New resort a blast from the past

Universal Orlando's newest hotel caters to families, Gen-xers

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Just how dipped in amber (and turquoise and yellow) is Cabana Bay Beach Resort?

Pull into the circular drive of Universal Orlando's newest hotel — careful, don't ding the vintage cars parked out front — and you can easily imagine bellboy Jerry Lewis rushing out to "help" a family with their hard-sided Samsonites. Enter the terrazzo-floored lobby and you can picture the Jetsons checking in, or Don Draper sipping an Old Fashioned in the Swizzle Lounge.

"We've had fun with this," confesses a member of Universal's creative team. And it shows.

The 1,800-room property, which can sleep up to 9,000 guests, blends the exuberant Doo Wop architecture of Wildwood, N.J., roadside motels with the elegance of the Americana Hotel, which in 1956 shook up sleepy Bal Harbour with its exaggerated proportions and oversized lobby terrarium.

Two expansive courtyards draw inspiration from midcentury outdoor design and wholesome recreation, with large, zero-entry pools, a lazy river, a sandy "beach," a faux dive tower and 100-foot water slide, fire pits, picnic pavilions, ping pong tables and bean bag toss games. All that's missing are Frankie and Annette.

Cabana Bay is Universal's first moderately priced offering, with rates starting at $99 through mid-August. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why an early Space Age-themed hotel is smart business in 2014, says Christine Hardenberger, owner of MMP Travel, an agency specializing in Orlando vacations.

For late baby boomers and Generation Xers, checking into Cabana Bay "is like stepping back into childhood," says Hardenberger. "As my agents — most of whom fall into the Gen X category — walked through the resort, there were constant exclamations of 'Oh, I remember that!' as we passed furnishings that reminded us of a friend's kitchen, listened to music that our moms and dads played in the car, and played with an alarm clock much like the one from your childhood.

"You could see everyone's mood brighten as they were flooded with happy memories."

Russ Dagon, a 47-year-old VP and executive project director at Universal, can relate.

"We all liked this concept because we were of the age, but the question was, 'Will it resonate with a younger audience?' And it's actually more compelling to a younger audience because of the uniqueness. And they're experiencing (the era) for the first time here."

But the time machine is pimped out with 21st century essentials such as free Wi-Fi, plasma TVs, easily accessible outlets for recharging mobile devices, USB ports in every guest room, and bathrooms that allow multiple guests to simultaneously prepare for a day of Harry Pottering. (Just try finding roomy water closets in a vintage motor court.)

"The theme may pull families in," says Dave Parfitt, who operates the family travel site AdventuresByDaddy.com, "but the modern amenities, comfy family suites and price point will keep them."

Then and now also share a booth in the Bayliner Diner food court, where guests can purchase an electronic-chipped Sonic Fill cup that allows for endless refills at the resort's 10 Coke Freestyle machines.

As director of food and beverage, Phil Klinkenberg, who says he's in his early 50s, oversaw the development of the resort's menus. "It was fun to think about what I grew up with," he says, "but our challenge was, we're 50 years on."

Glasses of Tang and Welsh rarebit were out like a backyard bomb shelter, but Swedish meatballs and tuna noodle casserole passed modern-day muster to earn spots alongside tofu stir fry, ginger soy glazed salmon and Brazilian beef churrasco. (Another period touch: Bulk-candy bins of Necco Wafers, Mary Janes and Bit-O-Honeys.)

In Bayliner Diner's high-ceilinged dining room, guests can enjoy their burgers and fries with a side of "Popeye."

"It's moving art work as much as anything," Dagon says.

Spinach-and-artichoke dip, meanwhile, is an option in Galaxy Bowl, a 10-pin ringer for Hollywood Star Lanes, which was built in 1960 and served as the Dude's home alley in "The Big Lebowski."

And for those who prefer Pike Place Roast to Chock full o'Nuts, Starbucks selected Cabana Bay as the site of its first stand-alone location at a Universal or Disney resort. Its store there features Weeki Wachee-inspired murals, an Old Florida wink and nod to the coffee chain's mermaid mascot.

Nostalgia is a suitable vacation bedfellow, Hardenberger says. "Not only are you unplugging from the stresses of your daily life, you feel as though you are actually walking back into a more carefree time."