As an arts and entertainment writer, it isn’t often I wax rhapsodic about a hotel, but Universal Orlando’s newly opened Cabana Bay Beach Resort is worthy of an exception. As executive project director Russ Dagon explained during my media tour last week, Universal’s first value-priced property evokes the “early, happy seasons of Mad Men,” with gorgeous Googie architecture belying its affordability (I’m returning in June for under $100 a night). It’s impossible to list all the ways I love this renaissance of retro revival, but here are 10 top reasons to start:
The majestic midcentury modern central lobby instantly sets the stage with curvaceous couches, sparkling terrazzo floors, a monumental mosaic mural and – most impressively – a towering atrium of live trees. Disney’s Polynesian is sadly losing its vintage indoor rainforest, but this stunning centerpiece is nearly a worthy replacement.
As nice as the property looks by daylight, it’s a knockout once the nighttime illumination ignites. Having recently visited the historic Neon Museum in Las Vegas, I know how outrageously costly even small signs can be, so I can’t imagine how expensive the custom calligraphic script blazing atop each guest building must have been.
If you appreciate the vintage decor popularized by designers like Eames, you’ll want to bring a U-Haul and steal every chair you see. Guest rooms are smaller than the “family suites” at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort (though half the price), but still sleep six comfortably with colorful beds and pull-out sofas straight out of a mid-’60s issue of Good Housekeeping. Even the nightstand alarm clocks are delightfully analog.
Starbucks is Starbucks pretty much everywhere you go, and they’ve been sprouting like weeds lately around local theme parks. But this coffee slinger goes the extra mile with a structural sculpture of vintage diner cups, a wall displaying raw coffee beans Connect 4-style and larger-than-life photos of Weeki Wachee mermaids (a unique Old Florida nod to the chain’s corporate mascot).
It’s a shame that there’s no sit-down restaurant on site, but the Bayliner Diner is a step above your basic cafeteria food court, with cake-batter froyo, bulk throwback candy and Jumbotrons screening vintage NBC television clips. Best of all are a handful of classic comfort food entrees – Swedish meatballs, tuna casserole, tortellini with green peas – that are just as deliciously creamy and unhealthy as Mom used to make.
I’m among the world’s worst bowlers, and at $15 per person (plus $4 for shoes) this 10-lane alley is too expensive to visit regularly, but it has two big attractions. First, a 24-ounce beer costs $8, which is cheap by theme park standards. Second, it’s the spitting image of the now-vanished Hollywood Star Lanes, as seen in The Big Lebowski, right down to the orange stripes and starburst sconces.
The widow of fitness pioneer and juicer pitchman Jack LaLanne, who passed away in 2011 at age 96, lent the exercise icon’s name and memorabilia collection to the hotel’s ginormous workout room, where you can sweat away on ultramodern iPhone-enabled treadmills or with old-fashioned medicine balls and free weights, while watching black-and-white reruns of LaLanne’s bodybuilding routines.
Cabana Bay’s crescent-shaped pool recalls historic Miami and Wildwood motels. If you get bored with the dive tower-inspired slide and water cannons, chill out with a game of poolside pool or ping-pong while a DJ mixes the Beach Boys with Bruno Mars. Then relax at rest stop shelter-style picnic tables with a snack from Yum Yum Cupcakes or another rotating food truck. After sunset, poolside movies (Elvis’ Blue Hawaii on opening night) and a fire pit keep things hopping. The only problem: They pull the plug on this party at 10 p.m.
It’s the little touches that count, and nothing made me smile like seeing bars of Zest and bottles of VO5 in the bathroom. These aren’t just generic hotel soaps with retro labels; one sniff of these resurrected brands and you’ll be transported back to childhood showers.
You can’t smoke like Don Draper here, but you can drink like him at three (soon to be four) full-service watering holes.
Unlike Disney, each bar has its own unique list of signature cocktails, many creatively crafty and all quite potent. Prices are reasonable for a resort, ranging from $4 PBR cans to $22.50 for a 32-ounce top-shelf mega-margarita. Meet me at the Swizzle Lounge for a Manhattan, and we’ll party like it’s 1959!