Megan Padilla
Megan Padilla

Construction never seems to stop at Universal Orlando, and it's not just the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon ride opening April 6 at Universal Studios Florida or the Volcano Bay water theme park opening May 25.

It's also the race to complete two towers at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, adding 400 guestrooms directly overlooking Volcano Bay (and, yes, they are taking reservations to accept guests in time for the opening of the new theme park).

The newest block of hotel rooms, an equal split of standard rooms and two-bedroom family suites, comes on the heels of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which opened in July 2016, and ahead of the 600-room Universal's Aventura Hotel to open in 2018. Aventura's opening will bring the joint-venture portfolio of Loews Hotels, Universal and Hard Rock International to six properties with 6,200 rooms. And the Orlando Sentinel reported late last month  that Universal is planning a 4,000-room hotel on the former site of the Wet 'n Wild waterpark, although the company would not confirm that to Travel Weekly. 

The Universal Creative Team is behind each themed project to create something special. "We want people's vacation to begin as soon as they walk into the front of the hotel," said Jennifer Hodges, area director of public relations, Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando.

Universal assigns each hotel to one of three tiers, as reflected through price point and benefits. According to Hodges, so far that approach has been met with great guest feedback. "As we add to the portfolio, we want guests to know we have the right hotel for every traveler, family and budget. We want to give guests more flexibility and options with different prices, levels of service and benefits."

A few things to note before getting into the character of each hotel: All Universal Orlando hotel guests gain early entry to the parks, but only Premier hotels include the Universal Express benefit, which lets guests skip the regular lines at attractions (one of the Preferred hotels, the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort, also includes this perk). All hotels have an Attraction Ticket Center in the lobby to help coordinate your experience. All hotels provide some form of complimentary transportation to the Universal theme parks. All hotels, with the exception of Cabana Bay, are pet-friendly, and all hotels have vigilant lifeguards stationed at their main pools (trained, managed and held to high standards by Ellis Aquatic Safety program); two smaller pools at Portofino do not have lifeguards.

I wanted to see this plan in action, so I toured all five properties to better understand how each is defined and serves each traveler and to help travel agents match their clients with the right hotel. To better serve agents, Universal offers a free training module at UniversalTravelAgents.com. Once completed, agents are listed as a Universal Travel Agent Specialist.

Premier: Luxury with all the benefits

Only the original two hotels (built in 1999 and 2001) are Premier and include the Universal Express pass that enables guests to skip the regular lines at park attractions. Both hotels are pet-friendly and have a zero-entry pool, poolside food and beverage service and cabana rentals. Every guest room has undergone a complete renovation within the past four years.

The Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Orlando Resort is designed to resemble an Italian seaside village.
The Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Orlando Resort is designed to resemble an Italian seaside village.

Fun fact: The idea for creating the Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Orlando Resort, the first of the Loews/Universal themed resorts, in the image of an Italian waterfront village was suggested by Steven Spielberg.

Restaurants offering everything from casual service of authentic wood-fired pizza to high-end table service line the Harbor Piazza, where water taxis whisk guests to and from the heart of City Walk and opera singers greet sunset each night with a performance from atop the balcony. Harbor Nights is an al fresco event offered four times per year in the piazza, a ticketed, all-inclusive food and wine festival with live entertainment.

Portofino is the only Premier hotel to offer multiple pools, three in all, including a relaxation pool that tends to attract mostly adults. The Mandara Spa at the Portofino is the only spa at a Universal hotel. Kids Suites at Portofino are all themed around Minions, the much-loved characters from the hit Universal film of the same name.

You'll feel like you're walking into the cover of the Eagles' iconic album from 1976 when you arrive at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, aka the Hotel California. Music fans and pop culture aficionados come for the incredible memorabilia collection, which offers something for everyone, from one of John Lennon's suits (displayed where one of Elvis Presley's used to hang) to a costume worn by Lady Gaga. Don't worry, Elvis hasn't left the building: his pajamas are on display at the hotel.

The memorabilia on display in the lobby at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort contains QR codes for instant access to the history of each piece.
The memorabilia on display in the lobby at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort contains QR codes for instant access to the history of each piece.

A Vibe Manager curates the music experience in every part of the hotel, including the underwater speakers in the pool, for every time of day. There are also ongoing music events. The monthly Velvet Sessions transforms the lobby into a concert venue and features artists such as Bob Marley's backing band the Wailers and '80s pop star Howard Jones. The occasional Velvet Unplugged acoustic show is performed in the same space but more intimately with cabaret-style seating. Wine Riffs is a wine dinner, held four times a year, where each course is paired with a playlist.

Musicians young and old can take advantage of the Sound of Your Stay program that lends electric guitars to guests free of charge, along with headphones, a mixer and even lessons through the television. All you need to do is leave a fully refundable deposit.

The Hard Rock Hotel is the nearest hotel to City Walk and takes only minutes to get there; A water taxi and shuttle service are also offered.

Preferred: Upscale hotels minus a few services and/or fringe benefits.

The first thing you see after entering the lobby of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort from a covered wooden bridge is an open-air courtyard with sculpted elephants frolicking in a fountain, surrounded by palm trees adorned with blooming orchids.

A guestroom at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort.
A guestroom at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort.

Loews Royal Pacific guests receive free Universal Express passes.

Though built in 2002, every guestroom has been completely redone within the last four years and is designed with an orchid theme; a different colorway is assigned to each wing. The decor is loaded with texture and subtle design variations to create an luxury feel that is modern, comfortable and international. In addition to standard guestrooms, there is a large variety of suite configurations, including a two-bedroom option with a kids' room with no exterior door that includes two twin beds.

The Loews Royal Pacific is the only Universal hotel that is home to a celebrity chef restaurant. Emeril's Tchoup Chop features an Asian-Polynesian fusion menu and outstanding signature cocktails.

The Wantilan Luau is held every Saturday night in the Wantilan Pavilion, an open-air space that includes a stage for the hula and fire dancers and other entertainers.

Islands Dining Room serves breakfast and dinner. Noteworthy is the kid's dining room featuring a buffet of kid-favorite foods as well as toys and space for lounging so the grown-ups can finish their meal while the littles are entertained.

Jake's American Bar is built around a story of Capt. Jake piloting an island-hopper to this outpost during the golden age of travel; very "Casablanca." Jake's hosts two annual beer festivals designed to showcase mostly made-in-Florida craft beers, one in late May and the other in late September/early October.  Jake's Beer Dinner is hosted five or six times per year and is a five-course meal paired with different beers.

The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which opened last year, is a stylish, modern escape that feels as though you've stepped in to an elegant Caribbean hotel. It offers terrific value if you want new, upscale digs and don't mind foregoing the Universal Express passes.

The lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort features bright pops of color.
The lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort features bright pops of color.

It's hard to believe this hotel isn't in the Premiere category.The decor throughout is a neutral canvas with bright pops of emerald, turquoise, fuchsia, lime and tangerine; the overall look is a mix and match of furnishings that are both modern and British colonial but seamlessly work together. At the center of the light-filled lobby is a grand, winding staircase inside of a replica of a stone sugar mill. It really is a stunning sense-of-place creation that firmly places you in the islands.

The Strong Water Tavern, the lobby bar and restaurant, "is popular with guests returning from the parks," said Hodges. Loews' commitment to the beverage side of the food-and-beverage equation is as solid as the food that truly shines in this Caribbean tapas style eatery with a bar possessing upwards of 75 rums. The cocktails are made with as much care as every dish sent out by chef Carlos Castano.

The free-form resort pool is the largest of any of the Loews/Universal/Hard Rock hotels. A favorite feature is the raised sand dining area complete with shaded tables and an enormous fire pit in the center.

The rooms are beautiful, serene and stylish, again with a mix of fabrics and a palette of blues. There are multiple suite configurations.

Prime Value: Fun, well-thought out hotels with fewer services and benefits.

If it were up to the kids, they'd pick Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It has two pools, a lazy river, a late-night bowling alley, food court dining, pizza delivery to rooms and a Starbucks, whose mermaid murals must be the most unique to any Starbucks in the world (let's face it, our kids love Starbucks as much as the grown-ups do).

The pool and lazy river at Universal's '50s-style Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
The pool and lazy river at Universal's '50s-style Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

At Cabana Bay, you've stepped back to the '50s and '60s, right down to the row of vintage cars (sourced by the CNBC show "Car Chasers") staged at the front door to create a sense of arrival. The three-story, atrium-style lobby is a nod to a former Loews property, the Americana in Bal Harbour, and feels rather like you are awaiting George Jetson to arrive in his aerocar.

With 1,800 rooms and 400 more near completion, Cabana Bay is the largest of the Universal hotels. It's also the most economic and currently the only hotel option in the Prime Value category, which means no Universal Express pass and no water taxi access. However, guests still get early admission to the parks, and Cabana Bay is adjacent to the soon-to-open Volcano Bay.

It also means that the dining options are all quick or casual service and the bars are limited to a straightforward lobby bar (the Swizzle Lounge has a fun, retro feel) and a poolside bar in each of the two courtyards; the Atomic Tonic is being upgraded with a larger kitchen and more seating; it is expected to be completed this summer.

There are two room types, standard and family suites; take a suite if you can swing it. Though not large, the space is cleverly designed to make the most for a family who enjoys having a separate lounging space and kitchenette, which can be partitioned off for anyone sleeping on the sofa bed (or in a crib). The bathroom components are also broken up, making it easier to get everyone out the door to take advantage of the early park admission.

Universal's Aventura Hotel, coming summer 2018, will be a sleek, modern tower  the first at Universal  and will add 600 rooms. It will be the second hotel in the Prime Value category. 

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