I’ve been on a self-improvement kick lately. Organizations go through phases like this occasionally, and for many of the same reasons: the ones in charge observe that quality is falling off, people are getting slack in their adherence to standards, or maybe they just want to make a good place better. Since I’m on this kick myself right now, I thought I’d share a few thoughts from my quest to Build a Better Bart. Continue reading “Continuous Improvement Starts from Inside”
If you tried to follow every piece of meme-based “wisdom” on Facebook, you’d soon find yourself in an utter dither about what to do with yourself. “Out of sight, out of mind” wars with “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” “Continuous improvement” dukes it out in your head with “Be kind to yourself and accept yourself as you are.” I’ll take some time today to untangle that second knot. Your approach could vary, but then that’s part of reality, isn’t it?
Edith Keeler: Did you do something wrong? Are you in trouble? Whatever it is, let me help.
Captain Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
–Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”
I don’t invent machinery, I help explain and market it. I rarely speak at conferences, but I have volunteered to work at or run them. I am neither a scientist nor a cheerleader, yet I help keep a bunch of them communicating and organized. I don’t write original ideas in paper or book form, yet I contribute editorial and narrative support to others. I do not formulate bold new space policies, but I do help polish the language and try to share them with others. I do not build, I assemble. I cannot program a computer, but I am a quick study as a super-user. I am rarely a leader, but I make a good second or third in command.
I am not handsome or dramatic enough to be a star, but I’d make a decent character actor. I might not form some amazing partnership–personal or professional–but I am likely to introduce people who do. I don’t come up with new philosophies or remarkable spiritual insights, but I will take them into my soul and integrate them into my life so others can see the results. I’m unlikely to be in a parade and much more likely to be one of the people cheering from the side. I don’t write great books, I read and review them.
Why am I sharing this? I suppose because I sometimes doubt the value I contribute. And maybe because as I get older I’m getting more realistic about what I am likely to accomplish (or not accomplish) in life. There’s a lot of emphasis in our culture on being the star or the originator of great things. There isn’t much glory attached to being just a member of a team. Yet my motto for years has been “I’m here to help,” and I try to prove that with every opportunity I can. There are those who originate and those who must deliver. Somewhere along the line, I learned the value of helping make dreams into reality even if it isn’t my dream. Maybe I’m content to let my life be this way, with the trust and hope that what I’ve done has been worthwhile. At the end of the line, I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” and that will be enough.
I did a little social experiment with myself during my visit to Universal Orlando today. Given that I haven’t been to the parks in over 20 years, they were essentially blank slates to me. Given that, I wondered if I would be able to find “introvert spaces” or if they would just “call” to me as a natural consequence of being someone seeking quiet places. As it turned out, I was able to find some (rare) quiet places in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The final tally was something like six hours in the parks, 10.5 miles walked, and a lot of sunblock burned through. I do this for you, friends.
Since the Universal theme parks share a parking lot with the Universal resorts, I suggest you check out my blog on that area for some of my thoughts. However, I had a few other thoughts today as I was doing the parks specifically. By the way, it costs $170 and some change to buy the cheapest ticket, which is a one-day, park-to-park pass. It’s more than a one-day, one-park ticket for Disney, but each of the Universal parks is as attraction-dense as Magic Kingdom, and that park costs $105 as of this writing, so figure that as you see fit.
First item (and this was a rookie mistake): buy your tickets online, in advance. There are will-call kiosks at the entrance that will save you from having to stand in a 30-minute line at the ticket window.
The only other general thought I would have regarding the Universal theme parks is to take at least a day to visit each. There are 24 attractions at Universal Studios, 26 at Islands of Adventure, and each of them is going to have a line. Note also that the Studios is open 9-6 (in late August, anyway) and IOA 9-8.
Also, as with the Disney theme parks, if you have little ones, you might want to schedule some down time. As you’ll see over the course of this entry, it’s very easy to get overstimulated and require a break.
The restaurants throughout the parks are good places to sit down, take in some air conditioning, and just chill out. That is not to say it is quiet. I found few to no quiet places in the Universal theme parks–they are, like CityWalk, saturated with background music–but the crowds are somewhat less, or kept at bay at any rate.
Another heads-up to the crowd- or fourth-wall-averse introvert: you can suddenly find yourself face to face with street entertainers when you least expect it. This happened to me at least twice. Also, entertainment (such as parade floats or stage shows as opposed to “streetmosphere” can also pop out of nowhere.
Both parks are laid out more or less in a loop, with several side paths and twists and turns, but each park has a lake in the middle that provides the geographic center of the complex.
I entered Universal Studios after a half-hour wait to purchase tickets and started meandering down Rodeo Drive. The area was relatively quiet, and I don’t know if that was a function of the time of year or the time of day (10 a.m.).
There are a couple places up Rodeo Drive that are just fun to visit, such as The Brown Derby Hat Shop and the Prop Shop. You might or might not want to buy anything in either store, but the merchandise is eclectic and amusing. I was maybe five minutes into my stroll when a single parade float came down the street, with the street speakers suddenly shifting from reasonably quiet background to SOMETHING LOUD TO GET YOUR ATTENTION. It turned out to be a float for Dora the Explorer. I kept walking. The Cafe La Bamba courtyard near the NBC Studios media building(?) was pretty empty…possibly because Cafe La Bamba was closed. Not sure if that was a long-term condition or if I was just early.
The first genuinely quiet area I found was a place I normally wouldn’t visit at all, and that was Woody Woodpecker’s Kid Zone–the area that caters to the kids 5-10 years old. A few restaurants were not open yet, so that left plenty of open table space away from the traffic flow. The background music in the Kid Zone is also not as BLARING or intrusive. (If you get the impression that I was less than enthused with the background muzak at Universal, your impression is absolutely correct. That was part of what drove me up the wall during my visit.)
I enjoyed walking around the Simpsons area, which hadn’t been there when I last visited the park–come to think of it, most of the park has undergone refurbishment or re-theming in the last 20+ years. It was like visiting a completely different park. The Simpsons area included a Kwikie Mart, Kang and Kodos Twirl and Hurl, Moe’s Bar (not an actual bar, just scenery), and a Duff Brewery outside bar/courtyard, which was pretty empty when I walked through in the mid-morning. I’m guessing it gets busier later in the day.
The next relatively quiet area I found was by the Fear Factor stage area, and this was probably because the stage was closed so it could be retooled for Halloween Horror Nights. There might not have even been any music around (huzzah!).
At last I came upon Diagon Alley, one of two Harry Potter-themed areas in the Universal complex. From what I recall of the first two movies, the lands/sets are meticulous in their appearance. And wow, I wish I had enjoyed the HP books enough to appreciate these areas, because there were doubtlessly many in-jokes and clever references from the books/movies that fans loved seeing but which made no impression on me whatsoever. Suffice to say, there are no quiet areas in the Harry Potter regions. You are there, along with hundreds or thousands of other HP fans, to enjoy the atmosphere. True fact: there were lines to get into the wand stores in both parks.
If I had one complaint about Diagon Alley–and several other parts of Universal as well–it would be that sometimes attraction areas lack signage. If you don’t check the maps or have a natural curiosity, you might miss entire sections of the parks simply because you didn’t know it was there. Some entry ways just look like entrances to “backstage” areas for employees. This lack of direction can be a bit disorienting, and I have a theory on that disorientation that I’ll come back to later. While in the Harry Potter area, I did have the following exchange with another tourist who saw me exit one of the random alleys/”cast area” entrances, though:
Tourist: What’s down there?
Part of that cluelessness was a function of me not understanding what I was seeing (as noted above, I am not a Harry Potter fan) and part of it was the area itself, which was rather dark, with confusing sounds/voice-overs emanating from the sound system. All that said, the production values at Diagon Alley are very high, and the level of detail will satisfy avid fans. Non-fans like me will be baffled at times.
Moving past Diagon Alley, I encountered a pseudo San Francisco Embarcadero Street. I found some less-crowded areas by restaurants (Richter’s Burger Co., Chez Alcatraz, Lombard’s Seafood). Again, it was before 11 a.m., so perhaps those areas are busier starting at lunch time.
At one point in my perambulations, I found myself surrounded by a pack of singers carrying microphones. I sped up my walk to get out of the way–I was afraid I was interrupting a show accidentally or (worse) concerned that I might get dragged into a show somehow. Opposite from the singers was a park area, and beyond that was the Music Plaza Stage viewing area, which was a mix of sidewalks and astroturf. When no one is performing, the area is wide open and relatively people-free, and I saw several people sitting on the astroturf, taking a breather. Not a lot of shade, though.
The best place I found to avoid crowds at Universal Studios was, as the bartender at Pat O’Brien’s predicted, another bar–in this case, Finnegan’s. It’s not quiet, but the background music comprises Irish pub tunes, which can be entertaining.
As I sat writing at the end of the bar in Finnegan’s, it occurred to me that Universal has a different style of entertainment from Disney. They both do the immersive thing, with scenery and characters around, but Disney keeps the characters more at a distance. There’s a carnival fun-house atmosphere at Universal, where characters walk the streets and get in your face (think zombies at Halloween Horror Nights). The fourth wall is deliberately breached, and not always comfortably. They have a “gotcha!” tone to how they interact with the public, while Disney’s character behavior is more closely monitored and controlled: “The character greeting area is over there.” One is less intrusive…guess which one I prefer?
I asked people at Finnegan’s about the quietest times/places to visit the park. I was focused on places, but the bartenders didn’t have much advice in that direction. However, my friends at Finnegan’s were happy to share the best times of year to visit the park: the first and last months of school in Orange County, Florida (“No one wants to be the one to take their kids out of school at that time”); January (“Everyone’s tired of seeing family after the holidays and no one has any money”); and pretty much any holiday except Christmas, singling out Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
A few more thoughts on Finnegan’s, since I spent a little time there to have a beverage and lunch. The decor is cluttered–lots of photos and bric-a-brac on the walls. The bar itself is massive, and the area also includes a couple of island bars and a stage for a band, which doesn’t show up until 3 p.m.
Unlike the arcades/game rooms at Disney, the ones at Universal are busy. However, to be fair, the game rooms at Universal are in the parks while the arcades at Disney are in the theme parks.
A lot of the store fronts at Universal are just that–fronts. There were a few places at the park that I would have liked to visit, but they were just scenery, not actual stores. That said, one store I did like was an Irish-themed store, where I managed to find something with my last name on it: Leahy. Mind you, looking elsewhere in the park, I was unable to find anything with Bart on it, but they did have really “common” names like “Brayden” on coffee cups. Really, guys?
Islands of Adventure (IOA)
There is a train that connects one park’s Harry Potter area to the other. Just to make it fun, it’s an attraction unto itself, with some gorgeous computer-generated scenery on one side of the rail car and at one point some HP character interaction on the other side, including some animated frogs creeping along the glass. And you even get to use Platform 9 3/4. The set design for the train station is excellent, as it is for both Diagon Alley and Hogwart’s/Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. In fact, the Hogwart’s School is one of the best examples of forced-perspective scenery I’ve ever seen. The whole area is beautifully done, with the same whimsical “magical English” architecture and names. A lot of love and attention went into these attraction areas, and I commend Universal on their efforts.
The next place I wandered into for quiet was the Discovery Center in the Jurassic Park area. The upstairs dining area is pretty noisy, but the exhibit areas downstairs aren’t as crowded, and the courtyard behind the lower level was almost completely empty when I walked around it.
The “Lost Continent” area adjacent to Hogsmeade is a magical mixture of Middle Eastern and ancient Greek walkways and artwork. The entryway to Poseidon’s Fury is impressive, with massive faux ruins including what look like pieces from the lost Colossus of Rhodes. Across from Poseidon is Mytho’s, a restaurant that proudly displays a banner of the door declaring it “the best theme park restaurant in the world six years in a row.” Having already eaten, I just wandered around a bit. I liked the interior design, which looked like a series of caves adorned here and there with massive statues, mosaics, or pools. Out back, beyond Mytho’s outside seating area, is a good-sized promenade and walking area. The background music is an exotic mix of tunes that sound like they were soundtracks from Sinbad or The Ten Commandments. In spots, it was even nearly music free. Quiet at last!
Seuss Landing, home to some of the trippiest architecture you will ever see, is of course an homage to the works of Dr. Seuss. I found some less-crowded places in Seuss Landing, much to my surprise. The stores in general were uncrowded, as was the Circus McGurkus Cafe. McElligot’s Pool was a small but uncrowded place to sit down, as was the courtyard by Green Eggs and Ham, which was closed, either for rehab or due to the time of day (2 p.m.?). Nowhere in Seuss Landing, however, is quiet.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but the best place to get away from the crowds at IOA was a saloon: the Backwater Bar, which is in the “Port of Entry” area just after you leave (or just before you enter) Seuss Landing. The interior isn’t too cluttered, and the interior seemed to absorb sound pretty well. The selection of beers on tap and by the bottle was better than I expected for a theme park.
Anyhow, while I was sitting in the Backwater Bar, I had a little more time to reflect on the aesthetics and psychology behind Universal and why it’s so different (for me) from Disney. Universal feels more overwhelming. There’s a lot going on, and the scenery is very detailed. Just Diagon Alley and Seuss Landing alone can mess with your head at the quantum level. But I couldn’t help wondering if the combination of overpowering visuals, sounds (music and effects) and confusing geography were all deliberate–a massive psychological game designed to disorient the visitor into staying longer and buying more.
Finishing up at Backwater Bar, I continued my way around the lake, next visiting Marvel Super Hero Island. The first thing you see are the massive, inside-out tentacles of the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Not being a roller coaster guy, I watched a few rounds of rolling caterpillars full of screaming people loop over my head before confirming that, nope, that wasn’t for me. That said, the observation area for the ride is pretty crowd-free, if not particularly quiet.
By the time I got to Toon Lagoon, I had about reached my limit with the overlapping music and noise. I found myself saying aloud, “Enough already!” I made another circuit around the lake and came to the Port of Entry area, where I found the Croissant Moon bakery, which was isolated, less crowded, cool, and abounding in baked desserts. They had a great selection, and I settled on the red velvet-chocolate chip muffin. Not good for me in the slightest, but I figured I’d consumed a good thousand calories walking all that way (9.2 miles just to get to that point), so I was good for it. The muffin was excellent, by the way.
But, again, once I had my dessert, I headed for the exit. Universal Orlando is full of exciting and adventurous things, to be sure. But I take my adventures a little more quietly–for instance, via the printed books, comic strips, and movie scripts that inspired all this entertainment in the first place.
By the time you read this, I will be on vacation, not home. I decided to get out of town, even if it’s still in Florida. Still, I try to do one of these birthday essays once a year just as a way of checking in with myself and with you, my readers (I appreciate both of you) to see where I am with respect to myself or the world.
I’m coming more and more to know the sort of person I am and the sort of person I am not, and I’m willing to accept both. I am very much an introvert, for example. I can go hours or even days at a time without engaging in much verbal conversation. Much of the time my apartment is even quiet as I start my day: no radio, no TV, just me, the sounds of my daily routine, and whatever foolishness is buzzing about in my head. This does not mean I dislike people, merely that I don’t seem to require the presence of another person in my domicile. In fact, I’m usually more relaxed if I don’t have company. My habits are those of someone who requires a “Fortress of Solitude,” and is increasingly aware that such a lifestyle is likely to keep people at a distance. So be it.
I am still not an athlete, nor do I desire to be. Those of you who feel the urge to climb a mountain or run a marathon–God bless. You can take my turn. I won’t stop you, but don’t feel you have to invite me to your quest. My favorite physical activity is walking through aesthetically pleasing landscapes, interesting architecture, or preferably both. I can walk anywhere from one mile to ten at a stretch and do not notice or mind the passing of time. It’s hard to say what I’m thinking about on these walks. Often I’m not thinking at all, but merely using the exercise as a way to clear my mind and the scenery as a way to relax it. A long stroll through a museum would probably do me just as well.
I’m a very serious person, despite my verbal habits of wit and sarcasm. My reading list consists of a lot of philosophy, history, science fiction, and other such things that help me ponder or understand Big Questions. It’s all very abstract, dry, and contemplative. My musical tastes have been shifting, too. Not as much ’80s pop or John Williams soundtracks while I’m writing, more Mozart, Beethoven, or other classics.
Vexed by some of the rather angry chatter I’ve seen on Facebook, I’ve ratcheted down that hourly habit to something closer to a brief daily lurk before I find other things to do. The extra free time has allowed me to catch up on my long-neglected reading list, and so I’m trying to take a good whack at reading those books I’ve meant to read for a decade. So far, so good. Thirty-four books read this year; only 197 more to go before I can start adding books back onto the list again. I’m sure some will come to mind.
On the whole, thanks to a very loose freelance schedule that still manages to pay the bills, I’ve become less of a workaholic. I’ll do whatever work is in front of me gladly until the pile has dwindled, then I set thoughts of work aside and go read a book or take another walk in the vegetable-steamer heat of summer in Florida. Slowly, I’m learning how to be inactive, to take pleasure in downtime. This is a big shift, as I spent much of my time from 25 to 45 thinking about work. On the whole, I think this is a good thing.
Politically, I remain a gentleman of the Right, though more and more I find myself in the Libertarian camp, especially as the two most prominent prospects for president this year fill me with equal dismay. I maintain very strict standards for myself (and very definite opinions about others) but I have no interest in inflicting my personal morality on other people. Nor am I particularly interested in having someone else’s ideas foisted on my unwillingly. I live by an increasingly outmoded notion of “Live and let live.” I figure it’ll be appreciated somewhere down the line.
Otherwise, to quote that great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am: a graying, somewhat overweight, middle-aged and self-contained Anglo who usually has a book, pen, or computer in his hand. Eventually I’ll think of something useful to do with all the ideas I have in my head, but for now I keep on living my life, hopeful that eventually it’ll all make sense at some point or, barring that, I’ll do something constructive to do with myself that makes me feel like the journey has been worth the fare.
And so I celebrate living another year on this blue planet, curious to see what happens next.
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.
I’ll get off of Disney property, I promise. Today, however, is not that day.
Disney Springs is one of three places I walk around for exercise regularly. This is because it’s got a circle route with a few optional branches I can take for extra distance or extra quiet. Said walk starts by parking in the back corner of the Cirque du Soleil parking lot (what the street signs in the Disney Springs area now call “Surface Parking”). From there, I can walk in one of two directions on the path that borders the south side of the parking lot: along the Sassagoula River toward Cirque, House of Blues, DisneyQuest, and the rest of the West Side.
Usually, however, I head in the other direction, toward the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course.
Speaking of which, do you golf? If not, consider it. Disney has three very nice courses: the Palm, Magnolia, and Lake Buena Vista Golf Courses. Don’t do it just for the physical activity–I personally know very few people who actually enjoy golf–but because you’re guaranteed three hours or so of relative quiet, walking or driving a cart over grassy hills, wooded fairways, and unpopulated scenery. If you want to golf or go to the driving range and just smack the heck out of a bucket of balls, the clubhouse for the LBV course is across the bridge on the other side of the Sassagoula River. If you have your own clubs, you’re better off parking at Saratoga Springs Resort.
Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and Other Walks
If you’re not into golfing, you can still cross that bridge to Saratoga Springs. From there you have a couple of options. If you’ve got a lot of time and strong legs, you can walk around the Saratoga Springs Resort campus, which is quite extensive (grab a map from the front desk, or consult one of the many public kiosks they have spread around to help the clueless tourist).
My personal favorite walk is along the water, so I’ll walk along the perimeter of the golf course parking lot or through the Saratoga Springs commercial buildings until I get to Golf Drive. From Golf Drive I walk to Broadway, hang a right, and cross a bridge before making my next right and keeping the water in sight. This takes me around the Congress Park lodge buildings and onto the other side of the Sassagoula River. Saratoga Springs has a nice paved walkway that runs all the way to a pedestrian bridge that takes you to east side of Disney Springs (still called the Marketplace, for those of us old enough to remember when the whole area was called Disney Village Marketplace).
Saratoga Springs’ walkway has plenty of benches and a nice view of Disney Springs across the water. (They used to have some rocking chairs on a nice stone terrace that features a fountain, but those seem to have vanished. Why??? Curses!) What I like best about it, however, is that unlike Disney Springs, there is no background music. I’m not precisely certain why commercial entities like Disney insist on having music everywhere in public spaces. Perhaps it’s for theming. Personally, I believe it’s because they know that background music subliminally annoys people, and so they get up and start walking, talking, or shopping just to get away from it. So, fair warning: there aren’t a lot of actual quiet places in Disney Springs, just places with fewer people in them.
Disney Springs Marketplace
There are some sidewalks that go between the stores and what used to be the bus depot. There aren’t any entrances on that side, but there’s less traffic.
The first relatively quiet place you might find is the Lava Lounge, which is attached to and slightly below the Rainforest Cafe. I say “relatively” because it’s a saloon, and those places can get crowded when afternoon thunderstorms or dinnertime arrive.
From there, you can check out the performance stage in the Marketplace. There’s plenty of seating if they don’t have a band or choir performing. My introverted mother also likes the planter in front of World of Disney, looking toward the stage. “Great for people watching” was her exact quote.
Before I get too far afield, I should mention another option when you reach the LBV Golf Course. Instead of crossing the bridge to Saratoga Springs, you can continue on the path that follows the Sassagoula River all the way up to Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which is the first Disney Vacation Club property. Again, depending on how vigorous you’re feeling, you can also walk around Old Key West, understanding that while it is more or less circular in its layout, finding the paths that get you all the way around the circle can be hard to find. If you’re looking for a quick/quiet beverage, the Gurgling Suitcase at OKW is worth a stop.
Another detour you can take away from the crowds at Disney Springs is up Hotel Plaza Boulevard. Disney recently installed some very nice pedestrian bridges with stairs and elevators on each side of the road. I’ve walked up to the TraveLodge, crossed the street, and come back.
An additional detour is to keep walking on the sidewalk across from Disney Springs along Buena Vista Drive. You’ll pass the SunTrust Bank, the Walt Disney World Casting building, and a gas station before you come to Team Disney, the WDW administrative building. There’s a pedestrian bridge there that will take you to the Disney Springs Landing and West Side.
There’s a stage area between the Boathouse Restaurant and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, which is an Indiana Jones-themed saloon (“There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!” “Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie!” “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ’em!” “Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?”). I don’t see that seating area used very often and there isn’t a lot of shade, but there are some benches for resting and getting out of the traffic flow.
Jock Lindsey’s and Paradiso 37 both have nice outside seating areas and they’re usually pretty quiet between noon and 4:30 (or until the afternoon thunderstorms start).
There’s a walkway behind Raglan Road and Morimoto Asia that’s not as high-traffic–at least it is now, until they open a new restaurant there soon.
This is the new section of Disney Springs, which is chock-full of air-conditioned upscale shops. Not a bookstore to be found. However, they do have a Tommy Bahama and a Sprinkles cupcake place where you can get cupcakes out of an ATM. A lot of the stores you see there you could find at your closest upscale mall at home. It is relatively quiet before 10:30 or 11 a.m. and does have one “street” that is roofed over and seems to be air conditioned.
One fun thing I like in the middle of the Town Center is an Archimedean screw that you can turn yourself to bring up water from a water to a higher-level reservoir to keep the waterfall going.
If you can’t stand the crowds anymore, there is an AMC Theater at West Side. One side has a dine-in theater, with waiters, much more personal space per seat, and a fairly diverse menu. Catch a matinee. My biggest gripe with the place is the smell of the carpet, which has probably seen plenty of hard messes over the years.
The courtyard (“Exposition Park”) between Starbucks and Bongos Cuban Cafe has Disney food trucks stationed there. It’s usually not too crowded mid-afternoon. From there you can reach the walkway that leads along the Sassagoula River and behind most of the restaurants.
Do you like open-air heights? Do you want to get above the crowds? They have a massive balloon at West Side that’ll help you get above it all. The “Characters in Flight” balloon will take you up to 400 feet for sightseeing, weather permitting. Good luck with that.
Several of the saloons on the West Side can be reasonably crowd-free between noon and 4:30: Bongos Cuban Cafe, the upper-floor patio at Splitsville, and the sushi bar inside the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe.
If you just need somewhere to sit and get clear of the traffic, the outside seating area by House of Blues is good and reasonably well shaded. It is somewhat less convenient when there is a concert about to happen or when the afternoon thunderstorms pop up. You have been warned.
The last places I’ve identified for resting are the benches on the west side of House of Blues and the south side of Cirque du Soleil. From there, you can find the pathway to (and around) the surface parking…and your car, if you’ve parked it in the back corner.
Awhile back, someone asked me, “How can you deal with all those crowds on your walks?” My answer was simple: “I’m just walking. I’m not talking to them.”
Until next time…