I don’t know about you, but 2020 has tested my patience, waistline, and sanity.
Quarantining, endless hours of e-learning, and a barrage of daily video conference calls, has me just wanting to close my eyes and fast forward to New Year’s Eve.
What my family needed more than anything was to escape our reality for a bit and have some fun.
We decided on a short family vacation to Universal Orlando Resort. We chose Universal for two reasons. One, its proximity to Tampa and two it has plenty of attractions that appealed to my husband and I, as well as our 11-year-old son. Plus, we knew the parks and hotels had implemented new cleaning standards and added new safety guidelines throughout, including mandatory face masks, social distancing, health screening and sanitization of rides all in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control.
Here’s what we did on our four-day vacation and some tips for yours…
Day 1: HOTEL & UNIVERSAL CITYWALK
We opted to stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort because of its proximity to Volcano Bay, Universal’s water theme park. The hotel has a convenient, scenic, and private walking path to the entrance of Volcano Bay near the west end section of the hotel property — no moving our car or boarding a shuttle, just a quick walk and you’re there.
We arrived in Orlando on a Thursday and decided to explore the hotel a little. Cabana Bay is a retro-inspired hotel that harkens back to the 50s and 60s. The property has two pools (one with a lazy river and another with a 100-foot waterslide), a game room, bowling alley, and gym. There are multiple dining options, including a diner-style venue with multiple food options called Bayliner Diner, a pool bar and grill called The Hideaway Grille, a restaurant in the bowling alley, and a Starbucks.
We decided to grab lunch and hang out near the pool while waiting for check-in.
After lunch we checked into our Volcano Bay View Standard Room with two queen beds. The view did not disappoint. The massive glowing Krakatau Volcano out our window was a constant reminder that fun and adventure were merely footsteps away.
I have to admit I’ve been a little skeptical about returning to hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cabana Bay has taken extra steps to make sure guests feel safe. There were hand sanitizers on the nightstands and the remote control was enclosed in a plastic bag.
My son wrapped up e-learning for the day and we decided it was time for some fun. There are complementary shuttles that transport guests to and from Cabana Bay and the theme parks in mere minutes, so we hopped on the shuttle and headed over for fun and dinner.
We had made reservations for The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, but had a few minutes to spare, so we popped over to see my son’s favorite Marvel character on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
The ride does a great job of paying homage to the classic comic book character. The entrance to the ride was a walk-through of the Daily Bugle newsroom where Spider-Man was a cub photojournalist. As a former journalist, I’m partial to anything that resembles the newsrooms from back in the day. Rotary phones, wire service alerts, and police scanners have a special place in my heart. In the ride, publisher J. Jonah Jameson slammed papers and raised his voice throughout the queue experience (reminding me of several former editors) before we boarded the ride, which zipped us through perilous scenes of Spider-Man fighting villains. My son said his favorite part was at the end when Spider-Man catches you before you go “Splat!”.
Next stop was The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. This 19th-century steampunk-themed restaurant specializes in all things chocolate, incorporating the ingredient in savory dishes and desserts as well as cocktails.
My son loved how his whole dinner was chocolate!
The night was still young, so we headed over to Hollywood Drive-In Golf to burn off all that sugar. Curtis (my son) and his dad both own clubs and golf together, and I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the driving range with them a few times, so this activity was great for us. There are two 18-hole courses to choose from at Hollywood Drive-In. We opted for the Invaders from Planet Putt course, which takes you through a 30-foot robot and the stomach of a giant worm. I guess those games with dad paid off, because Curtis won. At sundown, we headed back to our hotel room for some rest.
Day 2: UNIVERSAL’S VOLCANO BAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: Volcano Bay is currently closed for the season, but will reopen on or before March 1, 2021. Make sure to plan it as part of your 2021 family vacation!
It’s day two and we’ve got our sights set on Volcano Bay. First, we grab breakfast at the hotel before hitting the water theme park. As guests at Cabana Bay, we had the benefit of Early Park Admission and were able to enjoy the park an hour before all other guests.
Once at the park, you’ll receive a TapuTapu wearable for the day, which allows you to do the Virtual Line experience for the rides, opens rental lockers, and can be used to pay for food and drinks. Among one of my favorite aspects of Volcano Bay is its interactive component. Case in point: shooting water from above at people floating down the Kopiko Wai Winding River using the TapuTapu.
We spent a lot of time riding the waves in the Waturi Beach wave pool, located at the base of the Krakatau Volcano. We opted for premium seating, which included a canopy, locker, two nice lounge chairs and a dedicated server for food and drinks. It made for a great central location for us to take breaks in between waves and rides.
We piled onto both Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides as a family and went speeding around some huge curves. To keep the adrenaline going, we hopped on Honu of Honu ika Moana. This was our favorite. The five-seater raft whips down a massive slide and around loops.
We really enjoyed the food at Volcano Bay and would now highly recommend the Jerk Mahi Sandwich on coconut bread with spicy Sriracha mayo, with cucumber mango basil slaw on the side.
After a long day in the water and sun we decided on a quiet night by the hotel pool. Cabana Bay has fire pits throughout the property that are free to use and you can buy s’mores kits from the Bayliner Diner. We roasted s’mores and watched the sun set on another fun day.
Day 3: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA
We headed over to Universal Studios just before 10 a.m. and stopped for a delightful late breakfast at the TODAY Cafe, inspired by the NBC morning show.
The restaurant has a bright and modern orange themed décor and a menu of fluffy baked goods, fresh salads, and filling sandwiches.
After breakfast we decided to jump on the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon ride. My husband and I are huge fans of The Roots (Fallon’s house band), so we were curious to see if they would make a cameo in the ride. And they did! Fallon is fast-paced and fun. Hashtag the Panda even waved to us as we left the ride.
We hopped on the Revenge of the Mummy ride next, also located in the New York area. Walking through the dark catacombs with hieroglyphics on the walls to reach the ride really set the tone. Revenge of the Mummy is a true roller coaster, with super fast pace speed and big drops. The ceiling is literally set on fire as you swoop by an angry Mummy.
To keep the excitement going, we hit up TRANSFORMERS: The Ride – 3D next. My husband and I are 80s babies, so anything Transformers is right up our alley. Luckily my son has become a fan with the release of the new Transformer movies. We stopped for a picture with the main man himself — Optimus Prime.
Next we wandered over to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. I love the way Universal incorporates this area into the parks. Walking into Diagon Alley is like walking into another world — the wizarding world to be exact — that is tucked away. We grabbed some Butterbeers after escaping Gringotts and explored. Curtis definitely enjoyed trying his hand at casting spells with his Harry Potter interactive wand.
After thoroughly enjoying our Butterbeers, we decided to explore the other areas of the park. The Simpsons Ride was nearby so we decided to give it a try. It ended up being our favorite ride of the day! The ride takes you on a fun-filled adventure with Krusty the Clown and includes exciting twists and turns with The Simpsons family. We really enjoyed all of the great special effects. The experience sparked an interest in our son who is now binging The Simpsons episodes!
At the end of a full day at Universal Studios, we had worked up quite an appetite.
Side note, I can’t stress enough the need to download the Official Universal Orlando Resort app. It definitely came in handy when looking up menus for restaurants, making reservations, and it provides useful maps of the parks.
We headed over to The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in CityWalk for dinner. The restaurant combines our favorites – burgers and sushi! My husband was feeling sushi, but I had worked up an appetite and was craving a burger. He ordered the Moriawase Double Deuce, which was plenty of sushi, including California Rolls, fresh tuna, eel and yellowtail sashimi. I opted for the Black Truffle Cheeseburger, and our son kept it simple with THE C.B.C.L.T, a beef burger on brioche with Cowfish’s signature sauce.
We got back to the hotel and decided the night was still prime for some fun, so we headed to Galaxy Bowl for a game. Located on the second floor of Cabana Bay, this 10-lane bowling alley is super retro. The lanes light up in psychedelic colors and there’s kitschy 50s-inspired décor and furniture throughout.We can be a competitive family, so I knew I had to bring my A-game if I was going to beat the guys at bowling. And I did! It may have been the first time I won a game of bowling in my life.
We wrapped up our last night at Cabana Bay with a glass of wine at the Atomic Tonic pool bar while our son enjoyed the pool until it closed.
Day 4: ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
It’s our last day in Orlando and there are two things on our mind: Hulk and Hagrid.
We get to the park early and although it’s drizzling we are determined to ride the Hulk. This ride is big, green, and mean. And we’re all for it. Our Unlimited Express Passes came in handy, as we zipped through the line in less than 10 minutes. The Hulk ride is a super roller coaster that launches you out like a cannon and then drops you more than 100 feet — multiple times.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster is located in the Marvel Super Hero Island of Islands of Adventure. After the ride we explored more of the area — even riding The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man again — and meeting some of our favorite characters.
Anything with science and thrills piques my husband’s interest, so we headed to Jurassic Park and enjoyed wandering through this whole area, especially the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride and our yummy lunch of ribs and chicken at Thunder Falls Terrace.
Last but not least, we capped our trip off with a fun jaunt through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade. The magical enclave of the park has snow capped buildings that look straight out of the movies. Due to its popularity, the line was long for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure ride, but it was definitely worth it. We hopped on our “motorbikes” and “sidecars” and went on a full speed adventure through the magical, creature-filled Forbidden Forest and came face-to-face with some familiar beasts, like Fluffy the three-headed dog and a centaur. And just when you think this ride is over, it propels you backward through some intense curves and drops. We screamed, laughed, and cheered the whole ride and, really, the whole trip.
As we wrapped up our final hours at Universal, I realized something. Our daily schedule these last few days consisted of thrill rides, laughter, and good food, taking the place of all the non-stop news and incoming work e-mails from these last few months. As a family we had truly unplugged and the result was feeling a bit more energized, joyful, and connected to each other.
Download this checklist of everything my family did on our trip as you plan for your next family vacation to Universal Orlando Resort!