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    Universal Orlando Resort Hotel Basics

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Universal Orlando Resort Hotels 101

While you'll surely have fun inside Universal’s parks wherever you spend the night, your choice of hotel is critical to the overall success of your vacation. Visitors to Universal face the basic question of whether to stay inside the resort—where room rates range from around $110 on an off-season weeknight at a Value resort to more than $600 per night for a peak-season luxury property—or outside Universal, where rooms are as low as $80 a night. Affordability and easier access to non-Universal attractions must be weighed against the convenience and comfort of staying on property.

Universal Orlando currently operates eight on-site resorts, including the newly opened Dockside Inn, for a total of 9,000 rooms. Former NBCUniversal CEO Stephen Burke said the resort could someday support up to 20,000 rooms, but ambitious plans for additional hotels on the Epic Universe expansion plot are presently in limbo.

Compared to the more than 30,000 rooms Walt Disney World has spread across nearly 30 hotels, your choice of an on-site hotel at Universal is a lot simpler, but you may find limited room availability during busy times. On the other hand, Universal’s hotels (all operated by the highly regarded Loews chain) boast service and amenities equal to or better than the competition, and usually at a lower cost; Universal’s Preferred property is often priced like Disney’s Moderates, and its Prime Value–priced resorts outshine Disney’s All-Star and Pop Century hotels. You should also consider the superior benefits granted to Universal’s on-site guests, a couple of which can make the difference between a marvelous vacation and a miserable one.

Whether you decide to stay on-site or off, this chapter will help you get a grip on the multitude of lodging options in the Universal Orlando area and find the property that fits your family’s needs.

The Tax Man Cometh

Sales and lodging taxes can add a chunk of change to the cost of your hotel room. Cumulative tax in Orange County, which includes the Universal Orlando area and International Drive, is 12.5%.

About Hotel Renovations

We inspect several hundred hotels in the Orlando area to compile The Unofficial Guide’s list of lodging choices. Each year we call each hotel to verify contact information and inquire about renovations or refurbishments. If a hotel has been renovated or has refurbished its guest rooms, we reinspect it, along with any new hotels, for the next edition of the guide. Hotels reporting no improvements are rechecked every two years. We inspect most Universal-owned hotels every 6–12 months and no less than once every two years.

Many hotels more than five years old refurbish 10%–20% of guest rooms each year. This incremental approach minimizes disruption, but it makes your room assignment a crapshoot—you might luck into a newly renovated room, or you might be assigned a threadbare one.

Universal reservationists won’t guarantee you a recently refurbished room but will note your request and try to accommodate you. On the other hand, off-site hotels will often guarantee you an updated room when you book.

Universal Orlando Resort Hotels 101

Universal has right resort hotels. The 750-room Portofino Bay Hotel is a gorgeous property set on an artificial bay and themed like an Italian coastal town. The 650-room Hard Rock Hotel is an ultracool “Hotel California” replica, and the 1,000-room, Polynesian-themed Royal Pacific Resort is sumptuously decorated and richly appointed. All three of the aforementioned hotels are on the pricey side. The retro-style Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal’s largest hotel, has 2,200 moderate-priced rooms, plus a bowling alley and lazy river not seen at comparable Disney resorts. The Caribbean-styled Sapphire Falls Resort offers 1,000 rooms priced between Royal Pacific and Cabana Bay. Aventura Hotel, a 600-room property, opened in 2018 next to Sapphire Falls and across from the similarly priced Cabana Bay; it’s a Miami-style modern high-rise with a Y-shaped glass tower and rooftop lounge. Endless Summer Resort, Universal’s new value-priced option, consists of the 750-room Surfside Inn and Suites and the 2,050-room Dockside Inn and Suites, which opened to the public in late 2020.

Universal Orlando Resort Hotel Policies

Resort Classifications

Universal's hotels fall into four categories:

  • Premier: Universal’s hotels fall into four categories. The three most expensive on-site hotels—Portofino Bay Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, and Royal Pacific Resort—are called Premier resorts, and their perks include Universal Express Unlimited, priority restaurant seating, and water taxi transportation to CityWalk.
  • Preferred:Sapphire Falls Resort is labeled a Preferred resort; it’s a AAA Four Diamond–awarded hotel, just like the Premier properties, and offers water taxi service but lacks free Universal Express or priority restaurant seating.
  • Prime Value:Cabana Bay Beach Resort and the Aventura Hotel represent the Prime Value resorts. Both have bus and pedestrian access to the attractions (including Volcano Bay), but neither is connected to the water taxi system.
  • Value: The Endless Summer Resort hotels are the first designated as Value hotels, as well as the first located a brief bus ride across I-4 from Universal proper. Regardless of classification, all on-site Universal guests enjoy amenities that surpass any other value-priced hotels in the area.

Seasonal Rates

Universal uses so many adjectives—Value, Regular, Summer, Holiday, and Peak—to describe its seasonal calendar that it’s hard to keep up. Plus, Universal also changes the price of its hotel rooms with the day of the week, charging more for the same room on Friday and Saturday nights. Each Universal hotel profile includes the lowest rack (nondiscounted) rate (Value season) and the highest rack rate (Holiday season). These prices are for a weeknight stay in a basic room with a standard view, usually of a “garden” or parking lot; upgrades to pool or bay views start at $25–$50. Rates include a maximum of two adults per room, plus any children up to the room’s capacity; additional adults each incur a $40-per-night surcharge at Premier hotels, $25 at Preferred, $20 at Prime Value, and $15 at Value. Rack rates do not include taxes or parking, but no hidden resort fees are tacked on at Universal’s hotels.

Making Reservations

The easiest way to book a room at Universal Orlando is online through Universal Orlando's website, or by telephone at 1-888-273-1311.

Cancellations

A credit card deposit equal to one night’s room rate (plus tax) is required when booking. Cancellations made six or more days prior to check-in receive a full refund. Cancellations five or fewer days before check-in forfeit the deposit. However, Universal’s severe-weather cancellation policy says that if you are unable to travel to Orlando due to an “active named storm impacting your travel,” you can reschedule your vacation or receive a full refund. This applies only for rooms, park tickets, or vacation packages booked directly with Loews and Universal; if you use a third-party reseller, you’ll need to consult its cancellation policy.

Check-In and Check Out

Check-in time at all Universal hotels is 4 p.m., and checkout is 11 a.m.; if you ask nicely, you can usually get a noon checkout for free. Remember that all on-site hotel benefits—including Express Unlimited Passes for guests of the top three hotels and Early Park Admission—begin the first morning of your stay and last until midnight after you check out. So even if you can’t get into your room, you can preregister as early as you like, leave your luggage, grab your Express Passes (at the top three hotels), and hit the parks at rope drop. Checkout can be done at the front desk, through the interactive TV, or via express with your bill emailed to you.

Note that upon checking in, you’ll be asked to pre-authorize your credit card for $200 per day, so you can use your hotel room key for charges around the resort. You may request to change this authorization amount, or decline it entirely if you don’t wish to make charges to your room account.

Age Requirements

The minimum age to book a hotel room at Universal Orlando is 21, and valid ID is required at check-in. At least one guest staying in the room must be age 21 or older.

Accessibility

All Universal Orlando hotels have wheelchair-accessible public areas and offer designated accessible rooms for mobility-, sight-, and/or hearing-impaired guests. Accessibility features include 36-inch-wide entry doors, peepholes at 3½ feet from the floor, closets with rods at 48 inches high, toilets with hand bar, and roll-in shower stalls or combination shower/ tubs with adjustable showerheads. Sight- and hearing-impaired features include Braille room numbers, closed-caption TVs, smoke detectors with lights, and Hearing-Impaired Kits, including a TDD-relay service that may be used in any guest room.

Pets

Loews “loves pets” and is one of the few luxury chains to allow cats and dogs in its rooms. It even has a special (and expensive) room service menu for four-legged guests. There are some restrictions, starting with a $100 flat fee per stay for a maximum of two pets per guest room. Guests will be assigned a pet-friendly room category on arrival, which includes garden- and bay-view rooms at the Portofino Bay, garden-view rooms at the Hard Rock, and standard rooms at the Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls. Club rooms don’t participate in the pet program, nor do any of the Prime Value or Value properties, such as Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Aventura Hotel, and Endless Summer Resort.

Dogs may be walked only in designated areas and are not allowed in the pool/lounge or restaurant areas. Arrangements must be made with housekeeping for daily room cleaning, and there is a $10-perhour “time-out” fee if they find your pet left unattended. If other guests complain about your pet’s behavior, you may be asked to board it off-site. You must provide current vaccination records from a licensed veterinarian on request.

Smoking

All Universal Orlando Resort hotels are smoke free. Smoking is only permitted outdoors in designated locations. If you light up in your room, you’ll be burned with a $250 cleaning fee.

Universal Orlando Resort Hotel Services and Amenities


Dining

To keep you fed, every Universal on-site hotel has multiple restaurants, a spot for coffee and grab-and-go snacks, and at least two bars. The Premier and Preferred properties each have sit-down restaurants, including one family-friendly eatery, while Cabana Bay has a counter-service food court, as well as table-service munchies in the bowling alley. Aventura Hotel has an upscale food court with international dishes and a rooftop bar that serves small plates. The Premier and Preferred hotels also have 24-hour room service menus, while the Value and Prime Value properties offer pizza delivery to the rooms noon–midnight (until 1 a.m. Friday–Saturday at Cabana Bay and Aventura).

The primary downside to staying on-site at Universal is the cost of food at the Premier hotels’ restaurants, which seem to be priced as if everyone staying at the hotels is on a corporate expense account. Fortunately, many good, cheaper restaurant choices are within a few minutes’ drive of the hotels on Major Boulevard, International Drive, and Sand Lake Road. Hotel guests also have easy access to CityWalk, which has some cheaper choices for dining.

Pools and Recreation

Swimming is many guests' number 1 priority (after the parks, of course), so you’ll find some of Orlando’s best pools at Universal’s hotels. Each resort has at least one themed swimming facility. The main pool is the more active, family-centric one, where you’ll find playground equipment and organized activities, both for kids (water-based games and contests) and adults (free smoothies and cool towels). Most resorts (except Royal Pacific, Endless Summer, and Aventura) have a waterslide, and Cabana Bay has a lazy river. On most nights (weather permitting) a PG or PG-13 “dive-in” movie is projected on an outdoor screen, with the Harry Potter, Marvel, and Transformers flicks in heavy rotation.

The secondary pools at Portofino Bay are usually slightly more sedate and attract a more adult clientele. All pools are staffed with trained lifeguards during operating hours (which vary seasonally, typically 8 a.m.–10 p.m.) and have adjacent hot tubs, changing facilities, and drink services. Towels are free with resort ID , and hotel guests (excluding those at Endless Summer) are free to pool-hop from one resort to another; ask an attendant for access if your room key won’t open another hotel’s security gate.

Each hotel’s main pool (except Endless Summer’s and Aventura’s) has private cabanas for rent, which start around $100 per day. Aside from providing shade and cushioned lounge chairs, cabanas come with ceiling fans, TVs, a refrigerator, free soft drinks, food and drink delivery, and a personal safe. Reserve a cabana by calling 407-503- 4175 at Cabana Bay, 407-503-5200 ext. 35235 at Sapphire Falls, 407-503-3235 at Royal Pacific, 407-503-2236 at Hard Rock, or 407-503-1200 at Portofino Bay. Same-day cancellations incur a 50% penalty fee. You’ll also find a variety of recreational activities around the pools, from a bocce court at Portofino Bay to a croquet lawn at the Royal Pacific; free equipment can be checked out to play.

Kids' Activities and Kids Suites

The Lowes Loves Kids program means that there’s always something at the hotel to keep the rug rats occupied when your family isn’t in the parks. Free lending libraries of games and sports equipment are available at every hotel, and a schedule of supervised activities is offered at each main pool (or indoors on rainy days). The Minions (or other Universal characters) make regular meet and greet appearances at Cabana Bay Beach Resort on Friday evenings. In addition, the kids’ clubs at the top three hotels offer evening childcare for a fee (see page 208), and every hotel has an arcade with video games; Cabana Bay’s Game-O-Rama is the biggest, and Aventura Hotel’s arcade includes virtual reality headsets.

If you want to go all out and amaze the kids (at the expense of your bank account), reserve one of the elaborately decorated Kids Suites. Portofino Bay’s Despicable Me suites look like Gru’s laboratory, with missile-shaped beds and vaultlike doors. Royal Pacific’s Jurassic World suites have appropriately dinosaurian decor, with high-tech headboards and jungle graphics. The Hard Rock’s Future Rock Star suites give kids a pint-size stage to shred on. Aventura’s and Sapphire Falls’s Kids Suites have a separate kids’ room with TV and child-size furniture but no whimsical theming. All the Kids Suites have separate bedrooms for the kids that only open on the parents’ room (not the hallway). You’ll get some extra privacy but pay a hefty price with the resort’s highest room rates (outside the outrageous presidential suites). Cabana Bay and Endless Summer don’t offer Kids Suites, but they do have Family Suites, without the private kids’ quarters, for a much lower cost.

Parking

Universal's three premier hotels all charge a $28-per-night self-parking fee ($37 for valet) for registered guests; day guests pay $30 for self-parking and $42 for valet at Portofino Bay and Hard Rock, while Royal Pacific charges day guests $45 for self-parking longer than 30 minutes and $42 for valet. Sapphire Falls overnight guests pay $26 for self-parking and $45 for valet; day guests pay $45 for self-parking longer than 30 minutes and $37 for valet. Cabana Bay and Aventura charge $18 for overnight guests (self-parking only) and Endless Summer charges $15; all three bill $45 per day for day visitors.

Most of the hotel restaurants (including Bice and Mama Della’s at Portofino, Jake’s and Islands Dining Room at Royal Pacific, Strong Water Tavern and Amatista Cookhouse at Sapphire Falls, and Bar 17 Bistro at Aventura) will validate diners for free self-parking or a discounted rate of $5 valet parking; The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel offers complimentary valet. You must spend at least $25 on food or beverages to receive parking validation. There are no annual pass discounts on parking at the hotels. The hotels don’t charge for another night until midnight, so you can leave your car in the lot long past your checkout time without paying extra.

Transportation and Car Rental

All Universal hotels offer free transportation via bus and/or water taxi to CityWalk and the parks, as well as well-lit landscaped walking paths connecting the resorts. Water taxis depart from each of the Premier and Preferred hotels every 15–20 minutes, while the buses from the Prime Value and Value resorts run almost continuously. Either transportation method takes about 15 minutes to reach the park entrances, while walking takes between less than 5 minutes from the Hard Rock Hotel to 15 or 20 minutes from Cabana Bay and Portofino Bay.

If you are staying at one resort but wish to visit another, ask the concierge to arrange a $10 car service or catch the free hotel shuttle bus, which circulates among the Premier and Preferred properties every 30 minutes. A final alternative to walking are the pedicabs operated by Orient Express Rickshaw (OER). Drivers ply the pathways between the resorts and CityWalk, working for tips ($5 per passenger is typical). You can flag down an empty rickshaw, or call OER at 407-385-0471 to reserve one. Rickshaws run Monday–Friday, 7 a.m.–midnight, and until 2 a.m. Saturday–Sunday.

Free daily transportation for hotel guests to SeaWorld and Aquatica is available. A limited number of seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so check with your hotel’s Ticket Center a day in advance for the schedule and boarding passes.

Another free bus from Universal’s parking hub to Busch Gardens Tampa is available to anyone holding a paid park ticket; visit busch gardens .mears.com or call 800-221-1339 for details. For a fee, the concierge desk will arrange for Mears Transportation to take you to Walt Disney World or the airport. If you want to rent a car, Avis rental-car service desks operate inside each hotel daily, 8 a.m.–6 p.m.; call 407- 503-3156 for information and reservations.

Club Level

The three top hotels each offer club-level rooms or suites that allow access to an exclusive lounge, where you’ll find a complimentary Continental breakfast, afternoon snacks, hot and cold evening hors d’oeuvres with free beer and wine, and after-dinner desserts. Clublevel guests also get free fitness center access, discounted poolside cabana rentals, personal concierge service, evening turndown service, and other luxurious touches. Hard Rock Hotel’s Rock Royalty and Royal Pacific’s Royal Club Lounges are on the seventh floor, while Portofino Bay’s Portofino Club Lounge is in the lobby; all are open daily, 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Most of our readers who stay in a club-level room seem happy with their choice, like this family from Kansas City:

We stayed on the club level of the Royal Pacific. Absolutely worth the money. It not only includes breakfast every morning but also includes sodas all day and cocktails in the evening with heavy appetizers, which we usually made a meal out of. There was always a salad and then something hot. One night it was beef stew, then fried rice, and then chicken potpie. And if you weren’t full, they put out dessert 8–9 p.m. This ended up saving us money, and we were usually tired from the day, so just walking down the hall was fabulous.

Last updated on February 2, 2021

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