After my recent visit to New York City, I didn’t want my holiday vacation to end…and here at Best Week Ever, it doesn’t have to! Thanks to an amazing annual passholder discount, I was able to enjoy a single night Universal Orlando Star Wars staycation at Cabana Bay Beach Resort and celebrate the opening of The Force Awakens in CityWalk IMAX style. Don’t be jealous, because I’m bringing you all with me in today’s photo-filled recap.
I checked into Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort on Thursday, December 17, amid the festive retro decorations in the value-priced hotel’s Mad Men-esque lobby.
In addition to decking the halls, Cabana Bay also offers a schedule of free seasonal activities:
Portions of Cabana Bay’s parking lots and perimeter road are currently construction zones for upcoming expansion towers and the new Volcano Bay water park. If you are staying in the Continental building, you’ll need to follow this detour map:
One perk of staying in the Continental building is the opportunity to peek at said construction. Here’s a look at the latest progress on Volcano Bay and the new Cabana Bay towers:
As a fan of mid-century modern design, the light fixtures and hallways of Cabana Bay are among Universal’s best hidden delights:
Since our Star Wars tickets (secured as soon as they went on sale) were for Friday’s matinee, Thursday evening was dedicated to enjoying two of my favorite Universal Orlando restaurants. Unseasonably warm weather and Universal’s landscaped walking paths paired with a drinks and appetizers at a couple top tables can make for a fun (and surprisingly affordable) progressive dining adventure.
On my way to our first destination, the Cabana Bay garden path to CityWalk provided a perfect view of construction on the quickly-rising Sapphire Falls resort, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
A little further along, Sapphire Falls construction has closed the Royal Pacific Resort entrance closest to Emeril’s Tchoup Chop. Taking the long way around added a few minutes to our commute, but the 15 minute walk was still quicker than waiting for transportation.
Tchoup Chop has long been one of my favorite Universal resort restaurants, and its generous daily Happy Hour is a big reason why. The menu has seen some changes recently, but thankfully the finger-licking ribs are still on the discounted bill of fare.
I can also vouch for the Painkiller cocktail, which is strongly reminiscent of the Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum served at Disneyland’s Trader Sam bar.
Of course, you can also order from the full Tchoup Chop dinner menu while seated at the bar.
The robata grilled vegetables make a tasty side dish to the smoky ribs. But beware the shishito peppers — you never know which ones will be mouth-meltingly spicy!
After the first half of our meal, I always like to take a relaxing river cruise of one of CityWalk’s complimentary water taxis. These are free for all, even if you aren’t staying on property, and the ride is wonderfully romantic after dark. As an added bonus, you get a look at the other side of Sapphire Falls.
For tonight’s foodie finale, we found seats at the bar of VIVO Italian Kitchen, my favorite of the restaurants that have been added to CityWalk in the last couple years. Though the menu has been scaled back since our epic early visits, it is still a fantastic value for freshly made pasta and elevated Italian classics.
Since we were seated at the bar, I had to start with a drink, right?
The Barrel Aged is wood aged bourbon served over a trendy ice sphere with clove-studded orange peel.
One of VIVO’s best assets is the open kitchen, where you can watch fresh pasta being prepared by hand.
Chef Gianfrancesco, who was busy making fresh fettuccini, has been a sous chef at VIVO since the restaurant opened. We mentioned how much we missed the burrata, a type of handmade mozzarella cheese that was taken off the menu. He then stopped what he was doing to make a portion of the labor-intensive treat just for us, and gave it to us at no charge. Talk about great guest service!
The burrata was joined by a prosciutto and melon salad, and an order of VIVO’s ginormous meatballs, with a free loaf of freshly baked bread to soak up the marinara sauce.
After using my Universal annual pass discount, the entire cost of this first-class multi-part meal was less than you might play in a single mid-priced chain restaurant. I was too stuffed to add on an order of Nonna Cake, but there’s always room for free samples from Menchies…
On the way back to the hotel, I spotted this queue full of fans eagerly awaiting the first IMAX showing of The Force Awakens at CityWalk’s AMC Cineplex.
A brief bus ride brought me back to Cabana Bay, where the rapidly dropping temperatures weren’t stopping some guests from enjoying the pool.
A nightcap from the lobby’s Swizzle Lounge is more my speed…
If non-alcoholic drinks are more your thing, the Bayliner Diner now stocks a couple seasonal styles of refillable Sonic Fill cups.
They also have some seasonal merchandise that’s slightly more…questionable.
Ok, it’s time to get to bed, because we’re getting up bright and early for Early Park Admission at Islands of Adventure. On the way into the park at quarter to 8 in the morning, I had no problem breezing through the newly enhanced security setup, even with the wand scanning of randomly selected guests.
Even though the theater won’t open for another hour, there were already ticket holders lined up for the first Force Awakens screening of the morning.
Here are a few selected highlights from my lap around the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on this gloomy morning:
Forbidden Journey started running late on this morning, and when it was working only a fraction of the flying benches were in operation, making the actual wait during early entry double the posted time, and longer than it would be later in the day. If you want to ride Forbidden Journey during EPA without a long wait, you need to be one of the first guests through the gate in the morning, or use the single rider line.
I’m sad to say that the Musion projection of Dumbledore in the queue, which was once one of the attraction’s best effects, is now faded and indistinct. Hopefully this can be cleaned up; on the whole, the rest of the ride’s features were functional.
As the EPA hour ended, I hopped on the Hogwarts Express and headed to Universal Studios Florida for a fast visit to Diagon Alley. Though Forbidden Journey was jammed up, Gringotts was wide open, with only a handful of guests in the single rider line.
When you’ve already escaped an impenetrable vault before 9 a.m., there’s no better breakfast than Butterbeer…especially if you slip in a shot of firewhisy.
Finally, on my way out of the park, I popped into Williams of Hollywood to find a few familiar items from ex-attraction have been added to the new prop shop’s inventory. Twister’s Wakita sign is a mere $5000, but you’ll have to have the electrics removed for liability.
The time has finally arrived! Soon, I’ll be transported back to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. All I have to do is stand in this line for the next two and a half hours to ensure I get a good seat…
Mission accomplished! Without indulging in any spoilers, after over thirty years I finally found the Star Wars followup I was looking for. And seeing it at Universal Orlando’s IMAX, surrounded by a full theater of fellow fans, was a fine way to experience the film for my first time.
But to be honest, I had an even better experience a couple days later at the Cinemark Theater in Artegon Marketplace. Their XD screen is just as big as Universal’s IMAX, and they recently replaced their seats with luxurious leather recliners that I’d like to have in my living room. Best of all, all their seats are reserved at the time of ticket purchase (just like at most plays or concerts) so you can stroll into your seat just before showtime.
Whether you see Star Wars at Universal or elsewhere in the universe, I hope you have the Best Christmas Ever, and may the Force be with you!