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Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Walt Disney World, and the PlayStation 3

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Published: July 10, 2012 at 2:58 AM

Universal has just announced a new hotel for their burgeoning Orlando empire. Normally, such proclamations are attended by celestial trumpets and rapturous masses that secretly scheme over how to pay for their next excursion to the theme park capital of the world.

This time, though… I can’t help but wince. Universal is overplaying their hand, I fear, and I don’t like where this is (inexorably?) heading.

Having a multiple-tiered hotel that not only offers (the standard array of) various room types but also various levels of access to the resort’s on-site benefits is a bit, well, much. First and foremost, it represents the very real possibility of shooting themselves in the foot. Early Park Admission for the “moderate-value” rooms but no Express Passes? The former may be icing on the theming cake for enthusiasts, but it’s the latter that really made the deal for most consumers – only by saving $70 per person per day can footing a $300-a-night hotel room be even slightly palatable. And the “valued-price” guest gets neither of these.

Yes, there’s still plenty Universal and Loews offer, including a hotel-key-card-turned-credit-card, priority seating at restaurants, free delivery of packages to one’s room, and, of course, the convenience of being on-property and the delight of staying in-theme. (Well, we’re pretty sure the “value” attendees will receive these perks, though we don’t know for certain yet, which is itself another problem for another discussion.) It’s just that Universal’s partner hotels offer many of these perks, plus a few others of their own – including, of course, the all-important early access to Harry Potter and his new friends, the Minions. This may have been a move to help reach some sort of loose parity with Disney World, but not even Disney actively takes anything away from its guests.

It really gets interesting, though, when taken in conjunction with a little tweaking to its ride reservation service that Universal made just the other month. As if having multiple levels of Express Passes wasn’t convoluted enough, there’s now the Q-bot system, which, of course, represents another mirroring of Disney’s policies (the much-debated FastPass service). The net effect, between different hotels and different parks with different hours of entry and different ways to stand in line, is mind-boggling to the average (read: non-obsessed) consumer. It almost demands Universal Orlando Resort 101, a lecture class, as a pre-requisite to stepping foot on the property.

My background is videogames, so I typically tend to view these things from behind this rather skewed prism. The fundamental reason that console systems – such as, say, the Sony PlayStation or the Nintendo Wii – were able to break away from and thoroughly dominate their PC brethren is due to their elegant simplicity. It’s Bill Clinton’s mantra for the digital class: “It’s simplicity, stupid.” Buy one magic little box that already contains everything you need, from the controller to a hard drive, and shove your game of choice into it. Plug and play, lock and load. Not even grandma, in her mad fervor to play Wii Bowling, can mess it up.

Now PCs, on the other hand, represent a nearly endless array of various configurations and components with which to drown. Just installing a game can be a nightmare, particularly if it’s Crysis and it melts your graphics card just by looking at it. Though the various PC manufacturers have come a long way from the Wild West that was DOS, it’s still an unbelievably daunting undertaking for the casual (read: non-obsessed) consumer and what primarily causes PC gaming to be an eternally walled-off ghetto.

Companies, though, tend to get self-involved, which leads to myopia, which, in turn, usually leads to humility. Microsoft and Sony are great cases in point, as they opted, for the first time in the industry’s 25-year modern history, to release multiple versions of their consoles, typically offering different HDD sizes or the occasional real difference, like built-in wi-fi as opposed to a forcibly-purchased peripheral. (Nintendo, meanwhile, offered just one system that even came with the same pack-in game. It, unsurprisingly, has the best-selling console this generation.)

Universal is most definitely heading down this primrose PlayStation path. When sitting down to help a friend and his fiancée plan their honeymoon to UOR just a few months ago, for instance, it took a little while to go through all their options with them, from normal to partner to on-property hotel, to Meal Deals (with or without the new summer dinning experiences), to Unlimited Express Passes to park-to-park to VIP tickets. Oh, then there’s Blue Man Group and the CityWalk pass and Early Park Admission – it was more than they were ever expecting. And this was before Q-bot and the Cabana Bay Beach Resort announcements!

The bottom line, I suppose, is this: Universal Orlando is an absolutely wonderful area that deserves multiple days in multiple visits to fully explore and experience and enjoy. It has one of the crown jewels of the theming world, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and just may be adding one or two more precious stones to the mix in very short order, if rumors are to be believed. Portofino Bay is easily one of the best hotel stays I’ve had in my entire life, offering up a level of service that is just short of what I found during my year-long sojourn in Japan.

But Walt Disney World it is not – nor is it likely ever to be, for better or worse. The best possible decision the company can make is to embrace this difference and develop a vision of its own, one that worships the Japanese-like elegance of simplicity rather than scoffs at it in the typically-condescending Western way. Otherwise, it’s going to end up like Microsoft to Disney’s Apple.

And God knows we could use a few more Googles in the theme park industry.

Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 19 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Orland Informer.  He’s also the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which explores HBO’s Game of Thrones with such guests as Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.

Readers' Opinions

From Mark Hollamon on July 10, 2012 at 4:26 AM
My own personal feeling is the addition of this hotel with a new level of perks (or lack of) is either going to water down the whole experience or be used to raise the rates on the other on-site resorts to the point one will now be paying for that Express Pass option that was once a nice comp.

I also disagree with your comment that USF has attractions that warrants multiple days in multiple visits. The fact is there (relatively speaking in contrast to Disney) is no challenge at all to leisurely experience EVERYTHING the two parks have to offer in one day with the hotel Express Pass feature and probably have a couple hours left over. My wife and I stayed on property a few times before we moved to Orlando and we both agreed that while we love USF it really gets kind of stale after two, maybe three days unless you are trying to eat at every restaurant they have, get hammered at every club, go see a movie and get a tattoo.

Also, I really wonder what capacity the hotels they already have on-site operate at. With all the chatter about USF being a theme park that is in a land lock why would you not want to add a great attraction or two in that space and operate your existing properties at a higher utilization level?

From Doug Jenkins on July 10, 2012 at 6:13 AM
Not sure how this piece is relevant UNTIL we know the pricing. If she is truly value priced, a $99.00 room, in season, $79.00 out of season room, on property within walking distance and with transport, and with free parking ala Disney value resorts, this is a GREAT idea. It will not be copying Disney so much as competing with I-Drive. If priced too high and with a $15.00 a night parking charge, than not such a good idea.
As to the FOTL feature, I am a FL resident and pass holder, spent the weekend before the 4th in the park, stayed off property BECAUSE of the ridiculous summer hotel pricing, and we used the single rider lines and spent at most 20 minutes, and usually under 10 in all the rides. It can be done.
From Brian Emery on July 10, 2012 at 8:08 AM
I enjoyed this article and your writing style… Although a bit sarcastic at times, I still enjoyed it.

The problem here is that we do not know the need for more rooms at Universal. If they are sold out all the time, then yes, build another Hotel. Plus I believe Universal is trying to lure away those who stay in the area of Universal but not at one of their properties. There are many hotels in that area near Universal therefore Universal wants a bigger share of the rooms.

Remember what Walt Said “Keep moving Forward”…

Universal has become a real contender and competition to Disney. Since they found investing money in WWHOP has been perfect fit for them, Why not take advantage of the new popularity and jump in yearly attendance?

From Doug Jenkins on July 11, 2012 at 10:44 AM
One thing for sure, Universal would not build an additional 1800 rooms if there was not a need. Would also like to see an end to Universals other hotels advertising FREE FOTL passes with a stay. Obviously not free.
From Brian L on July 10, 2012 at 9:53 AM
In the next two and a half years or so, they are going to need more rooms. With Potter 2.0, the Sound Stage 44 attraction and rumored water park, Universal will see attendance figures like they never have before. This is a step in the right direction.

They also filled in a huge hole with this new resort. The current Loews offerings are all amazing, but the average guest cannot really afford the rates. Adding this value resort helps families and those seeking lower cost for their vacations. What's so great about this value resort is that it is actually next to the parks. Try getting to the Magic Kingdom from the All-Star Resorts in less than 30 minutes. If you catch the bus i'm sure it can be done, but I never had that kind of luck especially with Disney's suspect transportation. With the Express Pass perk, I would argue that adding 9000 users on a busy day would cripple their system. It's not fastpass where the users are staggered.

And I'm inferring from your article that you believe that Disney is simple (it being Apple and everything) and Universal is going down a path of Einsteinian levels of complexity. I respectfully disagree. If Disney were truly as simple as I believe you believe it to be, then we wouldn't have to buy countless guides on dining and we wouldn't have to spend hours researching on the internet.

Since you have a background in gaming I will put it like this; theme park (any destination really) vacation planning is like playing an MMO such World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. You do countless hours of research for the best build for your character, what trades will be best suited to your character, what gear you might need, and how to lay low a boss. It is essentially working at playing. The person planning has to arrange everything from flights, hotels, dining, extra events, tickets, and even plan what they want to spend on merchandise. That's why we get stupid guest quotes, because they have spent all of their brain power on actually getting there. I seem to have gone off the main point, so I'll stop. Very good article, I just don't agree with it.

From Anon Mouse on July 10, 2012 at 11:26 AM
Should have compared Apple with PC instead of video games. Oh well.

I agree things should be simplified, but Universal is offering an experience that matches Disney in terms of options. These things are not free, which is why Universal should offer a basic package with various extra options.

One thing that I learned when traveling is if Universal doesn't lock someone in with the extras prior to the trip, it is unlikely the customer will add it in later. Or maybe the customer will book their own extras at a discounted rate with another vendor, thus Universal doesn't get the full profit from the transaction. This things are a big deal for Universal.

This article makes me wonder if you ever booked a trip with Disney. Have you considered the various dining and ticketing plans? How about the various rooms and suites and resorts? The restaurant and show reservations. The add ons and add ons and add ons? I don't think you did.

From 66.209.54.90 on July 11, 2012 at 6:53 AM
I am not sure the game system analogy worked well for you here as Xbox360 has outsold Wii for the last 7 quarters (or more) and Microsoft would never want to limit their products, territory and income to Apple levels. Even without an ipad and iphone to call their own. Though I suspect they envy Apple's stock price and valuations at this point.

But I do agree with your point. Disney has resorts dedicated to customer levels. You surround yourself with people getting the same price, access and perks as you. With only small exceptions all guest at 'art of...' resorts have one level of accommodation and guest at 'Beach Club' have another. Or keep climbing to 'Yacht Club', 'Boardwalk' .... (though some could argue that Yacht Club and Beach Club are segregated sides of one building I see them as 2 resorts attached in the center as they have separate lobbies and do not mix guests coming and going). This idea of dedicating parts of a single building to different experiences reminds me of the levels of accommodation on the Titanic. Not a good ending there! :)

Can you imagine watching the upper level families leaving for early park access with express ticket in-hand while others wait behind the velvet rope for regular hours and long lineups? If you don't know any different and are not watching others get better treatment then it does not cross your mind. A system that keeps putting these differences in front of you changes the feeling of the resort, and your vacation.

From N B on July 12, 2012 at 4:54 PM
I have checked on avaialble rooms at the flagship USF hotels closer to our departure date and they had nothing available at all three. So I think there is definitely a need for a fouth hotel.

I do think the Cabana Bay guests should recieve a single ride per day Express Pass as opposed to unlimited.

It is going at Hollywood Way and Turkey Lake Road, so I would imagine they have some sort of plan to extend the lagoon for water taxi service or shuttle buses.

Project 722 is a lock and the water management plans for Universal / IOA are public record. They even show the new structure for the IOA train station.

USF will have it's hands full when all of this completed and I am looking forward to all of the expansion.

For the record, I am glad Universal is a completely different experience than Disney. Disney feels like this sprawling mega resort where everything is miles away. It also has that "childish" feel, which is great for young families, but my girls are hooked on Universal, and you all know I came over the "dark side" years ago. If Universal ever becomes as packed as Disney on a regular basis, I will be severely disappointed.

Character breakfasts and meet / greets are just not a priority anymore. We like thrill rides, (and like to ride a lot) at a more "hip" resort.

Lastly, the XBOX360 is the juggernaut of the video game console world. I own all three, the 360 is the only one that gets played. The PlayStation 3's online is not so great, which is probably why it is free. You can't complain about something you didn't pay for.

Almost every major update / expansion packs to popular games (Black Ops / MW3) comes out on the 360 a month before the PS3 and other titles like Minecraft are 360 exclusives.

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