First there was only the single theme park, Universal Studios Florida. Even after Universal Orlando expanded into a destination theme park resort and added its second park, Islands of Adventure, the CityWalk dining/shopping/entertainment district, and its first hotel, Portofino Bay, most Central Florida visitors still considered Universal a one-day add-on to a vacation spent mostly at Disney World.
That began to change as Universal Orlando continued to expand with additional hotels—and especially when the resort introduced its incredibly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands, Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. The upstart up the street on I-4 has evolved into a worthy contender to the Mouse. That leaves folks planning a vacation to the theme park capital of the world (like you?) with a dilemma: Should they stay at Universal Orlando, Disney World, or at one of the gazillions of off-property hotels near the two resorts?
To help determine whether booking a hotel at Harry Potter's theme park home might make sense, we have compiled a rundown of the top ten reasons to stay on property at Universal Orlando. The resort offers some truly compelling benefits that distinguish it from Disney as well as neighboring accommodations.
Skip the Lines for Free
Skip the ride lines? For free? Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it's more or less true, but it's important to note the details.
First of all, complimentary Universal Express Unlimited ride passes (as the resort calls its skip-the-lines program) are only available as a benefit at three of Universal's hotels: Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, and Royal Pacific Resort. Guests staying at the other properties are out of luck—but not completely out of luck. They (as well as members of the general public) could purchase Universal Express passes separately, and also skip most of the lines. (Among the attractions that don’t allow line skipping is the incredibly popular Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Coaster, at least in 2019 soon after it opened.)
Finally, the Express passes aren't really "free." Universal has bundled their cost into the room rates. Note that the resort considers both the Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls to be "Preferred" category hotels. While both offer comparable amenities, Royal Pacific charges more to compensate for the Express Pass benefit.
If you don't mind cramming the maximum number of people that the hotels allow into a room, you could get the maximum value out of the Express pass benefit. For instance, a pass costs as much as $150 per person during the late December Christmas holiday rush. If you have five people staying in your hotel room, the Express passes would be worth $750 per day.
Keep in mind that the Express passes do not include theme park admission. Hotel guests would still have to purchase park tickets. Also note that the Express passes are especially valuable during busier seasons such as early summer and around the Christmas holiday. That's when the lines tend to be the longest (so you'll appreciate the benefit more), and Universal charges the most to purchase a la carte Express passes. Then again, room rates are at their highest during peak visitation.
Get Into the Harry Potter Lands Before the Parks Open
Aall hotel guests (including those staying at the Prime Value and Value hotels such as Cabana Bay Beach Resort) do get to enter both Wizarding Worlds an hour before the general public. That gives them the opportunity to get in a ride or two before the lines get too unwieldy.
Note that in order to ride the themed train that connects Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, guests would need two-park passes to both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
Get Good Value at Universal Orlando Hotels
The resort's hotels, which are all operated by Loews Hotels, compare favorably to the accommodations at Disney World as well as to off-property places to stay. They are all quite comfortable and well run. While rates might be lower at other hotels, visitors should consider the many amenities, including the Express passes, early park admission, the ease of getting around the resort, and other benefits listed below to determine the true value of staying on property.
Cabana Bay offers especially good value. While its rates are relatively low, it nonetheless offers impressive amenities such as roomy family suites, an exceptionally large, complimentary fitness center, and well-appointed pool areas that include a water slide and lazy river.
Get Around the Resort Easily
Compared to Disney World's sprawling campus, Universal Orlando is relatively compact. Instead of having to deal with the Mouse's sometimes frustrating transportation system and the long time it can take to get from one place to another, guests staying at most of Universal’s hotels can easily stroll to the parks and CityWalk.
Granted, it's a bit of a hike from the most outlying properties, Cabana Bay and Portofino Bay, but the garden path that connects all of the hotels is lovely. Water taxis, which operate frequently, travel to all hotels except Cabana Bay. Shuttle buses, which also make frequent stops, are available at all hotels.
Get Immersed in the Hotels' Great Themes
Sure, you could stay at a nearby Best Western or a Ramada Inn. But where's the fun in that? The clever folks at Universal Creative have done a great job injecting huge doses of whimsy into all of the properties. Like the themed lands and attractions at the parks, the resort's hotels immerse guests in fanciful environments. You could escape to the Caribbean at Sapphire Falls or indulge in music memorabilia at the Hard Rock Hotel, for example.
Bring Your Pets
Unlike Disney World, which does not allow pets (other than service dogs) at any of its hotels, your furry friends are welcome at all of Universal Orlando's hotels with the exception of Cabana Bay. You couldn't take your dog into the theme parks for a ride aboard, say, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, but if you are among those who like to take their pets along on vacations, Universal will throw you a bone at its hotels.
Get Priority Restaurant Seating
By showing their room keys, Universal's hotel guests get special treatment at select on-property restaurants. Like the Express pass, priority seating at restaurants is only available to guests staying at Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay, and Royal Pacific Resort.
The benefit is the equivalent of slipping the host some cash to get seated at a busy eatery. If there is a wait, hotel guests get placed at the top of the list. Of course, if other hotel guests arrived before you, you would be behind them on the list. But, hey, it's something.
If you really don't like waiting to dine, consider making reservations. Some Universal Orlando restaurants use OpenTable for online reservations, while others require calling ahead to make reservations.
There are some wonderful restaurants inside the resort's hotels. All of the hotels offer full-service, quick-service, and grab-and-go eateries. Among the standouts are: The Palm Restaurant at Hard Rock Hotel, Mama Della's Ristorante at Portofino Bay, and Strong Water Tavern at Sapphire Falls.
With the opening of Universal’s Endless Summer Resort in 2019, guests now have the opportunity to score room rates well under $100 per night. The resort includes both the Surfside Inn and Suites and (opening in March 2020) Dockside Inn and Suites. And the two-bedroom suites, which sleep six, are true suites that include a second bedroom with a door. The suites are also reasonably priced.
The downside? Endless Summer is not located on Universal’s main campus. (It is situated on what used to be the Wet 'n' Wild water park.) It is located very close to CityWalk, but getting there requires taking a shuttle bus (which are dispatched frequently).
Check Out Other Hotel Benefits
Other reasons to stay at Universal's hotels:
- You can have anything you purchase at the parks or CityWalk delivered to your hotel room.
- The Universal characters make appearances at the hotels.
- Your room key doubles as a charge card throughout the resort.
- Hotel guests get complimentary access to some of the nightclubs at CityWalk.
Other resources to help you plan your theme park getaway: