Suffice it to say, our small family clan rode both attractions more than once. It’s important for you to know that onsite Universal Resort guests—with Loews Portofino Bay Hotel being one of three onsite hotels—get unlimited Universal Express access where they skip the regular lines at both parks, and get one hour early park entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which translates into no wait lines.
The onsite hotel choices at Universal Resort include the aforementioned 750-room Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which re-creates the charm and romance of the famed seaside village of Portofino, Italy, right down to the cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes—recommend a hearty buffet breakfast at Trattoria del Porto and tell clients to grab a quick pizza after the parks at Sal’s Market Deli. Top accommodation picks here for families are the 650-sq.-ft. Kids’ Suites with separate bedroom and entertainment areas for the adults and children and you’ll want to point out to parents that there’s a single exterior entrance via the adult portion of the suite. Adult rooms feature a king-size bed and small table/desk area with two chairs and plush chair, and the children’s portion of the room is decorated in fun themes featuring two twin beds or bunk beds and a table with two chairs. The other two onsite property choices are the hip and cool 650-room Hard Rock Hotel and the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort, with its lush South Pacific theme. “Our three onsite hotels,” says Schroder, “complement the [theme park] experience by offering distinctly different, themed environments for the family to use as their home base.”
All three hotels offer a bevy of amenities, including lagoon-style and beach pools, kids’ camps, myriad dining venues and the Mandara Spa, but more importantly, they offer easy access to the two Universal theme parks and CityWalk, with an array of restaurants and a long list of fun things to see and do, including one that we highly recommend, the revamped Blue Man Group show, with new performances, new music, and an all-new stage.
Starting rates for a 7-night stay during value season are: Loews Royal Pacific Resort, $161 per night; Hard Rock Hotel, $179 per night; Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, $200 per night.
And coming in 2014 is a fourth hotel that will also be operated by Loews Hotels & Resorts, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, with 900 family suites capable of sleeping six and with a kitchen area, and 900 standard guestrooms, offering both moderate- and value-priced accommodations. The hotel will provide early park admission, proximity to both parks and resort-wide charging privileges, but—and this is an important but—will not offer complimentary Universal Unlimited Access.
That said, Goldsbury can’t stress enough the benefits of staying at an onsite Universal resort, because “it allows the relaxation of either walking or taking a boat to the parks”—we might add even a fun rickshaw ride—and, she continues, “easily heading back to the resort mid-afternoon for rest.” Goldsbury, who is an expert on Orlando family vacations, most notably as the author of “The Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World Resort,” says that for her clients she creates an “all-inclusive package with Universal Vacations by reserving a hotel stay at one of the Universal onsite resorts, adding park tickets, airport transfers, VIP tours, Meal Deal tickets with all-day at the parks for one price at counter-service locations, and pre-paid table service meals at both parks.”
At Universal’s travel agent-dedicated website, universaltravel agents.com, you can book a complete vacation under the “featured offers” link, and get resort information, as well as have access to selling tools, benefits and training.
hilton orlando—a slice of paradise
Ok, we’ve been slamming you over the head with the fact that staying at a Universal resort is the best way to truly take in the Universal experience, but not all families are seeking the same type of vacation, meaning some really want to get away from the razzle-dazzle of the theme parks environment. And although the Orlando area is chock-full of accommodation options, the Hilton Orlando has got to be one of the best resorts we’ve stayed at in the area. It’s not in the “thick of things,” but it is located in the “middle of Orlando’s prime theme park attractions area,” says the hotel’s general manager, Doug Gehret. “Sitting just off International Drive, we are a mile from SeaWorld, five miles from Universal and seven miles from the Disney area.”
One of the notable things we noticed and commented on during our stay was the superb service—we arrived and were immediately checked in, and our baggage arrived at the room soon after (check-out was no more arduous). That’s a huge plus for a hotel that’s directly connected to the Orange County Convention Center and whose room count comes in at 1,417, although there’s never a sense of being over-crowded.
According to Gehret, of those accommodations, the ones most suitable for families are those “located on the 19th floor. The Executive Lounge gives guests exclusive access to continental breakfast, nightly hors d’oeuvres and a private lounge and concierge services. Another great option is a PURE room. For families with sensitivities or allergies these hypoallergenic rooms offer air purification systems, cleansed and sanitized surfaces and microfiber fabrics that bring a whole new level of relaxation to a vacation. Families needing just a little more space will enjoy our Parlor Suites, made up of a deluxe guestroom plus a parlor featuring a living and dining space and additional bedding options.”
And when families aren’t off exploring the theme parks, this contemporary-style hotel offers plenty of resort-style leisure amenities, our favorite being the 7,000-sq.-ft. zero-entry main pool, complete with waterslide and fountain, as well as the lazy river “that gently winds and twists alongside the pool with a design reminiscent of the lazy streams that snake through Central Florida’s landscapes,” says Gehret.
There’s also a “quiet pool,” as well as a 9-hole executive golf course, a jogging track, basketball, tennis, and bocce ball courts, and The Spa at Hilton Orlando—named Honorable Mention for the 2011 Best Resort/Hotel Spa in Florida by Spa Magazine in its annual Silver Sage Readers’ Choice Award. There are also seven dining options (a must is the classic steakhouse restaurant, Spencer’s).
Gehret has three hotel must-dos he recommends for guests: “Rent a poolside cabana and enjoy the pool area; visit the spa; and go to David’s Club for ice cream cupcakes.” Take it from us, they are worth every extra calorie (recommend the “baked Alaska,” with chocolate cake with Neapolitan ice cream in the middle and roasted meringue on top).
Average hotel rates start at $109 per night. A Weekend Advantage package that is good through the end of the year (based on availability) offers a special room rate that includes room, Internet and parking.
Let us know which are your favorite hotels in the Orlando area to book for families and why by e-mailing me directly at email@example.com—we’ll post your responses in our Agent Speak column. Or, you can make a shout out on Twitter (our Twitter handle is @recommendmag).