Review: Hard Rock Hotel

The Hard Rock Hotel located in Universal Orlando Resort is one of those familiar brand names. Who hasn’t heard of the Hard Rock? It’s an iconic name that has found its way to Central Florida. However, you may find yourself seemingly transported to Southern California. The Hard Rock Hotel favors a mission-style building reminding many of the cover of The Eagle’s Hotel California. The hotel opened on January, 19 2001 and was the second resort hotel built on Universal Orlando Resort property. In fact, it was built on the site of the original Hard Rock Cafe which has since moved to Universal CityWalk.

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As you approach the main entrance to the hotel, you feel as though you’re arriving to a millionaire rock star’s exclusive resort-style mansion. The front lawn is connected to the porte cochere by an impressive fountain made of 42 bronze guitars. Upon entering the lobby you’re immediately greeted with the rock ‘n roll touches. Guitars, famous outfits and accessories, and other musical memorabilia line the walls. Even the team members working the front desk seem to have that rock and roll look to them that you probably won’t find at a Disney-owned resort hotel.

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The check-in process here was quick and painless, and as I found through the remainder of my stay, the staff here is first rate. I’ve always said that the check-in experience is an important first impression, and having a knowledgable, friendly and professional staff greeting guests is critical. This extended to the bell services team as well. As our bags were brought to our room, we were told that a complimentary shuttle was available to take us to a local Walgreens if we needed to pick up any additional items we might have forgotten to pack. The hotel also offers a complimentary town-car for transportation between the Hard Rock and Portofino Bay Hotel or Royal Pacific Hotel. A very nice touch indeed.

One thing to note when checking in at the Hard Rock Hotel is that while the resort is managed by Loews Hotels, the hotel is not part of the Loews First Hotel Loyalty Program. When you ask about this, they will instead try to sign you up for their Hard Rock Rewards program. Unless you consistently stay at Hard Rock Hotels and eat at Hard Rock Cafe, there’s little point to this membership.

Regardless of the loyalty program, the Hard Rock offers the same perks you’ll find at either Portofino Bay or Royal Pacific. You receive early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley) one hour before the general public, as well as unlimited use of the Express Pass on all attractions that accept it. It’s almost impossible to put a price tag on these perks during busier times of the year. It all but eliminates the wait on some major attractions and during a Florida summer, that’s not to be overlooked.

The Hard Rock Hotel has some other unique perks you may not find at other Central Florida resort hotels. Keeping with the theme, they also offer you an option of 20 different in-room guitars to borrow and try your hand at during your stay. This service is completely free of charge for hotel guests. Like the other Universal Orlando Resort hotels, the Hard Rock Hotel is pet-friendly to certain breeds. This comes at an additional charge of $50 per night (max of $150 per stay).  Pet-friendly rooms are limited to the first floor.  You must also have all vaccinations up to date and provide proof of vaccination upon check-in.

Rooms

The Hard Rock Hotel has 650 rooms including 29 suites. The standard, garden, and pool view rooms at 375 square feet are in the medium range for a Universal Orlando Resort deluxe hotel. However, they don’t necessarily feel cramped. The layout of the double queen rooms actually flow quite nicely. You have a desk, two arm chairs, and a decent sized flat screen television. As with all Universal deluxe hotels, a Keurig coffee maker with K-cups is stocked in the room for your use. That being said, the K-Cups on hand are Newman’s Own and Emeril Lagasse brand. If you don’t care for ‘dark roast’ coffee, you should bring your own K-Cups. The bathroom is a decent size and more than adequate offering everything you’d expect. Our room had a shower, toilet and sink in the bathroom, along with a vanity outside – a design that allows two people to get ready simultaneously.

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While the room itself is nice and well appointed – there were some issues. First, even though the hotel completed a rehab of all its rooms in February 2015, some of the furniture in our room was showing signs of wear (our visit was in May 2015). The quality of the furniture left something to be desired as did the aesthetic. For my taste, the steel gray and hot pink combination wasn’t so much ‘rock star’ as it was ’14 year old girl who just discovered the Ramones’.

Room rates at the Hard Rock can range from $250 to $400 per night depending on time of year and hotel occupancy. At that price, I consider this hotel to be a very good option – I’ve stayed at much more expensive and received much less.

Restaurants and Lounges

Heading back down to the lobby, you now have several dining options available to you. In fact, the Hard Rock Hotel is designed in a way that you can get to almost all of their dining locations right off the main lobby. It’s a much more centralized design than any other Universal deluxe hotels. Visible from the exterior of the main entrance and to the right of the lobby is the Hard Rock hotel’s signature dining experience, The Palm.

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The Palm is a chain steakhouse that originated in New York City in 1926 and has 27 locations nation wide, including 2 in Mexico. Dinner is served from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm on Sunday and Monday. Prices are on the expensive side even for theme park standards at $50 or more per person and though this is the Hard Rock Hotel’s signature dining experience, it’s not always the fine dining you’d expect. We’ve had several experiences at this restaurant where the service was unbearably slow. This seems to be more an issue during times when the restaurant is busy. I’ve had two experiences in the last six months where dinner took more than 3 hours to complete and one experience where a steak had to be sent back twice. There are much better dining options in the area and I would suggest this restaurant as a last resort.

Directly off the center of the lobby is Velvet Bar, a sleek lounge whose motto is “love all, serve all.” This lobby bar is definitely a rock ‘n roll lounge, themed with musician inspired artwork and zebra patterned chairs. There’s also a diverse menu of specialty drinks, unique beers and appetizers. If you’re feeling like getting some fresh air, you can head to the adjacent patio that overlooks the pool and receive full service outside.

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Velvet Bar along with the main portion of the lobby plays host to Velvet Sessions. Velvet Sessions is a monthly event that features familiar musical acts from the ’80s and ’90s. This is very popular among Orlando locals and it’s a GREAT TIME.  Prices for Velvet Sessions start at $29 per person and it is something I highly recommend.

At the bottom of the grand spiral staircase off the lobby is Emack and Bolio’s. This is first and foremost an ice cream joint with a little rock ‘n roll history. You can check out our episode of The DIS Unplugged: Universal Edition to learn more. It’s also where you’ll find a decent cup of Starbucks and get some food items to go.

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Outside near the entrance to the pool area is The Kitchen. The Kitchen offers comfort food including pasta, chicken and seafood ranging in price from $17 to $37 per entree for dinner. Lunch offers a variety of salads, flatbreads and sandwiches ranging in price from $10 to $18 per person. The Kitchen also displays glass encased chef jackets of visiting celebrities who have prepared dishes at the Chef’s Table. Other than its mediocre breakfast options, The Kitchen seems to be the stand out restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel for its consistently good meals, fair pricing and superb staff.

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Pool and Recreation

The pool at the Hard Rock Hotel carries over the Spanish Mission theming of the main building. The main attraction, the 260-foot water slide, is nestled among beautiful landscaping, large boulders and what looks like an old Castillo. There’s a sand beach, an underwater sound system and the pool is handicap accessible with zero entry. The pool itself is 12,000 square feet and in the shape of an oversized guitar. With splash zones, ping pong tables, billiards, sand volleyball court and other recreation, the Hard Rock Hotel pool area is the shining star of this resort.

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Cabanas line the perimeter of the pool and feature a flat screen television, ceiling fan, refrigerator (that comes stocked with six soft drinks and two bottles of water) as well as a seating area and lounge chairs. Servers come by and offer you drinks as well as appetizers and sandwiches available from the Beachclub Poolside Bar.  Cabana pricing varies based on season and hotel occupancy, but expect to pay $200+ for the day.

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The Beachclub is among the best pool bars you’ll find in Central Florida. With appetizers, specialty drinks, interesting beer selections and a friendly staff, Beachclub is a great choice if you’re looking for a casual pool-side experience. Also, just off the bar and facing the pool is a stage where musical acts perform and you can watch the nightly Dive-In Movies.

You’ll also find boat launches outside of the pool to take you to Universal CityWalk. However, the Hard Rock Hotel is by far the closest resort hotel to CityWalk and the theme parks. You could easily walk to Universal Studios Florida in 5 minutes.

Overall Impression

No discussion of this resort can be complete without mentioning its staff. While the appearance of blue hair, nose rings and tattoos might put some people off, make no mistake – the quality of the staff and the service at this resort rivals the best I’ve ever experienced.  Friendly and professional with no pretense.  The staff creates a welcoming, relaxed vibe that many other hotels in Orlando would do well to emulate. I really can’t say enough about how good the service here was.

While the Hard Rock Hotel may not be the grandest of Universal’s resort offerings, it’s incredibly family-friendly considering the pool area and its relaxed theme. The dining options, bars and lounges also make the Hard Rock Hotel a nice place for adults to spend their evenings. It’s definitely the most diverse of the hotels in terms of activities and entertainment. Overall, it’s an impressive option for a family that wants a unique vacation experience at Universal Orlando.

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