Just Back: VIP Universal Orlando

Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando has a massive lagoon-style swimming pool with sandy beach.

Universal Orlando Resort has grown tremendously over the last few years thanks to the incredible popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, new attractions at Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and the addition of Universal’s Volcano Bay water park in 2017. Onsite lodging options in partnership with Loews Hotels & Co., will total eight properties with 9,000 guestrooms by the end of this year. Just back from a recent visit where we hung on for dear life at the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, laughed on Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, splashed around Volcano Bay, toured all the top hotel suites, and ate our fair share, we’ve boiled down the best of the best depending on VIP type: Suites, pools, spa and fitness, restaurants and the theme parks. 

Hotel Options

Here’s the scoop on the Universal Orlando Resort hotel categories: Value, Prime Value, Preferred and Premier. The Premier are the most luxurious, and happen to be the original three onsite resorts, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort; all include early park admission and Universal Express Unlimited passes for hotel guests. (Both benefits reduce waiting time at the parks and are worth their weight in gold for stays of several days.) The convenient boat and shuttle systems allow easy movement between hotels, parks and Universal’s CityWalk, so groups with various budgets can work well, and this means you are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining at the various properties. 

Loews guests can grab a free boat on the lagoon and head to the theme parks and CityWalk.

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Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando

VIP Type: Inter-generational families with grandparents in tow

A replica of Portofino, Italy, the original onsite 750-room luxury property just celebrated 20 years. The vibe is traditional Italian charm, with soothing shades of terracotta and yellow in the public spaces, while newly refurbished guestrooms (just finished this month) have bold strokes of Mediterranean-inspired design with blue accents, pops of playful patterns and crisp white linens. Rooms are situated around a pretty piazza overlooking the lagoon, where you can easily grab a free boat to the theme parks and CityWalk or enjoy a pleasant 15-minute walk along the water. Staying here is a taste of la dolce vita — the sweet life.

Top Digs: The Presidente Suite, at 2,725 square feet, sits on the top floor, overlooking the water and piazza, and comprises a large, open living room with two sofas, a dining room for 10, an office area, kitchenette, spacious King bedroom and marble bathroom with soaking tub. It can connect to a Club Double Queen room for additional 490 square feet. 

For Families: There are 18 Despicable Me-themed kids suites; each have a traditionally decorated king bedroom attached to a kid’s room with two twin beds, which look like Minion missiles from the movie — jaw-droppingly adorable. Insider Tip: The best Despicable Me suite is No. 3541 located in the west wing, conveniently near the water taxi dock; it’s one of the few with full balconies overlooking the harbor. Our second choice is No. 1550 in the east wing located in a quiet area with picturesque views of the harbor and a small Juliet balcony.

Hard Rock Hotel has a total of 650 guestrooms.

Pool and Spa: There’s a fantastic family pool with waterslide and a game room nearby, if kids have energy after the parks. Parents are well looked after at the poolside bar and restaurant. Cabanas are available to rent; plus, there’s an adults-oriented pool (they do a fair number of weddings and high-end groups). The hotel’s Mandara Spa has 16 treatment rooms, including two couple’s rooms, a co-ed hydrotherapy pool and a full gym. Top Treatment: The Fire & Ice massage, which is a hot stone contrast therapy that uses heated basalt stones and a refreshing gel to detoxify the body — the perfect soother after lots of rides and walking in the parks.

Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando

VIP Type: Music-loving Millennials with or without their kids

The party atmosphere hits as soon as you enter the Hard Rock Hotel: There’s an impressive fountain of guitars in the front, décor pops with modern furnishings and bold colors everywhere, and music is always playing. There’s also a newly renovated Velvet Bar in the lobby. The 650 guestrooms are in a U shape around the pool and many have park and CityWalk views. The location is arguably the best of all the onsite hotels, as you are about a five-minute walk to the entrance of Universal Studios Florida and CityWalk.  

Top Digs: The 2,000-square-foot Graceland Suite, complete with baby grand piano, is made for entertaining. The main living space overlooks the pool and has ample seating on two curved sofas, a dining table for 10 and a bar area. Off this main space is a kitchenette, a private workout room with a Peloton bike and the master bedroom with a king bed, a stunning, marbled bathroom with a soaking tub, fireplace, separate shower and dressing room. This room can connect to another queen bedroom (with a rollaway) to sleep up to seven people.

Hard Rock Hotel’s Graceland Suite, spread over 2,000 square feet of space, has colorful furnishings and a baby grand piano.

For Families: The 800-square-foot Future Rock Star Suites, which debuted in 2017, will thrill even the most jaded tweens and teens — a standard king bedroom is connected to tricked-out kids room with two twin beds, complete with pop star memorabilia and a liquid stage in front of an image of screaming fans. We loved Room No. 2068, which had a mural of Christina Aguilera, one of her stage outfits and sparkly lights on the ceiling. There’s a shared bathroom with separate shower and tub. 

Pool & Fitness: The heart of the property, the pool has a twisty water slide, two Jacuzzis, ping pong tables and, for VIPs, private cabanas that can be reserved; these come with TVs, a fan, fridge and waiter service. The hotel’s Bodyrock fitness center is large and well equipped; it was busy with ripped dudes and buff gym bunnies. 

Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando

VIP Type: Couples who want a romantic holiday in Tahiti, but have kids, so they’re going to Orlando

You feel South Pacific vibes as you stroll through the open, airy and newly transformed lobby that surrounds two sculptural elephants frolicking in a palm tree-shaded fountain. The largest of the premier properties, Royal Pacific’s 1,000 guestrooms have a tropical feel with floral murals and fresh pops of blue and orange; many offer incredible views of the zooming coasters at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The lobby has just been renovated at the end of 2019 and the Orchid Court Sushi Bar is serving up inventive rolls (we loved the Tropical Roll with shrimp tempura and jalapeno) and the largest menu of Japanese beers, sake and whisky in Florida. 

Top Digs: The two Presidential Suites are 1,340 square feet, with options to book second and third bedrooms for a total of 2,010 square feet. The main living area has a large, square dining table for eight, an L-shaped sofa and kitchenette. The décor is very modern in tones of gray and blue. The master bedroom is spacious with an equally impressive bathroom with a double walk-in marble shower. Insider Tip: Of the two Presidential Suites, we prefer the park views from No. 3728 on the top floor. 

For Families: Kids sleep with the dinosaurs in the Jurassic World Kids Suites; beds look like gyrospheres gliding through the prehistoric jungle and connect to a king bedroom, each with its own TV, plus a shared bathroom.   

Pool and Fitness: One of the most impressive features of the resort is a massive lagoon-style swimming pool with a sandy beach and fun, organized poolside activities for kids, including ping pong tournaments, water volleyball, hula hoop contests and more. Book VIPs a private cabana with a TV, fan and fridge to enjoy all that’s going on, but with your own space.

Top Insider tip for all premier hotels: Book Club Level, included in some suite bookings but not all, so check. All three properties offer Club Lounges staffed with concierges and have plentiful food service throughout the day, an incredible value for families as the breakfast and happy hours offer tasty and convenient food service — no waiting, just help yourself.

For further room guidance, VIP arrangements, and commissionable rate bookings, travel advisors should contact Universal’s Preferred Desk ([email protected], 407-503-9280), open seven days a week.

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened at Universal Orlando in June 2019. // Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando

Best Eats

There’s a mix of top national restaurants, including Bice for Italian and The Palm for steak and lobster, plus truly unique, innovative yet family-friendly restaurants at the different hotels. We love: Mama Della’s at Loews Portofino Bay for family-style Italian (booking is essential, as it’s very popular with locals as well as hotel guests); The Kitchen at the Hard Rock for yummy twists on American comfort food (think: spicy fish tacos, Asian chicken salad, mile-high cake); and the newly renovated Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar at Loews Royal Pacific with views of the parks for expertly executed sushi, sashimi, Japanese whiskys and Asian-inspired cocktails. Not to miss: Various themed music and food events; they are fun and the food is surprisingly well done. These include the Wantilan Luau at Royal Pacific Resort and Velvet Sessions (they get name acts for intimate lobby shows — Spin Doctors and The Psychedelic Furs played recently) and Wine Riffs at the Hard Rock Hotel, plus Harbor Nights, featuring wines, small plates and live music on the piazza at Portofino. For little ones, head to one of the three seatings of the character breakfast every Saturday in the Tahitian Room at Royal Pacific.  

VIP the Parks

Like anything popular, the parks get crowded but you’d never know it when you are on a VIP Tour Experience; choose from joining a group tour (max 12 people per guide) or getting your own private guide for the day — it is the most efficient way to see the parks, Our guide Kelly was incredibly knowledgeable about everything — from the rides to the restrooms — she took us through secret entrances and “employee only” sections that allowed us to surreptitiously enter rides without waiting. Guides guarantee you VIP entrance to 10 of the top-tier attractions; we were also able to do rides we loved several times in a row. No doubt, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been a huge boon to Universal Orlando. These areas in both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are the busiest, and the latest attraction, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which opened in June 2019 — where you “fly” on a motorbike-styled roller coaster deep into the Forbidden Forest — was our favorite ride. For the best way to book, contact the VIP Call Center at 866-346-9350.

Universal’s Volcano Bay is a water theme park with 19 unique attractions. // Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando

The other big news is Volcano Bay, Universal’s water theme park with 19 unique attractions — from plunging slides to massive inner tubes to lazy rivers. They were all good, wet fun. Go VIP with a two-story private cabana for the day, decked with padded lounge chairs, a stocked fridge, fruit and snack basket, and towels, plus concierge service with an exclusive menu of food and drinks delivered directly to the cabana. To book, call 877-801-972.

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