Our family of four travels to Universal in Orlando often. We've stayed at almost every hotel and know the landscape well.
On-Site Hotels Maximize Time in the Parks
The first time my family ever visited Universal, Orlando, we family stayed at a Hyatt Place just a few blocks from the resort and took the hotel's shuttle into the transportation center. Had we known a bit more about the parks, we could have easily walked.
We thought we were saving money by staying off-site, but what we quickly learned was that the amount of time we spent in transit and waiting at the entrance detracted from our overall experience. Maybe we spent a little less money, but also had a much less enjoyable time.
The next time we visited Universal Orlando, we stayed at an on-site hotel and we were hooked. Our first experience was at Cabana Bay. Then we moved over to the Hard Rock. Eventually we stayed in a club room at the Hard Rock and got hooked on club rooms. Then we moved over to Portofino and realized their club rooms were even better. Since then, we've tried Royal Pacific, Sapphire Falls, Aventura, and Endless Summer.
While I don't know everything about every on-site hotels, I know a lot. I've stayed at them all.
Hopefully, the approach I take to this article helps you decided which hotel is best for you. Depending on what you are looking for, any hotel could be better than any other at any given moment.
One thing is for sure, all the on-site hotels at Universal Orlando are fun in their own way and you can have a great vacation staying at any one of them. I recommend them all despite however I rank them.
While Portofino Bay wins my award for best on-site hotel, that hardly means everyone will agree. In fact, the different hotels are all designed for different kind of experiences. So, if one hotel doesn't quite fit your style, another one will.
The reasons for picking Portofino as the overall best hotel has to do with a few important factors: ambience, club rooms, seclusion, pools, food, and the size of the rooms. It's the overall experience that adds up to Portofino being the best hotel. However, it's also usually the most expensive, so it's a case of you get what you pay for.
Like other hotels though, you get Express Passes by staying at Portofino, so it's important to weigh the price of the hotel against your amenities. When the park is busy, the Express Passes can be an incredible value, particularly if you are a family of four.
Portofino wins awards in some other categories as well. It's the most romantic hotel, has the best atmosphere for making you feel in another world, and has some amazing food. Even in the categories where it doesn't rank first, like pool, the amenities added up make Portofino a can't miss hotel at Universal Orlando.
Like Portofino and Royal Pacific, Hard Rock is considered a premier hotel, so it's not surprising it's toward the top of the list as best overall hotel. Let's face it, when your hotel includes an Express Pass with the room, it's a huge advantage. That's not to say Hard Rock isn't a great hotel all on its own regardless of the Express Pass.
Atmosphere is certainly one of the things that sets Hard Rock apart. The music theme makes it unique. The nostalgia of the hotel reflects a similar feeling one gets in the parks. In addition to being a hotel, Hard Rock is also part museum, with rock and roll memorabilia everywhere.
Probably the best reason for staying at Hard Rock is its proximity to the entrance to Universal Studios - a mere five minute walk. It's a piece of cake to take a break at the parks, walk back to the hotel for a dip in the pool, and then head back to the parks. This is a major advantage of staying at Hard Rock.
In addition to its proximity to the parks, room size, pool, and food are major reasons to stay at Hard Rock. The Kitchen restaurant is of particular note, offering a fantastic breakfast buffet that shouldn't be missed.
For a romantic getaway, Royal Pacific is very close to Portofino in terms of atmosphere. It's also got a lovely walk from the hotel to the park entrance, which is right next to Margaritaville.
A room at Royal Pacific also includes Express Passes.
While I have enjoyed my stays at Royal Pacific, the things that drop it a few notches below Portofino and Hard Rock are the food options, pool, and club room amenities. That said, Royal Pacific is considered by Lowes itself to be a step below those other two hotels, which means that you can frequently find some great room rates there. We have specifically stayed at Royal Specific because the rates were significantly below Portofino and Hard Rock.
Regardless of any criticism, Royal Pacific is a great hotel that many will find exotic and romantic.
Don't let the fact that I don't have Sapphire Falls at the top of any of my lists fool you. It's a fantastic hotel. It's one of the newer hotels and it's absolutely fantastic.
Consider that it's the only value hotel that has water taxi access and that's one good reason for booking a room there.
It has a really great pool also. I just happen to think there are a couple others that are better.
I think Sapphire Falls comes into play when you're on a budget, but want to feel like you're getting top-of-the-line hotel amenities. Sapphire Falls feels like a very ritzy hotel whose room prices are frequently very affordable. There's a lot to love about Sapphire Falls.
I probably have Aventura ranked higher than most would, but I really enjoyed my stay there. It's a very modern hotel and the food options were some of the best of any hotel - both affordable and just really good. It feels the most modern of all the hotels, which makes sense since it's one of the newest.
If you're planning to go to Volcano Bay, Aventura is a great choice because you can walk to Volcano Bay from the hotel very easily. It has the easiest, fastest access to Volcano Bay of all the hotels.
And although many people get to the parks via a shuttle, you can walk over to Sapphire Falls and hop on the water taxi too.
I really enjoyed my stay at Aventura. I loved the rooms and I enjoyed their food court.
Cabana Bay is designed for families. Its 50's nostalgic vibe is meant to reflect the supposed high point of the American family. As a historian, I don't really buy into such things, but I do appreciate the design and the many family amenities.
Cabana Bay offers both regular rooms and suites (like most of the hotels) and the suites can be a great money-saving option since they include kitchenettes.
Although you can walk from Cabana Bay to the parks, it's a fairly long walk. That means the main way to get from Cabana Bay to the parks is a bus, which I don't find enjoyable. However, Cabana Bay is designed to offer its visitors lots to do. With two pools, a bowling alley, and a pretty big game room, you can spend a few days just hanging out at the hotel, which is a nice feature.
Cabana Bay's pool is the only one with its own lazy river, so that's a nice touch. Also, food options here are less expensive than other hotels generally. It's a nice, themed hotel with a family vibe.
Like Endless Summer, I mention that it's possible to walk around to things outside the park from Cabana Bay, but it's kind of a trek. Still, it's doable.
I think once Epic Universe is built, people may start to appreciate the location of Endless Summer more. For right now though, it seems like it's in a weird location. There's no reasonable way to walk from Endless Summer to the parks right now, so a bus ride is required.
The resort is located across the highway from Universal Orlando, so one of the nice things about the hotel is that you have access to some features of Orlando that the other parks don't have. For instance, you can take a short walk and eat somewhere outside the resort at a normal, fast food place. That's a nice option when you're on a budget. Also, there are some interesting tourist spots nearby.
Endless Summer has easy access if you're renting a car, so if you're planning to do other things in Orlando, this is a big positive of the resort. Considering. you can get a room at Endless summer for under $100/night, it's a great choice for many situations.
Don't Worry, Universal Orlando Doesn't Have Any Bad On-Site Hotels
I know I'm ranking hotels here and some are coming in last.
Not to worry. I've stayed at every one of these hotels. They're all good. If you love Universal, Orlando, you know that there's a level of service maintained at every one of these hotels.
I've developed specific habits and needs when I visit, which is why Portofino is my top pick. Ultimately, Portofino maximizes my enjoyment of the resort. That said, any of these hotels will be a top notch experience, so don't let any of these rankings dissuade you from booking a room.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 crankalicious
Liz Westwood from UK on June 28, 2021:
This is an extremely useful tool for anyone planning a visit. I especially appreciate the breakdown into different categories.