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:

  • Trumpet

    Great Article Kevin

    Personally, Universal have made the right move, and as such, will proberly dominate Florida’s theme parks for the next 10 years. They are doing the right things to keep mpeople at their resort, which unlikely Disney, is to invest money into new attractions and new hotels for guests to stay at.

    Thanks Again Kevin


  • Universal just keeps making great decisions. This hotel is another cog in Universal’s hit factory in Orlando. Color me impressed.

  • gboiler1

    Doesn’t Cabana Bay have value seasons as well. Perhaps that where the $47/night avg comes into play. When we visited on Spring Break in March 2012 we would have likely given CB a shot. Instead we opted for the cheaper Holiday Inn a couple blocks away. Still we easily completed Universal in 2 days seeing and riding everything we had interest in which included 2x on some of our favorites and 3x on Forbidden Journey.
    We anxiously plan on returning upon the completion of HP 2.0 but I don’t see UO as a sole destination when talking about a 7 day stay like we would with Disney.
    Universal also needs to look into something to compete with Magical Express. We never rent a car and always take advantage of the busses. We used Mears and while not very expensive, still a cost over ME.
    Either way, I am happy to have Universal putting out a great product!

  • DLFan1995

    How would universal’s numbers work out for a couple. Is the $47 a night an actual working cost or was that just based on a family of four in a $188 a night room?

  • brettb

    Too many variables and over-analysis in section on Universal vs. Disney.

    The $XX per person per night is marketing hokum but it’s still a hook that some people might compare.

    Universal says $47 per night per person for 7 nights (not 6!) for a “family of 4” including lodging and admission. So $1316 for admission and lodging for a 7 night Uni vacation.

    Disney advertises various figures but on the web site right now, I saw $67 per night per person for a family of 4 at for 5 night / 6 day All Star Resort + Admission package – $1340 for *5* nights. (But that number includes 3 adult admissions – ie. 2A1J1C)

    Doing some Q&D numbers of my own, I come up with $1230 for 8 day MYW base tickets for a 2A/2C family. For Pop Century during Value II, I get $740 (not including tax) for a week. So no discount, but least expensive season. That’s a total of $1970 (with no lodging tax) or $70 per night per person.

    My feeling is that anybody who’s going to use these $ per person per night numbers is NOT a savvy vacation consumer. There are too many other factors that will affect whether a Uni or Disney vacation is more or less expensive. But $47 sure sounds less than $67! It’s like getting a 7 night Uni vacation for the same cost as a 5 night Disney vacation!

    What’s ironic is that breaking it down to a per person (and per night) figure, the impression of savings is minimized; the impression of affordability, however is maximized.

    • trebor13

      I think the issue with looking at the $47 per day price is that it assumes you’re going to spend all seven days at Universal, which isn’t likely. I think Kevin’s analysis is much more realistic in doing a 5/2 split.

      If you we’re going to not visit Disney at all, then I’m sure the Universal properties are more economical, even without considering Cabana Bay.

      • brettb

        The point I was trying to make is that the $ per day per person figures have nothing to do with how people actually vacation or how much anybody’s vacation will really cost. It’s marketing hooey.

        I’m all for good analysis of vacation costs; you should see the spreadsheets I do for each trip! But these marketing figures are only intended to be relevant to either/or comparisons. Both companies are trying to capture your entire vacation and Universal’s $47 beats Disney’s $67. Apples and oranges to be sure – and I don’t know how many people just see both as “fruit.”

        I agree that an all-Universal 7-night vacation probably isn’t the norm but any trip with a crossover will be more costly than an all-Disney or all-Uni trip. Folks who need a $47 (or even $67) per day per person to entice them are likely to be shocked by the final cost of their trip as it is, never mind if they cross over.

        I would not assume the Uni properties are necessarily more economical than Disney (setting aside Cabana Bay). They certainly weren’t less expensive when we went the first summer WWoHP opened, between steeper discounts at Disney and the parking fee at the Uni hotels. And that’s where Cabana Bay may be *something* of a game changer for Uni. It may give Uni something in a similar price class of the Disney Values. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up from a quality-of-experience perspective and whether people think to factor in the transportation and parking costs.

  • jcruise86

    Kevin, THANK YOU very much for starting the thinking about this!
    I will be eager to stay at Universal
    if it won’t cost much too much more to also spend four days at Disney
    AND if I can get into WWoHP early.

    I’d probably want to spend 1-3 nights at Universal and 3-5 nights at Disney,
    and I would hope that a reasonably priced way to NOT rent a car will be (become?) an option.

  • mrclempo

    You need to add Disney theme park parking to Vacation F, on the other hand, it is possible to rent a car in Orlando for cheaper than the quoted price, so these two changes more or less cancel out.

    The companies want you to stay on their property for the whole stay, so it pays to play by their rule. I would not recommend visiting Disney and Universal on the same vacation if you plan to return a year or two later. The ticket prices drop dramatically if you stay longer, so it makes more sense to visit Disney for a week one year and come back for Universal/Sea World/Busch the year later.

    I personally prefer to score a 4* hotel on an opaque site and get a rental car.