Since I live in Orlando, I usually only see area theme park hotels as a drop-in visitor, not a regular Guest. There’s no reason for me to incur the expense of staying overnight. I’ve lived out of town and visited Orlando, though, so I remember the tourist approach to this city. And it strikes me that Universal’s upcoming hotel Cabana Bay is trying to change the model, challenging assumptions, shaking up the industry, and just generally sticking it to Disney right where it hurts (in the business model). Let’s investigate.

Cabana Bay is Universal Orlando Resort’s fourth hotel. It will open in March 2014 (if not sooner) and will have alternatives including family suites. One thing it will NOT have is free, included Universal Express access, which can be thought of as FASTPASS for Universal parks, normally available only for an upcharge ticket per person. The other Uni hotels have this, but not Cabana Bay. However, Cabana Bay will include some early access to Wizarding World before the parks opens, so there is still a perk. You do have to pay $18/night for parking at this hotel, if you rent a car.

Press photo

But why do I think that Cabana Bay could be a game-changer? Listen to this line from the press release: “Package rates are available with savings based on length-of-stay; a family of four can stay for seven nights for $47 per person, per-day – including accommodations and tickets to both Universal Orlando theme parks.” Wow! Wouldn’t that blow Disney out of the water?

What I propose to do is run some numbers. What happens if you stay at Cabana Bay? Is your time less expensive than other Universal hotels? How does it compare with Disney hotels? Will this new hotel entice visitors to use Universal as a “base camp” and then parkhop to Disney… instead of vice versa, which has been the de facto solution for out of town visitors for a couple decades?

Press photo

I would venture to guess that today’s article will engender some comments about specifics, so I’m going to structure this argument with some pre-defined vacation plans. That way, people can talk about “Vacation A” or “Vacation D” while using the same sets of variables and vocabulary. For convenience sake, we will assume all vacations here are exactly 7 days long starting on a Thursday in early April 2014, and involve families of four (two kids under 10 years old). We will vary whether vacations stay at Disney or Uni, and whether they venture to the other property:

** Notes: taxi fare is estimated at $36 each from Epcot to Uni, and $46 each way from OIA to Uni. Disney hotels cannot be booked for April 2014, so pricing from Thursday Sept 12 was used. Standard view rooms were assumed throughout. Uni parking is $18/night. Thrifty or Dollar rental car $384/week. Uni doesn’t advertise a 7-day ticket online, so a FlexTicket was priced instead, which includes Universal and other attractions such as SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

  • Vacation A – $1885 – Disney Value (All Stars) 6 nights, 7 day Disney parkhopper (package), DME to airport. This is the gold standard among many Disney park visitors (with perhaps the obvious exception of the hotel choice; some folks prefer a more upscale hotel). This option includes Disney’s Magical Express bus service to/from the airport. Disney, obviously, wants you to choose Vacation A. Their strategy the past twenty years has been to give you all kinds of incentives to stay on their property alone.
  • Vacation B – $2332 – Disney Value (All Stars) 6 nights, 5 day Disney parkhopper, 2-day Universal pass a la carte tickets, DME to airport and taxi transportation for non-Disney days. Basically the same trip as Vacation A, but two days shorter at Disney and those days transferred to Uni. The Disney hotel is still the “home base.” Changing from a taxi to a rental car (for two days) adds an additional $100 or so.
  • Vacation C – $2855 – Disney Moderate (Port Orleans) 6 nights, 5 day Disney parkhopper and 2-day Universal pass a la carte tickets, DME to airport and taxi transportation for non-Disney days. This is identical to Vacation B, but using the mid-level hotel at Disney. We need to include this in the list because Cabana Bay is likely to be equivalent to a Disney Moderate, not a Value hotel (it has a lazy river and a bowling alley!)
  • Vacation D – $3326 – Universal Portofino 6 nights, 6 day Orlando FlexTicket and Uni parkhopper, Express Pass, taxi to airport. This vacation is like Vacation A, but pure Universal. Obviously, this is the one Universal wants you to book. We are pricing here the luxury Portofino hotel, which includes Express pass.
  • Vacation E – $3547 – Universal Portofino 6 nights, 2 day Uni single-park tickets, 5-day Disney pass nonparkhopper a la carte. Express Pass, taxi to airport. This is similar to Vacation B in terms of which parks you visit, but it uses Portofino as a home base hotel rather than All Stars.
  • Vacation E – $2582 – Universal Cabana Bay 6 nights, 6 day Orlando FlexTicket and Uni parkhopper, No Express Pass, taxi to airport. This is an apples-to-apples comparison of Vacation D, but at the cheaper Universal hotel. It’s also a useful comparison to Vacation A (which is “all Disney” including a Disney value hotel).
  • Vacation F – $3272 – Universal Cabana Bay 6 nights, 2 day Uni single-park tickets, 5-day Disney pass nonparkhopper a la carte, 7-day rental car, 6-night Uni parking. No Express Pass. This is still five days at Disney and two days at Universal, but with the home base hotel at Cabana Bay. Since this vacation uses Uni as a home base but visits Disney a lot, a rental car is needed.

This…doesn’t match what Universal’s press site says. Possibly I’m doing something wrong, or their website is misleading. The prices above add park tickets separate from the hotel stay at Universal–is that wrong? If they have packages that bundle hotel and tickets, those are elusive on their official website.

Yet the Press Release on Cabana Bay mentions package deals as low as $47/per per night, assuming a family of four stays a week. If true, that would be only $1316 (or maybe $1400 after airport taxi)–much cheaper than the cheapest Disney vacation. And that would be roughly the price of Vacation E, if indeed such a package will be offered to the public.

We could sort these vacations into three categories: all-Disney vacations, all-Universal vacations, and 5/2 vacations (with five days at Disney, two at Universal). But that seems like a lot of effort for not much gain, given the prices we were able to calculate online.There isn’t much pattern to grab onto here, and since Disney is showing packages/bundles online and Universal isn’t, it’s hard to do a full apples to apples comparison.

Press photos

I’m forced to conclude that unless Universal really has those bundled prices, they are NOT competitive with Disney after all. And if they do have those prices, they need to find a way to get them online, pronto. Before word spreads that this new hotel is not a game changer, after all.

King’s Bowl coming to International Drive

Splitsville is going to have some competition! There are bowling alleys, and then there are upscale bowling alleys. The older type sometimes take on a seedier (or at least grittier) edge, especially if they are getting long in tooth. There’s one of those near I-drive (on Carrier, a back road), and I have to say I enjoy that one for what it’s worth. But that’s not the same league as upscale bowling.

Splitsville is upscale, and has the prices to match. This new one King’s will be upscale but with more reasonable prices ($7/game, lowered to $5/game in non-peak times). The food will be a point of pride for them, to judge by their existing locations in other cities, so I’m expecting good quality and a very reasonable price point (most entrees in the teens, and a $22 ribeye). Draft beers for as low as $4/pint.

For me, the biggest selling point may be that the “approach” to the bowling lane is full-sized and regulation. At Splitsville, the lanes are not only cramped, they are short, and the walk-up approach is almost half of regulation. At King’s, the approach is regulation sized, which I greatly prefer.

They’ve also elected to target locals, despite their location smack dab in the tourist zone, so they are promising Florida resident discounts. That’ll be handy! Their location is directly behind Ripley’s Believe it or Not (well, OK, one drive before Ripley’s) in a former Goodings supermarket. The vast land next to them will soon be home to I-Drive Live, basically another CityWalk type project anchored by the Orlando Eye Ferris Wheel.

King’s Bowl is situated to take full advance of this area, should it become a new center of gravity for tourists. I’m most intrigued by the outdoor (covered) bocce court they are setting up. This will be pretty different! It’s scheduled to open on April 15, 2013.

The photos below come from a hardhat tour earlier this week. I’ve also got more on my personal blog, UltimateOrlando:

I never thought about lanes as underground, but of course the ball return has to be below the regular level.

Pinsetters under construction.

The bar area will be all but surrounded with HDTVs.

More information and updates

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History. Readers are invited to connect with him online and face to face at the following locations: