I have a confession to make. I am a theme park geek.
There was a time I would visit theme parks a couple of times a month, sometimes more. I would happily take a flight to ride the newest roller coaster. I would plan US road trips around visiting different theme parks. I could tell you about the manufacturers of all of the rides. Really geeky!
Life seems to have gotten in the way a little bit over the last few years, however for a little bit of escapism, there is still nothing better (in my humble opinion) than visiting a well themed, well run theme park. So where better to start my theme park stories than in the mecca that is Orlando in Florida, and the Universal Orlando Resort.
For my most recent trip we had decided to spend our first week staying in a chain hotel near the Disney parks, and then splashed out for our second week by staying on resort at Universal. This second week didn’t start off too well however, given the news reports and warnings that nobody in Florida want’s to hear – very much echoed by people at this moment in time – a hurricane was heading our way.
The day we were due to arrive at the resort Hurricane Matthew was heading towards central Florida and due to make landfall directly east of Orlando later that evening and overnight. A curfew was imposed, the parks and most of the restaurants in the hotel were closed and all food services were moved into the conference centre of the hotel, for the safety of guests and staff. Thankfully for us, late into the evening news came in that the path of the hurricane had shifted and was heading north. We experienced some heavy winds and rain but with very minimal disruption, the curfew was lifted a day earlier than planned, the parks cleared up and opened again within 48 hours.
Universal offers a range of hotels – Prime Value (Cabana Bay Beach Resort and the soon to be opened Aventura Hotel), Preferred (Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort) and Premier (Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel), all offering a range of exclusive theme park benefits.
We opted for the Loews Royal Pacific Resort – a ‘tropical paradise’ hotel themed around the islands of the South Pacific.
Our room was large and beautifully decorated, with great views over the lagoon pool area. The standard US set up of two queen beds, coffee making facilities in the room. Large bathroom. Perfect.
The hotel has a variety of restaurants and lounges:
Orchid Court Lounge and Sushi Bar – located on the ground floor of the building adjacent to the lobby, this is a great place to sit and chill after a busy day on park with a cocktail or a craft beer. They also offer a continental style breakfast option here and good coffee!
Islands Dining Room – located directly underneath the Orchid Court, this is the place you want to go and grab a great breakfast to set you up for the day. There is a buffet option as well as a full menu. A Pan Asian menu is offered for dinner.
Jake’s American Bar – If you fancy a beer, look no further. There is a huge selection of beers here, as well as a great food menu offering burgers, steaks and seafood. There is a also a regular beer festival and beer dinner. So basically if you want beer, head to Jake’s! Did I mentioned beer?
Emeril’s Tchoup Chop – Emeril Lagasse’s on site restaurant offers a Asian-Polynesian fusion menu in a beautiful setting.
Bula Bar & Grill – A casual poolside restaurant with some great lunch options, great cocktails and a fabulous location next to the lagoon pool.
On the subject of the swimming pool, the hotel has a fantastic lagoon style pool, plenty of space for sunbathing and swimming and also a smaller fun pool for the kids. If you have some free time in the evening, check out one of the Dive-In Movies to watch one of your favourites under the stars.
The benefits of staying on resort make it a worthwhile investment. Not only do you get to stay in a beautiful location, you also get to enjoy some benefits not offered to other park guests. The Loews Royal Pacific offers the following perks:
Unlimited Universal Express – Skip the regular lines on most of the attractions in the theme park for the duration of your stay.
Early Admission – Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay one hour before they open to the public.
Transportation – Inclusive transportation from the hotel to City Walk and the theme parks via the resorts water taxis. Okay okay, it’s a ten minute walk to City Walk but still nice to rest your legs on a nice little boat ride! There is also a complimentary dining shuttle to the other resort hotels.
Priority Seating at On-Site Restaurants – We found this very useful during our stay. We used this most evenings for restaurants at City Walk, and at other resort hotels – shout out here to Bice Ristorante at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, a fantastic Italian Restaurant. Well worth a visit.
CityWalk is the entertainment hub of the resort. Packed with restaurants, bars, retail, shows and a movie theatre all based around a lake, it’s the perfect setting to enjoy the evenings when the theme parks have closed. The area is located between the main parking lots and the theme parks, ideal for maximum footfall but somehow never feeling too crowded.
We spent a lot of time at CityWalk during our stay – dinners in the evening, taking a break from the theme parks for lunch or just a wander around the shops. One of our group even chose to have a tattoo at Hart & Huntington while we were there!
We had some great meals while we were there. Some restaurants I would recommend.
Antojitos – A great Mexican restaurant set in a colourful and vibrant building. Fantastic Mexican food and drink to the sounds of a Mariachi band playing.
Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville – You may have guessed that this place does a fantastic range of Margarita’s, make sure you try one. A fun and lively restaurant with three bars including the Volcano Bar which includes a volcano that erupts margaritas at certain intervals! You can have drinks out on the Porch of Indecision or across the way at the Lone Pine Airport bar.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium – A new addition when we visited (it had actually only just soft opened to the public), this restaurant was a feast for the eyes and the stomach. A steampunk inspired exterior with towering smokestacks and a stylish interior, there is a full dining menu and some of the most amazing desserts based around, yep you’ve guessed it, chocolate. What’s not to love!!
If it’s entertainment that you are after, the Blue Man Group is definitely worth a visit. It’s a mix of comedy, theatre, rock, dance and coloured paint all rolled into one. If you fancy a more interactive show, there is a ‘poncho zone’ towards the front of the theatre!
With all of this on offer you would imagine it’s quite difficult to drag yourselves from the hotels everyday (and you would be right), but we were there for the for the rides after all. Stay tuned, Part Two will take a look at the theme parks in detail.