I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
November 15, 2014
This post will tell you all you need to know about Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, including major insider tips AND how we realized it’s actually CHEAPER for us to stay there when we visit Universal Orlando than it is to stay in an off-site budget hotel! If you’re planning a trip to Universal Orlando (or even thinking about it) you do not want to miss this post!
After a whirlwind five days at Walt Disney World, we were thrilled to get the opportunity to spend the last two nights of our recent Orlando family vacation at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. Coming from the Disney’s Caribbean Resort to this luxury hotel was basically like upgrading from Economy to First Class. When my family walked into our serenely beautiful hotel room, we all sighed in happy relief.
We had hit the hotel jackpot.
Designed to resemble the luxury hotels of Italy, every inch of the Portofino Bay Hotel gives you a real taste of the hotel’s motto: La Dolce Vita. The Sweet Life. From the cool blue and white rooms to the high-ceilinged, terra cotta-toned hallways filled with Florida sunshine…
…to the spacious and very regal bathrooms…
…to the very toilet paper itself. In my opinion, nothing says ‘fancy’ like TP origami.
But as beautiful as our room was, it had nothing on the view just outside our balcony.
This stunning, man-made bay was constructed to look like the original Portofino Bay in Italy. The dock you see in the image is in the exact same spot as the boat dock in Italy. Orlando’s Portofino Bay actually runs past the Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, right up to the gates of Universal Orlando– but more about that later!
Ordinarily at this point, the kids would rush us through unpacking and changing into swimsuits so that we could get to the real prize at any hotel, as far as they’re concerned- THE POOL. But this particular hotel room was so peaceful, so pristine, that my 10-year-old had just one desire upon our arrival.
She just wanted to stay in the room and read. And who could blame her?
However, it wasn’t long before something else arrived that got her attention:
…a beautiful and creative dessert plate from the hotel chef. It looked too pretty to eat, but the kids quickly proved that wasn’t the case!
Once we’d decimated dessert, it was pool time. My husband had wisely decided to schedule a few recovery days in between our park visits, and this day was one of them. I’m so glad he made this call, because if you think the Disney resort pools are fancy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Beach Pool is AH-MAZ-ING. And honestly, my photos don’t do it justice. It’s ginormous and includes a surprisingly elaborate Roman aqueduct-themed waterslide (that I went down at least 50 times!), a sandy beach an adjacent children’s pool, splash pad and playground, and two themed jacuzzis with waterfalls.
But I have to admit- It was the small details that impressed me most. The hotel provided several extra-large beach balls and inflatable animals for kids to play with (as pictured above)- When my children saw them, they were thrilled. My daughter in particular played with the inflatables for HOURS.
Another neat element was the professional photographer stationed near the pool. She takes photos while your family swims that you can review and purchase before you leave. You can even schedule an appointment with her at sunset and have a family portrait taken by the pool- then take the photos home with you the same day. It’s a neat option during your vacation.
If you’re sans kids and looking for a more relaxing scene, you have to check out the Villa Pool, just a short walk away. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a European resort as soon as you walk through the gates. It is blissfully quiet, ridiculously gorgeous, and totally inviting. Both times I looked in, everyone at this pool was deep into a book and I don’t blame them- The Villa Pool is the perfect environment for reading. There’s also a Bocce Ball lawn nearby for enthusiasts of the world’s oldest lawn bowling game.
For those who’d like even more privacy, The Hillside Pool is on the east side of the hotel- It’s for adults only.
After our swim, we went back up to the room to dress for dinner. Suddenly, we heard the sounds of singing coming from outside our windows. We went out and saw a trio of opera singers on a nearby balcony, singing for the crowd in the courtyard below.
It was magical.
And it was time to eat!
On the advice of the concierge, we had made reservations at Mama Della’s Ristorante, a cozy Italian restaurant that’s perfect for families. I’ll be honest- We weren’t expecting the food to be anything special. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we were wrong.
Our calamari appetizer was tender and delicious. My husband loved his Chicken Marsala. And my Risotto ai Funghi (Grilled Hen of the Wood Mushroom Dry Vermouth Risotto, Fresh Herbs) was out. Of. This. World. The children also enjoyed their entrees off the kids’ menu. All in all, we agreed that this meal was the best of the trip- And considering that we had just spent 4 days at some of the best restaurants Disney had to offer, that’s saying a lot!
During our meal, Mama Della came to greet us as if we were old friends- but the best moment of the evening (besides the food!) was when an opera singer came to our table and asked if we had any requests. I asked for “Oh Mio Babbino Caro” and she sang it there for us on the spot- It was so beautiful and so moving that it literally brought tears to my eyes. This little moment was one of my favorite things about our entire trip!
Filled with delicious Italian food and exhausted by our full day, we went home and right to sleep in the hotel’s uber-comfortable beds- We had to be up at 6 am in order to enjoy our early admission hour at Universal Orlando.
And this brings me to the most surprising part of this post. Clearly, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is decadent and luxurious- and I’m sure right now many of you out there are thinking, “Well this looks great, but it’s totally beyond my family’s budget.” I would have thought the same thing- but now, knowing what I know, we will DEFINITELY be staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel again the next time we visit Orlando. It is actually the very best option for our budget.
The Universal Orlando parks (more on this in an upcoming post) are probably the best theme parks in the world. The Harry Potter worlds in each park are literally like stepping into the book itself. By staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel (or any other Universal Orlando on-site hotel), you get admission to both Harry Potter worlds one hour before the park opens. (You have to buy your own admission tickets, of course- You use your room key to get in an hour early.) Since neither Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (my all-time favorite ride EVER) or the new Escape From Gringotts rides accept express passes, this early admission is invaluable- You’ll have the shortest wait time of the entire day. Even better in my opinion, is the fact that you can experience the Harry Potter environment (and cast spells with your interactive wands) without crowds of people milling around you. We loved exploring during that first hour. It made a huge difference in our experience.
Another MAJOR benefit is the Portofino Bay Hotel’s water taxi, which takes guests from our hotel, the Royal Pacific Resort, and the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel right to the gates of Universal Orlando. This was HUGE for my family. When we went to Universal Orlando last year, we parked in the theme park’s lot, which required a long, long, long, long, lonnnnnnng walk to the gate. If you have kids, you know that for them a long walk from the parking lot means a definite depletion of energy reserves– reserves that they really need to power through the rest of the day. By staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel (or any other Deluxe On-Site Hotel), you not only saved from a long walk, but you’re also saved the $17 theme park daily parking charge.
But the real game-changer is the fact that Deluxe On-Site Hotel guests (and by that, I mean Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, and Hard Rock Cafe hotels) get free Universal Express Unlimited ride access for the extent of their stay- and this? This is HUGE. The passes get you to the front of the line for every ride and ordinarily cost $89 per person.
Because of the expense, most park-goers don’t buy the passes (and this is exactly what makes them work so well)- However, now that we’ve had the express pass experience, we will never, ever, ever again visit Universal Orlando without them. You save literally HOURS in line with these passes and you’re able to see and do far more than you could without them. I’ve also discovered that the lines are the place that my children wilt and lose all of their enthusiasm. The fact that we were able to get on rides almost instantly kept their energy up and their spirits high, and we were able to spend a lot more time at the park before they gave out than ever before.
The bottom line? Our family could stay at a “bargain” hotel in Orlando and then spend $17 on a parking pass and $356 for express passes– Total cost: at least $473.
OR we could stay at the Portofino Bay Hotel, where rooms average between $299 and $450 depending on the season (these are rack rates and don’t take into account special deals and incentives that the hotel offers throughout the year).
Do you see where I’m going with this? You actually SAVE MONEY by staying at the fabulously luxurious Portofino Bay Hotel. And? Your kids can play checkers in the lobby, TWENTY-FOUR SEVEN.
How can you say no to that?
And if you really want to get all insider bargain hunter-y, consider what a friend of ours did recently:
After staying at Walt Disney World for a few days, his family got up early, checked out at Disney, and checked in at the Portofino Bay Hotel by 6:00 am. The hotel stowed their luggage, they printed out their express passes, and made it to Universal Orlando in time for the early admission hour. They spent the night at the Portofino Bay Hotel, got up early again the next morning, checked out, stowed their bags again, and went back to the park for another day with their express passes. They came back to the hotel in the evening, got their bags, drove to an inexpensive off-the-interstate hotel a couple of hours closer to home, spent the night there, and drove back to Tennessee the next morning.
I checked in with the hotel to make sure that these kinds of shenanigans are okay with them and got the thumbs up. You can check in to the hotel at any time on the date of your stay, stow your bags if necessary, and head straight to the park. Conversely, you can check out early the day you leave, stow your bags, leave your car at the hotel, and go to the park- this is actually what we ended up doing. You just have to have your car out of the parking lot by midnight that night. Apparently, people take advantage of this budget-saving scenario all the time. And the express passes are good for your entire stay- from the day you check in to the day you check out.
If you can swing it, though, I absolutely recommend including a rest day in your stay at the Portofino Bay Hotel. The swimming pools and grounds are so gorgeous that you will want to spend an entire day enjoying them. It’s also a perfect time to take the water taxi to Universal CityWalk, which is filled with great restaurants and shopping.
Here are a few more interesting tidbits about the Portofino Bay Hotel:
-Portofino Bay Hotel guests (as well as other Deluxe On-Site Hotel guests) can use their room key cards to charge food and souvenirs at Universal Orlando to their rooms. They can also have souvenirs purchased at Universal Orlando delivered straight to their hotel rooms for free!
-Universal Orlando character dining is available to Portofino Bay Hotel guests. Have fun as some of your favorite theme park characters pose for pictures, sign autographs, and interact with everyone at your table.
-You can start your day at the Portofino Bay Hotel with a call from one of your favorite Universal Orlando theme-park characters!
-May, September and the first two weeks of December are great times to visit.
Are you excited now about planning your Portofino Bay Hotel stay? Good! You should be! I promise you won’t be disappointed!
Image header via Loews.
Loews graciously comped our stay at the Portofino Bay Hotel so that we could experience it for ourselves during the Universal Orlando portion of our trip. Loews did not ask for anything in return and my opinions in this post are 100% my own.