This week’s THURSDAY TWELVE takes a look at TWELVE Reasons We LOVE Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort! Yes, Dear Reader, you are reading that right, Thursday Twelve. Some backstory: a decade ago, when I was holed up with the Tibetan monks high atop Mount Everest, I had sworn off theme park blogging forever. I spent my days transcribing ancient tablets and I was happy. All of a sudden, who should show up at the hidden temple (which turned out to be not so hidden after all, thank you Mapquest) but none other than Len Testa. Over a cup of centuries-old herbal tea, Len pitched me the idea of coming back to the high stakes world of theme park blogging. Len mentioned that Universal was building a new land based on the Harry Potter franchise, and that Orlando was soon to become the place to be. After several tense hours of negotiations, I signed a 22 page contract loaded with my demands, including: 10 souvenir refillable cup purchases per calendar year, fill ups of gas from that expensive Shell station near the Disney Outlet Stores, and – most importantly – I wanted each and every article to start with the following in order to establish a tone…
I also wanted my articles to have a unique visual style, with a grand vision including the usage of black & white photos, aerial photos, and adding onto photos with emojis and word balloons. This would be a blog with attitude. It’s edgy, it’s “in your face.” You’ve heard the expression, “Let’s get busy”? Well, this is a blog that gets “biz-zay!” Consistently and thoroughly. I know what you are thinking, Dear Reader. You’re asking yourself, “So it’s proactive, huh?” Oh, God, yes. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.
But then came the artistic soul crushing of capitalism. Word Count. SEO. Intangible things that some people are apparently concerned with like “grammar.” When I had given up creative control in my contract for a lifetime supply of Fan Fuelers from NASCAR Grille, I had no idea it would come back to haunt me so fast. My dream of a Thursday Twelve was cut down to a SATURDAY SIX. My goal of style was being sacrificed to the TouringPlans mantra of substance.
But now, Len Testa is finally caving to a massive online petition signed by almost a dozen people! #ReleaseTheBurganCut trended worldwide (or at least on the Treasure Coast of Florida) and today he is allowing us to present my full artistic vision!
This week marks the seven year anniversary of Universal Orlando’s first attempt at reaching the coveted Value Resort market. At the time, this demographic was solidly owned by Disney with the All-Star Resorts and Pop Century, but Universal came to play. Similar to the introduction of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade Village in 2010, the opening of Cabana Bay was a game changer. While Value Resort guests in Orlando were used to paying cheaper prices for over-the-top themed buildings and a dearth of amenities, Cabana Bay went the other way with a high level of resort-wide theming and wide array of amenities that are usually only seen at Moderate or Deluxe Resorts.
A quick primer on the differences between the classifications of resorts at Disney and Universal. Disney’s are currently grouped into three main categories: Deluxe (The Poly, Wilderness Lodge), Moderate (Coronado Springs, Caribbean Beach), and Value (Pop Century, The All-Star Resorts). Meanwhile, Universal Orlando has four categories: Premier $$$$ (Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel), Preferred $$$ (Loews Sapphire Falls Resort), Prime Value $$ (Aventura Hotel) and Value $ (Endless Summer’s Surfside Inn & Suites and Dockside). At Universal, Cabana Bay falls into the Prime Value classification.
This week we’re going to look at some of our reasons we love Cabana Bay, starting with…
# 12 – The Resort-Wide Retro Theming and its COLORFUL NEON
If you are a fan of vintage ’50s and ’60s minimalist designs – and who isn’t – Cabana Bay is the place for you. The retro theming is everywhere, and it starts immediately on your drive into the resort. The signage outside bills Old Timey amenities like “color TV” and “cool air,” but at night the entire resort pops with with neon lights.
While the lobby area is gorgeous, we do have a Pro Tip concerning something that has recently started at Cabana Bay: online check-in. Be sure to check your email before arriving for your Cabana Bay stay, as there’s a good chance you’ll get an opportunity to choose online check-in. You’ll be asked to choose your arrival time and associate a credit card with your room for incidentals. Later, when you arrive at your allotted time, you stand in a much smaller line to receive your room card. In our experience this has been an incredible addition to Cabana Bay and the process will hopefully be adopted by all of Universal’s on-site hotels.
Now of course the biggest thing guests will notice when it comes to the Retro Future design is when in the rooms at Cabana Bay. Walking into your room is like walking into a time machine, except that along with the retro decor and theming is the luxuries and conveniences of today’s life that we have become accustomed to. Let’s check out a family suite at Cabana Bay…
The room’s fridge actually keeps items cold.
Here is a view of the Family Suite from the opposite direction, looking into the kitchen area.
When my family and I sailed on our first Disney Cruise, one thing that stood out to us was the ingenious way that Disney had designed the rooms to take full advantage of such a relatively small space. We’ve since seen several of the Disney and Universal hotels adopt some of these designs (such as being able to store your empty luggage bags under the bed). Cabana Bay has some brilliant ideas as well, such as a dresser system that is split between the living room and bedroom, allowing both sides to have access to drawers.
Each room is also LOADED with outlets for all of your charging needs.
The bedrooms at Cabana Bay are brilliantly designed.
The bathrooms at Cabana Bay are designed so that several people can get ready for their upcoming park day at the same time rather than waiting for one person to get out of the shower.
#11 – Cabana Bay’s Porte-Cochère and Classic Car Collection
When you pull into Cabana Bay, right away the level of theming begins to show at the porte-cochère. Brilliant neon signage touting “color TV” and “cool air” bring guests back to a simpler era. But that’s not the only thing of note in this area…
…because outside Cabana Bay sits a collection of not just classic cars, but models which have been featured in movies and television shows of years past.
# 10 – How Close You Can Park Your Car to Your Room
While we are outside the building, let’s take a look at one of Cabana Bay’s least talked about benefits: how close most guests get to park to their rooms! Anyone who has stayed at a Disney Value Resort knows that sometimes your car can be parked what seems like miles away from your hotel room. The picture below shows that Cabana Bay is almost completely surrounded by available parking. For the buildings on the right-hand side of the photo, the rooms have interior doors, so you need to walk inside the main building to go to your room. However, the buildings on the left-hand side of the photo have doors which open up outside (like you would find at most of Disney’s Value and Moderate Resorts.) What does this mean? For guests staying on the first floor, you are literally parked steps away from your room (and not much farther for guests staying on the top two floors).
Here is a closer look at the abundance of parking around every building at Cabana Bay.
Here we have a ground level shot showing just how close the parking spots are to the rooms. Because of the incredible price point of Cabana Bay, many Disney guests will stay here and drive over to the Disney parks. Having a room close to where you parked your car after a long day at the parks can be a lifesaver (especially if you’re carrying a sleeping kiddo back to the room!).
# 9 – Starbucks in the Lobby
While we’ve become spoiled by them now, we need to remember that Cabana Bay introduced the first stand alone Starbucks at a Universal or Disney resort. It resides right off the main lobby area, and serves a full Starbucks menu.
In an amazing touch, this Starbucks location has murals on the wall with pictures of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids. This is a small taste of Old Florida and it fits right in with the retro-hip theming.
# 8 – Game-O-Rama
When I was a kid traveling with my parents on vacation, I always loved the hotel arcades and it breaks my hear that – with a few exceptions – Disney resorts seem to be moving away from good arcades at their hotels. Yeah, I know that with smart phones and consoles you can hook up to your in-room TVs, traveling with video games is easier than ever, but nothing can replace the feeling of playing games inside an actual arcade. Cabana Bay delivers a fantastic arcade experience with Game-O-Rama.
Like the entire resort, the arcade has a fun lighting package that truly pops!
What kid wouldn’t love walking into this?!
# 7 – Jack LaLanne Physical Fitness Studio
A value resort with a gym? Impossible! But, believe it or not Cabana Bay has probably the largest gym at any Disney or Universal resort. In fact, the Jack LaLanne Physical Fitness Studio just may be bigger than many gyms you’ll find in small towns. With free weights, machines, ellipticals, bikes, and a whole bunch of treadmills, you can get your regular workout done. Pro Tip: even if you don’t want to break a sweat, take some time and check out all the Jack LaLanne memorabilia located inside the gym.
# 6 – Galaxy Bowl
Some people enjoy the athleticism of basketball, while others admire the grace and skill of soccer, but we at the SATURDAY SIX favor bowling as our favorite sport, as it is the only one you can participate in while eating chili cheese fries or chicken wings (preferably both). Cabana Bay is the only theme park resort in Florida to offer a 10 lane bowling alley, along with a full menu of food and drinks. Galaxy Bowl is actually inspired by the famous Hollywood Star Lanes, the bowling alley seen in The Big Lebowski.
In our current New Normal, the hours of Galaxy Bowl have been reduced to nighttime only, and because of social distancing concerns only every other lane is being used. If you’d like to bowl, I would definitely try to get in line as close to opening as you can to sign up for a reserved lane time. You will be given a text reminder to come back at the appropriate time. Hopefully at some point in the near future Galaxy Bowl will go back to it’s former operating hours starting at 11am, especially during busier times, as it can be such a family friendly experience while on vacation and no other hotel in the area has this type of offering.
Post COVID, there have some changes. Masks need to be worn at all times when bowling, so if you want to eat at Galaxy Bowl, you need to be seated in the dining area outside of the bowling area.
If you choose to be seated for dining, Galaxy Bowl can be considered the resort’s only “table service” restaurant.
Recently in this Fine Blog Series we covered Universal’s 2021 Mardi Gras event, and one of the things going on across the entire Universal Orlando Resort is special food and drink items at the various hotels. The drink offered at Cabana Bay is the Laissez les bons temps Rouler Hurricane. “Let The Good Times Roll” – Bacardi Light Rum, Cruzan 12 Year Single Barrel Rum, Passionfruit Puree, Orange Juice and Grenadine served in a 32-ounce souvenir Galaxy Bowl cup.
# 5 – Bayliner Diner
Similar to Disney’s Value Resorts, the Bayliner Diner is a food court with several stations featuring a wide array of items. Pizza, burgers, paninis, and chicken sandwiches are similar to what you’ll find at many food courts, but here you’ll also find an international section with Asian vegetable stir fry, Brazilian beef churrasco, and an Ahi tuna bowl. Looking for a carving station? They got it. There is a dedicated grill and fryer for those looking for cooked gluten free options, along with a wide selection of pre-made gluten free items. There is a frozen yogurt station (including plenty of DIY add-ons), ICEEs, and huge salads. Unlike similar venues, Bayliner eschews paper plates and plastic utensils for real plates, bowls, and silverware.
The seating area for Bayliner Diner is huge, and has a whole bunch of tables and booths. One nice feature is that all the booths have easy access outlets near them to charge your devices. There are several large TVs playing ’60s era television ads, which carries that same level of fun nostalgia you’ll find at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, It is extremely rare to find a food court worth going out of your way to dine in, but for my money Bayliner Diner even tops AOA’s Landscape of Flavors.
Proof that we still live in the best timeline, not only does Cabana Bay offer a themed pizza box, it also has a smaller version if you order breadsticks to go (or get them delivered via room service).
Recently Universal has ended it’s partnership with Dippin’ Dots, the self proclaimed ice cream of the future. However, you will still be able to find an item called Mini Melts, which I’ve dubbed the ice cream of tomorrow.
The grab and go section of Bayliner Diner is shockingly large. Pretty much anything you could ask for is here, including reasonably priced bottles of wine.
One fun option while staying at Cabana Bay is making your own S’mores over a fire pit. Bayliner Diner offers everything you will need.
There are fire pits located in both courtyards at Cabana Bay.
The fire pits are lit up at night. For those who don’t want to wait for nightfall, there is a fire pit that is turned on 24 hours a day.
Time for S’mores!
# 4 – MULTIPLE REFILLABLE CUPS
Longtime readers of the SATURDAY SIX know how much we love souvenir refillable cups. Universal must have somehow got a hold of our dream journal, because Cabana Bay has taken souvenir mugs to the next level. The resort made its debut with a fun design that is perfect for the style of the resort. The design is very retro and reminds me of the Disney art done by Shag. While it generally takes years for Disney to change their refillable cups, Cabana Bay offered a unique design for both the Halloween and Christmas seasons! Disney also uses the exact same cup for all its on-site resorts, whereas Universal has a different cup for all their hotels which offer them, which makes them a great souvenir.
The original Cabana Bay refillable cup design was based off a large mural that is in Bayliner Diner.
# 3 – Swizzle Lounge
If you’re like us, you enjoy an adult beverage on occasion. It’s fair to say that until Cabana Bay, bars in Value Resorts were – at best – lacking. Considering families cooped up in those small rooms for a week probably need a drink more than anyone, this is scandalous. In fact, we even poked a little fun at how poor the options are with the article Worst Idea Ever: Value Resort Bar Crawl.
Cabana Bay has THREE great bars, including the incredible Swizzle Lounge located directly in the lobby.
In what we can now refer to as The Good Ol’ Days, a guest could just mosey on up to the Swizzle Lounge, grab a seat at the bar and order. However, during this “unprecedented times,” you can check out the bar’s menu via a QR code while in line to order from the bartender.
Thankfully there is still lobby seating nearby.
# 2 – Hideaway Bar & Grill
We mentioned that Cabana Bay had three bars, well the other bars are located at Cabana Bay’s two pool areas. First we’ll check out The Hideaway Bar & Grill, which is located in the Lazy River Courtyard. Not only does The Hideaway offer a full drink menu like Swizzle Lounge, but also serves an awesome food menu!
The bar area is separate from the food area.
Hideaway also features the Honolulu Hot Dog Company where you can get artisan sausages served in a “no mess” sweet Hawaiian bread pocket.
The Cabana Bay Pool Cups are currently $15.50 and includes a 16 ounce drink of your choice. Even better? Refills are only $12. Here’s the best part: unlike at any Disney pool, you can take your drink (in this pool cup) into any of the Cabana Bay pools!
Over at the Cabana Courtyard is the Atomic Tonic bar.
One of the themed elements at Atomic Tonic is a large rocket. If you look in the window of the rocket you will see a monkey. This is in honor of Ham the Astrochimp, who was part of the US space program’s Project Mercury. Back in 1961, Ham took a suborbital flight in a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Directly next to Atomic Tonic is the Atomic Grill, so like with The Hideaway, you have a food menu to go along with your drinks.
# 1 – Lazy River and Pools
Cabana Bay has two huge pools, a giant slide, and a water play area, but what separates it from the pack is everyone’s favorite water feature: a lazy river. The E-Ticket of pools, a relaxing float along the lazy river – with its waterfalls and lush theming – can be just what the doctor ordered. Cabana Bay does not supply tubes to guests (they have no cleaning facility onsite to disinfect them) but they do offer a wide assortment of tubes for pretty much the same price you would pay at Target or a pool store. Several of the tubes they offer are Cabana Bay branded and are relatively inexpensive souvenirs.
At the lazy river tube shack you can purchase your own tube, or have a tube you brought filled with air. One stark difference that Disney annual passholders may discover when staying onsite at Universal is that Universal annual passholders get discounts EVERYWHERE. All food and non-alcoholic beverages, merchandise, and even items at the tube shack!
Honoroable Mention – The Best View in Florida
We’ve gone on the record saying that Volcano Bay has become our favorite park in all of Florida, and Cabana Bay is all but connected to it! In fact, guests staying at Cabana Bay have their own dedicated walkway (and security check) to get to the park. For me personally, being close to a park is my absolutely favorite amenity of an onsite hotel. Being able to walk to Disney’s Magic Kingdom made me love The Contemporary. Being able to walk to EPCOT and DHS made staying at Yacht Club and the Boardwalk a blast. I always thought the walk from the Royal Pacific to Islands of Adventure was quick, but the jaunt from Cabana Bay to Volcano Bay is the fastest of all. With everything considered: view, price point, and amenities, a Volcano View room at Cabana Bay is the best place to stay not only at Universal, but in all of Orlando.
The aerial photo below shows just how close Cabana Bay’s towers are to Volcano Bay!
Double Secret Honorable Mention – THE RESORT SPECIFIC MERCHANDISE!!
We are approaching the 8 year anniversary of The Magic, The Memories, and Merch!, the sister article to the SATURDAY SIX, and it is safe to say we love theme park resort merchandise. Cabana Bay has hands-down the most unique resort specific merchandise at any Disney or Universal hotel, let alone value resorts. There are your usual pins, keychains, t-shirts, and coffee cups, but also beach towels, beach bags, candy, and even water proof phone cases. There are Galaxy Bowl themed bowling shirts, Atomic Tonic shot glasses, and more Jack LaLanne-related items than you could have ever dreamed existed. Cabana Bay’s gift shop just may be one of the top six stores in all of Universal, as it also contains a great mix of items from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, The Simpsons, Despicable Me, Transformers, and even Marvel. Chocolate frogs, unicorn plush (“It’s so fluffy!), VelociCoaster shirts, and Cabana Bay breath mints… that’s what I call a gift shop!
There are so many items specific to Cabana Bay it reminds me of the merchandising moment from the movie Spaceballs…
Triple Threat Honorable Mention – TOUCH-LESS SODA MACHINES
In this New Normal we all live in, the last thing we want to do is touch a surface somebody else literally just touched. However, most of us (at least the Americans reading this) don’t have the patience to wait for a Team Member to wipe down surfaces after being used. The eternal struggle between safety and spoiled. Cabana Bay has figured out a solution to this problem when it comes to soda machines, having touch-less kiosks!
Grand Slam Honorable Mention – The Cabana Bay Bus Service
One of the LEAST talked about experiences at Cabana Bay just may be one of the most important from a guest perspective. For my family, staying at Disney’s Value Resorts became a non-starter after some horrendous situations using Disney’s bus service. Long waits at the hotels to go to the parks. Long waits at the parks to go back to the hotels. Interminable waits at times. This is NOT the experience at Cabana Bay, where you will pretty much always have a bus waiting for you at the bus stop. If a bus isn’t there, look to your left because one is probably pulling into the resort. No one books a vacation because of theme park bus service, but busses can end up playing a huge factor in how you experience a day at the parks. Waiting forever in the morning just starts your entire day off on the wrong foot, and spending a half hour in line at night when you are exhausted is the last thing you want. The efficiency of Cabana Bay’s bus service relieves all of that stress.
So there you have it: TWELVE Reasons We Love Universal’s CABANA BAY BEACH RESORT! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles covering the latest from the Disney Outlet Stores. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and “the Dadalorian” Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, charter member of the Universal Four @Nitro230, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.