Yesterday I took an eight-mile hike around the Universal Orlando property to gather what intel I could muster for their resort area. I haven’t been to Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure in years, partly because a park full of screaming people isn’t something this particular introvert likes to do. However, I realize that some of you introverted types probably enjoy roller coasters anyway, so I’ll break down at some point, buy a ticket, and do an introvert review of those two parks. Today you can enjoy my quiet-time insights into the rest of the Universal property…most of it, at any rate.
Note: Updated October 15 to include Sapphire Falls
The Universal property is much smaller than the Walt Disney World Resort and contains only two theme parks, an entertainment/shopping complex, and five resorts. The two theme parks and entertainment complex (CityWalk) are adjacent to each other, with the resorts connected to them via roads and a 2.5-mile walking path (“Garden Walk”). It’s more compact, but that doesn’t mean it’s a small property. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes. And hey, it’s summer in Florida–stay hydrated and bring sunblock.
Okay, end of lecturing.
The centralized parking lot for the parks is massive–two multi-level garages labeled by characters from the attractions, akin to Disney–and costs just as much as the Disney lots for a standard car ($20). One thing that I found confusing is that rather than giving each level a character name, they divide the sections vertically, meaning you get Spiderman on levels 1, 2, 3, etc. Just passing it along.
Next thing about parking: unlike Disney, there are no trams to get you to the main gate. There is a designated handicap-access parking lot, but that’s about it. I clocked about a mile over the elevated walkway from Spiderman 452 to the gate, partly because I forgot my journal and had to go back for it, but even so, you’ve got some exercise ahead. You can park at one of the resorts–preferably if you’re a guest–but the day parking there is not cheap, either: $34 a day/$29 for overnight at Hard Rock Hotel, just as an example.
The last overall comment I can offer up for the questing introvert: Universal is noisy. The background music is meant to be exciting! Another translation might be: “We keep the background sound going loud enough to keep you moving.” The public areas in CityWalk and the walkways leading to the theme parks (you pass through CW to get to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, hereafter US and IOA) include music everywhere, all the time. Rock or pop tunes, mostly. Even on those occasions where they play a song I like, the volume is still UP THERE, especially in the evening. No, I’m not going to ask these noisy kids to get off of my lawn. I’m just explaining the audio experience as I experienced it. You’re not at a theme park to sit around and enjoy the quiet, are you? Oh, wait…
Fortunately, there are places you can avoid the noise and the crowds, and that’s what I’m here to report.
The first place you might escape the chaos is right inside the CityWalk entry: Universal Cineplex–go see a movie. Of course you’re likely to find a lot of action movies, but you’d have that in any movie theater.
During our hot, steamy days in Central Florida, when most people are in the parks, you can find seating at the restaurants and outside restaurants or saloons. There is also a grassy seating area that leads down to a stage. When there isn’t a band playing on the stage, the area is pretty crowd-free, though it is also shade-free.
The restaurants on the upper level of City Walk– Bob Marley’s, Pat O’Brien’s*, and Antojito’s–are open starting around 4 p.m. and operate until 10 p.m. or so. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is open 10:30 a.m.-Midnight Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Sunday. They don’t start getting busy until the parks get near closing time, though I suspect Margaritaville gets busy at lunch time, too. Like the public areas, the restaurants include their own interior music. The benefits of finding a restaurant are fewer people and more air conditioning.
(*A special thanks to Tim O’Hara, the Illinoisan bartender at Pat O’Brien’s, who offered some tips on other out-of-the-way places an introvert might dine or enjoy an adult beverage in the Orlando area. I’ll try to review those locations in later entries.)
The first actually quiet area you can find on the property (there’s even music overhead on the way in from the parking lot) is the walking path from CityWalk past Margaritaville and toward the Royal Pacific Resort, Sapphire Falls Resort, and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The Garden Walk is accurately named: it’s a quiet walking path bordered with lush subtropical foliage that follows the resort boat shuttle waterway. There aren’t any benches between CW and Royal Pacific, but there are between Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls/Cabana Bay.
Should you be too tired to walk, there are people riding bicycle rickshaws running between the resorts and the security checkpoints before you enter CityWalk. I’m guessing you have to pay for that service, but honestly I haven’t asked.
Fair warning: the only way to get into the back entrance of Sapphire Falls or the Cabana Bay end of the walkway is with a resort key card. This issue will come up a few times in this entry for obvious reasons. If you’re interested in visiting either of those resorts, you’ll have to drive there.
Royal Pacific Resort
You can get into the Royal Pacific Resort without having to dodge the procedures meant to keep out the riffraff (non-guests). You can enter either through the walkway that leads up to the main lobby or the back entrance that leads to the Pacifica Ballroom further down the Garden Walk. The pool areas for all of the Universal Resorts are only accessible through a guest room key card.
All that said, I like Royal Pacific, though the concept is curious. Imagine if you will an upscale European/Asian resort situated in French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos) in the 1930s or ’40s. That’s the aesthetic they’re going for, based on the posters on the walls, the statuary on the property, and the music playing in the background.
Like the Disney Resorts, Universal Resorts are less crowded during the day, when the majority of guests are at the parks. The restaurants and saloons are pretty quiet as well. There’s an Emeril Lagasse-owned restaurant there called Tchoup Chop, which is open for lunch (11:30-2:30) and dinner (5-10 p.m.). Another restaurant, Islands Dining Room, seems to be open for breakfast (7-11 a.m. or 7-Noon, depending on the day) and dinner (6-10 p.m.), with breaks in between. The vibe in Islands seems quieter than Tchoup Chop.
Jake’s American Bar is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and serves lunch and dinner. Jake’s is less crowded than the hallways, but not particularly quiet. They have live music Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, so be aware of that.
The quietest, most restful places in Royal Pacific are the lobby lounge before 4 p.m. and the lobby courtyard, which features Asian statuary/fountains and a reflecting pool. It’s hot out there right now, but it works as a place to get out of the way.
Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Again, you can’t get to Cabana Bay via the Garden Walk unless you’re a resort guest with a room key. I have visited the hotel on another occasion, though. Cabana Bay has a distinctly 1950s Miami vibe to it, complete with Jetsons-like interior decor and immaculately maintained classic ’50s automobiles out front. Price-wise, I believe it’s akin to Disney’s Moderate Resorts (Caribbean Beach, Riverside). The campus is somewhat spread out, with has a central building that includes the check-in area, restaurants, merchandise area, and main pool. Again, no pool access without a room key. I was there mid-day (between checkout and check-in times) and found the main building pretty restful with plenty of comfortable furniture and places to get away from the crowds.
Sapphire Falls Resort
As I noted above, you cannot access Sapphire Falls via the Garden Walk to Cabana Bay unless you’re a hotel guest. Not being a hotel guest on the day of my visit, I was unable to enter through the back door. I will have to update this entry at a future point when I try to walk in through the front door. That said, the waterfall out behind the main building was nice. The resort is still partially under construction, with a convention center being added as well as a water park–Volcano Bay–nearby.
I finally visited Sapphire Falls in October by just driving up and parking there. I believe there’s a day rate for valet and a price for overnight, but I’m not certain the valet guy charged me correctly. In any case, have cash handy for that if you just plan to visit. One important thing I learned was that there IS a way to walk to Sapphire Falls from CityWalk without requiring a room key. There is a walkway from the convention center end of Royal Pacific over to the back entrance/boat dock of Sapphire Falls.
The lobby of the hotel is spacious, with some interesting art hanging from the ceiling. The wall art and furniture are trying to capture some sort of Caribbean island feel with some modernistic American thrown in for fun. One thing I appreciated about the lobby is that it’s also pretty quiet. There was some background music (Calypso?) playing but it wasn’t intrusive at all. The far end of the lobby from the entrance has floor-to-ceiling windows with a panoramic view of the eponymous Sapphire Falls behind the hotel. Nice view, and the viewing area had a lot of seating with, again, not a lot of noise.
The lobby restaurant/bar, Strong Water Tavern, has a nice look to it, with hard wood floors and wooden barrels on the ceiling. The bar itself has a couple of good-sized TVs for watching sports and a VERY large-screen TV at the far end for watching the featured game of the day. The place features indoor and outdoor seating and the restaurant appears to be the source of the lobby music because it’s slightly louder there than in the lobby itself. Given the Caribbean riff they have going, I should have picked up on the fact that their featured adult beverages were rum or rum-based. However, I ordered a Sazerac off the menu before I saw the rum menu. Had a caipirinha on round two, and both drinks were excellent.
The menu items are tapas-sized and come from locations across the Caribbean (including the U.S.). The roast pork was good, the sliders were amazing. Despite being “smaller” dishes, they weren’t exactly cheap: items ran $8-16 each, plus the drinks, which ran $9+. All in all, I liked Strong Water Tavern, as the staff was not intrusive on my thoughts and the vibe was very casual. I’m not certain if it was quieter than normal because of the hurricane that had just passed through, but overall the place wasn’t too noisy.
Down the hall from Strong Water Tavern is an amazing, wide spiral stairway that was built to resemble a Spanish castle or fort, with stone walls and framed photographs along the stairwell of various old forts from the Caribbean. At the bottom of the stairwell are some historical artifacts to add to the “castle” feel. A nice, quiet place, but there was nowhere to sit down. At the bottom of the spiral stairway is an elevator lobby with a long bench (good place to catch a nap?) and a hallway leading to another restaurant, Amatista Cook House. I didn’t eat there, but the place seemed pretty quiet. They serve breakfast ($12-18) and dinner ($13-27). They also have a bar off in one corner, away from the tables, which looked like a good place to get away from the crowds. Amatista also has indoor and outdoor seating. Beyond Amatista is the exit to the walkway, which leads you to the boat dock or walkway to Royal Pacific.
On the same floor as the lobby are the fitness facility (Kalina) and the pool area, which you need a room key/card to enter, so I didn’t get a good look at it. However, I did note that they had a movie screen set up near the pool, and one of the Harry Potter films was showing. This is something Disney has been doing at its resorts as well as evening entertainment for the kiddies. The pool area also had a large variety of games and pool toys available, so I guess it’s very kid-friendly. I didn’t get a look at any of the rooms, but what I saw of Sapphire Falls I liked. I did a quick check, and the nightly room rate I got for late October/early November was $174/night. So, not exactly cheap, but not at the top end for this market, either.
As an introvert, I liked Sapphire Falls. Reasonably quiet, with some places to get out of the way.
Hard Rock Hotel
Hard Rock is an imposing, Spanish-style edifice with a red tile roof, white walls, and white marble(?) floors and massive prints of classic rock stars on the walls in the lobby. They have a fountain out front comprising a spiral of metal guitars. I like the aesthetics. However, it’s the Hard Rock Hotel, so needless to say your odds of finding a quiet place are pretty slim. The lobby is spacious with a lot of comfortable furniture, and can be pretty empty outside of check-in/checkout times.
The quietest place I found in HRH was the outside patio of The Kitchen restaurant downstairs, and that’s probably because it wasn’t open when I walked through it. That’s not to say it was quiet. The patio is next to the pool area, and like the Disney Resorts, the Universal Resorts have the recreation employees on megaphones playing games with the kids. The outside patio area upstairs on the lobby level takes you out of the lobby flow, but there’s still music out there, and the pool noise. That’s also where you find the smoking areas.
There are a couple places where you can get clear of the crowds, if not the music. The Velvet Bar plays a different set of music from the lobby, but it’s still rock, and still omnipresent. That said, it’s not too crowded until 7 or so (opens at 5). I like the bar at The Palm even if the food is seriously pricey (think $45-55 for a steak). The staff is great and–important for the introvert looking for somewhere quiet to chill out–low key, meaning they’ll let you take your time ordering and won’t interrupt conversations. Lauren the manager is also fun, as she’ll talk about geek stuff with the enthusiasm of a true fan. And depending on the time of year–such as now–it’s quieter between 5 and 7 than it would be otherwise. Also, a lot of folks go in there just to order drinks before going in before dinner, so there’s a lot of turnover in who’s on the next bar stool.
Portofino Bay Resort
I’ve saved the best for last. Portofino Bay is my favorite of the Universal Resorts, and not just for its aesthetics–northern Italian, multi-colored lodges–but also because of its noise level, or lack thereof. Portofino is by far the quietest, most restful resort on the Universal property. Not going to say it’s 100% quiet, but even the background music–Italian or Italian-American–is not there to knock you over. And Portofino has something that’s almost unique there: public areas without music! One of them is the pool area, which is, of course, guests only. Another is the bocce ball court. Not sure where you get the bocce balls, but I’ve seen them on occasion.
There are a few nice areas off the lobby and the main hallway, some indoors, some outdoors, which are simply plazas for sitting and resting. One or two have fountains. There are a couple saloons where you can get out of the flow of traffic–The Thirsty Fish and Bar American, though they don’t open until 3:30 or 4 p.m. If they let you in, though, you can sit in a quiet area undisturbed. The Thirsty Fish has indoor and outdoor seating, and likewise does not open until 4. Both bars are open until around 10 p.m. The restaurants are good and, like the Disney experience, the more expensive the place, the less likely you are to find small children or infants there.
The main courtyard out back is where the music is loudest, and even so that music can quickly get lost once you walk toward either wing. Portofino also has a walking path that takes you around most or all of the hotel. The walkway isn’t always shaded going around the hotel, but it is quiet and out of the way.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Garden Walk between Portofino and Hard Rock (you can, incidentally, walk all the way from Portofino to Cabana Bay along the paths, passing by the theme parks or CityWalk along the way). This area is particularly well shaded with bamboo and other shrubbery and includes multiple well-placed benches that allow you to admire the foliage, watch the boats go by, or (my favorite) sit down and read quietly with people walking by only occasionally. That path also features several loops that take you to isolated places near the water and a butterfly garden.
All this is to say that yes, you can find quiet, restful places to restore your overloaded mind and ears while visiting Universal Orlando. You’ll just have to take a bit of a walk.