Review: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort (11/14)

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Portofino Bay Resort
5601 Universal Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32819

Phone: 407-503-1000
Fax: 407-503-1010

It is rumored that when the mayor of Portofino, Italy came to Orlando to help dedicate Universal Orlando’s flagship Portofino Bay Resort, she commented that it was exactly like her town – only cleaner. Whether that’s true, or just part of Universal’s marketing lore, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that Portofino Bay is my favorite resort in Orlando.

Walking around this resort, you can be forgiven for thinking you have been transported to the Italian Riviera.  From the piazza with cafes and shops lining the bay, to the courtyards and side streets, this resort evokes a romantic, if not idealized, feeling of the Italian coast.

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Portofino Bay opened in September 1999 and was the first of Universal Orlando’s ‘official’ resort properties. While the resort is owned by Universal Orlando, it is operated by Loews Hotels. Universal (smartly, in my opinion) recognized that they would have to develop an entirely new discipline if they were going to start running hotels and decided to partner with an organization that already performed that task very well. Especially early on in Universal’s expansion, chaos reigned supreme.  Right hands and left hands rarely knew what the other was doing. The resorts were spared this fate thanks to Loews management.

Walking into the lobby, adorned with Italian marble, you immediately feel the ambient elegance that is one of this resort’s best features, but you would feel just as comfortable there in a bathing suit as you would in a business suit. That relaxed atmosphere seems to extend to the staff as well. The staff maintains an attitude that is professional without being cold, and friendly without being lax.  It’s the kind of service you get with good (and extensive) training. This service level was especially evident at check-in when we arrived. The young lady checking us in could tell we knew our way around, but she wanted to make sure we had all the information we needed to get the most out of our stay.

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Exploring just off the lobby is where you’ll find guest services and the resorts gift shop, as well as the Piazza Centrale.

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Rooms

This sprawling resort features 750 rooms, a number of which overlook Portofino Bay – a lake which connects to the waterway that transports guests to the theme parks and CityWalk.

There are three categories of standard rooms at Portofino Bay – and all of them are large.  Rooms in the Garden and Bay View category are 450 sq. ft., while Deluxe rooms are 490 sq. ft. The rooms are well appointed with one king, or two queen beds, mini-fridge and Keurig coffee maker with selection of K-Cups. Each room features a 42″ flat screen television, iHome clock with docking station, complimentary wireless internet (for $14.95 per day you can upgrade to a faster connection), in-room safe, cotton bathrobes and turn-down service (upon request). The in-room Wi-Fi was a real disappointment here. The ‘free’ version was akin to dial up and the paid version was faster, but still much slower than what most people are used to.

The new décor in the rooms is beautiful, but I have to admit I preferred the old décor.  Warm colors with Mediterranean touches have been replaced with a Wedgewood blue and cream colors that create an elegant ambiance, but it feels inconsistent with the resort’s rustic charm. This is a small complaint, and one that has no bearing on my opinion of the resort, it’s more a personal observation. During our stay we found the beds very comfortable, with high thread count, all cotton sheets. For me, the measure of a good theme park resort bed is how it feels after a day running around the parks.  These beds were relaxing and luxurious – you just kind of sink into them. Pure heaven.

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I should also mention that the in-room bathrooms here pretty much have their own zip code. They’re huge. Bathrooms have a tub and shower as well as a split vanity.

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Portofino also offers an array of suites, but of most interest to families are the 650 sq. ft. Despicable Me Kid Suites.  These suites have two rooms – the main room has a king bed for the parents, and a separate room is themed as Gru’s Laboratory from the Despicable Me films.  It has two custom designed missile beds with Minion-inspired bedding. For added security, the only door in the kids room is into the parents’ room. There is no hallway access from the kids’ room.

Pools and Recreation

There are three pools at Portofino Bay – one feature pool, one ‘quiet’ pool (also known as the Villa pool) and the smaller ‘Hillside pool’ located on the resort’s east side. The ‘Beach pool’ is the largest of the three, with a grotto beach and zero entry access for handicapped guests. The pool’s feature slide is concealed within Roman ruins that many mistake for an abandoned pirate fort. There are two hot tubs here as well as a kiddie pool and play area.  There are cabanas for rent at the beach pool, but they are very limited. We saw only three. Cabanas have a ceiling fan, mini fridge, TV and come stocked with water, soda and fruit. Pricing on the cabanas can range anywhere from $150 to $300 per day, depending on the season and how busy the resort is.

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There are many more cabanas around the Villa pool if you’re looking for a more quiet experience.

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Portofino Bay is also home to the Mandara Spa. The Mandara is a full service spa that offers a range of treatments, and can also arrange an ‘in-room’ massage if you like. Prices at the Mandara are consistent with other luxury spas, and I find on some services even a little less than I would expect. Mandara Spas carry the Elemis line of products, which is a good thing. However, you will want to buy product after your treatment and it will cost you a fortune (but Elemis is well worth it). One thing I would love to see added to this spa is more services for men. A growing trend among upscale spas is the inclusion of Barber services for men, and this resort seems like it would be a perfect fit for that – but alas, no shave and facial for me. There is a full service salon at here as well, but I find I prefer the services of a good barber. Again, this is more of a personal observation.

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The spa is also where the fitness center is located. This is a nice sized fitness center and seems to have a wide variety of stations. Of course I was too busy eating my cheeseburger and milkshake to pay much attention to what was happening here. All fitness centers look like torture chambers to me. One thing that I find unusual at a resort of this caliber is that there is a $10 daily charge for the fitness center. Access to the fitness center is free if you’re having a spa treatment, but most resorts I review offer fitness center access free of charge to guests, so this surprised me.

The Mandara Spa is one of the best in Orlando, and does a decent amount of business from locals. During busier times of the year, it is highly recommended to make your appointments here as far in advance as possible.

Dining

There are four primary dining venues at the resort. The upscale Bice (pronounced bee-chay) specializes in northern Italian cuisine. Mama Della’s is the resorts more casual table service restaurant, while Trattoria Del Porto caters more to families. Sal’s Market Deli is the resort’s counter service location. Casual elegance are the two words I use to describe Portofino Bay.

During our stay, we ate at Sal’s Deli and Mama Della’s.  Sal’s offered a nice selection of pizza as well as hot and cold sandwiches. This is also the best place at the resort to grab a quick snack or a drink. Sal’s is open all day from 6 am to 11 pm, and makes a nice pitstop for coffee and pastries before heading into the parks. I found the food at Sal’s to be excellent and reasonably priced considering the location. Our group of 6 adults had lunch for around $15 per person. Everyone roundly agreed the food was very good.

Mama Della’s has historically been one of my favorite places to eat in Orlando for many years, but I have to admit the last few visits have been less than stellar. While the food wasn’t bad, the dishes I tried did not have the taste or creativity they once did. The mood around the table was good, the service was excellent, but we had a far better meal the previous night at The Kitchen at the Hard Rock Hotel (at considerably more reasonable prices).

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Transportation

Getting to the theme parks from the Portofino is a pretty straight forward affair. You can take the 10 minute walk or utilize the boat service provided. Boats seem to run approximately every 15 minutes and it’s a very scenic trip. The boats begin running early in the morning for those taking advantage of early entry to Diagon Alley.

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Perks for Onsite guests

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Without a doubt, the single biggest perk for those staying at the Portofino is the Unlimited Express Pass. As a resort guest, you get unlimited front of the line access to most of the attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Especially during busy times of the year, this perk can make the difference between a great visit and a bad one. It’s hard to underestimate the value of this particular perk when it’s 95 degrees out and lines are 60 minutes long. It should be noted that Escape from Gringotts, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the Hogwarts Express DO NOT take Express. However, as a resort guest, you do get access to Diagon Alley (at Universal Studios Florida) 1 hour prior to park opening. This is another great perk. The immense popularity of Diagon Alley means it has huge crowds all day, even during the off season. Being able to get in 1 hour before everyone else gives you a real chance to absorb the amazing detail and artistry that went into creating this amazing space. Once the hoards arrive, it’s much more difficult to do.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Getting into Diagon Alley one hour early is the difference between this:

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….and this

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This is by no means a complete list of perks for onsite guests, but these are the big ones.

Overall Impressions

From check-in to check-out, there was very little for me to criticize during our 3 night stay at Portofino. I actually hate to write that because it seems like I’m schilling for the resort – but I’m not. I’ve had no issues criticizing Universal (or Disney) when warranted. But, it’s equally important to recognize an outstanding experience. The best I can come up with in terms of critique is that I don’t particularly care for the color scheme in the refurbished rooms and that Mama Della’s could up their game a bit in terms of the menu. The service at the hotel (not to mention the theme parks) was extraordinary. The comfortable rooms, easy access to the parks, early entry to Diagon Alley, Express Pass access to attractions and an off-season rate of $229 per night for the room was more than a good deal – it was a fantastic experience. Portofino Bay has always been my favorite hotel in Orlando, and this experience just cemented that even more.

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