Wait for fall 2020: A review of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando
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To The Point
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel puts you at the center of the action at Universal Orlando. Pros: The included skip-the-line Express Pass for rides, one-hour early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and quick-and-easy boat shuttle to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk ensure you’ll spend as much time as possible enjoying Universal instead of waiting in line. Cons: This hotel is huge and impersonal. It’s also in need of renovation, which will commence in early 2020.
It had been a very long time — before the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — since my family had visited Universal Orlando. We don’t live all that far from Orlando, so when Universal began promoting its holiday festivities, we booked a visit for mid-November before the crush of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the rest.
Just like anyone else visiting Orlando’s theme parks, we grappled with this question: Should we stay at a Universal hotel or a nearby points hotel? My husband and I decided to stay on site at one of Universal’s Premier (top-tier) properties: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
The other Premier resorts include Loews Royal Pacific and Hard Rock Hotel. The obvious plus was its location right on Universal property, making it easy to travel between the hotel and Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk via the hotel’s free boat shuttle.
Two other benefits were big wins in my book: free skip-the-line Express Passes for rides in the parks (minus Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure) and one-hour early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (All Portofino Bay Hotel guests receive those perks, as do guests at all of Universal’s “Premier” properties.)
But I did have two misgivings about the hotel. The first is its size. With 700 rooms, it’s a much larger complex than we’d normally book. Portofino Bay is also two decades old. I wasn’t too familiar with the Loews brand, so I couldn’t gauge how its upkeep would be. But at the end of the day, the lure of holiday decor, quick access to Universal and a discounted Florida resident rate made this decision a no-brainer. Then it was just a matter of experiencing the hotel to see if it would win me over for future stays.
I’m a Florida resident, and Universal Orlando offers special rates to entice locals like me to visit at certain times of the year. I booked our November trip in August, and the Florida resident rate was significantly cheaper than other rates. Here’s how it looked on the day I booked:
|Room Type||Universal Florida Resident Rate||Universal Website Rate||AAA Rate||Expedia Rate||Amex FHR Rate|
|Despicable Me Suite||$507||$714||$714||$714||$714|
As you can see, the Garden, Bay and Club rooms were discounted by $145 per night for Florida residents. The savings for the Despicable Me Suite was $205 per night. We decided to spend two nights in a Club room and one night in a bay-view room so we could compare.
Since Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is one of Universal Orlando’s on-site resorts, it’s conveniently within walking distance of Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk. There are also complimentary boat shuttles to those locations. A boat arrives every 10 or so minutes. We rarely waited more than five minutes during our stay. If you want to visit Volcano Bay waterpark, there’s a free shuttle bus. If you plan to do nothing but visit all that Universal has to offer, staying on site or very close by makes a lot of sense.
Even though 4 p.m. is the official check-in time at Portofino Bay, we decided to arrive early so we could spend part of the day at Islands of Adventure. We arrived at the hotel around 11:30 a.m. and waited just a minute or so for a front desk agent to assist us. She was very friendly and bubbly and was sorry to say our room wasn’t ready yet, which we expected. She offered to print our room keys, which we needed to show to access the Express Pass queue at the rides in the parks. (All guests of Portofino Bay and other Universal Premier hotels get a free skip-the-line Express Pass.) We were also given keys to the Portofino Club lounge, and she told us she’d text us as soon as our room became available.
We checked our bag with bell services and then stopped off at the Club lounge for a nonalcoholic beverage. (Wine and beer are only served on a complimentary basis for three hours per day from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.)
We consulted Universal’s app to help decide where to head first once we got to Islands of Adventure. On the way out of the Club, we picked up our theme park tickets — which we’d ordered online in advance — at the desk right outside the lounge.
From the lobby, we just had to walk down a flight of stairs (there was also an elevator) to the Harbor level, where we walked across the piazza.
We waited no more than three minutes for a water taxi to the theme parks. (And even the shuttle boat was decked out with a wreath and garlands for the season.) At 12:20 p.m., while in line for Skull Island: Reign of Kong, I got a text saying our room was ready.
We booked a three-night stay but decided to spend two nights in a room with Portofino Club lounge access and one night without it. We wanted to determine if lounge access would be a necessity for future stays. Club-level rooms are spread throughout the hotel, so if you want one close to the Portofino Club lounge, make a special request. Our room was quite a long walk from the lobby.
We checked into a 490-square-foot Club Level deluxe room that slept five with two queen beds and the option to add a rollaway for the fifth person at the rate of $25 a day plus tax.
The entry door opened to a hallway with the bathroom on one side and the wet bar and closet on the other. The wet bar had a Keurig coffee maker with a few pods (two French roast, one decaf coffee, one green tea and two English breakfast). There were sweeteners and half and half. An ice bucket and glassware were tucked into the bottom shelf of the wet bar.
The closet was spacious and outfitted with one bathrobe (kind of weird for a room with an occupancy maximum of five people), an ironing board and iron, safe and luggage rack. A few more steps led us to the bedroom.
My initial impression was, “Wow. This room is dark — even on a bright, fall day.” Lighting — or lack thereof — continued to be an issue in other parts of the resort, from our room to the club lounge to the Bice restaurant.
I wished the room had a light fixture on the ceiling to help brighten it up. Later in the day, when the sun was in the right place, we did have more light streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows to help lift the room a bit. We missed a balcony, though. If that’s important to you, you’ll need to book a Villa, Hospitality, Governatore or Presidente suites, since those are the only room categories that offer balconies.
The room was pretty, with a rich blue-green color on one wall and cream on the others. The bed, with a padded headboard, featured crisp, white linens and was comfortable.
There was one leather chair by the desk (though the online floor plan at the hotel’s website shows two chairs), an upholstered chair in the corner and a nice, sturdy ottoman.
Light-colored furniture — a dresser/TV stand, nightstand and table — were all topped with a rose marble accent.
There was a small — and empty — minifridge in the dresser.
The one-drawer nightstand was between the beds and had two electrical outlets and a clock radio with USB ports.
There was an interesting cutout with privacy shutters between the bathroom and bedroom. It’s not entirely clear what it was for.
We kept the shutters closed throughout our stay.
The table was wobbly but worked as a desk for our two laptops. We also grabbed takeout (pizza, salads, sandwiches) from Sal’s Market Deli on the Harbor floor evening and had the meal in our room.
The bathroom was plenty spacious. We liked the double vanity.
There was a separate shower.
The bathroom also included a bathtub.
Bathroom amenities were by Julien Farel and included hand and body cream, hand and body wash, bar soap, shampoo, conditioner and a shower cap. There was also a stash of cotton swabs and cotton balls in a container on the vanity.
My husband’s favorite feature was the speaker that broadcast whatever was on the bedroom TV to the bathroom. A handy volume control let you mute the sound.
Room rates included free internet, and the speed was fine for checking email.
The bay-view room we stayed in for our last night was just about identical to our Club room, with two queen beds and room for a rollaway. On a return trip, we’d rather book a room with club access again. However, it’s good to know that the rooms don’t really differ.
Food and beverage
Whenever possible, we book rooms that include club access. We find value in a VIP-only area where we can decompress, ask questions of a knowledgable concierge and indulge in food and drinks that we don’t have to arrange on our own.
Portofino Club Lounge was a few steps beyond Bar American in the lobby.
Club-level guests received a separate keycard to the lounge. I think this is a fabulous option for families, if they can find a room rate that works for them. You save on drinks and snacks, and the evening refreshments are enough to make a meal on many nights.
Kids under 13 weren’t allowed in the lounge without an adult. And access to the lounge expired at 11 a.m. on the day of checkout.
Breakfast, from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., included things like scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, sausage, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, oatmeal, bagels and toast, croissants, danish, muffins, fruit, yogurt and cereal. Beverages included coffee, tea, water, juice and soda.
The breakfast spread was more in depth than I expected.
There was a nice selection of fruit on offer each day.
Afternoon snacks, from noon to 3:30 p.m., were mostly packaged treats like Goldfish, Smartfood, Milano cookies, Rold Gold pretzels, Doritos and granola bars.
The light supper, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., was the strongest food offering of the day. There were crudités, yummy hummus, rolls and butter.
The cheese and crackers were also quite good.
Different hot entrees were available each evening. We enjoyed an incredible pulled pork that we paired with Hawaiian rolls. Delicious! On another evening, the club served grilled chicken, ratatouille and orzo with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach.
The cold salads were also good. Our favorite was the artichoke-and-beet salad, but there was also a quinoa-and-ham salad.
Alcoholic beverages (wine and beer) are served from 5–8 p.m.
We didn’t try any of the club’s desserts, served from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., though they looked good. Several kinds of cookies were always offered, as were bite-sized desserts like white-chocolate-mousse apple cake, chocolate tarts and cheesecake.
Two or three concierges were in the club at all times, and we enjoyed talking with each of them. They were friendly and always ready to offer advice or make restaurant reservations.
You don’t go to a theme park hotel and expect gourmet cuisine, but we did have a few nice meals while at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
On our first evening, we had the concierge make reservations for us at Bice Ristorante. This restaurant serving Northern Italian cuisine was lovely but quite chilly. Since it was the off-season, the dining room wasn’t crowded at all, so waitstaff had time to talk with guests, make on-target food and wine recommendations and make sure drinks and bread baskets were constantly topped up.
We enjoyed the meal, but it wasn’t cheap. Appetizers ranged from $15 to $24, salads from $13 to $15 and pasta dishes between $23 and $31. Fish entrees averaged $37, and meat dishes like braised veal shank, grilled Cornish hen and rack of lamb averaged $42.
I had the gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese, and it was so good but rich!
We also sampled the breakfast buffet (included in the FHR rate) at Trattoria del Porto, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The hotel was so empty when we visited, I was worried that the buffet wouldn’t be offered — or that it would be meager — but I had nothing to fear. Despite light crowds, the restaurant put forth a great spread. Baskets groaned with all sorts of pastries, from croissants to danishes to muffins. We also found wonderful cinnamon pecan rolls in a warming tray.
There were also gluten-free options.
In the cold foods section were deli meat, cheese, lox, chopped egg, tomato, cucumber, olives, capers, onions and more.
Whole and sliced fruit were next to a selection of yogurt, nuts and granola.
There were also plenty of hot items, like made-to-order omelets, French toast, pancakes, waffles, breakfast potatoes, blintzes, baked beans, ham, sausage and bacon. The meal was a great value for big breakfast eaters or when included in your room rate.
Elsewhere in Portofino Bay, Mama Della’s Ristorante was more suited to families and had strolling musicians — if you like that kind of thing (we find it annoying). Lots of families, including ours, ordered takeout from Sal’s Market Deli, which had a pizzas, sandwiches and salads. It was also a good place to grab a snack, like a fruit cup, cookies or a slice of carrot cake. There was also an on-site Starbucks and a gelateria.
Crowds were sparse, so the bar scene was ho-hum. It would have been more fun if the lounges had been buzzing … which I bet they are when there are more people staying at the resort. The bars included Bar American, with a nice men’s club feel off the lobby, The Thirsty Fish, overlooking the waterfront, and the poolside Splendido Bar & Grill.
This is Florida, so you want to know what your pool options are at Portofino Bay Hotel. There were three choices, but the action was all at the Beach Pool.
Entry from a sand lagoon was oodles of fun for little ones.
The entire complex had a Roman aqueduct theme.
And your family could rent a cabana.
Activities like water-balloon tosses, pool basketball and hula hoop contests were programmed throughout the day. There was also a pool table and small video arcade in this area.
There are two quieter pools on property: the Villa Pool, serving the west wing of the hotel, and the Hillside Pool, handling the east wing.
You could rent cabanas at both of these spots.
Besides the pools, there was a Mandara Spa offering massages, body wraps, facials, sound therapy, reflexology and more. The fitness center was at the spa between the Beach Pool and the Villa Pool.
In the evenings, there was plenty to keep you busy right at nearby CityWalk or at the resort. Couples may want to drop the kids off at Campo Portofino. This children’s center offers games, arts and crafts, movie nights and more for potty-trained children from 4 to 14. (The fee is about $15 per hour per child.)
Once the kids are settled at camp, don’t miss Musica della Notte (weather permitting). Musicians grace the balcony above the Harbor Piazza and perform a mix of classic opera and popera. We thought this might be cheesy, but we loved it. There was plenty of seating on the piazza, and this was a fun way to relax after a day in the theme parks.
Many hotel employees made a good impression with their friendliness and warmth that seemed genuine. The front-desk staff, Portofino Club concierges and the boat shuttle captains were all particularly engaging. But I’ll go back to my warning about the size of this resort. It’s got a big footprint, and that means it’s tougher to meet the same staff twice or made a connection with anyone. You’ll also be out and about a lot, so you may not meet your housekeeper at all. We didn’t see ours once during our visit. That’s not a deal breaker, though since you won’t likely hang out at the resort. For us, it was just a home base for our sojourns into the theme parks and CityWalk.
If you have limited time at Universal Orlando and want to make the most of it, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel has a location that’s hard to beat. The complimentary boat shuttle to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk stops you from wasting time on the commute, and if you’re looking for theming, the resort’s Italian architecture and decor fit the bill.
However, with 750 rooms, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is massive. After a long day in the parks, you may want to throw yourself a pity party as you walk back from the boat shuttle to your room. Your dogs will be barking. The size of the resort also makes it impersonal. If we hadn’t stayed in a Club room for the first two nights and met the on-site concierges, we wouldn’t have made a connection with any hotel staff, and that’s a shame. The personality of a hotel should be reflected in its staff, but if you never met any of them, it’s a missed opportunity for the property.
The hotel was in good shape despite celebrating its 20th birthday this year. However, it does need a good refresh. The audio system at the main pool was broken, so management erected a loudspeaker in its place. That meant music was incredibly loud at one end of the pool and barely audible at the other. If I had planned to spend time at the pool, this would have been a major disappointment.
Housekeeping kept our room immaculate, but it was also in need of a refresh, with a rickety table that made me nervous to keep my laptop on it. The good news is that the hotel’s guest rooms and suites will be renovated during the first and second quarters in 2020. According to its website, floor-by-floor renovations meant parts off of the hotel could be closed off by temporary walls and guests might hear construction noise. Indeed, we already saw evidence of construction. When we dined at Bice, a hallway nearby was cordoned off.
Finally, this is not an inexpensive hotel. Though we got a good deal thanks to an off-season Florida-resident rate, it would’ve been overpriced without the discount. If you can live without the theming, you can stay for less at the nearby Hyatt Place Across From Universal Orlando Resort, Hyatt House Across From Universal Orlando Resort or the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando. You can walk to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk from all three of those properties. And if you’ve got World of Hyatt or Hilton Honors points to spend, it can be a great deal.
Would I stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel again? Yes, but I may wait out the first and second quarters of the year and visit again once all rooms and suites have been renovated.
Featured image by Andrea M. Rotondo/The Points Guy
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