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.