Review: Cabana Bay Beach Resort

There is a scene in the movie, Catch Me If You Can, that I have never forgotten. Against a backdrop of 60s “Retro Mod” and British Invasion music, a party is in full swing. Carefree people hit beach balls back and forth, lounge around a pool, and enjoy a kind of innocent fun that seems mostly forgotten now.

I have always wanted to be at that party. When I arrived at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, I knew I was about to get my wish.

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Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando opened a little over a year ago, in March of 2014. Although modern in construction, it captures the look and feel of South Florida in the fifties and sixties with impressive detail. Bringing the sophistication of Mad Men along with the friendly ambiance of Leave It To Beaver, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic as you take in the bold colors, mnemonic patterns, and vibrant energy that remind you of an America that has passed.

The designers of Cabana Bay set out to emulate the beachside hotels of that era and succeeded admirably in their goal. Entering the resort, I was mentally transported to Miami circa 1955. Large palms trees form the striking centerpiece of a clean and fluid lobby. A sleek lounge provides access to the food court and shops, while an alluring pool lies just beyond the glass walls. It is a comfortable and casual feel that allows for upscale “resort wear” and bathing suits alike.

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The staff of Cabana Bay is poised and approachable. I often feel rushed and disoriented during check-in, but this was a different experience altogether. Instead of a stiff presentation done by rote, I had a friendly conversation. Questions were answered pleasantly and concerns were addressed immediately; there was sincere warmth. The exchange assured me that while I was immersed in the beauty of synthetic materials, my interaction with personnel would be natural and genuine.

Rooms

Cabana Bay Beach Resort is hugely expansive with 1,800 rooms (900 standard guest rooms and 900 family suites). It is divided into two primary sections: The Cabana Courtyard and The Lazy River Courtyard. The former is surrounded by buildings titled “Starlight,” “Thunderbird,” and “Castaway.” It acts as the primary section of the resort and solidly resonates with the fifties. The latter is much the same; however, its buildings (“Americana” and “Continental”) feel like a slightly less-trafficked annex that also has subtle design influences of the sixties.

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My suite, The Continental, was truly charming. With its understated touches, it made me yearn for the 1950s home my grandparents owned in Miami Springs. The laminate floors in the entry and bathroom, the stiff, foam accent pillows on the furnishings, the vinyl headboards studded with buttons and the analog alarm clock all brought back memories. Better still, the suite came with some features that Grandma’s house didn’t. I cannot adequately relay the pleasure it was to climb onto a Beauty Rest and pillow top mattress each night after exhausting days of walking in the Florida heat.

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The suite provided ample space for a family of five or six. Consisting of a kitchenette, split-style bathroom, separate living area with full-sized sleeper sofa, and bedroom with two queen-sized beds, the layout was well designed. There were only two in my party on this trip, but had I also brought my three children, there still would have been enough room for all.

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Privacy was not an issue. There was a screen door that divided the sleeping quarters from the living room, and the bathroom was segmented allowing the toilet, shower, and vanity to be used independently. Drawer space and hanging space were sufficiently provided with two dressers and a walk-in closet, and we had access to a safe that was large enough to accommodate all of our electronics. We didn’t even fight for remote control rights as the suite was fitted with two flat-screen televisions — one in the living room, the other hanging on the wall in the bedroom.

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The kitchenette was one of the standout features for me due to a small counter with barstools. It may sound unremarkable, but it made my time with my roommate more social. One of us would sit at the counter and converse while the other was free to move amongst the microwave, mini-fridge, and coffee set-up without awkward crowding. It reminded me of sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table for talks while she prepared the evening’s supper.

The rooms were clean throughout with no sign of dust on the baseboards or picture frames. It was evident that housekeeping took its responsibilities seriously and didn’t cut corners. Light bulbs, in-room phone, and appliances were all in working order. We couldn’t get enough of the vintage-brand toiletries.

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Entertainment and Recreation

As with most resorts, Cabana Bay Beach Resort comes equipped with a fitness center and arcade. The complimentary fitness center maintains the resort theming by invoking the name of Jack LaLanne, a fitness expert of the fifties and sixties. The arcade is one of the few concessions to modernity and slightly breaks the illusion, but it boasts an impressive inventory of high-tech video games and their classic arcade predecessors. Come with change in hand.

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Cabana Bay also features a form of recreation very unique to resorts and hotels. Galaxy Bowl is an on-site bowling alley that takes pride in its 10 lanes and full-service restaurant. There are fees for allotted time slots and shoe rental, so prepare to spend extra for this classic pastime. All ages are catered to in the alley with bumpers and ramps available for younger children. The families I observed there were having a lot of fun and seemed to be in no hurry to leave.

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Pools

There are certainly a number of things to enjoy at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, but almost all recreational activities are held in the pool areas. Among them are organized games during the day and s’mores roasts at night. Tables of ping-pong and foosball were also dotted throughout the area and appeared popular.

A continual schedule of events here left no time for boredom. I noted that many families chose to spend the entire day poolside. For this reason, many of the private cabanas, and even the large, asphalt-laden pavilions, were occupied in spite of the required rental fee.

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There are two pools at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. One acts as the hub for The Cabana Courtyard. The other acts as the hub for The Lazy River Courtyard. Each has its own virtues and appeal.

The Cabana Courtyard’s pool is the more heavily populated of the two. It is a zero-entry pool that features a waterslide and iconic, albeit non-functional, diving tower. Surrounding this pool is a bar, the previously mentioned cabanas and picnic pavilions, and a sandy beach for playing games like cornhole or building sandcastles. All of these were well used, and it brought a smile to see families happily engaging each other all around me.

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The Lazy River Courtyard’s pool is encircled with a counter-service eatery and sandy beaches on its fringe. It also features another unique component of Cabana Bay Beach Resort—a lazy river. Complete with aesthetic waterfalls, the current of the river did call to me…at least until I discovered that water cannons around the bend enabled others to rain down upon the liquid parade. That, along with the fact that floats had to be purchased in the gift shop, deterred me from setting a toe in this water. However, I was in the minority here. Countless others seemed happily undeterred.

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There is a final reason to make use of The Lazy River Courtyard’s pool as well as The Courtyard Cabana’s pool. That reason is the “Dive-In Movie.” Each night a different blockbuster hit is played on a large, outdoor screen where folks congregate in lounge chairs and enjoy the film together. A cool breeze made this a really pleasant experience the night that I was there, and it is an experience worth making time for.

Dining

Cabana Bay Beach Resort has a few choices when it comes to food and drink. There are four dining options (Starbucks, Bayliner Diner, Galaxy Bowl Restaurant, and The Hideaway Bar & Grill and two bars: Atomic Tonic and Swizzle Lounge.

Most of the resort’s dining options offer similar fare including burgers, sandwiches, pizza, chicken, and basic salads. There are only small variations with each menu. It is the experience that sets them apart.

The Starbucks is unique in that it is has been fitted with a mermaid theme reminiscent of Weeki Wachee, but the menu is the same one you’ll find at any other coffee shop in the chain. Make no mistake though. That is enough to ensure that it remains very busy.

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Bayliner Diner is the resort’s food court, and it is comfortably the most popular of the onsite dining options. With six stations to choose from and separate offerings for breakfast and lunch/dinner, most families eat there by default. The Freestyle Coke machines have a small draw, and snacks including s’more kits are available here as well.

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Every meal I had at Bayliner Diner was satisfactory whether it was a chicken dinner or a vegetarian sandwich, and I was mildly entertained during my meals by big screens that played nostalgic advertisements. However, it was the self-serve Icee machine, standing proud and tall in the court, that scored big with me.

Galaxy Bowl Restaurant is the only table service option onsite. It doesn’t offer much in the way of entrees. The selection is standard bowling alley fare, but it is a fun experience to have a server wait on you in the atmosphere of a kitschy bowling alley.

Without question, my favorite feature of Cabana Bay Beach Resort was The Hideaway Bar & Grill. Tucked underneath a cement cove in the Lazy River Courtyard, I spent many hours relaxing and people watching. Whether it was the lively foliage in the flowerbeds or the pea green cushions on the seats I do not know, but there was something about this place that was extremely inviting and made me feel as if Gidget would be along at any moment. The food quality was impressive for a poolside quick-service, and there were even a few options that were suitable for some dietary restrictions like raw vegetables, pita bread, and hummus. The combination of decent food and a relatively quiet spot outdoors made this hidden gem a real treasure for me.

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Transportation

Unlike the other Loews Hotels on property, Cabana Bay Beach Resort does not provide water taxi transport. This leaves the option of a bus shuttle or a walking path as means for getting to Universal’s parks. The Florida sun was in full force during my stay, and walking that far seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, my roommate and I rarely walked. We either made use of the shuttle or drove our own vehicles around property.

If you also choose to drive your own vehicle, it is important to note that parking at Cabana Bay Beach Resort will cost you. Guests are charged a daily fee for the use of a parking space. Also, each time the vehicle is moved to a new location like another resort or theme park, an additional parking fee applies. Your status as an “onsite” guest does not entitle you to complimentary parking anywhere. I found this to be inconvenient and mildly irritating, but I suppose this is where paradise fell short.

Perks for Onsite Guests

The perks of staying at Cabana Bay Beach Resort are: early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, room key charging privileges, complimentary wifi, free delivery of on-site purchases to the hotel lobby, and shuttle service to Wet ‘n Wild, SeaWorld, and Aquatica. Each perk has its merits, but the one that benefits guests most is early park admission. The Harry Potter lands can be very congested throughout the day with waits for some attractions exceeding an hour. Being given access one hour before park opening gives onsite guests a tremendous leg up in terms of saving time.

Overall Impressions

My weekend at Cabana Bay Beach Resort was essentially what I hoped for in a resort stay. Aside from the mild irritation with parking fees, there was little to complain about. The resort could perhaps benefit from the option of a more sophisticated onsite dining experience. Having said that, as a designated “value” resort, the simpler and more affordable eateries are a preferred choice for many.

Overall, the theming, the service, the accommodations, the recreational activities, and the perks make Cabana Bay Beach Resort the top pick for families visiting Universal Orlando. The composed, classy, and yet casual feel of the resort makes it an ideal choice. It is currently the first choice for my family…value resort or otherwise.

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