Review: Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando
Hard Rock Hotel Orlando is a premier resort within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure, offering unlimited Express Pass at both theme parks. This review features room photos, amenities info, pros & cons, and how these luxury accommodations compare to Walt Disney World Deluxe Resorts.
Themed to the iconic Hotel California album cover by the Eagles, Hard Rock Hotel features Spanish mission-style architecture and striking style. While not directly inspired by any of them, it feels very Los Angeles–like an amalgamation of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Hotel Bel-Air, and even Riverside’s Mission Inn. Classic, but also chic and cool–just like rock and roll.
Hard Rock Hotel Orlando also features a formidable rock memorabilia collection and live music. Outside, there’s a large palm-lined swimming pool, lush grounds and gardens. Speaking of which, the lovely garden walkway is a path that will get you inside Universal Studios Florida in under 10 minutes. Arguably, Hard Rock Hotel has the best location of any theme park adjacent resort in Orlando.
We might as well start there, as location is undoubtedly going to be one of the main selling points of Hard Rock Hotel. This is one of Universal Orlando’s original hotels, opening a couple years after Islands of Adventure as the location transformed into a bona fide vacation destination.
Consequently, it has the best location of any on-site resort (it’s closer to Universal Studios Florida than Contemporary is to Magic Kingdom), with the hotel essentially abutting backstage areas at Universal Studios Florida. Sadly, there is no direct access to E.T. Adventure from inside Hard Rock Hotel, but I guess that’s understandable.
Door to door, you’re looking at just under a 10 minute walk from Hard Rock Hotel to USF, and that’s even accounting for going through security. The path is also lush and gorgeous–with mature trees, bamboo and palms–all along the waterfront.
As much as I love the promenades at Crescent Lake and from the Grand Floridian to Magic Kingdom, this surpasses those thanks to one big thing: ample shade. It’s as if this was designed by someone who had visited Florida during the summer before.
If you’d prefer not to walk, Universal Orlando also provides complimentary water taxis to CityWalk. We’ve taken these in the past, but not during our stay at Hard Rock Hotel Orlando. However, literally every time we left our room there was a boat waiting at the dock plus one in transit.
There’s also free bus transportation that services Volcano Bay water park. In general, we’ve found the bus and boat service significantly better at Universal Orlando than Walt Disney World. In fairness, Universal is much more compact and the routes are thus significantly shorter, making the turnaround time quicker. (Given the hotel rates Disney charges, that’s really no excuse.)
After location–or perhaps before it–the next main amenity is that guests of Universal Orlando’s Premier Hotels (Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay, or Royal Pacific) receive Unlimited Express Pass in Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida with valid theme park admission. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Express Pass is Universal’s front-of-line pass, and the unlimited version is exactly what the name suggests–infinite line skipping!
This on-site perk seems particularly relevant given Walt Disney World’s launch of the paid Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, which offer little to no advantage for on-site guests.
By contrast, Unlimited Express Pass included with your stay at Premier Hotels is an incredible deal that allows you to skip the lines at most popular Universal attractions. Unlimited Express Pass has a value of $129 per person each day, meaning the benefit of Express Pass could exceed the nightly cost of your hotel stay. (It did for us–the value of Express Pass was over double what we paid for our Hard Rock Hotel stay!)
Guests of Hard Rock Hotel also receive Early Park Admission. This is more beneficial at Volcano Bay given the Unlimited Express Pass in the theme parks, but we still took advantage. Getting a head start is nice if you’re up early anyway.
The next major amenity is Hard Rock Hotel pool, a “music-centered aquatic experience.”
Encompassing the entire central courtyard behind Hard Rock Hotel is the 12,000 square foot zero entry pool complete with a sand beach, two hot tubs, sand volleyball court, interactive fountains, play area for kids, and a 260-foot pool slide.
There’s also a rockin’ underwater sound system playing the same classics as in the pool area and around the grounds.
At night, movies play poolside (one of the Shrek sequels was showing during our stay, which is decidedly not rock & roll). There’s also Beachclub Pool Bar, which serves a variety of drinks and light bites.
Hard Rock Hotel also offers private cabanas for rental.
These come completely equipped with a ceiling fan, HD plasma TV, refrigerator with sodas and waters, wireless internet, and a server to bring you drinks all day long. We didn’t book this, but they looked nice.
In general, we found the pool area at Hard Rock Hotel to be spectacular. It was always “comfortably busy,” which is to say enough guests to give it a lively atmosphere, but not so crowded as to be uncomfortable.
There were always more than enough lounge chairs, with at least 2/3rds being empty. Granted, our stay was off-season, but it’s an enormous pool complex. Truly a sleeper pick for one of the best in Orlando, although the lack of a lazy river shaves a few points off its overall score.
Like its Walt Disney World counterparts, Hard Rock Hotel features several restaurants. The “main” table service restaurant is the Kitchen, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving American comfort foods.
We dined at the Kitchen and found it to be delicious, indulgent, and a tad expensive for what it was (can’t go wrong with the Kitchen Burger and the Burnt Ends Mac & Cheese is a fantastic and heavy dish).
The Kitchen’s closest Walt Disney World counterpart is probably Beaches & Cream Soda Shop. That’s true right now to the $35 Kitchen Sink Cake (display version pictured above).
I really wanted to order this 3 pound behemoth, pleading with Sarah that “the people need answers!” about how much cake I can eat in one sitting. That proved unpersuasive. I’m sure if enough of you offer feedback that this is essential research, we can get to the bottom of this Kitchen Sink Cake conundrum.
Other dining options at Hard Rock Hotel include the Palm Restaurant, a classic Hollywood steakhouse, and Emack & Bolio’s Marketplace, which is the grab and go quick service dining option. There’s also Velvet Bar, the lobby lounge where live musicians perform.
Then there’s the gigantic Hard Rock Cafe complex, which is about 10 minutes away, between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
Hard Rock Hotels’s most unique amenity goes to the “Sound of Your Stay” program, an exclusive audio experience that puts guests up close and personal with the music.
With “Picks,” guests have the opportunity to borrow a Fender guitar for their stay. Picks offers the choice of 20 different Stratocasters, Telecasters, and bass guitars, and they are delivered to the room with an amp and professional headphones–so no noise complaints!
Then there’s “Wax,” Hard Rock Hotel’s carefully curated collection of records chosen by its team of music experts. This allows guests to have a Crosley turntable delivered to their room with a collection of 10 iconic albums.
Both are free, but require signed agreements and hefty credit card deposits to cover the value of the guitar and/or turntable. (More info and agreements here.) We were so focused on everything else during our stay at Hard Rock Hotel that we didn’t have time to try Picks or Wax, and I’m already regretting it. Next time!
My favorite thing to do at Hard Rock Hotel was simply…wander around. (Something, in retrospect, that I could’ve done during a day visit.) Like many children of the late 1980s and 90s, I was raised on rock and roll.
My parents were huge Van Halen fans, and although they never had the good sense to take me to one of the many concerts they attended, their tastes rubbed off on me. Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Dylan, the Doors, Stones, etc. are all among my favorites to this day.
Pilgrimages to Hard Rock Cafes were part of my youth, something we did whenever visiting a new city. I’d claim that my dad owns one of the world’s largest collections of Hard Rock Cafe pins and magnets, but I’m pretty sure that was a “thing” and everyone collected Hard Rock Cafe stuff.
But I digress. It was awesome just walking around Hard Rock Hotel, doing a self-guided tour and checking out the mammoth memorabilia collection. A bit too much new stuff for my tastes–old man shakes fist at cloud–but still awesome.
Hard Rock Hotel Orlando has 650 rooms including 29 suites. The standard, garden, and pool view rooms are 375 square feet in size, which puts them middle of the pack among Universal’s Deluxe or Premier Hotels. That’s also about on par with the average Deluxe Resort room at Walt Disney World.
We were upgraded at check-in to a Deluxe Queen Room, which is 500 square feet in size, so that’s what you’re seeing here. Aside from some minor layout differences and extra breathing room, this is pretty similar to the standard rooms.
The Deluxe Queen Room features a desk, couch and chair on opposite sides of the room, and flat screen television. Rooms also include a refrigerator and Keurig coffee maker with Hard Rock Hotel branded K-cups.
A six-drawer dresser and separate closet with sliding doors offer storage space, but not to the same degree as Walt Disney World’s redesigned rooms. Still way more than enough storage for us, but we know some of you are bringing all your earthly possessions on vacation.
Comfort-wise, the bedding and pillows were plush and fantastic. Both Universal and Disney have strong mattress games these days, which is great.
Our room slept five with the pullout sofa. In all standard rooms, an optional rollaway bed is available at an extra charge, and allows those to sleep up to five people.
The bathroom is a decent size but without some “modernizations” you might expect. I loved the aesthetics of the floating backlit mirror, but I also try to avoid looking at my own reflection, so perhaps I’m not the best mirror reviewer. At night, that light provided our room with a moody vibe.
Our room had a shower, toilet, and second sink in the bathroom. This design allows two people to get ready simultaneously; the Deluxe Queen Room also a featured a large area by the closest, separated from the main room, where someone else could get ready.
Hard Rock Hotel’s rooms make a half-hearted thematic effort, with a couple pieces of art and a pinkish-red and grey color scheme that, I guess, is vaguely rockish. Not really, though.
We found the rooms to be serviceable, but nothing special. Aside from the superior size, we prefer the rooms at all of Universal’s newer hotels.
With that said, Hard Rock Hotel’s rooms are very pleasant.
The carpet is nice and well-cleaned, the couch and chairs are comfortable, there’s a bit of texture and detail, bedspreads (!!!), and generally soothing color choices.
Sarah shoot a video tour of the room to give you a better sense of its layout.
To be sure, these rooms aren’t going to win any awards for style or substance, but if you’ve ever described Disney’s new rooms as “sterile” or “hospital-like,” you’ll probably be pleased with these.
Ultimately, we really like Hard Rock Hotel. It’s definitely not my favorite resort at Universal Orlando, but it is incredibly compelling. With nightly rates starting under $300, the value for money is fantastic. Then take into account the Unlimited Express Pass, excellent location, phenomenal pool, and overall luxury of the accommodations–and Hard Rock Hotel is really tough to beat.
The biggest weakness is probably the guest rooms, but even that feels nitpicky as these are simply older rooms–but still well-maintained and perfectly comfortable. Dining is another area where Hard Rock Hotel is only just so-so, with solid table service options but lacking on the food court front. Those are really minor quibbles for an otherwise fantastic hotel.
Overall, I really like the vibe of Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, but I’m also a fan of classic rock, have a lot of nostalgia for Hard Rock Cafe, and love California mission-style architecture. In the end, the atmosphere and theme is probably going to be what “makes or breaks” Hard Rock Hotel for you.
Like anything, Hard Rock Hotel is not for everyone. If your favorite band is BTS or even if you’d prefer a more traditional theme, Hard Rock Hotel won’t be for you. Even at Universal Orlando, there are resorts offering more immersive and transportive themes. With those caveats in mind, Hard Rock Hotel Orlando earns our highest recommendation.
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Have you stayed at Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando? What do you think of it? Interested in staying here? What do you think of Universal’s v. Walt Disney World’s Deluxe Resorts? What about on-site perks? Does Unlimited Express Pass alone make the Premier Hotels at Universal worth it? Do you agree or disagree with our hotel review? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
The butterfly garden at the Hard Rock is also another great touch. We walked through it several times on the way from Portofino to USF. We’ve always been hesitant to stay here because it’s not a “Loews” hotel with Loews in the name, and we’ve loved the quality of the other resorts so much. Glad to see this is top notch, too. Cannot wait for the rest of your reviews.
We stayed one night at Portofino Bay club level a few years ago. We got express passes for 2 days and were able to use the club lounge both days. It was well worth it.
We demand a full review of the kitchen sink cake. The people need answers. I’m shocked that you would let this slide. Looks like you’ll have to go back soon.
We loved club level at portofino–substantial breakfast, free drinks and bottled water all day, heavy happy hour appetizers and dessert bar at night. That plus express passes for our family of 5…it was a great deal!
I love all 3 premier resorts . I have stayed at each of them . Portofino is my favorite but I really like the Hard Rock . The location is unbeatable. The free express pass for these hotels makes it an awesome deal . The rooms are half the price of the ridiculous $700 a night Disney charges for a holiday inn room at the Grand Floridian .
I think you need to see if between Picks and Wax, you can get two turntables and a microphone.
Re: Kitchen Sink. I am people, I need answers. I appreciate Sarah’s healthy stewardship of her partner and D.T.B. for the long term. But as a reader, I look to you take the $35 hit and insulin shock, solving these conundrums for the greater good.
The express pass is good for the day of check-in through the day of check-out, inclusive. We’ve arrived as early as 0800 on check-in and have never had an issue getting the passes printed.
You know what the rock & roll thing to do would be, Tom? ORDERING THE CAKE. *insert blistering guitar riff here*
We are our of state UOAP’s, but I have been a subscriber of your blog for quite a few years now (we like to enjoy Disney every now and then). I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blogs and especially with all of the changes to Disney lately they are extremely helpful. I do have to say, I think a more in depth look at the Kitchen Sink cake would be extremely beneficial 🙂 Hope to see that review soon! Thank you for always keeping your blogs informational, down to earth, and light hearted!
It would apply to BOTH days at the parks. We stay at the Royal Pacific often and take advantage of staying a night and getting two whole days of Unlimited Express included. It’s an excellent deal. And if you’re an annual passholder, you get a discounted rate on your stay.
If one were to stay at Hard Rock Hotel for one night but visit IOA and Universal during the day of check-in and the day of checkout, does the free Express Pass apply on the day of check-in, checkout, or both? Thanks.
The Kitchen Sink Cake is essential research, Tom. The people deserve to know.
Sarah, don’t read the next part.
Truth be told, I don’t care about it personally, I’m just helping you in your quest to justify the Kitchen Sink Cake.
Please add club level at Portofino Bay. I have a stay booked there in October and would love your insight on it! Really appreciate all of your information.
Grew up with Annual passes to Universal and IOA. We loved staying at Hard Rock and using the door key as an Express pass was amazing. Also I think it is still a dog friendly hotel.
I will say I read this with more of an air of possibility than I previously would have given Disney’s announcements yesterday. The on-site perks are huge! Looking forward to your other reviews and the potential of altering my future Orlando trips.
What was the price per night? Do they still have the Hard Rock black card that gets you free upgrades?
We paid $203 per night, taking advantage of the off-season AP deals discussed here: https://www.disneytouristblog.com/our-big-plans-for-universals-passholder-days/
However, that’s not included in the review since a rate that low is pretty rare. However, $250 to $300 per night is not uncommon–and is still a steal for Hard Rock Hotel given what it offers.
Great review – refreshing to see value for money be a thing.
Re: “Kitchen Sink Cake conundrum”…is the transportation between resorts pretty straightforward/do you think it’d be worth a side trip to just get the cake there? I had been researching little things that the kids might get a kick out of since we will have ample time away from the parks. I hadn’t heard of Universal’s Kitchen Sink until earlier this week, and it seemed like something that might be fun…
I had never heard of the, “picks” thing, that would be quite cool. I spent a lot of my youth trying to crib Led Zeppelin riffs (I still remember the exhilaration of figuring out Black Dog to the point where it was terrible, but recognizable).
It’s a short walk from Portofino Bay–or from USF.
I can’t speak to whether the Kitchen Sink Cake is worth your time and money, which is why this research is clearly SO ESSENTIAL! 😉
How dare Sarah stand in the way of the people’s need to know. How can anyone in good conscience sleep not knowing how much cake you can eat. We want answers and we want them NOW!
Great Review… Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on the other 2 Universal deluxe resorts. With the included Express Passes, these hotels are golden! We also found the Club Level at Portofino only about $90/Day more.. well worth it for a family of 4 to have 2 meals / day and included alcohol & dessert. I think club level access is quite a bit more at Hard Rock.
We’re debating adding Club Level while staying at Portofino Bay. Thanks for the feedback on that!