Wednesday, May 25, 2016

How I got my groove back: the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando

Being a parent has lots of benefits, starting with: children! Still, there are times when I miss stuff I did before they came along, like learning skills that do not involve puffy paint and exploring areas on my own. I also miss sleep.

And so, I was happy to get an invite to the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, and experience The Amplified Package and its Sound of Your Stay music amenity program. The hotel—which recently underwent a big-bucks renovation—is both chic and fascinating. Inspired by the Eagles' Hotel California, it's made to look like the mansion of a rock star (one wealthy enough to have a place with 650 guestrooms, including 29 suites). As the inscription above the entrance reads, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

As you'd expect, the room (a standard) was pretty cool. And, yep, having it to myself was the "heaven" part of "this could be heaven or this could be hell." 

Loved the drumstick artwork on the wall, and the growth-chart mirror that shows how you measure up to various celebs' height (me: Stevie Nicks, just a tad short of Lady Gaga and Shakira).
A few other unusual items in my room: A white Fender guitar, Mustang Floor Amplifier and Blue Mo-Fi headphones. They're the "Picks" offering of the The Sound of Your Stay, available at any of the Hard Rock's 23 hotels worldwide. You call the front desk, they bring it all to your room. I don't play guitar, but I had a lot of fun jamming out. It's amazing how easy it is to feel like Bruce Springsteen when you're holding a great guitar.

"Tracks," a download program for playlists curated by Hard Rock's music pros and partnerships with global music labels, artists and brands, is also complimentary. And then there's "Mix," the latest addition to Hard Rock's music amenity program. A staffer will deliver an actual mixing system to your room, plus an iPad with a video tutorial. I've always wondered how DJ's scratch, and got to try my hand at it when I had a lesson in the lobby from Scratch DJ Academy (founded by Jam Master Jay from Run DMC). My new name: DJ Mom—ultimate proof of how cool I am, eh?

Scratching is all in your arm movement—the DJ told us to make like there's glue on the bottom of your fingers—and it's pretty intuitive. You start by pushing forward, hand at the 9 o'clock position, then move back and forth to the beat. Afterward, Hard Rock invited me to DJ an event. I'd sure like that, but I'm not sure they could afford me as my spinning skillz are in high demand.  

There's music everywhere at the hotel—piped in underwater at the pool, live music, DJ Night. A gigantic screen in the lobby has 24/7 music videos. The tunes play in the elevators, too; elevator music is no joke there. If you book The Amplified Package, available through December 31, you get a personalized VIP memorabilia tour, collectible pin and "I Got Plugged in at Hard Rock" limited edition hat.

Scattered around the hotel: music memorabilia from the Hard Rock's collection—80,000 strong, and the largest in the world. The bulk of it is housed in a vault at Hard Rock's headquarters. Items include a pair of John Lennon's glasses, one of Michael Jackson's sequined gloves, Madonna's candle votive stand from her "Like a Prayer" video, a David Bowie tour ledger complete with costs (including thousands for "incidentals" at every concert) and an Abbey Road Gold Record that Paul McCartney once dismantled to see if it would play (it wasn't even his album).

Outfits displayed on the fourth floor, where I stayed.
At the hotel, our group got the Sex, Drugs & Death tour from Jeff Nolan, the Hard Rock International Curator of Memorabilia. He told us the history of the Hard Rock chain, which can basically be traced to Pete Townshend getting slocked. As the story goes, Eric Clapton used to go to the original Hard Rock café in London in 1972. He had a spot he preferred and one day he told co-founder Isaac Tigrett that he should put up a plaque that read "Eric Clapton's seat." Isaac told him that if he gave him a guitar, he'd do it. Deal! And then, one day a drunk Pete Townshend sent over one of his guitars with the message "Mine's as good as Eric's is."

When little guests and their grownup escorts aren't gaping at memorabilia, they can enjoy activities including hula-hoop contests at the pool, "Dive-in Movies" under the stars and Camp Lil'Rock in evenings (parents get to rock a night out). The staff is exceptionally friendly. Eddie, a waiter at The Kitchen, went out of his way to get me a "real" iced coffee one morning (as in, cold—not hot!—coffee over ice and yes, I'm obsessed). 

One night we headed over to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. We had a memorable dinner at Grey Salt, Marc Murphy's Mediterranean restaurant that specializes in locally sourced fresh seafood, handmade pasta and artisanal flatbreads. If you love bread, you might not want to try the grilled sourdough served at the table as you will crave it for weeks afterward (trust me on that one).

The glam Grey Salt setting, with a gazillion jars of lemons. 
Nutella profiteroles for dessert: YES PLEASE.
The Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando is literally a three-minute walk to Universal Orlando (maybe five minutes with slow-poke kids). One of the best perks of the hotel stay: early admission to Universal and Islands of Adventure, plus Universal Express ride access. It cuts your wait in half, I was told, but on some rides it was even better than that. I was in the Minions 3-D simulator ride after seven minutes on line.

Diagon Alley in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station at Islands of Adventure.

Making new friends
Unexpected attraction: A duck and eight newborn ducklings on a manhole cover—outside the Animal Actors on Location experience, of course. Staffers were standing guard nearby. 

Super-fresh sushi at Cowfish at Universal CityWalk. The restaurant dishes out burgers and sushi (aka "burgushi")—you can even have a filet roll, with avocado, kani, seared filet mignon, spicy mayo, scallions and masago. There's a variety of bento boxes for kids, including grilled cheese for non-adventurous eaters.
Wandering around Universal on my own was a thrill all its own. Next time we take the kids to a theme park, I'm carving out some alone time. Although it is terrifying to go on a roller coaster (I'm talking about you, Rip Ride Rockit) without someone you know. "Are you OK?!" the guy sitting next to me shouted as I screamed my head off.

As I left to return home, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was playing in the elevator. I was more than awake: I felt rejuvenated, and excited to return home so the kids could meet DJ Mom.

My trip was courtesy of the Hard Rock Hotel, but all opinions and thrills are my own.

Top photos of hotel: Hard Rock International


  1. Wow - what a cool experience - nonstop fun for both kids and adults - it's a win-win for everyone!!

  2. Such fun! Ellen, I hope you don't mind, but I have to show my fellow Stevie Nicks fan buddies that picture you took of the mirror. :D


Thanks for sharing!

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