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Trip report: Universal Orlando and the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel

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Published: June 28, 2008 at 10:03 AM

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."

The 'Windward' tower at the Royal Pacific

"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.

The two-queen-beds room at the Royal Pacific

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?

The pool at the Royal Pacific

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on June 28, 2008 at 10:21 AM
This is excellent, and I've always considered the Universal online unlimited ticket to be a phenomenal deal. The problem is that I can rarely convince family and friends to see Universal for more than one day, and plus we go in the moderate season when lines never see more than 40 minutes (and even that is very rare).

Guess I'll never have the chance to flash my VIP card and skip the line, like so many politicians.

From Scott Thatcher on June 28, 2008 at 10:47 AM
Excellent report. Thank you Robert. I'm so glad you and your family have had such a good time. I've heard that once you get a taste of the front of line pass, you'll never want to go anywhere else again without it. I'm going to PBH in September, was not looking real forward to it, till I read your report. Now I can't wait!!!!!!!
From James Rao on June 28, 2008 at 11:07 AM
I hate to say I told you so, Robert, but....

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From James Rao on April 22, 2008 at 4:22 AM
I think with Universal Studios, Citywalk, and Islands of Adventure, you owe it to yourself to go ahead and stay on property for a few days at one of the Universal resorts (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, or Portfino Bay). The proximity of the entertainment (walking distance for the most part), combined with the included Universal Express perk that comes with your room key, makes touring the parks an absolute breeze. Go when you want for a long as you want, and then head back to swim and relax when things get hectic.

We stayed at Universal for four days at the Royal Pacific and could not have been happier."
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Glad to know my family's trip was not a fluke!

From Brian Emery on June 28, 2008 at 11:20 AM
Thanks for posting, I enjoyed it.
From Robert Niles on June 28, 2008 at 12:07 PM
Hey, James, I *always* listen to what folks on the site have to say. Good call.
From Mark Hollamon on June 28, 2008 at 1:13 PM
My wife and I live in Orlando just about 20 minutes from USF, but try to stay at the Royal Pacific at least once per year to keep the "Pampered Tourist" feel to our life!

There really is no better deal than the front of the line room key experience! We discovered this before we even moved to Orlando. You can literally have a two night stay and leisurely walk through both parks and ride all you want as much as you want and NEVER have to rush, PLUS have time to catch a movie or rest up for the clubs at night!

From Marc Ricketts on June 28, 2008 at 2:17 PM
"On Universal Orlando's website, I found a seven-day, two-park ticket for $90."
What's amazing is that this is a better deal than they had in 2005, when we paid the same for a 5 day ticket. And I bought them months in advance, maybe even late 2004, because I didn't think that deal would last.
From Larry Zimmerman on June 29, 2008 at 6:23 AM
From the picture, I'd say you were a floor above our rooms when we stayed there in early May. We loved it! Our experience pretty much paralleled yours, except for the parking thing. We never had a problem self-parking, and always got a spot up close to the main road. The one-two punch of Universal's parks and Loew's hotels present Disney with SERIOUS competition when it comes to value, theming, and convenience; I actually voted for IoA as best park based on the great time we had last month.

This does not, of course, mean I'm not going back to Disney parks...it just means I'll be liberally sprinkling my theme park dollars among THREE contenders... Busch Entertainment, WDW, and Universal.

From Deidre Dennis on June 29, 2008 at 9:52 AM
The first thing that stood out to me about your report, Robert, was that you had the feeling your family was theme parked out. After a couple of days after our recent trip to BEG, we decided that we're skipping a theme park vacation next year and doing a road trip to Yellowstone and other national parks.

At any rate, I am not theme parked out. In 2010, we definitely plan to go back to Orlando. When we went in 2006, we stayed 10 nights at a WDW value resort because it's cheapest, on site and we only spend sleep time in the hotel. We splurged on the express plus pass at Universal and it was AWESOME. Especially after your report, I'm now thinking about splitting our time between the two hotels. There is nothing like that front of the line pass, particularly when you're with children and that humidity down there. You feel like you can go at a much more relaxed pace, and that makes your trip all the more enjoyable.

From Lee Mak on June 30, 2008 at 11:08 AM
great to know...thank you for the detailed review of the place. It look slike any other hilton with a carribe' flair. Not exactly the Poly, but for 200 a night, I am all about it.
From Kathy Whitaker on July 2, 2008 at 7:16 PM
Personally I think that charging a huge per day parking fee for walking around in the dark on a service road in order to get back to your room is unreal..We too, had to do this and will never stay there again due to this flaw at the Royal Pacific. Service vans whizzed by us while we were trying to bring in our packages (butts sticking out our open doors) in the dark. Found out walking through the Luau pavillion was quicker but embarassing. Couldn't believe they made me pay for this...Also, those water taxis are aggravating to an extent..

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