Sunday, November 19, 2017
Travel

Universal's retro Cabana Bay resort aims for value

RECOMMENDED READING


ORLANDO

It was 1958, and America was all about zoom. The Space Race was on. Our highways were growing longer, Roadside U.S.A. in full bloom. It didn't matter if the family was headed to Mars or Miami: Travel was the thing, and we were having a blast, World War II behind us, Vietnam yet to cast a pall.

That giddy, goofy Age of Acceleration — '58 to '62, specifically — drives the postcard colors, futurist architecture and beboppin' soundtrack at the ambitious Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal Orlando's new 1,800-room hotel, which carries a reported price tag of some $206 million.

A collaboration between Loews Hotels and Universal, the resort is themed to the max: a 600-seat "diner" serves up tasty tuna casserole, Jack LaLanne lords over the fitness room, Sputnik lamps bubble from ceilings.

It's priced, however, to a minimum: Family suites start at $134, standard rooms at $93, all drastically cheaper than any other lodging on Universal property.

And you better believe it's aimed at luring tourists from such equally affordable, if still aesthetically imaginative, Disney hotels as Pop Century and Art of Animation. The latter is most comparable, but more expensive, than Cabana Bay. But we'll see what transpires when the months get hotter and Universal's second Harry Potter world-o-rama opens.

"This is our first moderate-value hotel here, absolutely," said Tom Roditus, senior vice president of operations for Loews Hotels. "It's our first real entry into this market."

What took Universal so long to enter the "value" hotel game is debatable, although owners have obviously preferred to be extremely aggressive when it comes to hotel dollars: The Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Loews Portofino Bay Resort, previously the only three accommodations on the property, are all at least three times as much as Cabana Bay.

The new hotel could seriously alter the landscape. Considering its expansive size and room rates — plus its savvy insistence on a retro American fantasyland, a lovable age of wonder — it could help Universal continue to loosen Uncle Walt's once-peerless grip on theme-park dollars.

 

 

A significant part of the 38-acre Cabana Bay is still under construction: 1,200 rooms to go, as well as a lazy river ride, a white-sand beach and a poolside eatery called the Hideaway Bar & Grill, all scheduled to launch sometime midsummer to coincide with Potter pandemonium.

But 600 family suites — each awash in mod furniture and a winking orange-blue scheme reminiscent of good ol' Howard Johnson — officially opened last week. So did a larger pool area with a fun, if tyke-tame, slide and a cheeky bar called the Atomic Tonic, complete with a flying rocket and orbital monkey.

The reviews of this first phase have been positive, and with good reason: It's difficult to retain intimacy when you're creating a hotel with 1,800 rooms, but Cabana Bay, despite its lamely generic tropical name, manages to retain a fairly immersive feel despite its size.

Cabana Bay's 600-seat Bayliner Diner, with its sky-high ceilings and baby-blue-vinyl booths, boldly borrows the premise from Disney's Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Hollywood Studios, running old films on a loop. (Lucy and Desi bickered as I ate breakfast.) Food is served via a fairly basic food court, and yet the eating space is so fun and funky, the experience feels novel.

Although a large lobby Starbucks and a larger gift shop stifle the yesteryear vibe, especially as they're both smack-dab in the middle of the place, the hotel presents itself playfully, with nice flow. Loopy Jetsons-style carpeting gives way to the neon-frenzied Galaxy Bowl, a 10-lane alley on the second floor. A constant soundtrack of Ray Charles' One Mint Julep and other era-cool tunes is cranked like the radio of a '60 Chevy Corvair.

In keeping with that travel theme, the hotel looks like it could start moving any second.

Vintage autos parked out front give way to the whooshing architectural lines of the hotel's Continental facade. An ugly, useless "dive tower" in the main pool area nevertheless resembles the aerodynamic tail of a Boeing 707.

And the main lobby and check-in area, looking like a scene from Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, revolves around a center capsule of palm trees aimed at a spiraling cathedral ceiling and the heavens beyond.

Heck, even the lobby's Swizzle Lounge — where a cucumber gimlet will cost you $10.50, and Dave Brubeck bops from the speakers — feels like an airport bar where you'd find Cary Grant.

For all the go-go-go feel, however, Universal Creative's Russ Dagon, Cabana Bay's project manager, says his hotel is really about a pleasant calm.

"This was a time when we were celebrating simplicity in this country," says Dagon, who points to the soothing, timeless pastel blues and yellows used for guest room doors. "We had our colorist go back and study postcards from that era."

Indeed, Cabana Bay, with all its mid 20th century charms, is a wild trip, in more ways than one. Sure, you can't hear Nemo giggling underneath the pool waves like at the effects-glorious Art of Animation; no one themes as incessantly as Disney. And time, and huge crowds, will ultimately reveal how well this mondo structure has been planned.

Still, there's something to be said for a theme park "value" hotel that both celebrates and emulates the birth of cool. Cabana Bay is a time-traveled paradise that looks like a million bucks but costs a lot less.

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

     
         
Comments
With Harry Potter’s Christmas, Universal Orlando proves holidays are big business

With Harry Potter’s Christmas, Universal Orlando proves holidays are big business

ORLANDO — Christmas has finally come to Hogwarts at Universal Orlando in a new holiday attraction opening Saturday. In addition, Universal Studios has completely upsized its holiday parade with more Macy’s balloons, stunning floats and snowy effects ...
Published: 11/17/17
First look: Harry Potter’s Christmas finally arrives at Universal Orlando

First look: Harry Potter’s Christmas finally arrives at Universal Orlando

Christmas has finally come to Hogwarts at Universal Orlando, with the promise of warm butterbeer, a Frog Choir singing carols and a magical light show projected onto Hogwarts Castle nightly followed by fireworks. It opens to the public on Saturday. C...
Published: 11/17/17
Flights of fancy vacation photography, courtesy of drones

Flights of fancy vacation photography, courtesy of drones

Rachel RaczkaImagine your favorite vacation photo: that perfect sunset shot with waves gently crashing and an amber crescent reflecting off the ocean’s glassy surface.Now imagine it from above.Drone sales in the United States doubled in the year that...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Explore underwater treasures at Sombrero Reef off Marathon in the Florida Keys

Explore underwater treasures at Sombrero Reef off Marathon in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys seem like a world away, but they’re not too far away when you’re already in Miami.After departing from a cruise, my daughters and I wanted to keep the vacation going just a little bit longer. We headed south on U.S. 1, bound for Mara...
Published: 11/09/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Universal snaps up more land for potential theme park expansion

Universal snaps up more land for potential theme park expansion

Universal Orlando has purchased another big chunk of land in Orlando, giving the theme park company more than 570 acres to work with for expansions, possibly including a new theme park.The land is adjacent to the $130 million purchase Universal made ...
Updated one month ago
Busch Gardens offers 2018 Fun Card early, with a free Adventure Island pass

Busch Gardens offers 2018 Fun Card early, with a free Adventure Island pass

Busch Gardens has put its 2018 Fun Card on sale early, meaning you can get two free months to visit the Tampa theme park for the rest of this year and a free Adventure Islands water park pass in 2018. This is the fifth year that Busch Gardens has of...
Updated one month ago
17 days, 9 countries: One man’s jaunt through Eastern Europe

17 days, 9 countries: One man’s jaunt through Eastern Europe

USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republice_SDLqYou know where I got to go when I was a kid?" I asked my daughter as we climbed the steps to a 14th century castle overlooking the River Elbe and this worn, industrial city."Where?""Texas," I said.It’s hard to reme...
Updated one month ago