Adventure On (and Off) the High Seas: Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean

On this dreary, drizzly Friday, I’m thinking back to three weeks ago, when my daughters and I began a 7-day adventure that took us to Orlando, St. Thomas, and St. Martin, all part of a press trip sponsored by Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean. We kicked off the trip by staying at the incredible Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, which is designed to make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, or Bali, or someplace similarly tropical and exotic. (If you’re feeling more of a European vibe, consider Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, modeled after the Italian village and including an authentic piazza and boat-filled harbor.)

The next morning we met up with our group to take the brief walk over to Universal Studios. The weather was uncharacteristically rainy, which made me so grateful for the fact that much of Universal’s best attractions are indoors. We started with the Despicable Me ride; my girls, ages 5 and 8, both loved it and were very happy to be able to take a picture with an actual Minion afterward. Shrek 4-D was another hit–especially the part when the Donkey sneezed and we all got sprayed (with water). It’s so much fun to do 3-D with kids, watching them swat at and duck from the stuff coming toward them, and Universal is long on 3-D offerings, including the new Transformers ride and Terminator 2. Then we went to what’s arguably the park’s most popular attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d just started reading Harry Potter with my older daughter, Julia, the week before, so that she’d have a frame of reference. Her little sister, Lila, didn’t have the first idea who Harry was, but she still got into the spirit as soon as we got to the enormous Hogwarts Castle. While Lila was too small to ride the main event, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, she absolutely loved the smaller-kid-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff. (And I thought it was very cool that she, along with all the other shorties, were given an official certificate granting her and four guests front-of-the-line access to the Forbidden Journey once she’s tall enough. I’m holding on to that!) After all the adrenaline-pumping rides, we took it down about 20 notches and spent a while in the Dr. Seuss-themed part of the park, which suits the younger crowd very nicely.

If you’re considering a trip to Universal Orlando in the near future, you’ll be happy to hear that come March, they’ll have a brand-new budget-friendly hotel option in Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The resort offers 900 family suites that sleep six (as well as another 900 traditional hotel rooms) and there’s a special offer going on right now with rates as low as $104-$134 per night. Find out more here or by calling 888-273-1311.

Come Sunday, we boarded the Freedom of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship that serves more than 3,600 guests. The Universal/Royal Caribbean combo is a nod to the growing trend of “double-duty vacations.” We didn’t know it yet, but my children were about to have five of the most fun days of their lives. Seriously. Throughout our trip, the girls would spontaneously say things like, “Who’s having the best time EVER?” and shoot their hands in the air. They’d ask if we could live on the ship. They’d say they wished Daddy “had a house in St. Martin so we wouldn’t have to go home.” (Believe me, I wish Daddy had a house on St. Martin, too.) The moments that really stuck with us:

  • The Dreamworks Character Breakfast, with special guest stars Puss in Boots, Fiona, and Shrek
  • The Tiaras and Teacups Party, where about a dozen little girls served their moms tea and cupcakes (their favorite part) while being taught about table manners and proper etiquette (my favorite part). This was part of the Barbie Premium Experience, a special package you can buy separately that gets your child a slew of Barbie toys and goodies along with the chance to be in a fashion show and participate in other fun events all week. At $349, this add-on isn’t cheap, but Royal Caribbean does offer significant discounts from time to time, so definitely ask about that when you’re booking.
  • Strolling through the Promenade one night and finding ourselves in the middle of a flash mob dancing to “Thriller” (I’m a sucker for Michael Jackson)
  • Turning on the Dreamworks channel in our room at any hour and catching bits of movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar,” and watching “The Croods” in the ship’s movie theater
  • When Lila won (okay, co-won) a hula-hooping contest during Family Disco Night and left with her own medal
  • Coming back to our room at night to see which origami towel creation our stateroom attendant, Desiree, had created. The girls formed a bond with Desiree as soon as we arrived at our room, and they loved giving her high-fives and hugs all week. In fact, at the Tiaras and Teacups party, all the kids left with a piece of Barbie stationery, on which they were asked to write a note to someone they appreciated. Lila wrote hers to Desiree, thanking her for keeping our room so clean. Very sweet.
  • The ice skating show. (Fun fact: Royal Caribbean is one of the largest employers of ice skaters in the world.) We got there just as the performance started and I didn’t realize it would be so packed, so we had to split up. From my vantage point a few rows behind Julia and Lila, I got to watch a second show: My girls swiveling their heads from one end of the rink to the other and then zipping back to stare at each other in amazement and exclaim “WOW” and “Did you see that?!” after every skater’s jump. When the show ended, Julia ran up to me and said, “That. Was. AWESOME!” (Had I thought to pack the girls long pants and socks, they could’ve skated themselves during the many open-ice sessions during our cruise.)
  • Swimming in the pools, splashing in the “H2O Zone” water park, and chilling in the hot tubs. (It’s worth noting, though, that there are no lifeguards on the ship. Staffers definitely keep an eye out for kids–I watched one hustle over and scoop up a little girl who slipped and fell–but the onus is 100% on parents.)
  • Our excursion on St. Thomas: We sailed on the party boat Kon Tiki over to a private beach for a few hours. The water was the perfect temperature and the scenery was gorgeous, but the highlight for my kids was the on-board entertainment on the way back to the ship. Backed by a steel-drum band, two post-college guys danced the Macarena, started a conga line, and performed a very impressive limbo. (My girls later separately confessed to finding the guys “cute.” I can’t disagree.)
  • Our balcony. With all of the excitement on board the ship (and I’m only scratching the surface), some of my favorite moments were spent sitting outside, watching the waves as we sailed. It was such a peaceful setting and I felt so grateful to have the chance to experience it.

As I said, this vacation was nearly a month ago, but it’s stayed with my children. Just last night at bedtime Julia said, “I wish I was still on the ship.” Lila told me last weekend that she wants to go with her sister and her cousin on Freedom of the Seas for “16 weeks” when she’s in high school. Our on-board neighbors told us that this was their 15th cruise; it’s the only way they travel. I’m wondering if my girls, bolstered by the memories this cruise gave them, will follow in their footsteps one day?

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