Review: Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is a preferred hotel offering moderately priced accommodations within boat and walking distance of Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure theme parks. This review shares room photos, info about amenities, pros & cons, and how it stack up to other Orlando and Walt Disney World resorts.

Sapphire Falls is themed as an island paradise, from the stone turret in the lobby to the bright blue accents to flowing waterfalls that cascade over lush grounds. While part of Sapphire Falls’ style is expressly conveyed, some of it is subtle. You’ll hear steel drum music, sit below a palm-lined beach, enjoy Caribbean-themed dining options, and drink rare vintage rums at the resort’s watering holes.

Sapphire Falls does not present itself as a romanticized version of an island resort, which is what you might find at a couple different Walt Disney World hotels. Instead, it strikes me as a moderately upscale hotel that you’d actually find in the Caribbean–not something that’s an imitation of the islands, but rather, that draws inspiration from its setting.

One specific architectural landmark of the Caribbean features prominently at Sapphire Falls: stone turrets. You’ll find these throughout the hotel, with the most notable examples being the hotel’s iconic spiral staircase in the lobby and outside by the pool bar. Beyond that, turret ruins are the defining visual motif of Sapphire Falls, reinforced in artwork and photos that line the walls of guest wings.

The turrets are one instance of Sapphire Falls’ several rock walls, which are one of the defining characteristics of the hotel alongside its tropical landscape and relaxing waterways. These details coupled with a cool color palette punctuate what can otherwise be a fairly mundane, modern design.

To that point, the hotel actually does quite the masterful balancing act between themed and contemporary styles. Sapphire Falls occupies a middle ground between the bland Aventura and ornately-detailed Royal Pacific, arguably pulling the best from both.

Sapphire Fall is neither a luxurious hotel nor is it a lavishly-themed resort. However, its theme and design will satisfy most guests, as will its slate of amenities and conveniences. As avid fans of themed design, we’d like to see a bit more attention to detail and less dead space, but it is generally well done. Objectively, it’s tough to fault the approach–especially with how much Sapphire Falls gets right.

Let’s start our tour of Sapphire Falls with the lobby. This is an expansive area, with a whimsical chandelier overhead and floor to ceiling windows at the far end of the hotel lobby. There’s a lot of space for activities, with large seating areas in the middle and large screens near the bar.

My only minor quibble here is that it could’ve benefit from a fountain or some other centerpiece to break up the space and add some personality. (I realize it already has the chandelier and stone spiral staircase, but there’s still a sense of emptiness.) Even the Poly no longer has a lobby fountain, so hard to fault the significantly cheaper Sapphire Falls on that front.

The lobby at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is where you’ll find the front desk (obviously), concierge, rental car kiosk, vacation planning desk, gift shop, and more. All of the guest wings radiate out from here, as one would expect from a tower hotel.

The lobby is also home to the grab and go New Dutch Trading Co. and Strong Water Tavern. The former is undersized for the resort and as compared to other counter service spots at Universal. The latter is arguably one of the best bars in all of Universal Orlando; it has a ton of personality, nice atmosphere, and good views. It’s hard to articulate why Strong Water Tavern is so good–and none of the photos I have convey it. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for its “good vibes.”

As mentioned earlier, the lobby is also where you’ll find the main spiral staircase turret, which leads down to the table service restaurant, Amatista Cookhouse.

We did dinner at Amatista Cookhouse and were generally impressed; the food definitely skews more towards ‘Caribbean comfort’ than fine dining.

This also leads out to the water taxis, which provide direct and efficient access to the parks. The boats are abundant–I spent a lot of time outside and it was rare for the dock to be empty for more than 10 minutes.

Sapphire Falls is the least expensive hotel at Universal to offer water taxi transportation. Not having to take a bus is hugely beneficial, and means being dropped off closer to the parks. It’s also more pleasant than buses.

Speaking of transportation (feet count, right?), there’s a walking path that connects Loews Sapphire Falls Resort to Royal Pacific, and then the Garden Walk to Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida via CityWalk.

I personally find the Garden Walk to the parks to be lovely and something of a hidden gem, and it’s only about a 15 minute walk from Sapphire Falls. In our experience, the boats are usually faster than walking from Sapphire Falls, but being in control of your destiny or just enjoying a stroll can be nice.

Opposite the lagoon is the biggest amenity (literally) at Sapphire Falls: the pool.

This is the largest pool area at Universal Orlando, and has an array of features: bar & grill, large hot tub, zero-entry white sand beach, fire pit, cabanas for rent, poolside activities by day for kids, and lengthy waterslide.

All things considered, I’d probably rank this as my third or fourth-favorite pool area at Universal Orlando.

It’s behind only Hard Rock Hotel and Portofino Bay, plus maybe Cabana Bay due to that lazy river. (Otherwise, the whole pool and lounging experience is superior at Sapphire Falls.) Regardless, it’s a great pool.

Other amenities worth mentioning at Sapphire Falls include a rather large fitness center and arcade.

There’s also a ton of convention and special events space, if you’re for some reason reading this review to determine whether to hold a thousand-person event at Sapphire Falls.

This is probably as good of a place as any for a comparison to Walt Disney World hotels, and the obvious one is Caribbean Beach Resort. Another would be the Polynesian, but that’s a bit of a stretch and ultimately unfair to both properties.

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is comparable to Caribbean Beach in a few ways. First and foremost, thematically. Both are inspired by the islands, and Caribbean Beach received a reimagining a few years ago to make its common areas more modern and upscale, while also adding the Skyliner gondolas to provide non-bus transportation to two parks.

The biggest difference is that Sapphire Falls is a tower-style hotel with everything consolidated under one roof, with interior hallways. This is as opposed to the clusters of motel-style buildings at Caribbean Beach Resort, which are spread out over an expansive area. While there’s something to be said for the sprawling ‘resort’ style, it’s also fair to say most guests prefer the consolidated style of Sapphire Falls. The layout of Caribbean Beach was popular in the 80s and 90s, but will probably never be built again.

It’s also fair to say that the rooms are nicer at Sapphire Falls and being able to walk to the Universal parks instead of just relying on boats or the Skyliner is a plus. Dining, amenities, and pools are more of a toss-up; I don’t think there’s a clearcut winner in any of those categories. However, despite all of that, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is less expensive by about 25%.

Price-wise, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is on par with Value Resorts at Walt Disney World for most dates. In looking at rate charts for the two, it’s within $15 of preferred rooms at Pop Century for most of the year. (We’ve found that Universal is more aggressive with discounts lately, so it usually ends up being cheaper than Pop Century in practice.)

This is despite quality that puts Sapphire Falls above the average Moderate Resort at Walt Disney World. It’s arguably a rung below Gran Destino Tower, but with a location rivaling the Swan & Dolphin (those third party hotels might be the most apt comparison of all).

Let’s move along to the guest rooms at Sapphire Falls. This is the standard room, which is 321 square feet in size. This room offers two queen beds, separate bath and vanity areas and a wealth of exceptional amenities.

There are also a variety of suites ranging in size from 529 square feet to 1,353 square feet.

This room is slightly larger than those at Aventura (by ~7 square feet) and Cabana Bay (by ~21 square feet). It’s significantly larger than Value Resorts at Walt Disney World, and fairly comparable to Moderates.

Standard rooms at Sapphire Falls make good use of their space, and feel cozy and comfortable without being claustrophobic. It helps that there’s plenty of visual interest, colors, and textures to keep the rooms from looking sterile. (Although smaller, I prefer the rooms here to the ones we’ve had at Royal Pacific, which I don’t think utilize their space particularly well.)

These guest rooms at Sapphire Falls also offer a desk and chair, large televisions, an alarm clock with iPhone dock, in-wall USB charging ports, mini-fridge, coffee maker, and sitting spot.

The cool colors, lighting, and various details give the room a relaxed vibe, which makes it all the easier to decompress at the end of a long day. While I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily anything special about them, there are no notable weaknesses, either. They get the job done and balance theme and comfort quite well.

Here’s a look at the bathroom.

The toilet and shower is in a separate area from the vanity, which is always good for multiple people getting ready in the morning. Otherwise, not a ton to say about this set-up. It’s somewhat cramped, but serviceable.

Before we move on to the final perks, above is a room video of Sapphire Falls shot by Sarah.

The biggest perk for Loews Sapphire Falls Resort guests is early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Park.

Sapphire Falls guests do not receive unlimited Express Pass. If that’s something you’d otherwise buy, you’ll probably want to move up in resort tiers, as the value/cost of that is tremendous.

This is Sapphire Falls’ biggest weakness–that it’s the priciest hotel at Universal Orlando to not offer unlimited Express Pass. Sapphire Falls is usually under $100 cheaper than nearby Royal Pacific (we booked back-to-back stays at the two and Royal Pacific was ~$65 more after AP discount), and the value of Express Pass will more than cover that spread for a lot of guests.

Price-wise, Sapphire Falls is actually much closer to Cabana Bay Beach Resort than it is Loews Royal Pacific Resort. We’ve said before that Cabana Bay punches above its weight, offering great pools, depth of theme, a formidable array of other amenities, and more. It’s one of our favorite theme park hotels anywhere–read our comprehensive Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review for more.

I feel less passionately about Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, but still like it a lot. Even though it lacks unlimited Express Pass, the water taxi and walking path are huge, and make the upgrade worth the money. Style-wise, I have a soft spot for Cabana Bay, but have to admit that Sapphire Falls does an exceptional job–it’s just not quite as compelling for me, personally.

With that said, there are times when I love the idea of Cabana Bay more than staying at the actual resort. Getting up early or staying there in the off-season when crowds are low is great, but Cabana Bay can be crowded and chaotic during busier times of the year. By contrast, Sapphire Falls feels more laid back and relaxed, even when busy.

Ultimately, I end up being slightly torn on Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. While I love the theme and amenities of Cabana Bay (below it) and the unlimited Express Pass and style of Royal Pacific (above it), I also find myself wanting to do a return stay at Sapphire Falls more than either of those. Honestly, Sapphire Falls sort of snuck up on me. Its execution is near-flawless, with relaxed atmosphere, strong rooms, water taxi transportation, and great location that make Sapphire Falls a winner.

If you don’t need unlimited Express Pass (and not everyone does!) or want to splurge on superior accommodations, but not quite as much as Universal’s premier hotels cost, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is an excellent choice. It ends up being one of my favorite hotels at Universal Orlando, not because there’s anything exceptional about it, but because it has minimal weaknesses. That may seem like backhanded praise, but it’s really not. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort’s greatest strength is its balance and good vibes, for lack of a better term. If anything, this review undersells the appeal of Sapphire Falls–I’m already ready to go back.

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!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have you stayed at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort? What do you think of it? Interested in staying here? What do you think of Universal’s v. Walt Disney World’s resorts? What about on-site perks? If you’ve stayed at or even just visited both, how would you compare Cabana Bay or Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls? 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!

7 Responses to “Review: Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando”
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