My scavenger hunt teammates and I scanned the crowds jostling through Marvel Super Hero Island. We had managed to arrive first after race-walking through the Islands of Adventure theme park at Universal Orlando Resort in a record-setting two hours, posing for digital photos and scouting for clues during our gamification event. Behind us, in the main event space (200 max), chef-attended stations were sizzling up filet mignon sliders, Asian chicken lettuce wraps and seared diver sea scallops for our awards luncheon.
From our scavenger hunt, we learned a lot about bringing meetings groups to Universal Orlando’s two theme parks and multiple Loews Hotels. It’s not what you see on the surface—luxury resorts, spectacular attractions and live shows—but how 250,000 sf of event space can be creatively utilized.
“We do events for 20 to 20,000,” says Eric Marshall, vp of park sales. “Our environments are so heavily themed and packed with entertainment that there’s real opportunity for meeting planners to focus money on better menus and more creative, customized elements.”
Even small add-ons deliver big impact, like food trucks at a New York-style street party, or inserting the group’s president into a customized 45-minute Blue Man Group show.
The possibilities are endless with Universal’s wide range of production capabilities. A popular group event during Halloween Horror Nights is a behind-the-scenes haunted house tour. The first time through, the lights are on.
“The second time, the lights are off and we bring in our scaractors (scary actors) for an experience they’ll never forget,” says Marshall. One teambuilding idea favored by smaller, executive groups is to star in a 13-minute film written around the company’s goals and produced by the Universal A/V team. It’s later screened at a group function.
Sometimes it just takes adding themed food to an existing attraction venue to take the event to another level, such as combining the simulated Simpsons Ride with upscale versions of carnival food, like fried Snickers bars and fried Oreos or having butterbeer, fish n’ chips and cauldron cakes for a Wizarding World of Harry Potter event set along the cobbled Hogsmeade streets.
Our group saw firsthand how a few tweaks upgraded the experience. One evening we had ringside seats on the wide verandah of Lombard’s Seafood Grille for to view the nightly Universal Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories. Sure, you can stand alongside the Universal Studios Lagoon to watch film clips from iconic film classics on three huge waterfall screens, but this new program includes dinner, a decadent dessert buffet and primo viewing.
“Meeting planners are no longer interested in an off-the-shelf proposal; they want collaboration,” says Marshall. “They look to us for assistance on which event would work best for their group.”
One of the most fascinating discoveries was the benefit of having a VIP-guided tour that gave us immediate access to rides, behind-the-scenes access to attractions and an insider’s knowledge of the creative story behind those attractions. If Universal paid such close attention to minor details, such as growing banana trees outside the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction because bananas are Minions’ favorite food, how far would they go to enhance a private event?
We also played team challenges on the new Invaders from Planet Putt! Hollywood Drive-In Golf Course, dined on gourmet fare in the Greek God-themed cavernous rock restaurant Mythos—routinely acknowledged as the “Best Theme Park Restaurant in the World,” and heard about Transformers: The Ride 3-D opening this summer. The groundbreaking attraction features 25 to 35-foot Decepticons and Autobots battling one another.
Mike West, executive producer/director of Universal Creative says, “We’re going to put you right in the middle of the action with incredible high definition 3-D imagery and amazing special effects. This will be the greatest battle you will ever ride. It’s sure to be the next hot venue for group events.”
Groups who book Universal Orlando Resort don’t just party in the parks. Often, the three four-diamond hotels are a destination themselves, which by the very nature of their elaborate decor spurs creativity.
“The value proposition of our hotels is the amenities specific to each, and that we keep current on trends,” says Vince LaRuffa, vp of resort sales/marketing.
Last year, over 80,000 sf of meeting and event space has been added to the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort and 650-room Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando.
In 2014, Universal opens Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a hotel unlike any other on Universal property. Cabana Bay addresses two trends, says LaRuffa: “More meetings are family-inclusive and there’s a need for lodging at a moderate price point.” The 1,800-room hotel will evoke memories of the 50s and 60s with bright period colors and retro flair.
Our group was happily lodged in the 750-room Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, a re-creation of the iconic Italian seaside village of the same name. The 42,000 sf of meeting space includes several piazzas, three pools and eight restaurants that are all designed for events. I was immediately interested in the details of the just-refurbished rooms that particularly appeal to women travelers. Girls will especially love the ornate Italian ceramic tile outlining a giant bathroom mirror and divine 4-tiered salmon curio cabinet. Also, ask for the hotel’s front side overlooking fishing boats moored in the placid lagoon and stone piazza surrounded by boutique shops.
The Loews Royal Pacific Resort is a fusion of South Pacific locations, where a bamboo bridge over a tropical canal resembling a rainforest leads into the spacious lobby adorned with Indonesian furniture and an orchid garden. More than 85,000 sf of meeting space was just freshened with new carpeting of vivid large red water lilies, and a South Pacific palette of tangerine, pomegranate and aqua. Harry Potter-themed conferences have used the large function lawn for quidditch matches and wizard chess. An adjacent 42,000-sf pavilion seats 1,500 pax.
Meanwhile, the Hard Rock Hotel treats each meeting attendee like a rock star. Literally. Each person receives a hanging backstage pass with the meeting agenda printed on back. The hotel has 6,000 sf of event space easily reconfigured to each group’s needs. The lobby lounge doubles as a second ballroom when ringed by red velvet rope. And the Velvet Lounge is an intimate space for 80, decorated in leopard print carpet and zebra chairs.
“Our partnership with Hard Rock International means groups from 200-1,100 can replicate the hotel’s Velvet Sessions concerts,” says Thyag Satgoor, director of conference management/catering.
Satgoor says the hotel has exclusive amenities that resonate with music fans, such as a partnership with Fender. Attendees can borrow a Fender guitar, with instructions, to play in private. A new program called “Sound of your Stay” provides attendees at check-in with a free playlist to download, which has already garnered raves. And the Avalon Ballroom just underwent a $250,000 renovation.
“Groups usually incorporate music into their programs, and this is the room to do it,” says Satgoor. The carpet is a funky musical score-inspired pattern of red, black and gray. It has metal sculptures, acoustically-padded walls and original platinum and gold albums framed around the room. Satgoor adds, “When you bring a group of 80 to 120 people here, you own this space.”