With a Universal Orlando and Royal Caribbean cruise package, you get the best of both worlds – thrilling attractions on land and adventures at sea. The fun begins with two days in Universal Orlando’s theme parks followed by a seven-night cruise aboard Freedom of the Seas to the Western or Eastern Caribbean.
My 24-year-old son, Michael, and I (both seasoned cruisers) recently joined a group of writers and their kids on one of these land/sea packages to the Western Caribbean, with calls in Falmouth, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private beach paradise in northern Haiti.
Start to finish, we enjoyed every minute, from playing at the theme parks and relaxing on the ship to exploring each island’s natural attractions.
From L.A., it was about a five-hour flight to Orlando, where we checked into the upscale Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, one of four onsite Universal resorts. Posh room amenities include a Keurig coffeemaker and beds fitted with soft, 300-thread-count sheets ensuring restful sleep.
The Italian-themed resort has several family-friendly restaurants. Among them: the casual Trattoria del Porto (nice buffet selections), and the cozy Mama Della’s Ristorante.
One of the hotel’s perks is the free Universal Expresssm Unlimited ride ticket that allows you to bypass regular lines at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, and visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter with early admission.
Reaching the parks is easy. Complimentary water taxis and shuttles bring you to the entrance. There’s also a scenic walking path from the hotel to CityWalk, the gateway to the theme parks.
Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida
Using our Universal Express tickets was a time saver as we cruised through major attractions in both parks. Although neither of us are huge Harry Potter fans, our favorite attraction was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The architecture and the attractions (especially Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) are amazing. We were impressed with the immersive Hogwarts Express, a train that connects Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in both parks.
Having seen this, we’re especially looking forward to the debut of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Hollywood in spring 2016.
Freedom of the Seas
The ship, which recently underwent a bow-to-stern refresh with more staterooms and new restaurants, is the largest cruise ship sailing from Port Canaveral.
Onboard festivities begin with a buffet lunch and a DreamWorks sail away party with Shrek, Princess Fiona and other DreamWorks characters by the family pool. And it wasn’t just kids dancing with Shrek.
Throughout the cruise, I made sure to keep handy the daily Cruise Compass activities program, jam-packed with shore excursion news, show times and special events. For example, we went on a galley tour, where we learned that 20,000 meals are prepared daily, and that chefs do a taste test 30 minutes before lunch and dinner.
Royal Caribbean is known for first-at-sea activities and entertainment. On Freedom, these include FlowRider (a surf simulator), a rock climbing wall, nine-hole mini golf and a full-size basketball court. At the ice skating rink (made with real ice), you can strap on a pair of skates or catch the incredible Freedom-Ice.com show – entertaining for the entire family.
A hub for families with young kids is the H2O Zone kids’ aquapark, decked out with an oversized LED screen showing live onboard activities and movies under the stars.
Just for Kids
The kids in our group enjoyed the activities and making new friends in Royal Caribbean’s interactive youth programs. Adventure Ocean offers supervised activities, which include finger painting for Aquanauts (ages 3 – 5 years); carnival games, talent shows and pirate night for Explorers (ages 6 – 8 years); and karaoke, sports and tag for Voyagers (ages 9 – 11 years).
Teens 12 – 17 can come and go as they please to participate in sports tournaments, pool parties, themed dance parties and other staff-hosted activities.
Our retreat was the Solarium (for ages 18 and older). Our favorite activities: soaking in one of two Jacuzzis suspended over the ocean and watching the ship plow through the water, and floating in the pool as the water swished with the ship’s gentle motion. There’s also a pool-side bar, spa and fitness center (with ocean views).
Dine with Shrek
Nine onboard dining options include new specialty restaurants (additional cost). At Sabor Modern Mexican, servers prepare fresh guacamole at your table; Giovanni’s Table serves delicious Italian dishes family style.
Be sure to make reservations for the popular DreamWorks Character Breakfast ($10 ages 6 and older). Included in your cruise fare are the main dining rooms and the buffet-style Windjammer.
It’s best to book shore excursions in advance or at least as soon as you board the ship. With so many adventures to choose from at each port, they book up quickly.
Our first stop was to Royal Caribbean’s private beach where there’s a floating Arawak Aqua Park. But our favorite attractions were the Dragon’s Tail Coaster through a forest, and the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line, a zip line over the ocean that was simply stunning.
After this port, my son said Jamaicans are his favorite people. They were indeed very friendly, teasing each other and joking with guests. On a gentle tubing excursion down the Martha Rae River, guides sang, laughed and splashed water at everyone. We also went on a zip line over a stream through a forest and rode ATVs.
George Town, Grand Cayman
This pristine island was our favorite since we spent a lot of time in the crystal clear ocean water. First, a relaxing boat ride brought us to Stingray City, a series of shallow sandbars and a natural gathering place for gentle stingrays long used to local fishermen. We fed them squid and watched them gracefully dance around us.
Next, we snorkeled at a colorful, coal garden reef, before planting ourselves under palms at Tiki Beach on picturesque Seven Mile Beach (rated among the world’s top 10 beaches). A freshly grilled lunch of cheeseburgers and hotdogs was included in our excursion.
About seven minutes by bus from the ship, Chakanaab Beach Adventure Park offers several attractions, including laser tag in a Mayan-themed jungle, a sea lion show, snorkeling and swimming. But the best part was a dip in the ocean and lounging under a thatched hut on the beach.
Prices vary for Royal Caribbean and Universal Orlando packages, which include hotel, park entrance, all transfers and the cruise. Transfers are included between the airport and hotel, airport and Port Canaveral and between hotel and Port Canaveral.
* Mimi attended a hosted FAM trip for review purposes. Her opinions are her own. Photos by Mimi Slawoff.