Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Universal Orlando...I'm Sold!

Well...back in September of this year, my wife and I visited the Universal theme parks for the very first time. I came away from that visit with the opinion that Universal is a great thing to do at least once, but it just did not leave an impression with me that would make it a "must-do" when planning future trips to the Orlando area.

I wrote my most recent post related to that visit and listed a few of my top things to do when visiting the 2 parks that make up Universal Orlando. I stated at the end of that post that my opinion may change since I was being given a chance to come back down to Orlando and visit their parks again as well as the 3 resorts that reside on Universal property. It's opinion has changed. I am now a fan. I now have seen what Universal Orlando has to offer, in & outside the theme parks.

I was given the opportunity to stay in one of the 3 Universal hotels; The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. The hotel is impressive! Naturally I was comparing Universal's onsite properties to that of Walt Disney World's the whole time I was there which was for a total of 3 nights. The Portofino would be in the same class as one of Disney's Deluxe properties such as the Yacht and Beach Club, the Contemporary, the Polynesian etc. When comparing room sizes and decor, the Portofino comes out on top. The room was quite spacious and the bathroom was gigantic. The only negative about the room layout or size would be the tiny stand-up shower in the bathroom. The bathrooms are designed similar to those you see down in some of Cancun's all-inclusive resorts; double vanities, large bathtub and a separate shower. But the shower could use some expansion and heaven knows there is room for it in the bathroom's existing space.

The hotel offers an abundance of dining/lounge/bar options. They offer a gelato venue, a seafood restaurant, a pizza and more of a grab-and-go option and some higher end venues such as Bice and Mama Della's Ristorante which offers excellent Italian food and a fantastic atmosphere and is now on my "must-do" list. Shopping was plentiful and centrally located near the food choices. I liked the layout of the resort. The grounds and architecture made you really feel like you had been whisked away on an vacation to a quaint seaside village in Italy. They even have opera singers come out to the outdoor piazza area each evening and serenade the crowd with some beautiful Italian music.

The staff...A+. The front desk remembered my name after a couple of visits to inquire about some different things. That sort of attention to detail is important to me when I am considering higher-end properties for my clients. Everyone I came in contact with greeted me with a smile and was courteous. I do hope I get a chance in the future to enjoy another stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

During this trip, I also had the chance to tour the other two Universal Orlando hotels; the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel and the Hard Rock Hotel. All 3 of Universal's hotels offer a unique experience and ambience. The Royal Pacific hotel is a little lower in price point which makes it great for families. It also appeals to the convention crowd so it can be a little "busier" than the Portofino Bay Hotel. The Hard Rock's the Hard Rock. When "Hard Rock" is in the name, that should give you a clue as to the clientele that it appeals to. It should also give you a clue that it is not the place for some quiet R&R. It is perfect for the young or the younger at heart who want a fun and exciting vacation with a hip crowd. Who knows, you may even run into one of your favorite rock stars while you are there like we did when we saw Vince Neil saunter through the lobby.

Each Universal Hotel offers a wide variety or eateries from the casual to the more upscale.  I am attaching a link to my pictures so you can see more of the theming and public spaces of each hotel.  Click HERE!

Now...let's get to the benefits of staying onsite at Universal.   First, each guest gets "Universal Express Unlimited" ride access in both Universal Orlando theme parks as a part of their stay.  That is a huge benefit if you happen to be visiting Orlando during peak times of the year.  Each guest also gets early admission into Islands of Adventure and into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  

You also get room charging privileges when inside the parks or anywhere else on Universal property.  No need to carry a lot of cash or credit cards around with you during your stay.  Each hotel is on the free water taxi route so park your car and enjoy the free transportation from your hotel to the Universal City Walk and theme park area.  You also get priority seating at any of the Universal Orlando restaurants where reservations may be needed.  And here is one that sometimes gets also have the ability to have purchases sent back directly to your room.  If you are like me, you hate to have to carry around your souvenirs after you purchase them.  If you are an onsite guest, simply have your package delivered back to your room at no extra charge. 

Those are some of the great benefits of choosing to stay in 1 of the 3 Universal Orlando hotels.

Now let me get to some things that I think need to be addressed by Universal and their hotel partners.  These would not sway me from wanting to go back and stay, but they are differences that some big Disney fans are going to notice if they choose to do a split stay.  And they are differences that may cause some to decide to stay elsewhere.  First...there is no free wifi in your room.  When you pay as much as you do per night to stay in one of their hotels, it is becoming a common expectation to have free wifi.  Now I will say that they do offer free wifi in their lobby areas and it does work fine.  But for some of us who need to do a little work occasionally during our trips, free wifi in your room is becoming a must.  Parking is also not free.  That was a bit of a shocker at first to me.  Again, you are paying somewhat of a premium for staying onsite and you expect some of these things to be added benefits, but they are not.  And last but not least, no mini-fridge.  There is a mini-bar stocked to the hilt with snacks and drinks.  And if you want to pay a small fortune for a bottle of water or a bag of chips, that may be a good amenity for you.  But vacationing families these days want some sort of mini-fridge area so they can keep some milk on hand for their kids and not have to pay a small fortune for those items since they are already spending so much for their vacations as a whole.  

Now you should know that some of these things are out of Universal's hands.  Unlike Disney, which owns their own onsite properties, Universal is a partnership with Loews and also Hard Rock.  That simply means that the hotels are looking for areas of profit just like the airlines do.  They know some will pay for wifi and some will use the mini-bars and those are areas of profit for the hotel chains.  Universal Orlando knows that these differences are not in line with their large competitor down the street, but their hands are a bit tied right now so it is what it is.

And again...those areas of difference would not deter me from wanting to stay onsite at Universal in the future.  So with all of that said...I hope you see that I am a fan now.  I have not even got into some things I learned about their 2 theme parks.  But this post is long enough and probably even too long, but hopefully you can see that I can fully recommend a stay at any one of the Universal Orlando onsite hotels.  You will have a great time and become a fan if you are not one already.