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Lebeau Family Trip Report 2017: Universal Orlando Resort Day One

My family and I have recently returned from our latest theme park vacation.  When the kids were little, we made regular visits to Walt Disney World in Orlando.  Following our last trip in 2014, we decided it was time for us to explore some other options.  The following year, prior to embarking on our first family cruise (with Disney of course), we spent a day at Universal Studios.  This year, we settled on an extended visit at Universal Orlando.  I’ll tell you all about it after the jump.

Introductions are in order.  Presumably most of you know me.  I’m Lebeau.  This is my blog.  Says so on the banner.  My lovely wife Mindy mostly tolerates my theme park obsession.  Over the course of several Disney World trips, she got fed up with the hassles of getting around Disney’s gigantic resort and found she very much preferred Universal’s compact layout.  We have two daughters; Josie (12) and Kara (8).  If you’ve been reading my trip reports I imagine you’re marveling over how big they have gotten.

Before we get started, I want to give you guys some background on this trip.  For a while leading up to our departure, we seriously considered cancelling or at least postponing this vacation.  As the school year was winding down, Kara suffered a mysterious injury to her ankle.  We’re not sure exactly how it happened, but she had a break or at least a fracture that was going to limit her mobility for several months.  The best case scenario was that she would be in physical therapy and an ankle brace during our trip.  If you have ever visited an Orlando theme park, you know how much walking is involved.

There were other concerns.  Josie got braces which are not only expensive, but they cut up her mouth for a couple of weeks.  During that time, it was hard to imagine she would have a lot of fun on vacation.  We had also adopted not one but two dogs.  It’s a long story, but the bottom line was that we weren’t sure we would have anyone available to watch them while we were away.  A month or so before we left, I was very close to scrapping the whole thing.

Obviously, we decided to carry on.  Kara’s ankle healed as well as could be expected.  Her physical therapist told us we were going to have to work within her limits, but that seemed feasible at a relatively small resort like Universal.  Leading up to the trip, I made lots of little preparations.  We found relatives to take in each of the two doggies.  We ordered new luggage, picked our restaurants where we thought we might like to eat, etc.

Just before we left, we checked the weather forecast and it was foreboding.  In all my trips to Florida, I had never seen such dire predictions – and we’ve been during hurricane season.  Every day of our trip included high chances of not just rain but severe thunderstorms.  If you’re familiar with Florida weather, you know that these storms typically come and go pretty quickly.  But going in to this trip, we knew that we were going to need to be ready for rain.  I was reasonably confident we could work around whatever Mother Nature threw at us this week.

Our flight in was pretty uneventful.  I had scheduled an early morning flight which was later rescheduled for an even earlier time by our airline.  We arrived at the Orlando airport ahead of schedule, so we had plenty of time to check in and have some fun.  I had arranged car service to the hotel via Happy Limo.  Although it is pricier than some options, we were happy with the service we received during our 2015 cruise and decided to give them repeat business.  It’s much more convenient than renting a car or taking a shuttle.

Our driver’s name was Ashley.  On the way to the hotel, we made small talk.  She assured us that she had heard very good things about Loews Royal Pacific.  We talked about recent additions to the Orlando scene like Volcano Bay and Disney’s Pandora.  Ashley mentioned that her mother was a bartender at Animal Kingdom Lodge who had been moved to Pandora when it opened.  (I mention this because it will come up again later.)

We also talked about the weather forecast.  Ashley informed me that prior to our arrival, central Florida had been in the middle of a terrible drought.  She said they really needed the rain.  Good for them, bad for us I guess.

We would be spending the week at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.  This is one of the deluxe hotels at Universal.  All of the on-site hotels include some very nice perks for Universal guests like early park admission, transportation to the parks and the ability to pick up tickets in your hotel lobby.  On our previous visit, we enjoyed the kitschy Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  But the allure of free Express Pass for the length of our stay was too much to pass up so this time we upgraded to deluxe accommodations.

The math on this decision is going to vary depending on the size of your party and how much you value what Express Pass has to offer.  If you are paying for EP out-of-pocket, it will typically run you around $80 per person.  For a family of four, that’s right around the cost of the hotel room.  I was able to get a good rate so I paid less for the room than I would have paid out-of-pocket for the passes.

Of course there’s no way I would have shelled out for six days of Express Pass.  So you have to factor that into your value assessment.  Given Kara’s limited mobility and the kids’ impatience with lines, I put a pretty high premium on front-of-the-line upgrade.  Your mileage is going to vary.

For a long time, I had aspirations of staying at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  Eventually, I decided that as nice as that hotel is, I would never be able to justify Disney’s asking price.  Loews Royal Pacific, however, has a similar theme with a much more reasonable price tag.  It would make a suitable substitute for the Polynesian.

Both hotels feature lush landscaping and running water.  But Royal Pacific has a more upscale feel to it.  The decor leans towards Asian influences as opposed to the Tiki culture celebrated at the Poly.  The hotel doesn’t quite make you feel like you have been transported to a far away island, but it does a nice job of evoking a sense of something more exotic than your standard hotel.

The overall vibe is one of serenity.  Loews Royal Pacific is classy without being stuffy.  The surroundings put guests in a relaxed state of mind.  Some hotels feel like they are buzzing with hyperactive children and frazzled parents.  Others feel too formal for you to really let your kids be kids.  Loews Royal Pacific hits that balance nicely where parents can relax and the kids can have fun.

Once we arrived, we had some business to attend to.  The first stop was at the front desk to check in.  I was not surprised to discover that our room wasn’t ready yet.  We had arrived earlier than expected.  I wasn’t entirely certain what time check-in was, but I knew that if necessary we could check our bags at luggage services and get something to eat.

More often than not, the staff will greet you with a welcoming “mahalo.”  I would say that the service we received during our stay was consistently friendly and occasionally exceptional.  When I checked in, we were given Hawaiian leis which I think we all wore for about 10 seconds before deciding to stick them in our bags.

Our next stop was at the nearby kiosks where we could print up our park tickets and Express Passes.  The Express Pass includes a photo, so everyone had to smile for the camera.  I had also secured priority seating at Volcano Bay for Sunday, so I printed up those vouchers as well.  With all of our park-related business attended to, we stopped by the luggage desk to drop off our bags.  After the bags were safely checked, we went searching for lunch.

Next: Lunch at Jake’s American Bar

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Posted on June 15, 2017, in theme parks, travel, Trip Report, Universal Studios. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. daffystardust

    That’s a little disappointing that the wizards working the wand shop couldn’t answer your simple question matter-of-factly. All of the characters in the books and movies know what sort of core their wand has and it is routinely announced when a wand is being considered (or when the wand is considering the wizard). I wonder if they have had trouble with kids breaking the wands open to try to see the feather/hair/whatever inside it, making them reluctant to emphasize this part of the experience. It’s the first thing that comes to mind in trying to explain such a weak adherence to theme.

    Your room looks very nice and similarly bright to the places I stayed last March.

    Universal is definitely less walk-intensive than Disney is most of the time; one of the inarguable advantages the smaller nature of the overall resort has over a visit with the mouse on the East coast.

    I’ll be interested to hear if you encountered any express waits longer than you have reported so far. Short lines area big deal if you can manage them, and shelling out for the higher end hotel is one way to do it at Universal.

    Looking forward to reading about the rest of the trip!

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    • I wasn’t too put out about the wishy washy answers we got over the wands. I remembered that the Olivander’s at Diagon Alley was more robust. I think they were reluctant to give a definitive answer which might be contradicted if we went to the trouble of looking up our specific wand on the charts at the other location. We weren’t going to do that, but I can imagine a lot of hard core Harry Potter fans would. The simple solution would be to replicate the chart in some fashion at the original location. I imagine space is an issue, but surely they could shrink it down even if it’s only a print copy stored behind the counter. They do talk about the cores during the presentation which is why it became a priority for Kara, so you would think they would have some kind of reference material for the staff.

      The room was very nice. It had that newly refurbished feel still. The tropical theme was carried out in small details just as it is at Cabana Bay, but the amenities were what you would expect from a nice, modern hotel. My one gripe was that our bathroom lacked a tub. The shower was good – strong water pressure, plenty hot – but I would have liked the option of a tub. Families with small children might find this more of an issue.

      I won’t keep you in suspense. Our 10-minute-ish wait for Dudley was the longest of our trip save for Race Through New York and its virtual line. I’ll get to that next time. We were very well served by Express Pass. It cut hours off our wait times. We more or less walked on to most rides some of which had waits of an hour or more. This trip would have been a disaster without it. Our time in the parks was drastically reduced by the storms, but thanks to EP we were able to cram in a lot of attractions in just a few hours.

      The one area where Express Pass won’t help is with the Harry Potter attractions. But that’s where early admission and a little advance planning comes in. We’ll get to that soon too.

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      • daffystardust

        Honestly, if I was one of the employees you were talking to I would be asking my manager why I didn’t have access to a booklet with detailed information on all of the wands, including the cores – especially since that information is available elsewhere in the resort. You are right that diehard Potter fans would be disappointed by their apparent lack of knowledge, but then again the most obsessive Potter heads would probably already know what core each of the characters’ wands had to begin with. That’s the double-edged sword of trying to serve an obsessive fan base.

        Based on your experience I would definitely consider staying at a higher priced resort next time I go to Universal if it’s during a high crowds season.

        This summer promises a lot of change, with likely new employment and new digs, all probably happening soon, but none settled on yet. Trying to stay stress-free about it until it happens and these sort of articles are helping.

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        • I sort of figured that most guests who really cared enough to ask about wand cores probably came prepared. You are very correct that an obsessive fan base cuts both ways.

          I can say that we considered EP to be a godsend. As I said before, our park time was reduced because of the weather. Additionally, we had Kara’s leg to take into consideration and the fact that Mindy and the girls don’t deal well with waiting in lines. For some people, these will be at best minor concerns. But for us, skipping waits was critical to our enjoyment. Your mileage is going to vary depending on personal preference and other factors like the time of year, etc.

          The math on the high end hotels is very different for a single traveler than a family of four. If I were paying for EP out of pocket, the cost for all of us would have exceeded what I paid for the hotel room. From that point of view, you could look at it that the hotel was essentially free. Of course that’s silly because I wouldn’t have bought Unlimited Express Pass for so many days out of pocket. But considering that the room gets you Unlimited Express Pass for every occupant, the perk is more valuable for a larger group. If you are only netting one EP out of the deal, I’m guessing you’d be better off staying at Cabana Bay (which is outrageously affordable this summer) and buying EP out of pocket.

          Of course there are other considerations. Those water taxis are a really nice perk. They may not be the fastest way to get to and from the parks, but they are by far the most relaxing. With one exception, we never had to wait on a boat for more than a couple of minutes. The quick security scan is also a nice little bonus as opposed to having to go through the bag checks with the larger crowds. I would definitely recommend the deluxe resorts to anyone who can swing the price tag and has an interest. For the cost of a stay at a Moderate Resort at Disney, the Universal Deluxe Resorts offer the best possible experience in and out of the parks.

          For the budget-conscious, there are other options. There are cheaper hotels within walking distance and lots of other choices that include shuttle service. But the Loews hotels really offer a VIP experience with the transportation options, early admission and line-skipping perks. If you value those things, I honestly feel these hotels are a bargain at the current prices.

          My biggest complaint about Loews Royal Pacific specifically – it’s a minor one, but worth mentioning – was the lack of a cheap, quick food option for lunch or dinner. Aside from a pool bar which was closed during inclement weather, all the hotel had to offer was table-service restaurants or room service. There’s no food court like you would expect from most theme park hotels. Even Portofino Bay, which is more upscale, offers some quick eats. CityWalk is close enough – weather permitting. But since we were averse to venturing out in the storms, we were cut off from fast food.

          Sorry to hear about the stressful summer. Any kind of change is hard, but stacking new employment on top of a move would definitely be worrisome. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a swift and positive outcome. Happy to hear the trip report offers some relief. I know I enjoy reading about other people’s trips because it’s the next best thing to going on vacation. In some ways better because it’s free and I don’t have to experience the hassles first hand.

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  2. Thanks to this article/log, I got today’s Trivia Hive question about Volcano Bay right. I only have 47.6% of the questions right so far this month (my percentage is better on Trivia Today, although I did get the subsequent question about Marie Curie right on the Hive today as well), so I need all the help I can get.

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