If you have been reading about the newest Harry Potter attractions at Universal Orlando Resort and wondering if this might be the trip to see it from an on-site hotel. Well take a look at what Universal has to offer with emphasis on their high-end hotel, Loews Portofinio Bay Hotel.
Universal Orlando Resort is a collection of two theme parks, one nearby water park, two miniature golf courses, one shopping and dining complex, an off-Broadway style theater, a multiplex and four hotels. Each hotel is designed to appeal to different groups based on interest and budget. From least expensive to most expensive we have Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
Cabana Bay is the newest of the on-site hotels. It is operated by Loews but they are doing their best to distance their brand name from the property when possible. Officially it is referred to as Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The Loews hotel flag is not flown over the hotel as it is a moderate and value priced property, and the brand wants to avoid guest confusion regarding the level of accommodation. Currently Universal is building an elevated walkway that will give Cabana guests an easier walk to the theme parks. Busses currently service the hotel but their drop off at the parks is near the parking garage for day visitors.
A new resort is under construction between Royal Pacific and Cabana Bay. The new Sapphire Falls Resort will open in 2016 and be connected to the Royal Pacific. The ferry waterway will be expanded to service this resort with direct boats to CitiWalk which fronts both parks. The theme of this resort will be Caribbean. From my talks with staff I learned that the rooms will be similar to those found at the Royal Pacific. To benefit convention guests of both hotels they will be connected by walkways and an air-conditioned enclosed bridge.
Loews Royal Pacific Resort is an easy walking distance to CitiWalk and the parks, but it is also serviced by a dedicated ferry. The style is pure South Pacific from the rooms to the pool. The hotel lobby features a reflecting pool with fountains and statues of elephants, worth a visit for those into design. The large swimming pool is surrounded by numerous lounge chairs and there is a bar with food service. I have stayed the Royal Pacific several times and found that even without theme parks nearby, it was well-worth the nightly charge just to relax poolside.
The Hard Rock Hotel at Universal is operated by Loews Hotels, but does not participate in the YouFirst Loyalty program that is in effect at the Royal Pacific and Portofino Bay. Located within very easy walking distance to just about everything at Universal, this hotel is very popular with families with teens. The pool is large with constant activities and music. If you are looking for quiet time, this hotel is probably not for you as the Hard Rock vibe is carried throughout the hotel.
The most expensive and the most remote of the Universal Orlando’s luxury accommodations is Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. It is about a 15 minute walk from the theme parks and CityWalk, but for those who want to preserve their energy for getting to Diagon Alley, there is also a ferry. I had the pleasure of staying at the Portofino for four nights recently and want to share the in’s and out’s of this massive resort complex.
There are several ways to book your stay at Portofino Bay (and the other luxury accommodations) and there are some benefits to each. The Universal website allows you to book a package, such as a Harry Potter package which includes breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron and some HP items. For those not interested in the extra merchandise, packages cost a bit more than hotel/ticket/meal purchased individually. The many discount hotel booking sites also list Universal hotels but there is no savings over calling the hotel directly, but they are useful to see the various rooms and prices. If you are not buying a vacation package, the best way to book a room at Portofino Bay is directly with Loews Hotels. If you are a member of their loyalty program, YouFirst, you will be eligible for upgrades such as a room upgrade, faster free wi-fi, or free access to the fitness center. If you are not yet a member, you can join before your trip for minor benefits. Booking through Loews directly will entitle you to upgrades which are not necessarily available if you book a package through Universal. The upgrades depend on how many times you have stayed at a Loews property in the previous year, the benefits do expire. Also, by booking the room directly, you will only be charged for the first night, the remainder is due at check-out. This is helpful if you decide that this hotel is not for you once you stay a night.
Portofino Bay is themed to resemble the actual port of Portofino in Italy. The hotel boasts that Steven Spielberg helped design the property, but when I questioned to what level he was involved all I could learn was that he suggested the theme. It is a great theme and one that, if you allow it, will transport you far from Orlando and theme parks. The visual center of the resort is a man-made bay that also serves as the water route for the ferry to CityWalk. Most of the building details are painted on just as in the actual Italian town. Wandering the resort you will find fountains, piazzas, and other details that add to the realism.
The hotel has a large parking garage for those who arrive by car. There is a charge of $20 per night for self-parking which does not allow you to park at the other Universal lots, but does allow in-out privileges. If you arrive by cab and require a car during your stay, the hotel has a Hertz rental car desk, and also offers complimentary buses to Wet & Wild, their water park. To get to the Disney parks, the best way is to rent a car, call a cab or arrange for an independent shuttle bus.
Check-in is begins at 4pm and check-out is 11am, these times seem to be strictly enforced. For those arriving early, the hotel will hold your luggage and get you to the parks to use the benefits offered to on-site guests. If you had a specific room request, that should be done before arriving, but it doesn’t hurt to ask at the counter. Each room has a mini-bar but it cannot be used for personal items, so if you need a refrigerator request one for a fee. Free Wi-Fi is included, and there is an upgrade for faster speeds if needed.
Most guest rooms are in buildings that form a “V” around the bay. Another hotel wing is nearby next to the large themed pool. There are some very bad rooms at this hotel depending on your needs. If you want to limit walking to the ferry, request a room in the West Wing. Want a view of the feature pool then request the Villa Guest Rooms. Want a room that is nearby the lobby and restaurants then rooms closest to the lobby building in the East Wing are for you. The absolute least desirable rooms are in the far East Wing as they are a distance from the lobby, restaurants, feature pool and the ferry. However, if you would like an outdoor patio, the East Wing first floor rooms are ideal as there is little foot traffic past your room (as opposed to the same rooms in the West Wing which hosts the ferry dock). Some rooms have Juliet balconies, small balconies, or even large balconies, but these room types are limited and booking them is tricky. When asking about each room type I was informed that sometimes these balcony rooms are given as YouFirst upgrades, sometimes you can ask to upgrade for a fee at check-in. If you must have a balcony, call the hotel directly and be willing to pay extra.
An insider tip: the hotel staff will direct guests of the West and East Wings to exit the lobby onto the Harbor level and walk across the outdoor space to their room. However, there are connecting indoor hallways to each wing, but they are not direct and cause more confusion than help for those first checking in. Do look for these alternate routes if you want to stay cool or dry. The route for the West Wing rooms begins on the wing’s 3rd floor.
All of the restaurants at the hotel feature Italian menus. For other cuisine, CityWalk is your go to spot. Of the on-site restaurants two are standouts: Sal’s Market & Mama Della’s. Even if you are not staying at the property, you may want to visit and enjoy a meal at one of these two unique restaurants. Sal’s Market is a counter service deli/pizzeria that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The prices are reasonable, the service is very friendly, and there is a lot of outdoor seating on the piazza. Mama Della’s is a full-service restaurant that serves traditional Italian dinners in a casual but classy set of rooms designed to feel like the home of Mama?. Mama Della’s pricing is on the high side for Italian food, but after eating there several times I can still gladly recommend the splurge. There are two other restaurants along the piazza that have received mixed reviews over the years, your experience may vary. Also available are several bars/lounges, a pool-side restaurant, pool-side drink and food service and a full size Starbucks with a Clover brewer. If you’d rather not leave your room, room service is available for a severe mark-up. The in-room mini-bar offers items at outrageous prices.
The three main reasons to stay at an on-site hotel are:
1 hour early admission to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios for those with a valid park ticket (available to Cabana Bay guests also). If the park opens officially at 9am, you will be able to walk in at 8am or even a little earlier and get to Diagon Alley. Note that Hogwarts Express does not begin operation until both parks are officially open. Universal tested running Hogwarts Express in a loop during early admission but decided against it. One hour early may not seem like a huge deal but during peak times, this one hour will allow you to see a good portion of the new area, ride the main attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and get a snack before most are even at the front gate. If Universal allows early entry in before the hour, they will also allow in regular day guests in early by that same time (ex: early admission let in at 7:45, then regular admission will be let in at 8:45am).
Free Universal Express Pass Unlimited for the duration of your stay (Express Pass not included for those staying at Cabana Bay). This pass can be purchased for an extra fee for day guests, but is included for the length of stay for deluxe hotel guests. If you are staying only one night, you can get the pass at your hotel for your check-in and check-out days, that is two days of use for a one night stay. This pass is picked up at the hotel from an automated kiosk that prints a pass with your photo. The pass will allow you to bypass the main line for most attractions (not included is Harry Potter: Forbidden Journey, Hogwarts Express & Escape from Gringotts). During busy seasons this pass will save you considerable time and enhance your visit. Even during slow seasons there are some attractions such as Minion Mayhem which always have a line that you will mostly be saved from waiting on.
Proximity to the parks means you can get from your hotel room to the front gates in 20 minutes or less. The easy of getting around Universal Orlando rivals that of Disneyland and has a similar feel of being in the middle of civilization but somehow removed from it at the same time. With walkways and ferries, guests can easily get back to their hotel for a mid-day break or meal. If you have stayed at one of the monorail resorts at Disney, you know how convenient location can be ? the same is true for Universal, with the added benefit of being able to walk to each hotel (if you don’t mind Orlando heat).
The Portofino Bay Hotel’s standard rooms are spacious at 450 sq. ft. (as a reference Disney’s Polynesian rooms measure in at 209 sq. ft.). There are several configurations but most vary simply between two queen beds or one king bed and various views. Views consist of nicely landscaped areas, beach pool view, or harbor view. The most desirable views are the harbor view from the West Wing. As with the other Loews Hotels at Universal, views can be blocked by trees so if view is important ask to visit the room. I did not notice any rooms that had terrible views. I would completely avoid ground level rooms on the West Wing facing the harbor as there is a constant flow of guests from the ferry and walkways than can look into your room.
All rooms feature very comfortable beds, high end feeling bedding, nice decor and a very large bathroom by hotel standards. And while the room looks great, it is lacking. The lighting in the rooms is too bright for relaxing, even with only one light on, the room was brighter than most Disney rooms with all of their lights on. For those who love darkness, the room’s blinds do block out the harbor lighting which is on all night. The bathroom is large but mostly empty space. A large double sink within the room allows for two to get ready at the same time but since the shower and toilet are in that room, you should be very familiar with your roommate or will be after this stay. The bathroom products are average, so the fussy among us should bring their own shampoo and soap (the supplied items were good but not memorable like at other high end hotels). The shower/tub combo is standard. Towels were thick and felt like quality hotel white towels. The supplied hair dryer was the heaviest dryer I have ever held so bring your own if you are very particular about such things. Extras in the room include an iron, safe big enough for two iPads, two robes, hotel stationary, for a fee mini-bar, Keurig coffee maker and the usual pay per view tv options.
Housekeeping of the rooms is my biggest complaint about this hotel as it was not consistent. During my four night stay, I found that the room was not vacuumed completely, unusual hairs were found on a bed pillow, and items like coffee pods not replenished and the hair dryer not put away. Guests of what is billed as a luxury hotel expect a clean room and I must say that this hotel failed in that regard. After reading nearly 100 reviews of this hotel, I found that this is not a common problem, but one that has been reported by other guests. Complaints to the hotel directly went ignored until after check-out, at which time I was offered a free stay in the future but declined. The hotel staff seems to care, but on-site response was a huge fail and the only negative of the entire Universal experience.
There are three pools for guests, and I have been told that pools at the other hotels can be used though your room cards will not grant you access to them. I did not see anyone at any of the pools looking for ID to prove guest status. The main pool at Portofino, the Beach Pool, it is a free form pool with a water slide, lifeguards, zero entry, handicapped accessible chair system, surrounded by cushioned beach chairs on sand. If your idea of happiness is a lively beach with music and easy access to drinks, food, a hot tub with waterfall, a pool table and more, then this is the spot for you. The Villa Pool is a short walk away and is heaven for those wanting quiet water time. There is bar service from pool attendants but they were less frequent than at the Beach Pool. Relaxation is what the Villa Pool was made for. If you are staying in the East Wing, the closest pool is the Hillside Pool. It offers very little other than water and a bathroom, but is a good spot if a basic hotel pool and silence is what you are after. The pool selection at Portofino Bay surpasses many hotels in size and quality. A family could easily get from park to pool in a matter of 30 minutes for a highly recommended break. The Beach and Villa Pools offer free fruit infused water and towels.
The public spaces at Portofino Bay are mostly immaculate and beautiful. As this hotel also hosts weddings and conventions, there are many ballrooms, piazzas and areas that are perfect for special events. Guests can wander most of the spaces and enjoy the detail that has gone into creating a hotel that has a layout more like a village than a hotel. You will find fountains, an indoor village street, a bocce ball court, arcade, and many places to just sit and enjoy the atmosphere. In the evenings all along the harbor front will be serenaded by an opera singer, it is surprisingly calming.
Things to know before you go:
If you are simply looking for a room for the night that includes Express Pass, the Loews Royal Pacific Resort is your best bet for price, theme and proximity.
If you want to be first in the parks and cannot be bothered with taking a bus or a ferry, you should choose the Hard Rock Hotel for your home away from home.
If want to escape reality and combine a vacation with theme park thrills with peace and beauty, your choice should be Loews Portofino Bay.
Budget vacationers should consider the down-side of staying at the inexpensive Cabana Bay, it is not within easy walking distance of the parks or CitiWalk; and the bus service drops guests off near the day guest parking garage. Express Pass is an extra fee, but early entry is included but one must bus it in wasting precious morning time.
Universal staff is surprisingly friendly. In my many years of travelling, I have never encountered a more genuinely happy group of people in a US theme park (I encountered the happiest theme park workers at Tokyo Disneyland). Universal employees are also willing to talk to guests about park details, which is great news for theme park geeks like me. I learned that the train track above Diagon Alley is not a real track, that Sea World employees toured the entirety of Diagon Alley with a Universal tour guide, and that the new on-site hotel is being built as fast as possible as there is a big need for more convention space.
Have you visited the Universal hotels? What did you think?
Please note that the photo credits above are incorrectly attributed to Scott Syme Jr. All photos copyright ChrisNJ.