February 2017 Universal Orlando Trip Report - Day One
We recently got back from a 6 day/5 night on-site stay at Universal Orlando Resort. January and February are our favorite months to stay on-site and tour the parks because the weather is great, hotel rates are value-priced, crowd levels are low, and attraction wait times are minimal.
We stayed on-site from 2/12 - 2/17 (Sunday through Thursday); we prefer weekdays at the park rather than weekends since weekdays typically mean smaller crowds.
Our stay was really fun, and we were sad to see it end, but now that it's over and we've had a few days to come down from the experience, we thought we'd share a few tidbits from our trip through a series of trip reports. This first report will cover Day One at Universal Orlando Resort.
Check-In at Cabana Bay Beach Resort
We arrived at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort on Sunday at about 2:45 p.m., which was a bit before the regular 4:00 p.m. check-in time. There was no wait at the front desk, and like usual, check-in was a breeze. The family suites are located in the Thunderbird, Castaway, and Starlight buildings. If we are asked about a room preference, we always request Thunderbird as our first choice and Castaway as our second. We don't like the Starlight because we tend to have reception issues with our Verizon phones. Our favorite spot is the corner where the Thunderbird and Castaway meet since it is close to the walking path.
The only available rooms were at the Starlight, so I offered to happily wait until a room was ready in one of the other buildings, but the front desk clerk was very nice and ended up upgrading our room for free from a courtyard suite to a pool view suite so that we could get into a room in the Castaway building right away. Our $99-per-night room ended up being just steps from the pool. How awesome is that!
Family Suite at Cabana Bay Beach Resort
This was our sixth stay at Cabana Bay in the last two years. We REALLY like it here. You don't get an Express Pass with your Cabana Bay room like you do at some of the other on-site hotels, but the room rates are cheap and the theming is really fun - especially if you want a casual vacation. We are also rather fond of the family suites at Cabana Bay; at 478 square feet, they are larger than the standard rooms (359 square feet) and include separate living and kitchen areas, giving you lots of room to spread out.
The one thing that we miss when we stay at Cabana Bay is the water taxi. Every current on-site hotel has a water taxi except for Cabana Bay. Of course, there are other transportation options. For example, Cabana Bay has a shuttle bus that can get you from the hotel bus stop to the CityWalk bus drop off in about 6.5 minutes. There is also a beautiful walking path, which is what we typically use to get back and forth. It takes about 17 minutes to walk between the hotel and CityWalk (walking casually, not briskly). But when you're walking 10+ miles per day, sometimes it's nice to just sit back on the boat and save your feet for when you need them.
Even though it was just the two of us on this trip, we got a family suite. The room was very clean, and everything seemed to be in working order. We stocked the fridge with about 50 bottles of water. (Yeah, we're cheap and bring our own water to save money. A bottle of water costs $3 in the park; we got 56 bottles of water on sale for $6 total from a Michigan grocery store.) Then, we left the room and headed straight to the walking path and into CityWalk.
Dinner at NBC Sports Grill and Brew
NBC Sports Grill and Brew is one of our favorite spots to eat in CityWalk. It's not always the cheapest place to eat, but the prices are moderate, and the menu has something for everyone.
We arrived at NBC Sports Grill and Brew about 3:55 p.m., which was a good time since the dinner rush hadn't started quite yet. We were able to get a table right away, and within a couple of minutes, had our order placed. By 4:05 p.m., we were munching on our appetizer, and about 20 minutes later, the rest of our food came.
- Wisconsin Cheese Curds (white Wisconsin cheddar golden fried; served with tomato jam): $9.99. These cheese curds our one of our favorite things to eat at Universal. The batter is excellent and the tomato jam is really yummy. We get them every time we visit NBC and will probably keep doing so because fried cheese is delicious.
- Onion Rings (ale-battered onion rings; served with garlic aioli): $8.95. The size of the onion rings (thick, rustic cut) was perfect, and the rings were beautifully cooked to a nice golden brown, but we weren't crazy about them. There was a hint of ale in the batter, but for the most part, they just tasted bland. We wouldn't get these again since there are better options on the appetizer menu.
- Southern Fried Sliders (two crispy fried chicken sliders with house BBQ sauce, lettuce, tomato, and pickles; served with house kettle chips): $9.95. These sliders are on the appetizer menu, but worked just fine as a meal - especially since we had two appetizers already. The sliders were flavorful, and the kettle chips were crisp and tasty. We would get this again.
- Smoked Beef Brisket Sandwich (slow cooked brisket, smoked Gouda, and horseradish cream on a brioche onion roll): $13.95. The brisket on this sandwich is very tender and delicious, and there is a fair amount piled onto the bun. The smoked Gouda cheese was also good, but the rest was a disappointment. There was barely any horseradish cream on the sandwich, which was hard to ignore since it was one of the key reasons why I ordered this menu item, and the "onion roll" was actually just a regular brioche bun with a teeny-tiny slice of onion baked into the top. This sandwich is supposed to be served with fries, but we paid the $1.99 upcharge to get a house salad instead. (The upcharge is a little weird since all sides, including the salad and fries, are each $3.95 when ordered a la carte.) We would get the smoked beef brisket entree, which is served with coleslaw, French fries, and cornbread, but we probably wouldn't bother with the sandwich version of the brisket again.
The service at NBC Sports Grill and Brew was good. Our server, Shanna, was friendly, efficient, and checked on us multiple times. We even had a manager stop by our table at the end of the meal to thank us for being annual passholders (after we gave our annual pass to Shanna for a discount), which was really nice. It took us 50 minutes to order, get our food, and eat dinner, which seemed like a reasonable amount of time to us.
Fun at Islands of Adventure
Our bellies were pretty full by the time we left NBC Sports Grill and Brew at 4:45 p.m. We weren't feeling up to Hulking Out or going on any other ride that incorporated too much movement, so we headed into Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure and rode the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride and Cat in the Hat. The posted wait time for each ride was 5 minutes, but we were able to walk onto both rides with no wait.
We took a walk down to the lagoon side of Seuss Landing (near Sneetch Beach) where you can get an excellent view of The Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster and other parts of Islands of Adventure. We walked around a bit more until we ended up on the top deck of Me Ship, The Olive. This top deck is another spot to get a good view of the park. We also like walking on the docks and walking paths near this ship to see things that aren't easy to view from the main path, like Sweethaven mailboxes, the School of Fish, and Plymouth Rock.
The sun was getting ready to set, so we went into Hogsmeade. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter can get very busy, even when other parts of the park are empty, so we try to hit Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley early in the morning or late at night. We went straight to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is one of our favorite rides. The wait time was about 15 minutes, so we hopped into the single rider line, which allowed us to get right on the ride with no wait.
We actually prefer the single rider line to the standby line on Forbidden Journey. Sometime we get split up, and sometimes we don't. Either way, it is hard to see your fellow riders on this ride because of the way the seats are shaped, so it feels like no big deal to ride alone. We just meet up in the gift shop afterwards if we're not getting off at the same time or we re-ride it one or two more times back-to-back using the same single rider line. And if we ever start missing the castle interior, we do the castle-only tour.
Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida both opened at 9:00 a.m. (early entry at 8:00 a.m.) and closed at 7:00 p.m. the whole week we were at Universal, which was sort of a bummer. Late opening times and early closing times are definitely among the drawbacks of attending during the value season. We would like to see the parks open earlier and close later.
Shopping at Toothsome
We decided to swing by the store at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen as we left Islands of Adventure - just to see if they had anything new. They didn't. But we did pick up a couple of our favorites, including Chocolate Peanut Butter Malt Balls ($12.95) and Absinthe Candy Floss ($12.95). We have tried nearly every flavor of Toothsome's Candy Floss, but the Absinthe is easily our favorite. We also got a pack of Handcrafted Absinthe Marshmallows ($9.95), which we've never had before. The marshmallows were really good. However, we recommend that you take a close look at the expiration date before you purchase them. The box that we bought on Feb. 12 expired on Feb 14. Later in the week, we bought another box of marshmallows with a later expiration date, and they were noticeably fresher and softer.
Annual Passholder Savings
We each have a Preferred Annual Pass, which covers our admission at Universal Orlando theme parks for the whole year. An annual pass is an absolute must if you plan on visiting more than once per year, because it saves you from buying park tickets each time you go. The other nice thing about an annual pass is the discounts! Annual passholders get discounts on on-site hotel rooms. Depending on the pass you have, you might also save on food and merchandise.
On Day One alone, our annual pass saved us:
- Hotel room: $59
- Food and Drinks: $5.48
- Merchandise: $3.59
Total Annual Passholder Savings for Day One: $68.07
Day Two of Our Universal Orlando Trip
Read a trip report for Day Two of our Universal Orlando trip.