Now that I got all of the COVID-19 talk out of the way, let’s jump into the fun stuff! So yes, the fam plus the four usual suspects (my mom, stepdad, and two nieces) hopped on a plane to Florida last month. Destinations: Universal Orlando resort, Disney’s Vero Beach resort on the Atlantic coast, and back to Disney’s Saratoga Springs resort for one night before flying home. This trip was unique because it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the Universal parks and I had never been to their waterpark, Volcano Bay. It was also our first time staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal. Moving to Vero Beach, it was our first time there as well, and also our first time staying in a Treehouse Villa at Saratoga Springs at WDW. So many new things to try out!
Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando is AMAZING! We opted to upgrade to Club level service there, which during COVID, basically means you get access to the Club level lounge on the 7th floor of Tower 3, the Royal Tower. Non-COVID would’ve offered other things like turndown service, robes, cabana rental discounts (which we could’ve used but they weren’t needed, etc.) Our rooms were very close to the lounge, so that made access a breeze. The lounge was open from 7am to 9:30pm and had a schedule when specific dining offerings were available: breakfast, snacks/drinks in the afternoon, hors d’oeuvres plus wine/beer in the evening, dessert in the late evening. Everything was served to you when it came to the food and drinks but you weren’t limited on the quantities you could receive. We enjoyed having breakfast each morning (fresh donuts and pastries, hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal cups, fruit, granola, yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, coffee, tea, sodas. The snacks in the afternoon were things like chips, granola bars, cookies, peanuts, crackers, fruit, sodas, and waters. The evening service had hot offerings like chicken bao buns, wings, macaroni and cheese, BBQ as well as boxed offerings like meat and cheese or hummus and veggies. Dessert was usually cookies and/or brownies. Everything we had was really good, plentiful, and high-quality. The service in the Club lounge was top notch. Very attentive, kind, and genuinely happy to be there would be how I would describe the team. Every time we went in the lounge, I felt welcome and very well taken care of.
The resort itself was beautiful. The lobby was renovated last year and there was a conscientious effort to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable during their stay. I already mentioned the ‘text the front desk’ service and that was incredible. Unbelievably convenient and very responsive. I didn’t miss daily housekeeping service, despite being in a club level room, and felt like that was just another step Loews was taking to make sure their guests feel as safe as possible. The pool is huge, lagoon style, and a great way to spend a few hours (or most of a day, as my mom and stepdad found out). The pool was also just an elevator ride out of our building and a few short steps away.
Just past the pool was the shuttle boat dock to take you to Citywalk, where you then walk a short distance into either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. The boat ride is so short, pleasant, and such an easy way to get around. Being able to hop out of the boat and be inside Universal Studios in just a matter of minutes is fantastic. You clear security before you board the boat so entering the park is literally just a scan of your ticket and you’re on your way!
A great perk received by staying at Royal Pacific (or the Hard Rock Hotel or Portofino Bay Hotel) is that you receive Universal’s Unlimited Express Pass for free for your theme park days. This can be very expensive to add on and is well worth it, even when the crowds are light (as they are right now). It’s basically like a Disney FastPass on steroids because you don’t have to sign up for anything in advance, you just hop in the Express Pass line for any attraction that offers Express Pass service (most do), and you’re on your way to a much shorter wait to experience that attraction. Love it! We rode several attractions before we headed to one I was really dying to try, the new Bourne Stuntacular show. This just opened shortly before we arrived and it lived up to every bit of the hype I had heard about it. I have never seen a show that mixed live action and virtual scenes so seamlessly. You really couldn’t tell what was actually happening right in front of you versus which pieces were added in digitally. Craziness! This attraction doesn’t use Express Pass but any time you wait to watch the show is time well spent. We also had to swing by and ride the classic E.T. Adventure ride that I remember riding as a kid on my first trip to Universal years and years ago (still the same!) On the way to that attraction, Squidward and Patrick of Spongebob Squarepants fame were hanging out looking for some folks to snap a few pics with. Of course, we had to oblige!
No visit to Universal Orlando is complete without enjoying the two sections of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios park and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure park. My kid and the nieces had a great time learning and then casting new spells for a variety of fun outcomes in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The ride on Hogwart’s Express between the two lands was super fun and, spoiler alert, is different each way!
Being as we visited Central Florida in July, spending some time at a waterpark was a huge relief on the hot and humid days. Volcano Bay really far surpassed my expectations and (gasp!) is probably now my favorite waterpark!! The wave pool there is a lot of fun with the typical variety of waves pumped out to keep guests bobbing along for hours. Some of their slides were down right insane! The lazy river was a nice break after we spent some time in the wave pool but our hands down favorite attraction was TeAwa The Fearless River! I read somewhere before we arrived that if Universal said you had to put a life jacket on to experience the attraction, they meant it. Was that ever right! This was a lazy river gone wild and nothing lazy about it. Life jackets were mandatory and you definitely needed one. No rafts in this river but you were traveling through rapids, strong current, and uneven depths… weak swimmers need not apply! We went around like five times before we were exhausted (happily) and decided to break for lunch. Luckily, we got seated for lunch right before a huge rainstorm came through so our break was perfectly timed. There’s so much to do for all ages at Volcano Bay that I can’t wait to go back again!
I could go on and on about Universal but alas, time to move on to Vero Beach. As I mentioned, it was our first stay at Disney’s Vero Beach resort on Florida’s east coast. Our two-bedroom villa there provided a nice home base for breakfast, lunch, and to crash at night. Other than that, we were in the pool most of the day, on the beach in the early morning or evening either looking at sea turtle nests or collecting shells. The beach was pretty seaweedy, which was ok with us as we don’t really swim in the US ocean anymore. Shelling was fantastic, lots of great shells here and I completely wasn’t expecting that. The big fun though was the sea turtle nests. Loggerhead and green sea turtles have made hundreds of nests in Vero Beach this year so far and you couldn’t walk a few feet without passing one. We saw scraps of egg shells when walking but had the pleasure of watching the Sea Turtle team at the resort checking nests one morning. They even found a straggler down in a nest where its siblings had successfully made it out to the ocean so they were able to save the little guy and get him on his way! It’s mindboggling to see the team pulling hundreds of eggs (shells basically, they are checking the nest after they know that some turtles made it out a few days prior) from over a foot down in the sand. Definitely an experience I’d like to have again! The picture below is of a loggerhead nest and you can see the eggs in a pile between the two team members. There was something like 5 unhatched eggs, no longer viable, in this particular nest and over a hundred that had hatched.
After a few days at Vero, we drove back to Disney World, about two hours away. My brother and his family now live in central Florida and we had made plans to meet them at Disney Springs for dinner at Raglan Road. We had a decent size party and were given a really cool booth to dine in that night, something along the lines of where the bad guys would hang out to handle their business in private. Super fun! The dancing and music that is typical for Raglan Road was still taking place as well, which I was happy to see. Delish food as always.
After dinner, we got settled in at our Treehouse villa for the night. These are such fun! They really are a villa in the trees with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room area, washer and dryer, private deck, etc. With windows all around, the view is just crazy! We’re all talking about staying there again in the future. These treehouses take woodsy and luxury to a whole new level!
Last stop before we flew back home was Disney’s Contemporary resort where we had breakfast at Chef Mickey’s. This was a completely new offering — no characters, no buffet — but the food was good, fresh, and brought to your table family-style. Still all-you-care-to-eat and priced at $25 per adult, we felt like it was a steal, and hello, Mickey waffles! After breakfast, we had a little time to burn so we visited the shops in the Contemporary and then walked outside to take a peek over toward Magic Kingdom. Cinderella Castle has gotten a face-lift and is now sporting a pinkish hue (nothing like the birthday cake of the park’s 25th birthday though, yikes!) and I had to snap a few pics. I think it is nice and while I would’ve liked to see it up close, I didn’t have the time or the Park Pass reservation.
Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the airport and fly home. Darn, all good things really do have to come to an end, don’t they. We had a great time with so many ‘firsts’ and the trip fully renewed my passion for travel. If I could, I’d be back on a plane and checking in at Royal Pacific again tomorrow to do it all over, mask and all. This Disney girl might have even been converted to the dark side (Universal). Everyone had a blast, felt completely safe, and made all kinds of new memories. Isn’t that what it is all about?