I don’t believe in violence, especially between theme parks. People act like Universal and Disney are at war with each other, and although they’re definitely competitors, they’ve proven by this point that they can coexist with one another. Yeah, they’re going after the same basic customer base and the same finite pool of vacation dollars, but they offer different experiences and have slightly different target demographics. And it’s not like you have to pick only one to go to for the rest of time. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both are worth experiencing at least once in your life.
There’s one category where Universal just clearly wallops Disney, though, and that’s the budget hotel space. Disney’s high-end resorts are often amazing, both more luxurious and better themed than Universal’s top-of-the-line offerings, but they’re also always expensive. Meanwhile Disney’s cheapest options are just underwhelming. If you’ve been to one of Disney’s All-Star hotels, you know what I’m talking about. They don’t have the charm or style you expect from Disney, and are “budget” in the worst sense—small rooms, unattractive décor, few amenities, and with a cold, impersonal atmosphere that you expect from a roadside chain hotel and not a resort. If you want to feel like you’re staying at a Red Roof Inn that hasn’t been updated since the ‘90s, book a stay at an All-Star hotel. The only reason you should ever stay at one of Disney’s All-Star hotels is if you absolutely need the perks that staying on resort brings—namely, the Disney Magical Express shuttle from the airport, the convenient bus access to the parks, and the Extra Magic Hours that let you spend a little bit more time in the parks each day.
Meanwhile Universal’s first value hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, remains one of my favorite places to stay in Orlando. The price is right, often around $150 a night, and the resort is simply beautiful. Themed after classic mid-century beachside resorts, it’s both kitschy and classy, with a 1950s aesthetic inside and out. It’ll basically make you feel like you’re living in Mad Men, only with a modern theme park only a bus ride away. It also has a fantastic pool complex, complete with a lazy river. It’s not as elaborately themed or luxurious as Disney’s top resorts, like the Polynesian or the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and could use a nicer restaurant and bar, but it’s still beautiful and fun, and costs as little as a third of what those top-of-the-line Disney places will set you back. And there’s simply no contest between Cabana Bay and Disney’s comparatively priced hotels, where the rooms are smaller and unthemed.
I might have to knock Cabana Bay down a peg or two on my list, though. Universal’s opening a new resort on June 27 that’s just as stylish and even cheaper. The Endless Summer Resort opens next week with the first of two hotels, the 750-room Surfside Inn and Suites. (A second building, Dockside Inn, will add an additional 2050 rooms when it opens in 2020.) If you stay for at least a week, you can get a room with two queen beds for $73 a night, and a two-bedroom suite with three queen beds and a dining nook for $111 a night. Nightly rates jump up a bit for shorter stays, but still average out under the price of Cabana Bay and Universal’s other “prime value” resort, Aventura Hotel. There are still cheaper hotels in Orlando, but you won’t find a better deal at a theme park resort, and Surfside’s rooms are tastefully designed while still sticking closely to the hotel’s theme. If you’re headed for an extended stay in Orlando with a large family or group of friends, that six-person suite is a true bargain.
You might think corners would be cut at that price, but Surfside Inn is a surprisingly charming hotel that doesn’t skimp on the amenities. It evokes the California surf culture of the 1960s, with surfboards used as decorations throughout the resort, from the guest rooms, to the poolside bar, to the pool itself, which is shaped like a massive board. I’ve never been into surfing, and have a pretty low tolerance for Boomer nostalgia, but there’s still something inherently warm and relaxing about Endless Summer’s aesthetic. There’s a food court-style cafe, a Starbucks, a game room, a gym, and a gift shop (of course), along with the poolside bar outdoors, which is covered and will stay open in inclement weather. It has the same basic lineup of restaurants and activities as Cabana Bay or Aventura (although it has only one bar instead of two or three), but at a lower price.
The budget concept doesn’t just extend to the room rate. Food and drink offerings will apparently be kept at a relatively affordable rate. According to Universal, the goal is to cap entrees at the Beach Break Cafe to $12 a piece, and to sell drinks at the Sand Bar for under $10. That includes cocktails and frozen drinks as well as beer and wine. I’m not going to lie: when I heard about the low room rates, I assumed they’d make it back up a little bit with food and drink prices. Universal is serious with that “value” designation, though. It’s an especially good deal if you’re into mixed drinks, which I have to admit I have a weakness for.
It’s hard to find anything to quibble about with Endless Summer’s first hotel. All I can think of is proximity—not to the parks, but to Universal’s other hotels. Most of Univeral’s other hotels are located relatively close to each other—if you’re staying at Cabana Bay but want to eat at Sapphire Falls, it’s a short and easy walk. Endless Summer is over a mile away, though, on the other side of I-4, so it’s not all that walkable, especially if you have kids with you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d have to shuttle hop to get from Endless Summer to Universal’s other hotels, like guests have to do at Disney World—basically take a shuttle from your hotel to Universal’s CityWalk, and then hop on a shuttle to the other hotel you want to visit. That’s not that inconvenient, and really, how many people would be trying to get to another hotel, anyway? I only do that at Disney when I want to get a drink at Trader Sam’s, and as good as Universal’s restaurants and lounges can be, none of them are that kind of a unique, must-see experience.
No, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a downside to this resort. Universal’s goal with Endless Summer was to open a hotel that’s easy on the wallet but still feels like a special destination, and the resort’s first wave definitely seems to have accomplished that. Next year we’ll see if the much larger Dockside Inn can preserve the charm of Surfside, or if the smaller hotel is destined to be a cooler, more boutique experience. At the moment Endless Summer Resort is the best bargain not just at Universal, but at any Orlando-area theme park.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.