Looking to splurge at Universal Orlando Resort? Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is a very plush slice of Italy, complete with cobblestone streets, Cypress trees, a charming piazza, authentic Italian restaurants, and three spectacular pools, including one that looks like a Roman aqueduct.
Staying at any of the on-site hotels at Universal Orlando comes with some really great perks, including early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before the theme park opens.
Guests at some of the properties, including the Portofino Bay Hotel, receive another fantastic perk: Getting skip the regular lines in both theme parks all day with Universal Express Unlimited ride access (worth $89 per person, per day if purchased separately).
Modeled on the real Portofino Bay fishing village in Italy, this is the flagship of Universal's resorts and is unsurprisingly also the most plush and pricey. It offers larger, more luxurious rooms, a beautiful spa, and even a bocce ball court. While all the hotels are within walking distance of both theme parks and Universal CityWalk, the Portofino Bay is one of three that also offers a free water taxi service connecting guests with the theme parks in minutes.
The Beach Pool is one of the most impressive themed pools in Orlando, and that's really saying something. There's a sandy beach area, a fortress-like structure with a long waterslide, and lots of little coves that give the impression that the pool is less crowded than it actually might be.
The pool area also offers a cafe and bar (serving, among other things, delicious frosty smoothies), an array of games (including Ping Pong and billiards), and hot tubs with waterfalls cascading into them.
Notably, the theming at this hotel is classy and not cartoonish. After returning from the theme parks by water taxi one evening, we pulled up to the dock at dusk to find that the piazza's streetlamps and string lights had been turned on.
Children were feeding ducks at the water's edge, little boats were bobbing in the harbor, and two opera singers were performing from a balcony overlooking the piazza. We bought gelato and grabbed a cafe table on the piazza to soak up la dolce vita.
Dining options include the upscale BICE, more moderate Mama Della's Ristorante and Trattoria del Porto, Sal's Market (which, among other things, offers fantastic pizza) and a gelateria for delectable gelato and beverages to go. There are also several watering holes, including a wine bar.
Best rooms: With 750 luxurious guestrooms, including 45 suites, there's no shortage of choice. Rooms start at a spacious 450 square feet and suites range in size from 650 to 2,725 square feet. You can choose a garden or bay view. Few rooms have balconies (and you can't reserve one in advance) so be sure to ask if they have one available at check in.
The Despicable Me-themed kids' suites are standouts, with adorable themed décor and kid-size tables and chairs. You can also opt for a Club Level room for access to additional amenities, including a large lounge with light snacks and beverages served all day. Wifi is free throughout the hotel and in the pool areas.
Best season: The least expensive time to visit Universal Orlando is during value season, which runs from early January through most of February, mid-August through October, and during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Note, however, that attendance increases significantly from mid-September through Halloween for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights event.
Visited: September 2015
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