ORLANDO -- In Universal Orlando's latest chess move to squash the magic mouse across Interstate 4, the theme park goliath has opened its version of an affordable, family style hotel.
The 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a 50-50 partnership between Universal and Loews Hotels and Resorts, comes less than two years after Disney unveiled the similar Art of Animation Resort.
But Universal's second-place slot might not be such a bad thing. Cabana Bay, with its charming design touch and exclusive amenities, may have outdone its competitor.
The 38-acre hotel, officially opened this week, is a throwback to the 1950s and '60s, when the country was between two wars, when Americans embraced family and the modest things in life.
Retro-themed Cabana Bay plays on color to transport guests back to a sepia-toned time. The lobby, the hotel room doors, heck, even the carpet, are awash in vintage blues, yellows, oranges. Universal's creative minds worked with a colorist who studied postcards from the '50s and '60s to determine the period's most popular shades.
"We liked the design sense of the era. It was a time when we were celebrating simplicity in this country," said Russ Dagon, a member of Universal Creative. "One of the things we're really proud of is the family aspect of this hotel. We really believe all the amenities will accommodate everybody. The idea that you come out here as a family, you stay together as a family, and you experience this property as a family."
Universal needed a moderate resort to even out its line of luxury hotels (Hard Rock, Portofino Bay and Royal Pacific) and to expand its market.
"This really allows more guests to experience the on-site hotel environment, which is the best way to see Universal Orlando Resort," said Tom Roditus, senior vice president of Loews Hotels and Resorts.
The Starliner, Thunderbird and Castaway buildings were the first to open. The remaining buildings -- Americana and Continental -- will be ready this summer. An exact date has not been determined.
The hotel's 900 family suites, starting at $174 per night, offer enough room to sleep up to six people. They include two queen-size beds, a fold-out memory foam bed, kitchenette, two TVs and a bathroom with preparation spaces for three people at once.
Rates for the remaining 900 standard rooms, the last to open, will begin at $119 per night.
Sounds tempting, but these prices are likely to rise during peak seasons. At any rate, Universal tries to make up for cost by offering unparalleled amenities.
Every kid-centered hotel has the giant pool with the water slide (Cabana Bay's is 10,000 square feet with a slide and a soon-to-be-opened lazy river), but here's the cool touch: Food trucks will pull up to the nearby Flamingo Park from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Sure, Universal may have borrowed the idea from Disney, which is slated to open a food truck park in Downtown Disney this summer, but still a nice gesture. And while you eat, drink and swim, a live band, dressed in all the '50s and '60s attire, turns modern hits into '60s-sounding smashes.
After the pool, families can hit the 10-lane Galaxy Bowling Alley for $15 per person, plus shoe rental. The alley is armed with a large menu of food offerings and a fully stocked bar, making it an evening destination, a one-stop-shop for all.
Next door is the expansive Jack LaLanne Fitness Studio, featuring photographs and trinkets from the fitness godfather himself. This isn't any old shoebox gym you might find elsewhere. The 5,000-square-foot space really gives you room to sppreeaddddd outttt.
Other amenities include a 24/7 arcade and a milquetoast "Rec Room," which feels more like a nursing home bingo den than anything else.
The 600-seat Bayliner Diner is the resort's main dining option designed solely to feed -- and please -- the masses. The cafeteria offers sandwiches, pizza, pasta, salad, the works. A few 1950s-inspired items include tuna casserole and Swedish meatballs.
While the resort tries to tout a family based experience, tired moms and dads will no doubt find a 10 p.m. escape route to the Swizzle Lounge. The 50-seat lobby bar offers the perfect kind of peace after the long day one can have at Cabana Bay.
Sabrina Rocco, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco