even looking at me or saying a word. I thought that was quite rude.
The Tapu Tapu that they give you is the same sort of thing as a Magic Band. Although we didn't realise you had to add your credit card via the app to use it for payments, as I left my phone in the room. I thought we could add it there.
I found the park itself quite tricky to navigate, but i'm sure once you've learned your way around you'll be fine. We did most the water slides and they were all pretty fun and longer than water park slides tend to be. The highlight was the water coaster.
Restaurants & Bars
We ate at 5 restaurants throughout our stay. They were NBC grill & brew, Hard Rock Cafe, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Antojitos, and Bar 17.
NBC Grill & Brew
This restaurant is probably on par with something like Planet Hollywood, but sports themed instead of music themed. We experienced quite bad service here. To start we had some drinks and some sliders and chips (crisps).
Nothing to complain about there. The sliders were good and the chips were quite fresh. However, we were half way through our starter and our mains (we both had pulled pork) were brought over. We were both there eating and looked up to him, and he was awkwardly trying to make space on the table to put the plates. I kind of just stepped back and let him put them down as he walked off. Our server came over shortly after and asked how everything was, I told her we haven't finished our starters yet and we now have our mains here. She apologised and went away. A couple minutes after the manager came over and asked if there was a problem. I said no problem with the food yet except you've rushed out our mains before we finished our starters. He again apologised and said, and I quote, "it's one of your faster entrees". I told him I don't care if it's faster entree, you don't bring it out when we're still eating our starters. He didn't do anything to compensate, just apologised again and walked off.
We won't be going back.
Hard Rock Cafe
We've eaten at Hard Rock Cafe once before a few years ago, and quite liked it. And as I enjoy the atmosphere, I wanted to go back.
Planet Hollywood at Disney Springs has been going downhill (even more so with its new refurb) and thankfully Hard Rock has stayed acceptable. We enjoyed some cocktails to start of with.
For our entrees, we had ribs and a rib eye steak. Both were very good, absolutely no complaints.
The atmosphere and service was great as usual, and we will look to go there again next time we're in Universal.
Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
I've been looking forward to trying this place out ever since it opened. The theming of this place is great, however the restaurant area is smaller than I thought it would be. We didn't have a reservation, and even though it looked quite full, we were seated quickly and the staff were all very friendly.
We started off with a couple of cocktails. We had the Curious Cacao and a Vanilla Chocolate Cocktail (vodka with dark chocolate liqueurs). Yum!
For starters, we had the pork belly sliders which were absolutely delicious.
For mains we both had the "May contain bacon burger". As you can imagine, it's quite heavy, but if you love bacon, you'll love it.
The day after we went back to have one of the milkshakes. We had the cookies and cream flavour and overall it was a nice milkshake. It's not very thick, and I like my milkshakes thick. The cookie on top was really fresh and soft, too.
I love Mexican food! And the Mexican options at Disney World leave much to be desired. So I took the time to try out Antojitos at CityWalk, and overall, I was not disappointed. The staff members at the check-in area were a little rude. Half the tables in the restaurant were empty, yet we were asked to take a seat and wait 15 minutes. At that point she asked for my phone number so she could text me when the table was ready, I started to reply saying there would be no point because I won't get the text (phone stays on airplane mode) and she cut me off in the middle of the sentence to "just take a seat and we'll call you". That was rather rude.
To start we were given some delicious nachos with our drinks.
Our table was right at the front next to the entertainment.
We went straight to mains and had the Fajita combo for 2 with some side vegetables.
The food quality was very good. Everything was delicious and the portion size was plenty. Our server was also great, and even with the rocky start, I wouldn't hesitate to come back here again.
Universal only just opened up their new hotel, Aventura. And they were boasting the Bar 17 on the top floor had amazing views of the Universal area. So we decided to go up there for some drinks and appetisers before heading to CityWalk for the evening. The buses that go to CityWalk from Cabana Bay do stop off at Aventura, so it was easy to hop over.
The new hotel does look fantastic. Some might say a bit bland, but it does have that nice modern clean new look to it.
Only half the elevators were working at the time, and there was quite a few people waiting for one. However, there is a dedicated Bar 17 elevator that just goes from the bottom floor all the way to the top without making stops in between. So we waited for that one and up we went!
You can sit anywhere you want, and a server will come to your table.
Our server came over and we ordered a couple drinks.
You can then use the pens on your table to tick what you want to eat using the menu form.
We ordered a variety of the buns. However, about 20-25 minutes went by and there were no sign of them. We told our server, she said she'll find out what's going on. 5 minutes later the manager came over and apologised and said there was a problem in the kitchen, and as an apology they'll give us double the amount at no extra charge.
Overall they were pretty good. I found that they had a bit too much sauce which was overpowering on most of them, but the other than that I liked them.
And finally, they were not kidding about the views. They were incredible.
This review touched on most the things we did at Universal over the week. Overall there was some good, and some bad. A Universal visit only really needs to be 3 days or so, and even though we were there for a week and only spent around 4 days in the parks, we felt that was too much at times. We won't be eating at NBC again, but all of the other places we ate were good and would likely return.
There are some areas Universal excels at where Disney falls short, but I find overall the Disney experience is better, even though you have to generally deal with higher crowds and excessive price hikes (although Universal are never that far behind). One thing I dislike about Universal is the ability to buy express passes (their version of Fastpass). I don't think it's that damaging because the crowds aren't as high, but I really hope Disney don't plan to eventually offer a paid Fastpass.
As I said before, I don't get the urge to back to Universal. I get the Disney itch every day of the week I'm not there, but for me, Universal doesn't have that same pull. It would be an insult to say Universal Studios is an upscale and larger Alton Towers or Thorpe Park, but I don't feel that is too far from the truth.
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