Saturday, 14 December 2013

Staying Close to the Action

USA Trip 2013:  Post #3

“I travel the world and the seven seas.  Everybody’s looking for something”
Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams

The guitar fountain at the entrance of the Hard Rock Hotel

Don’t you just hate it when you’re relaxing in a hotel pool, enjoying the ambient music, and then you miss some of your favourite lyrics the minute you plunge your head underwater?  If only a hotel would design a pool where speakers were integrated beneath the surface.

I had to laugh when I discovered that this is exactly what the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando (HRH) has done.  It’s a classic case of humans creating solutions to problems that don’t actually exist.  Either that, or they’re banking on the fact the customers will be so impressed by the uniqueness of the hotel’s pool audio system, they won’t actually put too much thought into how useful it is.

The HRH is one of three hotels within the Universal Orlando resort and it is the place we chose to stay for 3 nights of our trip.  I had spent a lot of time researching all 3 of the hotels and with all being so unique and beautifully themed, it wasn’t an easy choice deciding which one would work best for our family.  In the end I was swayed by my husband’s love of rock music and the fact that the HRH has it playing in almost every inch of public space.  Even under the water. 
Hard Rock Hotel Pool

Prior to deciding which of the 3 hotels we wanted to stay in, I first had to decide whether or not we would stay in any of them. 

Both Disney World and Universal offer the option of staying ‘onsite’.  For the customer this creates an easy vacation where they can get around easily without a car, it provides all sorts of bonus perks such as early entry into the parks (more about this below), and, perhaps most importantly, customers can immerse themselves in all sorts of fun and theming without ever having to step foot into the ‘real world’.  For the Disney and Universal Corporations, having onsite hotels helps creates a monopoly where all of their customer’s accommodation, entertainment, and meal choices, funnel money back into the pockets of their business. 

The only downsides I saw to staying onsite were money and space.  It is obviously going to cost a bit more money to be immersed in these fantasy bubbles and pay inflated prices for everything you eat and do.  For the same price or less, I could have rented us a whole house with a private pool only 15 minutes drive away.  But at the end of the day I had to look at the purpose for our trip.  I wanted an exciting, low-stress family holiday where all three of us got to feel young and carefree.  The onsite hotels provide this in bucket loads.  Plus I’m a bit of a pushover for some fun theming. 

It also needs mentioning that if you stay onsite in one of the three Universal hotels you get 2 very big perks.  You can almost forget everything I said in the last 2 paragraphs, as these perks alone made staying onsite practically a no-brainer. 

A free blow-up guitar provided Oskar with
some entertainment.
The first is an unlimited express pass.  Most rides at the two Universal theme parks have an express pass entrance.  If you are one of the lucky customers in possession of said express pass, you get to bypass the regular queue and get onto the ride much quicker.  Staying onsite gives you a pass to do this as many times as you want during the length of your stay.  We were staying at the HRH during the middle of September – a time of the year that is generally considered to be the most quiet.   If you do some research, you will discover that there are many people on online forums who will tell you that you don’t need an express pass at this time of the year.  Perhaps they are right – you definitely don’t need one.  But I would argue that if I did the trip again, at the same time of year, I would definitely still want one.  Our favourite ride, the Transformers, had a standard queue of about 30-40 minutes each time we visited it.  We never waited more than about 5 minutes and once just walked straight on.  If you are staying offsite there is an option to purchase these express passes separately.  But this adds an expense to the trip that leaves you questioning whether staying offsite is actually cheaper. 

The second perk is early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP).  This means that hotel guests get to enter the park a full hour before the general public. Even though it’s been over three years since this mini theme park within a theme park opened up, there is still a lot of hype and excitement surrounding it.  When people visit Universal, the WWoHP is often top of their wishlist.  This, paired with the fact that the main Harry Potter ride has no express pass option, means that getting early entry to the area can be a big bonus.  With lower crowd levels there is actually quite a bit you can do in that hour.  Plus you get to admire the theming without having to angle your camera around a sea of people.

So without needing any more reasons to convince me to stay onsite, I booked 3 nights at the HRH.  While I don’t think I would go as far as saying that I loved the hotel, there was also very little not to like.

Tasteful interiors
The room was comfortable, clean, and tastefully decorated.  I enjoyed the small touches such as the magazines, the blow-up toy guitar for Oskar, and the Keurig coffee machine (although feedback from the coffee drinker in my family, is that the coffee was not very nice).   For the musicians amongst you, there was even a dedicated guitar channel with music chords running along the bottom of the screen. 

A magazine rack including, of course, The Rolling Stone magazine.

In room coffee machine.  The one thing Scott disliked about the USA was limited access to good, strong coffee.
Unfortunately this machine did not provide a solution to this dilemma.  
BYO guitar

I had been worried prior to the stay about noise in the room.  With music playing everywhere, including around the elevators, I was worried that the tunes would find their way into our room at night.  I needn’t have worried as our Garden view room was lovely and quiet.  I’m not sure if things would have been different had we been closer to the elevators or in a room that faced the pool. 

The pool area was fantastic.  The Florida heat tends to sap you of all your energy, so after a tiring day in the parks, a nice pool is practically a must.  Because HRH’s pool is so large, even at the busier times there was plenty of room to swim and splash about.  Oskar loved the slide and rode it multiple times with little-to-no wait.  Plus, at times, the hotel even employed a live musician to play alongside the pool.  Paired with a delicious cocktail from the bar, the overall atmosphere was pretty relaxing. 

The indoor public areas are made the more interesting with rock star memorabilia.  However, there is a charm and personality that is missing from the hotel that is perhaps the reason I didn’t love it.  If I was hipper and younger and liked modern furnishings, I perhaps would have felt differently.  But my reasons for enjoying the hotel were related more to it’s position and pool, than it’s theme and furnishings. 

A tribute to The King 

In saying this, I did really like the landscaping.  The gardens were beautifully maintained and the walkway from the hotel to the theme parks was lush and green.  If you couldn’t be bothered making the short (yet hot) ten minute walk to the parks, you could instead catch a boat.  The boat transfers at Universal are excellent.  Disney World could learn a lot from the Universal transportation system.   Each of the three hotels has it’s own boat/s which run frequently every 10-15 minutes.   The boats offload at Universal Citiwalk (a dining, shopping, and entertainment area) and from there it’s about a 2 minute walk to each of the two theme parks.  The quick and reliable transportation system made it very easy to pop back to the hotel in the middle of the day for a swim, or head over to the Citiwalk for a meal at night.

A view of Universal Citiwalk from the boat docks
Lastly, the HRH has a few different restaurants, but the only one we tried was The Kitchen.  The meals there were pretty standard, and the fact that I can’t even remember what I ordered without looking at photos says that there wasn’t much memorable about our experience.  However, I do remember that they offered one of those challenges where if you ate a huge set meal in a short amount of time you become immortalised as a food hero (or, depending how you look at it, get labelled as a huge glutton).  We didn’t even consider the challenge, but for some entertaining viewing, here is a You Tube clip of someone who did.   

So in summary, we really enjoyed our stay at HRH.  If or when we get back to Orlando I would definitely stay onsite again, and probably this time for a few nights longer.  However I would probably be tempted to add some variety to my life and try one of the other two hotels.  Not because I didn’t like the HRH, just because I didn’t like it enough to hurry back.

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