During a normal year, I spend about 45 days in hotels. Some ancient, some brand new. Some clean, some crusty. Some fancy like a peacock, some plain as white bread. But nothing is ever as unique as Cabana Bay in Orlando, Florida.
On December 3rd, 2019 I was driving from Fayetteville, NC with the goal of reaching Miami by the 5th. I had time to spare. I crossed the Florida border around 6 pm, with 5 more hours of driving ahead of me, and no hotel booked. So I had the bright idea, “I’m in Florida, let’s go to NASA”. Bad idea. Elon Musk was launching a rocket the next day, so every hotel room in a 30-mile radius of Cape Canaveral was booked up.
Scrolling through some travel apps, it appeared the closest hotels with vacancies were in Orlando. “Okay, I’ve never been to Orlando, let’s check it out.” Searching, scrolling, searching, scrolling, and a listing comes up for a hotel called Cabana Bay, with images — as I remember it — lots of oranges, teals, maybe some yellows, maybe some greens. Colors that shouted “1960s mall decor”, “Eames molded plastic chair”, and “tangerine cafeteria tray”. It’s weird. I’m tired. I’m almost desperate to find lodging. I booked one night — just one night.
Then I arrived…
I arrived and all the orange, yellow, green & blue neon, palm trees, and wild 1950-60s architecture captured my mind. Where was I? Vegas? 1959? I parked illegally. Grabbed my bags. Got in a line. And immediately added 2 days to my stay. And a free pen. Got that too.
So what is Cabana Bay? It’s a massive mid-century Americana-themed hotel that’s part of the Universal Studios theme park. Read about it on the architecture firm’s website. Primarily, it’s patronized by families going to Universal Studios to ride the Harry Potter roller coaster. Aside from the hotel rooms, there’s a massive cafeteria (designed to look & feel like a mid-century cafeteria), a bowling alley, a few bars, an arcade, a huge pool area, a gift shop, and a Starbucks (of course). If you see a mid-century-looking hotel in a movie, it’s usually Cabana Bay.
I stayed in the Continental wing. Look at that neon. Look at that font. Check out the tangerine-orange, pool-bottom turquoise, appliance green, and beefsteak crimson.
A Hanna-Barbera-style cartoon mural at one end of the cafeteria (Christmas tree because it was December):
A lot of the photos I took were at 1 am or later — that’s why it looks vacant. The cafeteria:
I spend hours taking photos. Check out this lighting fixture:
Check out these chairs (yeah I sat in them):
And the neon sign for the bowling alley. Yeah, I… went to the bar.
Check out this fancy Christmas drink:
Even the parking deck looked awesome:
What else? The staff was excellent. The lady in the gift shop spent 10 minutes telling me about the history of the place. She was awesome. The main bar and the bartenders were fantastic. The cafeteria food was… cafeteria food — lots of choices, but nothing too fancy. My room was clean — it came with a bar of Zest soap. There are a free shuttle and free admission to Universal City Walk (kinda boring unless you’re a family). None of the families and their kids were annoying. Just a great, very memorable hotel.