My family and I had a great Florida vacation at the beginning of August. We stayed at another brand hotel for 4 nights when visiting Universal Studios for the first part of our trip. The property was adjacent to two Universal parks and provided some very good benefits, such as unlimited "express passes" for rides. This was a HUGE benefit, walked to the front of the line on all rides except Hagrid's. We had to rope drop to get on that ride, but it was worth it! Here is a picture of our hotel. It was patterned after Italian Riviera location, Portofino. My family and I were in Italy last summer for vacation, and boy, if I didn't tell you this was in Orlando, you might think we were in Italy again. Very relaxing location, despite being a short boat ride from the two Universal parks and all the hustle and bustle you would expect.
The weather was extreme compared to what we are used to in California. Sure, it has been well over 100 degrees each day since we got back to California, but it is just tame compared to 96 degrees in Orlando with MASSIVE downpours of rain every afternoon with some serious lightning plus the steamy conditions. This is very typical image of my wife and kids...cheap ponchos off Amazon were KEY to having a good time despite the weather. I think I bought them for like $1 each. They lasted a few days before they were funky smelling and had to be tossed. I brought 12 of them.
I actually didn't mind the weather too much. It was really weird for us to be in rain when it was warm. Where we are in California, it rains in the winter and is cold. Here is the same area a little later after we finished up dinner....from a different vantage point....this is the Universal Studios shopping/dining area near the two parks.
As many of you know, I like to "collect" ballparks....well, we drove over to Tampa/St Pete and took in a Rays game. The park was actually pretty decent, but a good 30 minute drive south of Tampa. Kind of like being inside a circus tent. They did some cool things on the roof when homers were hit...a LED light display. Tickets were cheap, we were in luxury box behind home plate for less than $50 a ticket. Same ticket at Oracle where the Giants play....$150 easy, maybe $250 for a big game. I have heard this place was a terrible place to see a game, but I disagree. The fans were into it, and once inside the park, it was pretty nice. The exterior is not impressive, it is right next to the highway in area scattered with low-rise warehouses and small buildings...definitely not a vibrant, downtown location.
After our stay near Universal we moved over to the Swan and Dolphin. I collected a lot of great advice from everyone on places to stay and selected this property for its location and convenience to the parks. My sister was a few miles away at the Orlando World Center (the largest Marriott in the world) for the first part of the trip so I was able to compare and contrast the two while I was there. She and her husband were staying there for a conference. He is Lifetime Titanium and has Concierge this year and did get a decent upgrade, but not a suite.
We chose the Swan and Dolphin because I wanted a Disney property that allowed us to book fast passes 60 days out and was super convenient to the parks. This is a winner. This turned out to be a huge benefit. The parks were VERY CROWDED during this time frame and we had fast passes to all the best rides in advance and then used the rope drop to get on them multiple times or hit the other rides we wanted to go on when the crowds were running towards Space Mountain, Avatar, Slinky Dog Dash and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. If anyone is interested more, I can give some of our tips on getting on the good rides. For me, the 60-day fast pass booking window was worth it and being on Disney property was huge if you want to really hit the parks hard.
We did get a nice upgrade while we were there. I paid for a double/double room, but because of my Titanium status and the big birthday celebration, they upgraded us to a Junior Suite. The view was not great, but the extra space for my wife and my two teenage kids was essential! We had a roll-away, a pull-out and two double beds. We tried to get into the Swan, that has Queen-Queen set-up, but it was booked. The upgrade gave us each our own bed and plenty of room for us. They also sent up a nice amenity for by Birthday, an excellent chocolate dessert and a card from the manager. The beds were very comfortable, and were able to pick up some more points with the green choice option.
The rooms were nice, plenty of wall USB chargers so we all our devices charging. The bathroom was a little small, the toilet and the shower were in the same room but separated from the sick/mirror area by a door. At family destinations, it is really good to have the toilet separate so it helps getting folk ready and/or showering up at the end of the day.
Overall the property was nice, has several restaurants ranging from cafeteria style to high-end Shula's steak house. The lobby had a very high ceiling, with a central lounge/bar area that was pretty hopping most of the time. They have a modest conference centers, so there were plenty of conventioneers bellied up to bar at all hours of the day. We did not eat on property very much, except for the breakfast. They don't have concierge lounge but my elite status benefit gave us vouchers for two continental breakfasts every day. We used them every other day or so, in that way the whole family could eat. There is an $8 up-charge for the "hot" side of the buffet, but that is worth it for Mickey waffles, Mickey Pancakes, omelet bar, slice to order Canadian style bacon , etc. Standard Marriott breakfast, but with a few nice touches like the fresh squeezed Juice bar and all the Mickey grill items. They will also build you a to go box if you don't have time to sit and eat.
We took a Lyft early on in our stay to a local pizza place called Flippers in a strip mall about an $8 ride away, had a great dinner for a fraction of the cost of eating on property and then hit the grocery store to stock up on waters, snacks, sun block, etc. That was a great move, and really made our stay nice having snacks and waters laying around. The drinking fountain water in Disney parks was nasty, smelled of a sulfur and my family referred to it as pond water.... gross! If you can find a take-away restaurant with a self-serve soda fountain in the park, then you can get good, clean water and ice for free, but the drinking fountains were nasty.
They have a take-away spot called Fuel in the lobby of the Dolphin where you can grab a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, coffee, chips, wine, beer, etc. Good for grabbing something quick when heading to the parks in the AM for rope drop. We ate there a few times, but paying $5 for cup of drip coffee was offensive. Sandwiches were reasonable at about $8-$10 but $5 for drip coffee was just wrong.
They had a Disney help desk on the lobby floor, fully staffed until after 10 pm. They helped us with our magic bands, helped with fast pass issues, park hours, etc. They were very good at getting the app set up for your party so that you can all see the fast passes on your own phones and answered every question we had. I believe they are Disney Cast members and were very helpful. This was a huge benefit for us, they had us all dialed in so that we could hit the park early with no issues. You don't get a magic band at this property included in your fees like at the true high-end Disney properties, but they sell them there at the desk and have a bigger selection in the lobby Disney gift shop. You don't need these, but they are really convenient to have all your fast passes available and you entry ticket linked to it. No more fumbling for cards, paper fast passes, etc. The only downside is that since it is not a true Disney property, you cannot make in-park purchases, it is not linked to your room.
We could walk or take the boat to Hollywood Studios or Epcot. There is a ton of construction going on so walking to Hollywood was impeded and the boat was the best option. About a 10 minute ride, drops you off very close to security check point and the main gate. Epcot was also served by a boat, but it was only about a 10 minute walk to the side entrance of Epcot, so we walked to and from that park. As to the water parks, Disney Springs, Animal Kingdom, or Magic Kingdom, out hotel has a nice bus stop where Disney buses pick you up and take you right to the front gates of the locations. Super convenient. They also have a Minnie Lyft type deal where if you are in a hurry, want to be the first family at the park, or just don't want to get on the bus, you can get this special Lyft that can take you essentially door to door. There is a $20 up charge on say a normally $10 ride or a little more than a Lyft XL. We did it a few times, usually a Chevy Traverse painted red with white polka dots ala Minnie. The bus service was pretty dialed in, they even display the schedule:
My family settled into good rhythm of up early...hit the rides, then back to the hotel from 12-5 or so....hit the pool, relax in the AC, etc...then back to a park or Disney Springs in the evening when the weather is better and the lights are all on.
As to the World Center...great pool area, lots of eating and options, all on property. They had a pretty good water slide tower, maybe 50 feet tall, with multiple slides. The rooms all have the modern Marriott remodel going, very nice. They had a killer view from a balcony on 20th floor or something. All and all, a very nice property but a significant time killer to get to the parks if that is important to you like it is for my family. If you take the Marriott bus, good 45 minutes to an hour depending on the park you are going to and it drops you off in the parking area far from the security checkpoint/front gate and you have to take another shuttle to the gate. Same if you decide to Lyft or Uber....they can't drop you off at the gate like the Minnie Lyft, you are way out in the parking area...any have to trek to the front gate. My sister was there for the first 4 nights and them moved over to Swan and Dolphin when the conference they were attending was over. She said her hotel was nicer, I agree, but our location more than made up for it for park goers.
We were very close to Epcot and a very nice boardwalk area with shops, bars, restaurants all open late into the evening. I would say we were 5 minute walk to Boardwalk and 10 minute walk to side entrance of Epcot. The location was excellent. We went to Epcot several time in the evening just to walk around and enjoy the world area at night when it was all lit up. Here are a couple photos of the Swan, Dolphin and the boardwalk area in the foreground.
Here is a photograph of the family walking down the boardwalk, it was really nice to have the ability to walk over to some night life near the hotel. They have a small store with provisions as well as bakery, several restaurants, take-away hamburgers and pizza, ice cream, etc.
All and all, very pleased with our stay at the Swan and Dolphin...yes we could have saved a few bucks staying off the Disney property and maybe had access to a concierge lounge, but to us, being close to everything and getting the 60-day window to reserve fast passes made it very much worthwhile. I will return to this location again. I only wish it that Universal Studios had a Marriott on property! That would have been great.