by Carrie Calzaretta
The most upscale of the three onsite Loews hotels at Universal Studios, the Italian-themed Portofino Bay is also the most picturesque. But don’t be fooled by its elegant facade — it’s equally laidback and kid-friendly. Inspired by Portofino, a small Italian fishing village, Italian Riviera charm oozes from every faux stone, and the bright hues of its colorfully painted buildings bring life to a lively piazza. The hotel sits aside a small lake with rowboats and water taxis, and has a private, secluded setting. It’s the farthest from the Universal Studios theme parks, which might be a deterrent to families with little ones in strollers, since it means slightly farther to travel. But the upside is that it’s separated from all the action, so it feels like more of a luxury property than a theme park hotel.
From the moment the kids were greeted at check in with a gift and a snack in the lobby, we felt welcomed, and saw kid-friendly touches, and families, everywhere. There is a terrific family pool with a super-cool waterslide, a little sand beach, and a zero-entry splash area for little ones. We loved the poolside games and activities throughout the day, too. Factor in the supervised evening kids’ club, Camp Portofino, and the fact that your room key acts as an express pass, allowing you to bypass the lines on almost all of the rides in both Universal Studios and Island of Adventure, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find better family-friendly accommodations here.
Our Editor Loves
- Universal Orlando Resort hotel
- Free transportation to theme parks
- Evening hours for kids club
- Theme Park
- Water Sports
- Children Programs
- Connecting Rooms
- Family Room 5+
- Free Wi-Fi
- Game Room
- Kids' Pool
- Onsite Dining
Rooms & Rates
Portofino Bay has 700 guestrooms, 50 suites, and the largest standard guestrooms of the three Loews hotels at Universal, which start at 450 square feet. With subdued creams and browns, and oversized wood furniture, they're also the most luxurious.
The bathroom in the deluxe with two queen beds room was nearly as large as the room itself, and had a separate shower and bath, marble sinks, as well as a window above the tub that opened to the bedroom (kind of awkward). The beds are superbly comfortable, and have custom duvet covers with white goose down inserts.
Standard guestrooms have either a garden or "bay" view. Both have 300-threadcount linens, bathrobes, 32-inch flat-panel televisions with HD and On Demand, iPod docking stations, free Wi-Fi, Keurig coffee makers (we appreciate the little touches like extra-strong Italian-style coffee here ) and assorted teas.
Deluxe rooms are slightly larger at 490 square feet and have all of the above-mentioned amenities plus a view of either the beach pool or villa. Club-level rooms are on the seventh floor and offer access to Portofino Club , free continental breakfast, free access to the fitness center, and evening hors d'oeuvres.
If you are traveling with little ones, you might want to consider two-bedroom Kids Suite. With 650 square feet of space, the Dr. Seuss-themed kids' bedroom decor is inspired by his beloved characters, and there's a connecting king room for mom and dad. Regular Portofino Suites have a 450-square-foot parlor, which adjoins to a separate 450-square-foot bedroom. Opt to pay for a second adjoining bedroom and you've got yourself a two-bedroom suite. If you're really living large, the Villa Suites have a 620-square-foot parlor with an adjoining 490-square-foot bedroom, and again, you can add on a second bedroom. There is a charge for rollaway beds.
The hotel looks beautiful on the outside...
Expect long waits trying to get in your room; which may or may not be clean( we had mold on the ceiling of ours.) Room service is not very good. Valet slow. If your just staying there for universal than that’s fine but it’s over price for just that purpose. The spa is good. The restaurant BICE is excellent. My daughter got sick from the food at Sal’s.
The hotel was beautiful and accommodated an early check in since the room was ready. This was excellent as we just drove j. Early that morning and wanted to freshen up a little before heading into the parks. The boat is an excellent way to get to the park as you don’t have to deal with vehicle traffic and they run very frequently. The boat captains were both professional and fun playing music on the way, in fact even the security agents outside the boat were professional and fun. We ate at Sal’s deli and ordered a pizza which was incredible and sat outside and did the kid’s menu word search. The bed was absolutely incredible!!! I am someone who is on shift work and rarely get a full nights rest and I slept nearly 11 hours before my girlfriend forced me awake to get moving. Would recommend to anyone that can afford it as that was my only gripe with the hotel. The fast passes helped justify the cost but was still very expensive. Thank you!
At Portofino, the Beach Pool is the hub of activity for families. It's huge and gorgeously landscaped, and there's an aqueduct waterslide that kids can not get enough of, as well a small children's pool and play area for the younger ones. There are fun activities throughout the day, like Ping-Pong tournaments, cannonball contests, arts and crafts, and dive-in movies on an enormous screen on select evenings. We watched Harry Potter perched atop a rock overlooking the kids frolicking in the pool. There are also two Jacuzzis at the beach pool, as well as life jackets for borrowing, and cabana rentals. The layout of this pool is great, and the lifeguards here are the best we have seen at any resort, anywhere. They are extraordinarily diligent and professional (they won't turn their heads from the pool to speak with you) but also rotate between work and fun, participating in activities in the pool with the kids. There's a small game room adjacent to the Beach Pool, good for rainy days.
The Villa Pool is a quieter pool. There are nicer lounge chairs, two more Jacuzzis, and snazzy cabanas. It's a great place to go for a few hours if the kids are otherwise entertained, but parents with kids probably won't spend too much time here. The same goes for the even smaller and quieter Hillside pool.
Loews Portofino has a supervised kids' club for kids ages 4 to 14, which is only open in the evenings. The aptly named Campo Portofino provides entertainment like arts and crafts table, a storybook corner, computer desks, and a movie room. It's smallish, but adequate for the purpose it serves: To provide a few hours of supervised fun while mom and dad slip out for the evening. You wouldn't want to leave them for much longer than that. There is an hourly cost and an additional cost if you would like to add a meal. It's open from 5 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and from 5 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The concierge can also arrange for in-room babysitting services.
There is no separate teen club at Loews Portofino Bay but if they are looking for something to do on their own, there are booze-free "teen nights" held a couple nights a week at The Groove, a nightclub in the nearby Universal CityWalk complex. There is a cost and a photo ID is required.
Also for teens, the Mandara Spa's Y-Spa program, has the "heavenly massage," the "fake bake" self-tanning treatment and "surfers scrub" body exfoliation.
Universal Theme Parks
The two Universal theme parks, Universal Studios and Island of Adventure are both within 15 minutes walking distance from Portofino Bay; but the free water taxi is a quicker and prettier route to go. Those who have been there, done that at Disney will love experiencing cool attractions like Shrek 4-D, and Simpsons ride, and the Revenge of the Mummy coaster. We were a little concerned there might not be enough to do for little kids, but between Feivel's Playground, Barney and the E.T. Adventure, we had no reason to worry. Universal's other park, Island of Adventure, is home to the much anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with the towering Hogwart 's Castle, Dragon Challenge, and buildings draped in the realest fake snow and icicles we've ever seen. But be warned, if you are planning to visit Wizarding World, be prepared for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and long lines everywhere. From Portofino you can walk or take the water taxi to Universal's CityWalk entertainment complex, which has restaurants, bars and clubs, and even a movie theater.
If you're staying at Portofino Bay, you better love Italian food. So assuming you do, you have to try Mama Della's. The decor is supposed to make you feel as if you were invited to dinner at your Italian grandmother's house, with mismatched chairs and old-school wallpaper. It might feel corny and forced, if the food wasn't so good. It's the kind of loud, relaxed, home-style place that's great for kids. There's plenty on the menu that appeals to fussy palates, and families will love being able to eat outside on the piazza. While we were waiting outside, an opera singer came and serenaded us from a balcony above the restaurant. Fantastico!
Bice (pronounced Bee-Chay) is a more formal Italian restaurant, also on the piazza, which has delicious food but is slightly less kid-friendly. It's a chain with 16 international locations, including the one in Orlando. Bice serves Northern Italian cuisine and has some inspired menu items like ravioli stuffed with beef short rib and spinach, and pasta is rolled daily. It's perfect for a date night if you plan on leaving the kids in Camp Portofino.
Trattoria del Porto
Another good option for the kids, the trattoria is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and is the best choice if you have big eaters, since they offer a great breakfast buffet, and an Italian dinner buffet on select nights of the week. There is also a small kids' play area with a table and chairs, beanbags, and a television. Kids' menus are available.
Sal's Market, with its hanging copper pots and comfy booths, is easy to frequent because it's a great place to eat quickly and relatively inexpensively. There's a kids' menu with items like burgers, mac and cheese and pizza, as well as snacks and fruit to go. You can also get muffins, cookies and a selection of breakfast cereals, which include a side of milk. It's the perfect place to stop for a quick, light breakfast and cup of coffee if you're in a rush to get out to the parks. They also have Italian meats, cheeses, antipasto and salads.
Splendid Bar and Grill
Located beside the Beach Pool, the pizzeria has outdoor tables and chairs that overlook the pool, as well as beach service. The menu has everything from pizza to salads and seafood.
Gelateria Caffe Espresso
This has a good selection of coffee, cappuccino and espresso, as well as delicious homemade gelato, pastries and biscotti.
Not to be outdone by Disney, character meals (featuring Shrek, Cat-in-the Hat) take place at all three Loews properties on select nights. You don't need to be staying at the hotel to make reservations.
In addition to the restaurants at the hotel itself, Universal's CityWalk is a short stroll away and there you'll find Bob Marley's, the Hard Rock Cafe, Emeril's, Jimmy Buffett's Margarittaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Latin Quarter, NASCAR Sports Grille, NBA City and Pastamore.
The room service menu is pretty good, but as you might expect, really pricey. If you've got a couple of kids, room service could easily cost you $100 for a simple meal. Or, you can run downstairs to Sal's and get it for less.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
The biggest perk to staying at one of the three Loews hotels is the fact that you get to skip the lines in the parks. Your room key acts as an express pass and allows you to bypass the lines on almost all of the rides in both Universal Studios and Island of Adventure. It's worth the cost! Even though that excludes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a stay at any of the Loews also gets you an hour of early admission into Island of Adventure (home to Harry) so you won't have to spend your whole life (just half of it) in line there either.
Staying on property also means you get resort-wide transportation via water taxi or shuttle bus between all the hotels and Universal Studios, Universal CityWalk and Islands of Adventure. You are also given priority seating at select Universal Orlando restaurants, free package delivery to your hotel room, and resort-wide charging privileges.
Families will have access to cribs, nightlights, baby blankets, and outlet protectors.
All Loews have lending libraries of games and Fisher-Price welcome gifts. Normally, we can take or leave these little gifts, but at Portofino the kids got write/erase boards that they used over and over again, even on the plane ride home. Smart, thoughtful choices like this are common at Portofino, and are what make it not just a good hotel for families, but a great one.
All Loews hotels are pet-friendly, and if you bring yours along, you'll get a pet tag and bowl.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the resort.
The Art of Smart Timing
High season in Orlando is March through April, June through mid-August, and mid-December to early January, while low season is February, late May to mid-June, mid-August, and October. Rooms will be less crowded and less expensive in low season. Holidays and school vacation times are always extremely crowded. Temperature-wise, the summer months are generally quite hot, with temps going into the mid-90s, while November through the winter months can get chilly, with temps getting down into the high-40s at night, and averaging in the 60s or low-70s during the day. Hurricane season is June through November.
First off, there are no hotel shuttle busses from Orlando International Airport to any of the three Loews Universal hotels. It's only about a 20-minute ride, but still, we find that outrageous. If you want to take a shuttle bus, try Mears, which has reasonable rates and a good safety record. Taxis are also available. If you're driving, take I-4 and get off at Kirkman Rd./Highway 435, then follow the signs to Universal.
Getting around once you arrive, thankfully, is a breeze. If you're staying at any of the Loews Universal hotels, you'll get free shuttle service (either by water taxi or bus) between the resorts, theme parks and CityWalk. The water taxis are the way to go. There are also free bus shuttles to SeaWorld and Wet & Wild. There is a cost of both self and valet parking, per night.
For Mom and Dad
If you're looking for a night out without the kids, the most obvious choice is CityWalk, a 30-acre entertainment complex with bars, clubs, restaurants and live music and even a karaoke bar. It's a quick water taxi ride from the hotel and there's no shortage of things to do, eat and see. Another fun option is Blue Man Group, which plays at The Sharp AQUOS Theatre, located between the Hard Rock Cafe and the main entrance to Universal Studios. If you'd rather stay at the hotel, try dinner at Bice.
The Mandara Spa at Portofino Bay offers everything from massages and facials to full-body treatments, hair and nails, and there are his and hers steam saunas.