Over Mother’s Day weekend, we took a trip to Universal Studios in Florida. My daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan, so it was a place we simply had to go. We flew down on Thursday morning and came home on Monday. There is a lot to talk about, but I figured it would be easier to break it into bits. Since a friend asked me about the hotel we stayed in yesterday, I figured I would start there.

We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which is one of the park hotels. There are four on-site hotels, with a fifth one under construction, and Cabana Bay is the “budget” option. First of all, staying in a park hotel is the way to go. Granted, this was my first trip to Florida, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but if we were to go again, I would absolutely stay on-site again–though I might try a different hotel just for comparison. For Harry Potter fans, it is pretty much a must, since you get into Hogsmeade, which is part of Islands of Adventure, an hour before the park officially opens–as long as you have tickets to the park, of course. Note that this is the only part of IoA that opens early.

Anyway, as the trip got closer, I was nervous about the hotel. I had read mixed reviews online, and there were several comments about noise, cleanliness, and unhelpful staff. But, switching to another of the park hotels would have been much more expensive, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The airport shuttle dropped us right at the hotel’s front door, and we went right to the lobby. We got there really early–about 11AM–so checking in was not an option, though we did try. However, the hotel is prepared for this. They took our luggage, and we had access to the rest of the hotel while we waited.

We walked around to get the feel of the place. It is made to look retro–like you time warped to 1960. Very Mad Men/I Dream of Jeannie. There are old cars in the driveway, and the decor is art deco. It is cool and gives off a funky vibe–in a good way. There are two pools, a bowling alley (extra cost), arcade (extra cost), a gift shop, and several food/drink spots.

There is no restaurant, per se. There is a bar in the lobby, a full Starbucks, a food court, and a bar/grill by each of the pools. The bowling alley serves food also. The food court is fairly expansive, though there weren’t a lot of vegan and gluten-free options. It is organized into sections, each focusing on a different type of food. There is a salad bar, which was pretty good. There is a veggie burger, but it isn’t vegan. However, one can get a side of fries, which I did on the first day to go with my salad. There is a station that serves bigger meals, and they had a tofu stir-fry, which had me all excited until I found out the sauce was made with heavy cream. But that same station has side options of rice, black beans, and vegetables. My daughter got that a few times. Once the rice wasn’t ready yet, so we got roasted potatoes, and those were really good. My husband got pizza once, which he said was quite good–and he is picky about his pizza.

It was a bit disheartening that they had vegetarian options, but they didn’t go the extra step. There are loads of great vegan burgers out there. It would seem to make sense that, if you are going to have a veggie burger, make it work for all non-meat eaters. Same with the tofu stir-fry–there are options to heavy cream that would make it just as good. But my daughter and I did not go hungry!

The prices were pretty reasonable–the sides of rice and beans, for example, were each two dollars and change, but they gave us a lot. The best deal is the drink cups you can purchase. You pay a flat price based on how long you want to use them–there is a computer chip in the base that keeps track of when it expires. Then you can get all the beverages you want–soda, lemonade, coffee, even Icees. We each bought one, and used them quite a bit. It also gave us more motivation to drink more water in the park, since we could save having other drinks for when we were back at the hotel.

The food court does serve breakfast, but not until 7AM, so we never used it. Our room did have a dorm-sized fridge, so I brought breakfast foods with us. At home, we eat much earlier than 7AM, so it wasn’t going to work for us. And we were catching the shuttle to the park by then every day we were there. I picked up an iced mocha from Starbucks to have on the shuttle–Starbucks did open at 6AM, so we could have gotten breakfast there if we needed to. And you can use your Rewards card there if you have one–it did earn stars. I didn’t try to cash in any of the free drinks I had.

The shuttle from the park to the hotel was great. I don’t think we ever waited, whether it was going to the park or coming back. Granted, we left early in the morning because we wanted to take advantage of that extra hour. We usually returned to the hotel around 2PM, and there was always a shuttle waiting at the park to bring us back–sometimes two.

The hotel is divided into five sections: Americana, Thunderbird, Continental, Castaway, and Starlight. We stayed in the Americana wing. We had a little bit of a walk to get to our room, but it wasn’t terrible. The wing did extend beyond us, however. The room wasn’t huge, but it was big enough for us. Four adults might have found it a bit too cozy. The room was clean, and the bathroom was good–reasonable shower pressure. The sink is separate from the shower and toilet, so that helps getting ready in the morning. There was never an issue with noise. My only complaint is that the room was not cleaned until late in the day–between 2-3PM. We returned from the park before it was cleaned every day, so we had to find something else to do–usually that meant a trip to the pool. It was never a major inconvenience.

We only used one of the pools, and it was pretty good. It was not very deep anywhere, so my daughter could roam all over. It was also never terribly crowded, and my husband and I found an umbrella table to sit at each day without any trouble. There was music playing, and one day there was a DJ, but it never got too loud. I am really noise sensitive, so that is something I notice. There are also sand “beaches” near the pools, and my daughter found them fascinating. The sand was white and really soft. Since she had only experience New England beaches before this, which tend to be a bit more rocky, she kicked off her flip flops and ran through the sand a lot. There were also palm trees scattered around the pools. In the evenings, they show movies by the pool–they call them “Dive-In Movies.” However, they started late enough that we never took part. Only Universal movies, of course!

There were people there who were not going to the park everyday–who were just hanging around the pool–so it is possible to stay there without going to the park. Overall, I think it was a good experience, and I would stay there again–maybe in a family suite next time, which is a little bigger and has a kitchenette.

Cabana Lobby

             The Lobby of the Cabana Bay

Cabana Pool

                           One of the Pools

Cabana Poolside

        At a Poolside Table–                      With One of the Drink Cups


That would be my daughter and me. My husband recently attended a conference there, and we tagged along to do some sightseeing, and some eating! Unfortunately, the major attractions are not vegan-friendly, but I kind of knew that going in. Doesn’t mean I didn’t hope to be surprised! Before we left, I ordered a case of GoPicnic meals, and that saved us. Gave us something to eat on the train as well as to bring along on our travels.

After we got there and got settled at the hotel, we went out to Georgetown. Unfortunately, Sprinkles was out of their vegan cupcakes, but my daughter was able to get some vegan carrot cake at Le Pain Quotidien, where we stopped for supper. My daughter and I shared a Quinoa Cake and Veggie Quiche. She was suspicious of the choices, but liked them both. Anything to get to dessert, I suppose!

The Air and Space Museum was our first stop that involved a meal, and their options are McDonald’s and Boston Chicken. So we got some fries to share and some drinks, and ate our contraband hummus, crackers, and dried fruit and nuts along with it (you aren’t supposed to take food in). She was not happy about having to eat at McDonald’s, but now, at least, she can say she has!

That night there were terrible thunderstorms in the DC area, but I found Zpizza, which had vegan and gluten-free options–and they delivered! The pizza was really good–we all got personal sized ones, and it was great to get pizza out that I could eat! It has been a long time since I’ve been able to do that.

The next day was the National Zoo. The best we could do there was a PB&J for her, but it was pre-made, and she won’t eat jelly, so we were stuck with some chips and drinks to go with our picnic packs. That night we had a fabulous dinner at Cafe Green. My daughter got Mac and Cheese with Greens (which was g-f, so I got to have a bite), my husband got a salad, and I got a burger–on gluten-free bread! It was great. Then we got Chocolate Cheesecake and and Ice Cream Sundae for dessert and shared it three ways. Yum!

Sunday morning we took the Metro out to Sticky Fingers Bakery and got some cupcakes to bring on the train for snacks. I also got a quesadilla to have for lunch–and a copy of the bakery’s cookbook!

With the exception of Zpizza, the places we went to for vegan dining were a metro ride and then a walk, but it was worth it! I only wish the museums had better choices, especially since people come from all over the world to go to these places.

Kim Harrison

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