Universal has expanded its value hotel category with the second phase of its Endless Summer Resort along International Drive, called Dockside Inn & Suites.
For those unfamiliar with Universal’s latest hotel expansion, the two halves of the Endless Summer Resort are physically separated from the rest of the Universal Orlando Resort, being located on the other side of I-4. The first hotel, the 750-room Surfside Inn & Suites, opened in July 2019. Dockside’s debut was delayed until December 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding 2,050 rooms, more than half of which are two-bedroom suites advertised as being able to sleep up to six people.
After spending two nights at Dockside, I honestly can’t imagine settling for a non-Universal I-Drive hotel ever again, as this offers reliable transportation, better pool areas, and an overall higher quality experience.
It also shows how Disney and Universal have vastly different definitions of what a “value” resort can be, as Dockside offers amenities I’d associate more with a Disney World moderate, and at a price point you’d rarely find on Disney property. My standard room cost $89 per night with an annual passholder discount in May 2021. Rates for non-passholders for the same dates were between $105 and $120 per night.
The biggest reason to stay at Dockside over neighboring I-Drive hotels — or a Disney value resort — are the pool areas.
Nestled between its two U-shaped towers are two large pools. Tower 2’s pool is the slightly better choice, featuring a zero-entry pool and a sandy beach area, but you’ll find plenty of deck chairs and a pool bar at each. The Oasis Beach Bar menu tempted me with its Bubba Tub, which places any cocktail into a 32-ounce bucket for $18, but I decided this review would be better if I could actually remember my stay and remained sober.
While the pools lack slides or hot tubs, the blessing of space makes up for it. I found myself far more relaxed than the tighter and more kid-centric centerpiece pools at either Pop Century or All-Star Movies at Disney World, even without a bucket of liquor.
Each of the towers connect to the centralized lobby. You’ll find a much larger Universal Studios Store here than the neighboring Surfside, filled with generic beach wear as well as a selection of Universal parks merchandise. There is also some resort-specific merch branded to Endless Summer as a whole.
Before entering the food court, there’s another bar option, the Sunset Lounge. Sporting more signature cocktails and the usual selection of beer and wine, the mere presence of a lobby bar gives Dockside another edge over Disney’s value category.
I should note that Dockside does have an arcade in Tower 2, but it had yet to open during my visit, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. My guess is it’s nothing special, as most hotels in and around Orlando that have been constructed recently don’t feature large arcade spaces as they did in the ‘90s and 2000s. You’ll also find a complimentary fitness center in Tower 1.
While the obligatory Starbucks in the lobby is appreciated — the lines here will be better than inside the parks or at CityWalk — the main food option at Dockside is the Pier 8 Market food court.
If you’ve read any of my other hotel reviews, my personal tastes in food are too simple and unadventurous for me to do any in-depth food criticism, but I’ve dined on enough theme park hotel food to comment on general quality and value. And on that basis, I think Pier 8 Market succeeds.
Like other theme park hotel food courts, Pier 8 Market offers multiple stations serving everything from burgers to pizza to fried chicken and waffle combos. I went with the latter on my first dinner meal, with $9 getting me two pieces of chicken, my choice of side and a Belgian waffle. Not the greatest bang for my buck but any meal under $10 at a theme park hotel is a small victory.
For another meal, I opted for the 10-inch pizza for $13, which is also available for in-room delivery. This appears to be the same pizza offered at Cabana Bay Beach Resort’s food court, and even for a Chicago pizza snob like me, I thought it did the trick for an easy meal I could take up to my room.
The stations change at breakfast, with options ranging from breakfast pizza to hot sandwiches to pancakes to fresh bakery items, including Krispy Kreme donuts. Here, the value proposition is worse, as $9 for plain flapjacks or $5 for the equivalent of a Egg McMuffin meal brought me closer to that familiar theme park sensation of feeling ripped off. You’re better off getting a quick breakfast from Starbucks at those prices.
Like its neighbor, Dockside Inn & Suites’ standard room are 313 square feet. This puts them slightly larger than those at Cabana Bay, which is the higher (and confusingly named) “Prime Value” category,” about 50 square feet larger than Disney’s value resort and roughly the same as a Disney Moderate.
The beach motif — no points for originality there, Universal — carries through to the room, but it’s also done lightly enough that you’ll barely notice. The room did have some strange and annoying feature that appeared to be designed to save on electricity costs, but may result in more guests accidentally leaving their room key behind. You’ll see what I’m talking about from my room tour video:
Overall, my Dockside room had a lot in common with the standard accommodations at Surfside, with the notable and welcome exception of having a standalone shower, rather than a shower/tub combination.
Like its neighbor, Dockside Inn & Suites does suffer in some aspects based on its “value” brand, but even these are minor quibbles.
Both Dockside and Surfside guests are restricted to their own pools. Until Universal Orlando Resort extended into I-Drive, on-site guests were allowed to hop between resort pools, such as a Cabana Bay guest freely taking a dip at the more expensive Hard Rock. It’s one feature that sets Universal apart from Disney — where resort pool access is tightly controlled — and it’s unfortunate the value hotel guests are excluded.
In a similar vein, Dockside’s bus shuttle service pales in comparison to resorts offering boat transportation. Busses do stop frequently at Dockside and the ride only takes about 7-8 minutes, but you’ll have to walk another 10 minutes from the guest drop-off area through CityWalk to get to the park entrances, and contend with crowds of off-site guests at the security checkpoint. In contrast, guests using the resort boats go through separate security checks before boarding, and then get dropped off deeper into CityWalk closer to the turnstiles.
Dockside’s size does present some headaches that can be avoided with some preparation. The design of the resort into large towers can result in rather long walks to your room. If you’re driving to the resort, I’d recommend leaving large luggage in your car when you check in, just in case you’re assigned a room far enough from the lobby that it makes more sense to move your car immediately.
The other downside comes at 10 p.m., when both the food court and both pools close. This sends guests streaming to the elevators all at once, resulting in some long lines that aren’t being managed by any staff member. To avoid this rush, simply return to your room by 9:30 p.m. or walk further away from the lobby to grab an elevator, as the more distant elevator banks may see shorter waits.
A note for the very budget-conscious guest: despite I-Drive being just outside your window, getting to cheaper fast food options or just visiting Walgreens is a hassle. A fence prevents any easy access for pedestrians, so walking off property will require a meandering route through the front gate. I’m sure Universal will argue this perimeter is necessary to keep out off-site guests, but it also serves to keep you — and your dollars — trapped at the resort. But that’s not a novel approach for Orlando’s theme park bubbles.
Besides some trifling flaws, Dockside Inn & Suites is as good as it gets for value accommodations at an on-site, theme park hotel in Orlando. At a price comparable to a Holiday Inn, you get a resort nice enough to warrant a hotel day lounging by the pool, especially if the parents want to unwind with an $18 tub of booze.
It also further emphasizes how Universal and its hotel partner Loews are crushing Disney in terms of offering real value for staying on-site.
Universal’s hotel options were already beating those at Disney World, where “moderate” means $200+ per night and rooms that increasingly look like a Motel 6 with some Disney art thrown on the walls. Now Universal Orlando has two resorts at an even lower price point….and it still beats higher-priced Disney rooms while offering better amenities.
As for Dockside’s I-Drive neighbors, unless you can get a rock bottom rate or the hotels really overhaul their offerings, there’s no contest here; Dockside offers a much better value.
Neither side of the Endless Summer Resort is perfect. As long as you can get a room here for below $150 per night, it’s well worth it, especially compared to Disney World hotels that offer less for a higher cost.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. I paid for my hotel room. Universal did not grant me any special access to the resort and I received no special treatment from hotel employees, who were not aware that I was conducting a review.