ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990 it was pretty much just an amusement park and a distant competitor to Walt Disney World.
Almost 25 years later, Universal has come a long way. Adding a second park, Islands of Adventure, in 1999, truly got Universal into the destination resort business with well-designed, creatively themed lands, including the 2010 expansion that brought Harry Potter's Hogwarts to life.
Over the years Universal has added hotels that are themed to music (Hard Rock Hotel), Italy (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel) and the South Pacific (Lowes Royal Pacific Resort).
Earlier this year, Universal opened Cabana Bay Beach Resort, an 1,800-room hotel that gives some of Disney's themed hotels a run for their money and easily eclipses other lesser Disney lodging.
Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort transports viewers back in time -- or for younger visitors, to a time they've only experienced in TV shows such as "Mad Men" and "Magic City" -- to the midcentury American roadside motel era.
Russ Dagon, vice president of Universal Creative and executive project director for Cabana Bay Beach Resort, said there had been a lot of discussion of what a fourth hotel at the Universal Orlando Resort should look like, including a pitch for a tacky tourist hotel.
"That didn't fly for a number of reasons, but it evolved into, 'I don't like the theme, but I like some of the architecture you're showing," Mr. Dagon said. Instead of basing the hotel on one specific place, the goal became to evoke a time: "This late '50s, early '60s age of travel and the family vacation in a station wagon."
Designers looked at photos of mom and pop motels and roadside attractions from Wildwood, N.J., to the Pacific Coast Highway.
"There was a lot of research and not boring research, pulling out an old encyclopedia It's trying to find imagery we could gravitate toward," Mr. Dagon said.
The round lobby with a terrarium in the center looks like a fancy, nouveau hotel from a movie of the era and was inspired by the Americana Hotel, which opened in Miami in 1956. Elsewhere in the lobby building there's the first-ever Jack LaLanne-branded physical fitness studio, a bowling alley, arcade, a fancy food court and, in a nod to present-day addictions, a Starbucks.
One of Cabana Bay's two pool areas opened in early May -- the other debuts in mid-June -- and offered a terrific respite from the crowds and constant walking that characterize all theme park visits.
The pool is situated in a rough square bordered by the lobby area and three four-story wings of the hotel, each building named after a late 1950s' /early 1960s'-style hotel: Thunderbird, Castaway and Starlight.
A sandy area is full of beach toys and games, including ping-pong tables. There's a kids' spray and splash zone, and Atomic Tonic offers up drinks inspired by the era (you can also order pizza there for poolside munching).
The pool is the highlight of the Cabana Courtyard with a mock-up of a diving tower at the center. No diving is allowed (liability insurance and lawyers did away with reviving that iconic pastime, Mr. Dagon said), but the tower is integrated with a slick, fast-moving waterslide.
(In late April Cabana Bay workers still had some landscaping kinks to work out: After a typical, afternoon Florida rainstorm, water pooled in spots instead of draining, and brown bark was washed onto sidewalks.)
Hotels associated with theme parks have grown in their themeing over the years. When the Disneyland Hotel opened in Anaheim, Calif., in 1956 it was pretty much just a hotel.
But in the five decades since, there's become a greater emphasis on the design of theme park hotels.
"It's an experience," Mr. Dagon said. "When your day at the park ends, we want you to continue your day back at the hotel. Also, it's a respite. On one of the days you're visiting Orlando, you may decide, we're not going to do a theme park, let's relax poolside. So the hotel is experiential in and of itself."
Billed as a moderate/value hotel, Cabana Bay veers away from value in high season (rates begin at $194 per night during the holidays in December and $164 at the height of summer) but moves back toward the moderate in the fall (from $119 per night).
Cabana Bay's room designs are especially conducive to families: Family suites sleep six (four in two beds, two in a pull-out sofa) and include a kitchenette and a sliding partition between the bedroom and a living room area, so parents don't have to go hide in the bathroom if they want a light on when their children are falling asleep.
The family suites also have a three-compartment bathroom -- a shower room and sink behind one door, a toilet closet behind another door and a sink area in between -- to allow multiple members of the family to get ready at the same time.
"Any guests who stay with us get into the theme park an hour early, so we knew most of the guests would be up at the same time and would all want to get ready at the same time so they can get over to the park," Mr. Dagon said. "We wanted a bathroom where three guests could get ready at the same time without one guest shutting the bathroom door and shutting down the whole operation."
Again, research proved key in choosing colors, furnishings, even the hotel-provided toiletries. Mr. Dagon said initially the plan was to design Cabana Bay-themed packaging for hotel-provided, travel-size soap and shampoo. But then someone with Cabana Bay's operator, Loews Hotels, discovered it was still possible to get V05 and Zest soap in packaging that fits with the time period Cabana Bay evokes.
Of course, not everything from the era was replicated exactly. Hotel rooms have flat-screen TVs and USB charging stations. The shape of actual midcentury pools -- boring rectangles -- was a no-go.
"We fell in love with the architecture and everything in the era, but it was the one thing we loved but didn't do," Mr. Dagon said. "We also knew it wouldn't resonate with today's guests, so we knew we had to go over the top with the pool."
■ ■ ■ ■
If you go ... Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Rates: Standard rooms (sleeps four) begin at $119 per night; family suites (sleeps six) begin at $174; discounts for length of stay can result in a lower average per-night cost.
Parking: $10 per night per vehicle.
Transportation: Complimentary shuttles to Universal CityWalk through which guests can enter Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure theme parks.
Park benefits: Early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before theme park opens with valid theme park admission.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.