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Universal Orlando – Just What Is ‘Universal Orlando’?

Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are both multi-park, multi-resort vacation destinations. But whereas Disney sprawls over a vast area, Universal Orlando is comfortably compact, allowing its guests to spend less time getting around and more time enjoying themselves. And while Disney World harkens back to an earlier time, Universal is very much of the moment, with an eye to the future.

There are two theme parks here. The original movie-studio-themed Universal Studios Florida (USF) is still going strong. It continues to add new thrills using the very latest in technology. Almost literally next door is Islands of Adventure (IOA), an attraction that takes the whole notion of "theme park" to the next level, with awesome rides and hyper-detailed environments.

CityWalk is an entertainment and restaurant complex that lies between the theme parks. This is very much an adult experience, with a cross-cultural sampling of dining and entertainment (although several restaurants will also appeal to the younger set). And CityWalk rocks, thanks to the world's largest Hard Rock Cafe and Hard Rock Live, a performance space that hosts some of pop music's biggest names.

Universal's quartet of themed, on-property resort hotels likewise go toe-to-toe with Mickey's best lodgings. Portofino Bay Hotel has established itself among Orlando's premiere resort hotels. This ultra-luxury property is a photographic reproduction of that favorite destination of the international jet set, Portofino, Italy. More casual is the Hard Rock Hotel, which radiates a hip California sensibility and is just steps away from the front gate to Universal Studios Florida. The Royal Pacific Resort evokes the romance of far-off Bali, just minutes away from the theme parks by foot or boat. The value-priced Cabana Bay Beach Resort (opening in phases during 2014) is an affordable alternative to off-site motels with family-friendly features and a retro-modern motor-court flair.

Across the interstate on an adjacent parcel sits Wet 'n Wild, a water park that Universal now owns. It has not been fully rolled into the "Universal Orlando" brand, but it is included in some ticket options and is well worth a visit. In 2013 Universal purchased the land under and around Wet 'n Wild, fueling speculation that the resort may soon expand into that area.

Universal Orlando is a family destination. But, unlike some parks, Universal seems to recognize that "families" come in all sorts of different packages. Parents with little ones will find this an almost ideal place for their kids. And yet families with teenagers will not have to worry about complaints that the rides are "lame." Best of all, adults who have yet to have kids, or who have grown kids, or who have left the kids at home, or who never plan to have kids at all can come to Universal Orlando without feeling that they're in a kiddie park. And those snobbish sophisticates who think theme parks are beneath them may find themselves won over by the dazzling architecture, the luxurious accommodations, the gourmet food, and the wide array of nighttime entertainment.

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