Thursday, January 18, 2018

Universal's retro Cabana Bay resort aims for value


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.

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