Earlier this year, my wife and I took the kids to Orlando for a little bit of theme park fun before continuing our trip up north to New England to see my family. Although we spent over a week in town, we only planned for 2 park days: 1 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and 1 at Universal (both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios). With such limited time, we wanted to make sure that we got the absolute most out of each of our days.
At Disney, there wasn’t much we could do to maximize our time since FastPass+ was gone and Disney Genie hadn’t been introduced yet. However, Universal had (and still has) Universal Express Unlimited Passes that allow guests to skip the line at many rides as many times as they want. I knew I wanted to get these passes, but with a starting price of $120 + tax per person in addition to the park admission, adding $375 (2 adults, 1 child, and our 2-year-old is free) to our expenses for 1 day wasn’t that appealing.
Fortunately, these passes are complimentary for guests staying at Universal’s Premier Hotels! I started doing (an absurd amount of) research and between the Loews Portofino Bay, Loews Royal Pacific, and Hard Rock Hotel, I decided Loews Portofino Bay would be the best option for us.
We spent the day before the park at the hotel and then got up early the next day to enjoy all of the Harry Potter, Jurassic Park (VelociCoaster!), and Universal that we could squeeze in — with our newly minted Universal Express Unlimited Passes helping us cut the lines.
Let’s take a look at how I ended up booking our stay and what you can expect from this very charming (and slightly tacky), Italian-themed property.
The 750-room Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando is actually located on the grounds of Universal Orlando Resort, so you couldn’t get closer to the parks (while pretending you are in a seaside Mediterranean fishing village) if you tried.
The hotel is just off of Universal Boulevard and as soon as you turn onto the grounds, you will start to forget which country you are actually in.
Despite feeling like you are in Europe, the hotel is less than 20 miles from Orlando International Airport (MCO), which means you should be able to get to the property in about 25 minutes.
If you are heading to the parks or just want to check out the fun Universal CityWalk, guests have the option to take a bus, walk along the garden path, or (my personal favorite) take the charming water taxi that drops you right in the middle of the action.
Hot Tip: Are you considering a Universal or Disney trip? Be sure to read our guide on how to visit Disney World for cheap by using points and miles. And if you want to earn and burn some points on your next trip, check out the best credit cards for your Universal and Disney vacation.
I knew right away that I wasn’t going to be able to pay for this stay with points, so I started researching the best options when paying cash.
After looking at my options, I quickly settled on trying to get a Virtuoso rate because (when available) it comes with an upgrade, breakfast, a $100 F&B credit, early check-in, and late checkout. Those perks combined with early park admission and the Universal Express Unlimited Passes made the $500+ rate seem cheap!
So I reached out to Leigh Rowan, a Virtuoso agent who works here at Upgraded Points, to see what he could do. Unfortunately, the hotel was not opening up the rate that we needed to get the perks… but since I was dead set on staying at this hotel, I had him book me a room anyways with the hopes that something might change as our arrival date approached (spoiler alert: the rate did not become available).
As bummed as I was to not get the extra perks, I quickly got over it because we skipped breakfast, were happy with our room, and still got the Universal Express Unlimited Passes — which is what we really wanted. I’m not going to lie — the $100 food and beverage credit would have been nice, though.
It all evened out, though, because on this same trip I also booked The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes via Virtuoso and it was excellent. Everything went off without a hitch, with an upgrade, credits, breakfast, and late checkout included.
All said and done, I ended up paying $514 + tax for 1 night at the hotel I wanted and it came with early admission to the parks and 4 Universal Express Unlimited Passes (yes, even my 2-year-old got one despite not needing a theme park ticket).
One thing to note — there was no resort fee, which was shocking as almost every hotel (regardless of being a resort) seems to be sneaking those in lately.
Hot Tip: If you want to book a Virtuoso rate, feel free to reach out to Leigh at [email protected].
Since we were already in town and knew that we were going to spend our entire following day at the parks, we decided to arrive at the property early to enjoy the amenities. After all, we were paying $500+ for 1 night — it wasn’t just for the Universal Express Unlimited Passes!
The Loews Portofino Bay is located on Universal Orlando Resort property, and when we were arriving, it felt like we were going to enter the parks. But before we did, there was an unassuming entrance that took us down a winding, grapevine-filled road, towards what very much looked like an Italian villa.
We pulled up to the front of the hotel, and to be honest, it was quite impressive. If it wasn’t clear yet, the Loews Portofino Bay is an Italian-themed hotel, complete with cobblestone streets, courtyards, charming architecture, and its own harbor.
After unloading our bags and chatting with the valet under the porte-cochère, I decided that it was going to be best to self-park our rental car. I will touch more on those details below.
The lobby was equally impressive at first sight. There are massive marble columns dividing the front desk and the rest of the main lobby area.
There was even a courtyard with a fountain just steps away, which was pretty cool.
What wasn’t cool was the very long line at the front desk, so my wife and kids went off to explore while I started the check-in process. After about 45 minutes I had received our keys because they also function as the Universal Express Unlimited Passes despite our room not being ready.
The friendly front desk agent said he would text me when the room was ready and that the keys would be activated so we could head straight to the room instead of stopping by the desk again.
After I dropped my bags with the bellman, I headed to the pool as I knew my kids were itching to go for a swim — only to have it shut down due to thunderstorms! Oh, Florida!
I ended up getting a text around 2 p.m. from the front desk informing me that the room was ready.
The main reason I chose the Loews Portofino Bay was for its Universal perks. Getting in early and skipping lines was huge in helping us really maximize our 1 day at the park.
However, we did spend almost the entire day at the hotel the day prior, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The hotel could certainly be an attraction on its own.
Here is an overview of the popular amenities:
Universal Express Unlimited Passes
Guests staying at Loews Portofino Bay will receive up to 4 complimentary Universal Express Unlimited Passes per room that are valid for the entire length of their stay.
These passes are an add-on to theme park admission tickets and allow guests to skip the line at select rides at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure — including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Anyone can purchase these passes, but prices vary from $119.99 to $239.99 per person, per day, plus tax. A family of 4 would need to pay over $1,000 for these passes around the holidays, making this one of the best hotel amenities around.
We received 4 hotel room keys that had each guest’s name on them and doubled as our Universal Express Unlimited Passes. We needed to show those to get into the park for early admission, as well as each time we wanted to board a ride via the Express Pass lane.
After spending a day in the hot, overcrowded parks, my family and I were so glad that we had these passes. Instead of waiting in lines, we spent our time enjoying the park at our own pace — which can be unpredictable with a 2- and 7-year-old.
Universal Park Shuttle
Another great perk was the water taxi to and from Universal CityWalk.
Although we could have walked (less than a mile) along the waterfront from our hotel to the parks, we were really looking forward to this cute little boat ride. Besides the fact that we were going to be walking all day, for the kids it was an extra ride!
The boat ran every 10 minutes throughout the day, so guests can hop over to CityWalk for lunch and come back at their leisure. We were in park mode, so we were at the docks at 7:20 a.m. to make sure that we were at the gates for the 8 a.m. early park admission (the park opened at 9 a.m. for general admission).
Our early-morning boat ride was really enjoyable as we meandered through the steamy Florida waterways with lush vegetation all around us —- a calm way to start what would be a nonstop park day.
Like almost every other hotel in Orlando, there was a hotel shuttle available that was running regularly, as well. Again, this hotel had no resort fees, so these transportation options felt even more valuable.
Hot Tip: If you are visiting Universal Studios Florida or Universal’s Islands of Adventure during peak times, take advantage of early park access whenever possible. By 10 a.m. we had ridden all of the most popular rides at least once (even without Universal Express Unlimited Passes), meanwhile, guests arriving at 10 a.m. didn’t step foot inside the park until noon because the parking and security lines were so long.
Without a doubt, besides the Universal Express Unlimited Pass perk, the highlight of this hotel for my family was the pool setup.
The Loews Portofino Bay has 3 pools, each one with its own vibe. We spent our time at the Beach Pool as it was the most family-friendly, but there was also the Villa Pool, and a smaller (much more hidden) Hillside Pool.
The Beach Pool
The Beach Pool is, you guessed it, a pool that is designed to look like a beach.
Soft sand and comfortable chairs surrounded the heated pool, which made for a really relaxing and enjoyable pool experience.
The zero-entry pool was awesome for the kids as they could run and splash around, build sandcastles, and explore on their own without me or my wife needing to be with them the entire time. This is a huge perk for parents.
There was also a waterslide that was designed to look like a Roman aqueduct that was monitored by 2 lifeguards at all times, which was also nice — although my youngest was too small to go down and my oldest wouldn’t go down by herself. Kids must be at least 36 inches tall and kids under 48 inches need to use a life jacket (provided at the water slide).
Even though we were visiting in the hot, Florida summer, having a heated pool was great for the kids, especially at night since we ended up having dinner by the pool and watching a movie on the big screen.
Since we spent most of the day by the pool, we ended up ordering a few times from Splendido Bar & Grill, which was right next to the pool. I will get into more details below, but I will say that the Mudslide and The Riviera (Cruzan Aged Rum, mango, and piña colada with a “strawberry lava flow”) were delicious!
On one side of the pool was a small hot tub, and on the other was a fenced-off kids splash pad area. Our 2-year-old really liked the kid’s area.
There was a big pirate ship to climb on and a pool that was less than 12 inches deep, all surrounded by soft, rubber flooring. It was really nice, but if he wanted to play there, one of us had to stay with him, and it wasn’t as enjoyable for adults as the big pool was. It was a good problem to have, though!
The Villa Pool
For anyone looking for a quieter, more relaxing pool experience, searching out the Villa Pool could be worth your time.
Set towards the back of the property (I think… it was a confusing walk), the Villa Pool is surrounded by tall palm trees and lounge chairs and, although not off-limits to kids, was certainly not as entertaining of an option.
The pool had cabanas for rent that came with a fridge, table, chairs, and TV.
Cabana prices range from $75 up to $200 depending on the location and season.
To the side of the pool were some beautiful gardens…
…as well as a bocce court.
The Hillside Pool
One of the most hidden features of the Loews Portofino Bay is the Hillside Pool.
Located behind one of the wings towards the entrance of the property, this relatively small pool seems to get very little love from guests. I’m not sure if it’s because of its obscure location or lack of other entertainment, but it’s a nice pool.
I could certainly see a family or group really enjoying their time here and having it almost like a private pool, especially when the other pools get busy.
Throughout the property, wireless internet was available for free, easy to connect to, and worked seamlessly.
Admittedly, since we spent most of our time by the pool, I didn’t remember to do a speed test, but I had no issues uploading videos to social media.
The fitness center was located inside the spa towards the back of the property, just a few steps away from the Beach Pool.
The gym itself was nice, well-lit, and had plenty of modern workout machines. However, it wasn’t very big and it just felt crowded with all of the large elliptical equipment.
The Mandara Spa has 14 private treatment rooms, 2 couples rooms, relaxation lounges, steam rooms, a therapy, a full-service hair salon, and more.
If you are looking to be pampered and relax a bit, this is the place to do it.
Unfortunately, time, money, and kids prevented my wife and I from enjoying this part of the hotel, but if you are interested, you can view the spa treatment menu online.
If you ask my kids what their favorite part about their vacation to multiple luxury hotels, theme parks, and pools was, they will probably tell you it was the game room…
Due to thunderstorms and rain, we found ourselves having to leave the pool a few times during our quick stay at the Loews Portofino Bay. Fortunately, right near the pool is a pretty fun video game room.
To be honest, I was surprised by how much fun we had playing video games as a family. $10 well spent!
This may be surprising, but parking was one of the highlights for me at this property. When we arrived, we had the option to valet park for $37 or self-park for $28.
Since I knew that the following day (checkout day) we would be leaving the car until after our day at the park, I assumed we would be charged for 2 days, so I opted to park the car myself in an attempt to save $18.
However, guests can leave their cars in the hotel garage until midnight on the day of checkout, which meant free theme park parking!
Remember, this hotel does not charge a resort fee but does provide transportation and (kind of) free parking — I was impressed.
If you want to bring your furry friend, you will be happy to know that Loews Portofino Bay is pet-friendly and is part of the Loews Loves Pets program.
Guests can bring a maximum of 2 pets per room and must pay a $100 cleaning fee.
Just note that not all rooms are pet-friendly, so check with the hotel before booking.
Regarding COVID-19 protocols, there isn’t much to report, because there weren’t many protocols.
The few hand sanitizer dispensers that I tried were empty, staff was not required to wear face masks, and when my mask broke at the front desk, the hotel didn’t have any to provide.
This was a far cry from The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes where health kits were readily available and hand sanitizing stations actually had hand sanitizer.
I was booked into a Garden View room that looks out the back of the building onto the landscaping, as opposed to the bay/harbor.
I was assigned room 1377, which was a very long walk from the elevator on thick rugs, which is not ideal for heavy bags. Fortunately, we were just staying the night.
On the website, the room is listed at 450 square feet and, despite the narrow entrance, was quite comfortable.
Immediately on the right after entering the room was a table with a coffee maker and an ice bucket.
The room itself was very nice and comfortable with a large armoire and TV across from the 2 queen beds.
In fact, these beds were some of the most comfortable beds we had ever slept on.
There was a full-sized desk.
A chair was awkwardly shoved into the corner.
Some overpriced Fiji water was available next to the flatscreen TV.
And finally, there was a nice mini-balcony overlooking the grounds.
On the left, after you entered, was a disproportionality large bathroom.
There was a tub and shower combo, however, it had seen better days. It just felt old and dirty, and having a sliding curtain never helps.
Amenities were provided by Julien Farel.
Hot Tip: Charge up your cell phone, as calls from the room to Florida numbers were an outrageous $10.47 charge for the first minute and $1.49 for each additional minute. Long-distance and international calls are charged at $12.20 for the first minute and $2.16 for each additional minute. Had you scored the $100 Virtuoso credit, you wouldn’t have been able to use it on a 10-minute local phone call!
Food and Beverage
There were plenty of dining options at the Loews Portofino Bay, plus we were a quick boat ride or walk from Universal CityWalk if we wanted something less Italian-themed!
However, we ate most (both) of our meals at the pool bar, Splendido Bar & Grill — which was perfectly fine.
As I mentioned, we didn’t have time to try all of the dining options, but I will list them below so you can have a decent idea of what to expect.
Hot Tip: Though temporarily suspended, Musica della Notte (Music of the Night) is a free, nightly operatic performance that begins at sunset (weather permitting) in the Harbor Piazza, where most of the restaurants are located. It also made our list of the best things to do in Orlando!
Mama Della’s Ristorante
Mama Della’s is a great family-style dining option at Loews Portofino Bay. The ristorante features authentic Italian dishes from Naples, Tuscany, and Piemonte.
Whether you are in the mood for a lasagne and wine or just coffee and dessert, Mama Della’s Ristorante is a popular spot.
You can check out the Mama Della’s Ristorante menu online.
Hours: Daily from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Guests looking for something closer to fine dining will probably like Bice Ristorante.
Overlooking the harbor, guests can enjoy Northern Italian cuisine full of seafood, meat, and fresh pasta options in an elegant atmosphere.
You can check out the Bice Ristorante menu online.
Hours: Daily from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Trattoria del Porto
Family-friendly, casual, and open for all 3 meals, Trattoria del Porto is another popular spot at Loews Portofino Bay.
With indoor and outdoor seating in the plaza, whether you are grabbing breakfast before the parks or dinner on your way back, Trattoria del Porto has plenty of options.
You can check out the Trattoria del Porto menu online.
Hours: Breakfast: Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. until 12 p.m. Lunch: Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 12 p.m. until 1 p.m. Dinner: 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. daily.
Sal’s Market Deli
Sal’s Market Deli was the closest option to a quick-service dining experience on property.
Located in the main plaza, Sal’s offers pizzas, sandwiches, salads, fruits, cheeses, and more. Guests can grab a wine or beer and enjoy them in their room or out in the plaza.
You can check out Sal’s Market Deli menu online.
Hours: Monday to Wednesday from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., Thursday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. until 2 a.m.
This was the hotel’s lobby bar that served drinks and small plates, however, it has been closed and the reopening date has not been set.
The Thirsty Fish
By the name, you could probably guess that The Thirsty Fish is a bar. And you would be correct.
This bar sits right on the corner of one of the buildings in front of Harbor Piazza, which makes for a nice spot to hang and enjoy the warm evenings and watch people coming back from the parks.
With a solid drink menu, light bites, and live music on the weekends, The Thirsty Fish is a nice little hotel bar.
You can check out The Thirsty Fish menu online.
Hours: Monday to Friday from 5 p.m. until 12 a.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. until 12 a.m.
Splendido Bar & Grill
Splendido Bar & Grill is where we spent most of our time because they have servers that come right to your chair at the Beach Pool, and that was really all I was looking for while the kids were enjoying themselves.
The food was standard poolside grill fare with everything from wings and chips to pizzas and sandwiches. There was a full kids menu, plus a solid selection of adult beverages — pretty much exactly what you need when hanging by the pool all day.
You can check out Splendido Bar & Grill menu online.
Hours: Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.
An Italian-themed hotel would not be complete without a proper Gelateria.
Located right in the main plaza, stopping here for a gelato was a must-do according to my kids. And they approved of the creamy, Italian treat.
You can check out the Gelateria menu online.
Hours: Daily from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.
If you need your coffee fix, fear not — there is a Starbucks on property.
Conveniently located right next to the Gelateria, which was also the ground floor of our room building, Starbucks was great for us because we grabbed some coffees and breakfast sandwiches early in the morning on our way to the park without going out of our way.
Hours: 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily
Overall, our experiences with the Loews Portofino Bay staff were really good.
From the valet and check-in employees to the housekeepers we chatted with throughout the hallways and the staff at the pool restaurant, everyone was extremely friendly and professional.
However, it was abundantly clear that the hotel was extremely short-staffed as almost everything took a lot longer than it should have. That being said, even more kudos to the staff for keeping the hotel running the best they could with a smile on their face.
My first thought upon arriving at Loews Portofino Bay was, “Wow, they are really committing to this Italian theme!” But it was a fun hotel, and there were some really nice parts, especially the pools and location that would make me want to bring my family back.
There were other parts of the hotels that were a little tacky and theme-parkish, like the fake bricks, windows, and balconies that were just painted on the side of buildings and quickly reminded you that you were in Orlando, not Italy.
Despite studying the map and walking the grounds multiple times, I still found the property really confusing to navigate. Perhaps the hotel was designed this way on purpose to recreate the many winding paths you might see in an old Italian sea town, but from a guest perspective, I found it more frustrating than charming.
Bringing the kids back and forth from our room to the pool meant multiple sets of stairs (or try to find an elevator) and zig-zagging our way through the mini piazzas (plazas/courtyards) we kept finding ourselves in. We only really knew where we were going when we got back to the main piazza.
But for the reasons we stayed at Loews Portofino Bay, we were extremely satisfied. The transportation to the Universal parks was seamless and really enjoyable, the Universal Express Unlimited Passes were awesome to have on a busy park day, and the “free” parking on the day of checkout saved us at least $27.
If you can get a decent Virtuoso rate that comes with breakfast and credits, this hotel can provide some extreme value.
One thing about the property that I had to mention — if you have seen the Disney film “Luca,” you will instantly connect this hotel with the fake town of Portorosso. I know that the hotel is Universal and the movie is Disney, but I feel like there would have been some incredible branding opportunities and immersive guest experiences had they been related.
Overall, my family and I really enjoyed our stay, however, for the price, I would probably stay elsewhere in Orlando if I wasn’t visiting the theme parks. The hotel and pools are very nice, but the Universal perks were the biggest draw (for me).
For the same money, there are far better hotels in the area to enjoy if you don’t plan on visiting Universal Studios Florida or Universal’s Islands of Adventure.