ORLANDO - Here's how well our Orlando vacation went this year: No one in my family complained.
I suspect that my wife and kids are sick of theme parks. That's the blowback from having a professional theme park critic in the family. They would rather sleep in on vacation, instead of roll out of bed at dawn to get in line at parks before they open. They would like to slow down and wander, not power-walk though crowds like a Disney World cast member trying to get to a distant break room and back before his 15 minutes is up. And they would very much like to quit being the guinea pigs for whatever trip itinerary I want to test this week.
That's why, each year when we start talking about our Orlando trip, my wife clenches her teeth behind a weak smile before asking, "So, what are we going to do this year?"
"I've booked us into the Royal Pacific Hotel at Universal Orlando for four nights."
"We're staying at
a theme park?"
Her eyebrows arched with intensity that suggested she did not see this as a good thing.
"Yeah," I replied. "Look, when you stay at one of Universal's three hotels you get free front-of-the-line passes to the parks."
Silence. Blank stare. Crickets.
"That means we don't have to wait in line for any rides," I said. "All week."
Hope flickered in her eyes, then the teeth clenched again.
"Well, all right," she said. "That could be nice."
At first, I'd planned to spend two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel, but could get only a room only for a three night stay. Looking at the other two Universal Orlando hotels, I found a discount at the Loews Royal Pacific for a four-night minimum stay - $200 a night.
Yes, you can get a similar room for $60-$100 a night less, in the Orlando area. But those rooms don't stand within walking distance of two of the world's top theme parks. Nor does staying there allow you to skip the lines in those parks. So I figured I'd pay the higher rate and see if those benefits were worth the extra cost.
Now I needed theme park tickets. On Universal Orlando's website, I found a seven-day, two-park ticket for $90. (The deal is available only on the website, not at the ticket booths, and must be bought at least two days in advance of the ticket's first use.)
So I had $1,160 for four nights at a four-start hotel, plus five days at two top theme parks, with no waits at those parks, for a family of four. This could be... good.
Of course, the trip wasn't perfect. United Airlines blows. A "maintenance problem" with our plane led to a four-hour delay, a change of planes and a bunch of other people who wanted to fly to Baltimore having their flight cancelled. Given that we'd planned a birthday dinner for our son when we arrived in Orlando the first night, the delay left us pretty steamed. Next time, we're sticking with Delta.
We got to the hotel at midnight, then discovered the only flaw we found with the Royal Pacific during our stay: parking. The valets were gone at that hour, and the self-parking lot filled, leaving me to drive around the back of the hotel to an overflow lot. That wouldn't have been so bad... had there been a sidewalk back to the front lobby. Instead, I had to walk along the same winding road I'd just driven, in the dark. I had to do this the next two nights, too, as we got back to the hotel from my parents' house after 10 each night. For $15 a night for parking, Universal ought to either build a garage or a sidewalk.
We stayed on the top floor of the "Windward" building, one of three Y-shaped buildings in the Royal Pacific complex. All three meet in a central lobby, overlooking lush grounds and a well-landscaped pool. I found the beds extra comfy, though the room was a tad small for four. Of course, we spent next to no waking time in the room, so that was no big concern.
Why would you want to spend much time in these rooms, with the beautiful pool as well as the Universal Orlando just steps (or a short boat ride) away?
We decided that the walking path provided the quickest way to get to Islands of Adventure and the "water taxi" the best route to Universal Studios Florida. (The water taxis sail from the three hotels to a central dock located in CityWalk, across the from NASCAR restaurant.)
After our late arrival, we slept in on Tuesday morning, normally a cardinal sin under Robert's Rules of Theme Park Vacations. But with our room keys serving as unlimited Universal Express passes, we sailed over to USF after 11 am, then walked right on to The Simpsons Ride, skipping the already 30-minute wait.
From there, we hit Men in Black a couple of times, took some pictures with Scooby-Doo and The Simpsons, then walked over to NBA City for lunch. With the front-of-the-line benefit, we had no need to stick to any itinerary. We just went where we wanted, when we wanted to, and never waited more than 10 minutes for anything. My daughter fell in love with the Dudley Do-Right and Popeye rides, which frequently had hour-plus waits during our visit, but she rode them both as often as she wanted, with never more than a five-minute wait.
Typically the theme park dilemma is this: (A) Take it easy, and spend all day in lines, or (B) Cut it short, and stick to an intense schedule to avoid the lines. We found option (C): Take it easy, cut it short and still see everything you want to see. I don't think we spent more than two hours at a time in any one park during the visit. With all the stress of lines or itineraries taken away, by the second day, my wife and kids were suggesting
when they wanted to go back to the parks, talking about the rides they wanted to see with excitement in their voice, not resignation... or dread.
So, yeah, the extra bucks were worth it. Especially coupled with the online ticket. This might have been the best bargain I've ever gotten on a theme park vacation.
As we drove away from the Royal Pacific on Friday, the verdict was unanimous: everyone wanted to do this again. I never thought I'd hear my
family say that
about a theme park trip.