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.
Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Universal Orlando Planning Guide for everything about Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Also check out our Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide for everything about those parks, resorts, restaurants, and so much more. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!
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!
My wife and I stayed there for 3 nights in 2018. We are huge Disney fans and had flown in for a basketball game . We decided since we were childless that weekend to hit up Universal a couple days. We absolutely loved Hard Rock. The Kitchen was good the few times we ate there and The Palm was really good. You simply cannot beat getting Unlimited Universal Express. The walk to the parks is nice also.
I just planned our trip for the Hard Rock Resort at Universal for June 2022. I am reading some of these reviews and can only think that they are going through Covid changes and the supply chain is affecting their changes. Also I know that Disney has had several shows canceled and are just now bringing them back slowly due to staffing shortages. My advice is be kind to the staff. I could not imagine working under the stress factor they are working under right now.
The only good thing about Hard Rock was the speed pass.Upon arrival we waited for over 4 hours for a room that had NO shampoo,soap,towels,or coffee for the next morning. We had traveled 8 hours and expected a room. I suppose that’s just what we got.They we’re in the middle of remodeling and there was dust everywhere. I finally got our room by raising my voice. There were other people waiting for their room also….at 10pm .
Tom, thanks as always for the photos. While the Hotel California album cover shows the Beverly Hills Hotel, I think I can see influences of the others.
I didn’t like the rooms when I was looking at prices for October and I don’t like them now, but that is the best location on Universal for the parks. (We were looking at rooms at Royal Pacific or Sapphire Falls before space opened up at Saratoga Springs; I guess I’ll see if my opinion changes.)
Who is BTS? That’s probably why I would enjoy my stay at the Hard Rock!
Shelly, I agree. We just got back from a trip to Universal and Disney. Decided we had to try Harry Potter (finally!). We stayed at Royal Pacific to get the Express Pass. If you are going to Universal, I wouldn’t go without this perk. It is worth it financially to stay at a hotel that provides Express Pass rather than paying for it out of pocket. That said, the Royal Pacific had very little theming and what was there was horrid. I don’t know who picked out those ginormous, ugly purple and orange flowers. Ugh. The room was dirty. Dirt in the bathroom, old contact lenses stuck to the floor, hair in the tub, dirty towels, French fries under the bed (we check under the beds before we leave a room to ensure we aren’t forgetting anything), and the desk chair was worn and dirty. Ugh. I got food poisoning at the Three Broomsticks. Went to Big Fire in Citywalk and we had terrible service and have had better steaks at Outback for a fraction of the price. Universal was running at full capacity and I would say that no more than 50% of people wore masks indoors, even though Florida is COVID-central these days. We are glad we went to Disney after Universal. That said, the rides at Universal were GREAT, so if you want an amusement park with good rides then go for it.
Stayed at the Hard Rock in 2018 and absolutely loved the place. Will be very interested to read the reviews of the other Universal hotels as we hope to travel from the UK in 2023 and the Hard Rock will be difficult to beat
When we tried in mid-June to get a Universal room for the Unlimited Express Pass, the only room available was over $700, so we ended up skipping that and the Express Pass. Based on our experience on a weekend, the Unlimited Express Pass will easily allow you to go on every ride in both parks each day with good odds of repeating some favorites. The ability to stay one night yet get 2 days of express pass is simply awesome.
This is the kind of perk that makes a Deluxe resort truly deluxe, showing how WDW is dropping the ball with the new Genie+ & Lightning Lanes.
However, I’m disappointed as this review is woefully incomplete, nay, sadly unprofessional, even! No review of the CAKE???? No determination of how much cake Tom can eat? No suggestions as to which antacids to take afterward?
C’mon, man! Er, Sarah. 😉
Just FYI as well: there needs to be detailed examination of the cake in that promo shot for Steakhouse 71!! Do it for the people, Tom!
Definitely going to need more info on the cake. My entire potential booking is riding on it. Be sure to let Sarah know!!!!
This was a great article with awesome information. We haven’t been to Universal in years. Just might have to try it now. But only if the cake gets a top notch review
Just to add to my previous comment… express pass good all day on the day you checkout…good through park close.
We LOVE Hard Rock. Best thing is the free unlimited express pass which u get the day u check in AND the day u check out. We always drive or fly in and stay at offsite cheaper hotel and the next morning check in early (like 7am) at Hard Rock. Room won’t be ready but they hold your bags, give us room key (use as express pass), and walk to park when it opens. They’ll txt your room # when room ready. We stay one night but get 2 days of express pass. Or u can stay 2 nights and get 3 days of express pass. Now that’s value unlike Disney going to the paid fast pass soon. We also like not having to schedule rides. With Universal we walk past a ride and say let’s do this one and just hop into express lane. Stress free and easy. U can also pool hop to the other universal hotel pools. It’s like a thing where people will take a pool day and pool hop.
Let Sarah know that we count on your doing the exhaustive research required to make informed decisions about ALL that the parks have to offer, Tom. 😉
Have a question for Tom and anyone else. We have stayed at Hard Rock in the past and love the proximity to the parks. It is our number one priority. How does Royal Pacific compare? Especially at rope drop and having to come across the bridge from City Walk? Are security lines longer since they might be combined with guests arriving from the parking garage? Or am I totally mixed up? We love the relatively non-existent lines at security on the path from Hard Rock.
Between now and the end of September, we’ll have reviews of every single Universal hotel, culminating in a hotel comparison post. That should answer all of your questions! 🙂
I’m going to Halloween nights in Oct for 5 days. I will be staying at the Royal Pacific!
I’m interested in what past guest and the writer of this article have to say about said hotel?
As always, love your reviews and humor! But I have to say I love BTS **and** classic rock, so some BTS fans may like the Hard Rock. There are more 30, 40, and 50+ year old BTS fans than you think. Thanks for all you do!!
Hard Rock is a tremendous value, however, we usually stay at Royal Pacific. If your primary focus is to spend most of your time in the parks, any of the three deluxe properties is paramount. Staying at these resorts all but erases any of the stress commonly related to visiting theme parks. Hit the parks an hour early before the general public, or sleep in and grab a awesome breakfast – it doesn’t matter, for you and your family have express passes connected to your room keys almost guarantying wait times less than 30 minutes all but a few attractions. Get a bit tired? Walk back to your room for a nap or pool time. Refreshed, go back to the parks, this time with a relaxing boat ride. Later on in the evening, grab dinner at City Walk and finish your day out people watching or even hit one of the great coasters at night for the best experience.
We stayed there once and loved the location and perks, but the hotel itself felt very dark and boxy, including the long and winding (Beatles fan) hallways. One other weird thing – the depth of the pool is only about 3 feet in the entire pool.
I’ve stayed multiple times at the three deluxe options. My favorite is the Royal Pacific, then Portofino Bay, and Hard Rock last. The rooms at PB are nicest. The Royal Pacific feels the most relaxed and beautiful. I do not like the theming of the Hard Rock, and the rooms are boring. This, however, is just my family. Others may love it!
Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!
We’d love to hear your take on Portofino Club level…
Stayed here this July. 1st time staying on property and visiting the parks in about 19-20 yrs! We usually go to Disney every yr. I kept comparing it to Disney. Our rooms carpet was well stained and had visibly grimy fingerprints all over. The mirror you loved in your room had so much dust collected behind it in our room it made me sneeze just looking at it. I’m not sure the windows had ever been cleaned. There was also a big chunk of building trim looking like it was going to fall off on one of the end towers. It was not located above where anyone would be under it. The grab and go is not close to being handy for our 6 night stay. Thank goodness for having a car. ALL that being said, we’d stay there again. Location, express pass, location, express pass! Oh and it was $500 a night (that included tax and a discount!) We stayed at Dockside the 1st 2 nights and loved it but the location stinks in comparison and no express pass included.