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Wednesday 25 April 2018
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Universal Studios Resort—Good, but something to be desired (Trip Report/Review)

Let me start out by saying that we have not spent much time at Universal Studios (we have spent far more time at Disney). Our recent trip was short planned and two days long. This will not be an extensive review on every aspect of the hotels or parks, just what we observed on our quick visit. With that said, here’s a summary report and review.
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We were traveling down for a family reunion and decided we would head out a couple days early for some time with just our family. We haven’t spent any extended time in the Universal Studios parks in years and thought it would be a good opportunity to check out the parks, especially as a family that enjoys Harry Potter.

The Accommodations

When we travel to the Orlando area we almost always stay in a timeshare or vacation rental. On this trip, we started looking around and found that it was actually cheaper for us to stay at a Universal Resort hotel using some credit card reward points, rather than renting points from a vacation owner. We were able to stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort for $25-$50 under the listed price—a nice savings on a three night stay.

Cabana Bay is one of Universal’s value resorts. Unlike their higher end resorts, the only park perks you receive are early entry into Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as bus service to CityWalk (more about that in a bit).

The parts of the resort that we saw were very nice—on par with Disney and I think even a little nicer than the Disney value resorts. Check-in was easy, the employees were courteous, etc. Parking availability for us was adequate, however I have to say that we arrived mid-day and found a spot and never moved the car again. I’m guessing they’ve had problems with people abusing their parking lots because getting in AND OUT required a room key as well as a $12 a day parking fee.

Our room was excellent, but felt small at 300 square feet. We were traveling with five (our 2yo slept in a toddler tent), so that didn’t help. It was not easy to find space for all our bags and move around, but we made do. The dresser was not huge, so unpacking didn’t really work for all of us. There was a mini-fridge, which we liked but took up dresser space. The closet was very good size. We were only there three nights and spent two full days in the parks, so it was more than sufficient. If we were traveling with a normal group of four or smaller, it would have been fine, but still on the small side.

My only two criticisms of the room. First, for being pretty new, it already was showing some pretty good signs of wear, specifically the carpet. However, unlike most Florida hotels we’ve stayed at, the bathroom/shower was in great shape. Second, the walls were thin. If you’d like to know when your neighbors are up, whistling, going the bathroom, etc, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, just be prepared. It was not terrible in the main room, but you could hear your neighbors very clearly in the bathrooms.

That’s really it. Everything else we really enjoyed. The resort on a whole was in great condition. The pools looked very nice. We only experienced one pool for about 45 minutes. The day we arrived it was windy, the sun was down, and it was about 50º. My kids managed to talk me into swimming with them for a bit (my wife was wise and observed and helped us dry off when we got out). We tried out the pool behind the lobby which had a hot tub, slide, and zero entry section. The water was also, thankfully, heated.

I only tried the food court once, which I regret that it was only once. The one night I had it, I tried their salmon with rice and loved it. They had four or five other options I would have loved to try. The breakfast options also looked incredible. We wish we had had an opportunity to try out the food court more. It was open, lots of choices and lots of seating. Definitely a nice benefit compared to many area resorts.

When we checked in, they told us buses run every 15 minutes. In our experience, we never waited for a bus—not once. We walked up to the drop area and immediately boarded both going to the parks and coming home. It was great. Quite different than our frequent waits at other themed area resorts. To be fair, they have fewer hotels, one drop off location, and a much shorter drive than Disney has to deal with.

For a full list of amenities and services, check out the Cabana Bay website.

All-in-all, we would absolutely stay there again, especially at the daily rate we were able to get.

CityWalk

Like I said, we were able to take the bus from the resort to CityWalk. The buses do NOT take you directly to the parks. For those who have been to Universal before, they drop off where the parking garage connects to the walkway to CityWalk. At that junction is where security is. The first time I visited, I was a little annoyed about having to deal with security there, but on the flip side, once you’re through there you don’t have to go through it again. There’s no messing with security right before going into the park or having to go through security when switching from one park to another. On each of our visits, security was always very fast and courteous.

CityWalk has a small food court area with Burger King, Panda Express and Moe’s. Close by there is also a Bread Box and Fusion Bistro Sushi and Sake Bar. There are many other full service restaurants, we just didn’t check any of them out. We ate in the “quick service” area every evening of our trip. My wife discovered, and fell in love with, Bread Box. Her personal review of the restaurant was, “This place is a bright shining beacon among a sea of poor to mediocre food at Universal Studios. Great food, excellent service, clean tables.” The food was fresh, staff was great, and we always were able to find a table. I, personally, had sushi every night from the sushi bar right next door and loved it.

I can’t give a very extensive review of CityWalk other than our stops to eat.

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The Parks

Ahh, the parks. The reason we all come to Orlando. Before I get started a need to post a little disclaimer in case anyone I know reads this, especially my wife. I am going to be a bit critical and don’t want to sound ungrateful or as if we didn’t have a good time. We had an incredible two days in the parks. Watching my boys throw their robes on, grab their wands and dive into the world of Harry Potter was worth every penny of admission. We had a very cold, but wonderful time (it was 28º the first morning we were there). With that said, here are a few things we didn’t care for and a few things we really enjoyed.

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The park food was not good—as in, some of the worst park food we’ve ever had. At our first meal (Mel’s Drive-In at Universal Studios), my burger was cold and the bun was stale and hard as a rock. After asking for a new bun, not a whole new burger, I received another hard, stale bun. I just ate it without the bun. The “shake” was just soft serve in a cup. Day two we read some reviews online and had slightly better luck. This time we tried Thunder Falls (Islands of Adventure). I’m boring and got a burger again (my fault). It had much better flavor, but again was cold. The wrap and sides were mediocre. The rotisserie chicken and the cookie cake were very good. After reading reviews, we learned that finding a good place to eat was going to be difficult. Definitely do some research online to find recommendations for dining options based on food preferences.

The employees were not the same as Disney’s. We’ve been spoiled. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve started to notice the occasional unfriendly or unhelpful cast member at Disney. Most are still above and beyond. We felt the crew at Universal has a long way to go to meet the challenge of their rivals down the road. We had many that were very wonderful and helpful, but they stood out. I get it, we all have days at work we don’t want to be there. However, it did really change the overall experience though when many of the people you interacted with acted as though they didn’t want to be there or didn’t want you there.

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I hate to constantly compare to Disney, but I sort of have to. Cleanliness is another area that Universal didn’t live up to Disney. Almost every restroom I went in was dirty enough I didn’t want to use it. My wife says all of hers were clean. Either way we agreed—Universal was not nearly as clean as Disney.

Universal also felt more crowded than Disney. This is not Universal’s fault, I think it just is what it is. We use Touring Plans for Disney and Universal and the days we were there were supposed to be 2s and 3s. Either Touring Plans was off or a 2 at Universal is very different than Disney. Even on a “2” day, there were many, many attractions with a 60-120 minute wait. Again, Touring Plans could have been wrong, but for two weekdays during off season in the middle of winter when the weather was freezing, we felt the lines were pretty long.

Lastly, no FastPasses. If you want to skip the lines, you have to pay for it using their Express service. I didn’t look up the price because I knew I wasn’t going to pay even more money in addition to my admission price. For those willing to shell out the cash, Universal’s system may actually be better for you. For us, it meant more time in lines. Now, I need to clarify—if you’re staying at one of Universal’s deluxe resorts, you get the Express passes as part of your resort package free. Something to keep in mind when booking your vacation. They do have a couple rides that have begun implementing virtual lines—something I’d love to see at more attractions in the future.

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Now for the good stuff! First, thrill rides. This is a both a pro and a con for our family, but I have to list it as an overall pro for Universal. There are far less family and kid rides than at Disney. That, for us, isn’t great with a 2yo. However, I can hardly fault Universal for that! They have far more thrill rides. If you’re looking for more rides that get the adrenaline flowing, Universal has them.

Speaking of rides, Universal does an excellent job with their queues, especially their newer rides. There were many rides where I didn’t even mind waiting in line because the queues were so interesting and engaging: Hogwarts Express, Escape from Gringotts, HP Forbidden Journey, Reign of Kong, etc. Quick warning, some of the queues may be too much for younger children, like Reign of Kong.

Universal’s child swap is great. Unlike Disney, your entire party waits in line together. When you are about to get on the ride, the adult staying with the kids goes into a “child swap room” with benches, changing tables and a tv to wait for the other riders to return. When the first group is done, the adults switch. In our case, my wife and I would swap and our older two would get to ride a second time. After the swap, you don’t even wait through a shortened line, you pretty much get on the next available turn. I can see advantages to both Universal’s way and Disney’s way. For us, we enjoyed staying together, the quick exchange closer to the ride and the child swap rooms. Some child swap rooms even had windows where we could see the other members of our group get on and off the ride, etc. It allowed those not riding to still participate and not be left out completely.

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A couple of small little bonus things we liked. They had a refillable mug option, which was nice. If you’re a soda drinking family, you can get a mug for about $15 that gives you unlimited refills for the day. You can bring it back and activate it for another day for $8 a day. You can refill it in most restaurants and at many stands throughout the park. Icees are also included for free with the refills.

Lastly, there’s a large open space near Rip Ride Rockit at Universal Studios that provides a great place to spread out, picnic, take a rest, whatever. On many trips, we’ve enjoyed stopping for a snack and sitting down for a little while.

As I said at the beginning, we had a great couple of days. If you’re planning or considering a trip to Universal Studios Resort, I’d suggest two things. First, if you’re a die-hard Disney fan, remember that Universal is not Disney. If you go expecting a similar experience and constantly comparing it to Disney, you’ll be disappointed. It is just very different in many ways. For us, we found some things better and some things worse, but we kept telling ourselves, “it’s not Disney.” Second, do your research. If you’re a Disney pro, you can probably take a Disney trip with little-to-no prep. But, if you’re new to Universal, get online and read some blogs, reviews, etc. Find out the best times to go, different tricks and tips and things like that. For example, we found a couple good articles that helped us find better food options on day two and a tip to have young children skip the Kong queue—and I was glad I we did!

We’re by no means Universal experts, but hope the overview will help get you started for a great adventure to Universal Studios!

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I live through wood and nails - father, husband, web developer, graphic designer, picture taker, disney nut.