Tuesday, August 29, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #8: Inside Universal's Hard Rock Orlando

While we were watching this video, Joe informed me that the Hard Rock Hotel was the most popular hotel on Universal Orlando property. Which seemed odd to me. The Hard Rock is the only UO hotel I haven’t stayed at (besides Sapphire Falls) and I never had an impetus to stay there, since I enjoy staying at Royal Pacific and Portofino. Hard Rock was always in the limbo-esque middle, between luxurious Portofino and the more cost-effective Royal Pacific. So I asked Joe why that was and told him it didn’t make much sense to me. “Don’t believe me,” he said, “check out the prices and availability and see for yourself.” So we did. Hard Rock was, in some cases, more than $100 per night more expensive than Portofino. And there were several days where Portofino would be available but Hard Rock was sold out. So of course, I had to re-think my opinion about the whole thing!

It’s obvious Hard Rock succeeds for several reasons: the location (closest hotel to the main gate), the atmosphere (California/Beverly Hills mansion), the rock n’ roll tone, the coolness factor. I could see why people liked it so much. So going into re-watching the Inside Universal’s Hard Rock Orlando Travel Channel special for the first time in more than a decade really let me appreciate the uniqueness that HRH brings to the table for UO.

It’s so hard to realize now that Universal Orlando didn’t have a resort hotel until the Islands of Adventure/CityWalk expansion in 1999. That means that Disney had hotels in Florida for 28 years before Universal put in its first. For almost the first decade of Universal Orlando’s existence, guests wanting to make Universal their “home base” would be forced to stay at the Sheratons and Days Inns across I-4. It was far, far from the “all-encompassing resort experience” that Orlando tourist destinations strive to be today.

One thing that the original Universal Orlando did have, however, was the world’s largest Hard Rock Café. It was housed in a giant mansion-esque (or courthouse-esque, depending on your point of view) building that towered over the Fievel’s Playland area inside the park. The huge restaurant was also located on a foundation shaped like a guitar, with the arm of the guitar extending out over the street as a walkway for those who just wanted to park and eat at the restaurant. Yes, before the “don’t forget your handstamp” Rainforest Café at Animal Kingdom, there was the world’s largest Hard Rock Café straddling the Universal Studios park inside and out.  It was rumored that Disney originally had the option to build the Hard Rock Café at Pleasure Island upon its opening in 1989, which they declined, thinking they could create their own money-making restaurant concept without the Hard Rock and its licensing fees. Of course, Universal jumped at the chance to have the Hard Rock on its property. Disney, after seeing the success of the Hard Rock at Universal, signed with both Rainforest Café and Planet Hollywood as soon as those trends started cresting, to attempt to mitigate the mistake of not signing Hard Rock.

Fast forward to the Universal expansion of 1999. Universal at this time was owned by Seagram, and its chief Edgar Bronfman, Jr. was determined to spend the billions of dollars necessary for UO to take on Disney in Florida. The first major expansion would include an all-new theme park (IOA) and a new nighttime and entertainment district (CityWalk). Of course, with so much new entertainment to occupy the visitor’s time, one other thing was absolutely necessary…hotels. And lo and behold, Hard Rock had already built a hotel in Las Vegas by the time the Universal expansion began. This would definitely be a slam-dunk for the Universal team. Knowing their hotels had to reach AAA Four-Diamond status and have world-class theming to compete with the Disney Deluxe Hotels, the Universal team struck a deal with Loews hotels, owners of over a dozen high-end hotels in the United States. And their first big project would be the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando.

The Hard Rock was intended to, in a way, be the Universal equivalent to the Disneyland Hotel, in that it would have the Universal attitude woven through its theming and tone, and would be located right at the doorstep of the theme park complexes. To make way for the new expansion, the original Hard Rock Café was removed from the theme park site, and moved to a new location in between the Studios and Islands of Adventure parks. Not only was the restaurant expanded, but the venue also gained its own live music venue, Hard Rock Live, which would host shows for everyone from famous rock musicians to local bands. And so we come to Hard Rock today.

Watching the old-school Travel Channel special really helped me understand why people like the Hard Rock Hotel so much. Not just because of the location, but also because of the vibe. I think Universal wishes it could have that cool, laid back rock vibe throughout its Studios park. It’s definitely a tone they tried to hit throughout the 1990s and 2000s and failed to catch. But the hotel just sweats coolness. I don’t know if it’s the Beverly Hills mansion-inspired exterior, the “rock star home” interior decoration, the music played through every part of the property, or the attitude of the staff, but this hotel seems to sweat and bleed luxury more so than even the Portofino, which was originally supposed to represent the Grand Floridian of the lot. Maybe it’s the rock star entourage attitude, which is a tone that I wish the Studios park could harness at some point.

And the attention to detail, as this special illustrates, is quite good. The palm trees that line the entranceway were picked to mimic those native to SoCal. The interior décor was created with the backstory of a rock star and his crazy girlfriend traveling all around the world and capturing odd decoration pieces from international locations. This, of course, required the hotel team to do a ridiculous amount of shopping for exotic items, which they house in a warehouse across the street (and which happens to be the holding warehouse for the entire Hard Rock Café chain!)

And here’s another secret (GOD THAT’S ANNOYING!): the Hard Rock kitchen in Orlando also acts as a test kitchen for the entire restaurant chain, where they get to test out new recipes. So if people don’t like the salad dressing in Maryland (they never do describe what exactly was wrong with that darn salad dressing…), they can immediately begin testing new recipes.

We also learn about the Hard Rock pin obsession, the VIP Guest protocols, the pet-friendly hotel initiatives, and the fact that the hotel pool is “the next-best thing to a masseuse” (that one was a little overboard I think).

Really, this whole thing will convince you to book the Hard Rock Hotel for your next trip to Orlando. It’s definitely a priority for me next time I go. Of course, that’s if I can get a reservation apparently. That’s the power of Travel Channel specials! Enjoy!

--ParkScopeJeff (@ParkScopeJeff)

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