Review: Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is a premier resort within walking or boat distance of Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure, with unlimited front-of-line Express Pass at rides in 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 seaside town of Portofino complete with its own harbor, cobblestone streets, quiet courtyards, intimate walkways, and more, this resort is truly transportive. Loews Portofino Bay Hotel feels like it’s straight out of old world Europe, and the massive complex could pass for an actual Mediterranean harbor from a distance.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel has a lot of selling points, but this grand and beautifully-executed theme is its biggest strength. Its architecture is unique and varied, and there are tons of inviting areas to explore. Theme is something on which we fixate in our Walt Disney World resort reviews, so it only makes sense to do the same with Portofino Bay…

The obvious Disney counterpart is Hotel MiraCosta, which is inside Tokyo DisneySea and themed to that park’s Mediterranean Harbor, and in particular the ports of Venice and Portofino.

These two hotels are strikingly similar in a number of ways that make the comparison unavoidable. Of course, they are located thousands of miles apart on different continents, thus giving no practical value to how the two stack up.

Against Hotel MiraCosta, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel holds its own in several regards but still falls short. The level of detail, quality of finishings, opulence, and overall luxuriousness are all significantly higher at Hotel MiraCosta. However, so too are prices.

In fairness to Portofino Bay, this is par for the course with Tokyo DisneySea, which is head and shoulders above the other Disney parks in terms of detail and quality. Comparing any Walt Disney World park to DisneySea would likewise yield unfavorable results. That Portofino Bay even approaches Hotel MiraCosta is impressive, but the more valuable comparison here is how Portofino Bay compares to Walt Disney World hotels.

At Walt Disney World, the most logical counterpart to Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is Disney’s Riviera Resort, which is themed to the Italian or French Riviera. Here, the comparison is far less favorable to Disney, as Loews Portofino Bay Hotel absolutely trounces Disney’s Riviera Resort.

That DVC property is essentially a big box hotel with uninspired and boring architecture, little variety or detail, and fairly small grounds. It feels more like suburbia than a hotel themed to Europe, and viewed against Loews Portofino Bay Hotel makes that all the more clear.

Indirectly, the better comparisons to Loews Portofino Bay Hotel are Disney’s BoardWalk Inn or Yacht and Beach Club. These similarly have a central body of water, some architectural variety, personality, charm, and character. They’re all themed resorts, albeit to different places.

This is probably going to be a “controversial” take among Walt Disney World fans, but Loews Portofino Bay Hotel surpasses all of those resorts, too. It’s a much closer call, but between the thematic depth and unique areas to explore, Portofino Bay gets the edge for us. Suffice to say, Portofino Bay is a top 5 hotel in the United States when it comes to themed design and #1 at Universal Orlando.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel has an excellent location that’s somehow simultaneously isolated, remote, and within a short walk of the parks. It’s directly across the street from Hard Rock Hotel, which itself is directly behind Universal Studios Florida and feels like it’s in the heart of the action.

By contrast, Portofino Bay feels like it’s a world away from the rest of Universal Orlando. This is accomplished via the layout, winding approach, and some carefully placed berms. Setting aside theme, it reminds me a bit of the relative feeling of isolation at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, despite Cinderella Castle being visible in the distance.

Portofino Bay is a massive and sprawling resort complex, so there’s no consistent way to measure the walk from your room to the park gates in minutes. On average, you’re looking about a 20 minute walk from the resort’s harbor to USF.

The path is also lush and gorgeous–with mature trees, bamboo and palms–all along the waterfront. You go under the road between Hard Rock Hotel and Portofino Bay, so you’re effectively immersed in the “bubble” of Universal Orlando Resort along the entire route.

If you’d prefer not to walk, Universal Orlando also provides complimentary water taxis to CityWalk. The boats are abundant–we spent a lot of time in the Harbor Piazza and it was rare for the dock to be empty for more than 10 minutes. We’d estimate that 9 times out of 10, the water taxis will be faster than walking to the parks.

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. Whether it’s by foot, boat, or bus, transportation is typically a breeze at Universal.

Another key perk of Portofino Bay is 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! 

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. By contrast, Walt Disney World’s launch of the paid Genie+ and Lightning Lanes will offer little to no advantage for on-site guests.

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. That was true for us–the value of Express Pass was almost double what we paid for our Portofino Bay stay. It also helps that this on-site perk is available every day of your stay, including on check-in and check-out days.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel guests 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 at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is the pools.

The Beach Pool is Portofino Bay’s main option, having an array of features: bar & grill, two hot tubs, zero-entry white sand beach, Roman aqueduct water slide, cabanas for rent, poolside activities by day, and dive-in movies by night.

Almost everything about the Beach Pool is exceptional.

In particular, we appreciated the layout and design of the pool area, which broke up the space nicely with pathways and landscaping. We were frequently the only guests up in a shaded area by one of the hot tubs, which was made even more tranquil by the relaxing sounds of waterfalls.

(This is not the hot tub described above–for some reason I forgot to grab a photo of that.)

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel also offers private cabanas for rental. These come completely equipped with a phone, ceiling fan, HD plasma TV, refrigerator with sodas and waters, wireless internet, and more.

Next, there’s the Villa Pool, the other major pool complex at Portofino Bay.

The Villa Pool also has cabana rentals, hot and cold plunge pools, and lawn games–there are two Bocce courts located near the Villa Pool.

We found the Villa Pool to be quieter and more laid back, with at most 25% as many guests as were typically at the Beach Pool.

The Villa theme is spot-on. The grounds and pool here reminded us of the Getty Villa, its gardens, and reflecting pool–or the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild (we haven’t visited any villas in Italy).

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel boasts a staggering restaurant lineup. For table service, there’s the casual yet elegant Bice Ristorante. Mama Della’s Ristorante offers family-style dining with specialties from the regions of Tuscany, Naples and Piemonte. Trattoria del Porto serves breakfast and dinner in a casual atmosphere.

For casual dining, choose from Italian staples like handmade pizzas, sandwiches, salads, fruit and more at Sal’s Market Deli. Burgers, sandwiches, and more are served poolside at Splendido Bar and Grill. Just off the main lobby, there’s Gelateria, which serves gelato.

Back on the Harbor Piazza, you’ll also find Starbucks. Across the way from that is the Thirsty Fish, which is another popular place.

In total, Loews Portofino Bay Resort offers 9 restaurants and lounges featuring a wide range of Italian and American cuisine at pretty much every price point.

We paid for an upgrade to Club Level for this stay at Portofino Bay, and opted to take full advantage of that.

Consequently, we didn’t do any of Portofino Bay’s restaurants or lounges this visit.

We spent hours and hours simply wandering around–and walking off that unlimited Italian comfort food that we ate in the Club Level lounge!

This review highlighted Portofino Bay’s theme above, but the quality of its grounds cannot be overstated. The main harbor area is known as Harbor Piazza, and this is where most of the restaurants and retail are located. It’s fun to wander around here and people watch, but this is far from the only area of Portofino Bay worth exploring.

We also spent a lot of time in and around the lobby, which simulates both indoor and outdoor settings, complete with atmosphere lighting.

Another spot we enjoyed spending time is Piazza Centrale (above), which is a courtyard between the lobby and conference rooms with a fountain and other details that some guest rooms overlook.

There are a number of areas like this that connect the guest room wings, harbor, lobby, etc. to one another. In addition to these major ones, there’s also Piazza Ponte, Villa Piazza, Citrus Piazza, and the Hillside.

All of these tucked away spaces are pleasant and inviting, featuring random artwork and details to discover. You might find tilework of cats trying to catch a fish, hand painted signage, beautiful garden, or interesting archways. There’s truly a lot to take in.

By and large, maintenance is spectacular. There’s deliberate aging, but nothing looks or feels neglected. Like Hotel MiraCosta, trompe-l’œil is utilized to great success at Portofino Bay to create the illusion of dimensional details, and for added authenticity.

With all of that said, Portofino Bay’s themed design is not perfect. There are some areas that feel slightly lacking in detail, or that have a 1990s style. These are few and far between, and the same could be said about most of Walt Disney World’s highly-themed resorts that were built in the 90s or earlier.

With that said, this spills over into non-pool amenities, as well. Universal’s newer resorts arguably do lounges and restaurants better, and also offer a range of clever functionality improvements over the older hotels. (In this case, “older” is very much a relative term–Portofino Bay is hardly ancient by hotel standards, it was simply built about a decade-plus before several of Universal’s modern properties.)

Personally, I’ll take a bit of well-maintained datedness over blander new resorts any day. To each their own on that, though. If you want crisp and modern amenities and couldn’t care less about theme, there are going to be better options for you than Portofino Bay. (Honestly, there are probably better reviews for you than this one, as our priorities don’t align at all.)

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel boasts that its guest rooms “bring the splendor of the Italian Riviera” to all of their newly-renovated 750 stylish guestrooms and 45 spacious suites.

Rooms start at 450 square feet each (the one pictured here is 490 square feet), which puts Portofino Bay Hotel on par with the larger room sizes of the Magic Kingdom area resorts at Walt Disney World.

These recently-refreshed rooms feature creamy white and teal colors, which give the rooms a light and airy feel. Details in the lighting, marble surfaces, velvet, and carpet texture give the spaces an Italian flair.

These rooms are on the more subtle side thematically, which is definitely a sharp contrast to the common areas and grounds. They mostly work, but could definitely use another piece of art or two–there are a couple of walls that feel a bit empty. Like many of Walt Disney World’s recent room redesigns, these are a bit on the generic side for my tastes.

Portofino Bay’s guest rooms feature 100% cotton sheets and plenty of pillows. Comfort-wise, the bedding was plush and fantastic. Both Universal and Disney have strong mattress games these days, which is great.

Other touches include an in-room Keurig coffee maker, mini-fridge, free Wi-Fi, work space, chair, dresser, flat screen television, and more.

Since I drew attention to Portofino Bay’s thematic superiority over Disney’s Riviera Resort, it’s only fair to compare the rooms.

In this case, Riviera Resort reigns supreme. While smaller, those use space better and feature a number of smart design features that increase storage space and room “usability.” The design and details in the guest rooms are also better at Disney’s Riviera Resort. I’ll still take Portofino Bay over it, but your mileage may vary.

The bathrooms at Portofino Bay are perfectly suitable, but nothing to write home about.

Dual sinks and a separate room for the toilet are the highlights here.

We appreciated the walk-in shower, but this being in the same room as the sinks might pose problems for families trying to get ready in the morning.

Portofino Bay’s guest rooms offer a variety of Julien Farel skin, body-care and hair products. I don’t know if this is something special, but I don’t have anything else to say about the bathrooms, so I figured I’d include it.

Sarah shoot a video tour of the room to give you a better sense of its layout.

The guest rooms at Portofino Bay aren’t going to win any awards for style or substance. In fact, they’re probably middle of the pack at Universal Orlando, but they pass muster for us in terms of sufficient luxury and theme. Your perspective may differ depending upon how much time you’ll spend in the room, your tastes, etc.

One thing to note is that balconies are not common at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

To my knowledge, these cannot be booked online and can only be requested upon check-in. We did exactly that, and were given a free upgrade to a room overlooking the Villa Pool. This stay was during the off-season at a time when availability was plentiful, so don’t expect the same success as us (or there being no charge).

Over half of the time we were in the room, I was on the balcony enjoying this beautiful view. That probably contributes to giving the weaker interior a bit of a pass–my opinion of the rooms themselves might be a bit harsher had I spent all of my time in there.

Ultimately, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is our favorite resort at Universal Orlando and one of our top 10 theme park hotels anywhere in the world. While there are a handful of hotels we really like at Universal, this is far and away our favorite–nothing else comes close. As the flagship hotel with the highest average nightly rates, perhaps that should be a given–but even in terms of value for money, the other top performers don’t quite measure up to Portofino Bay.

Moreover, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is the what we’d consider the Universal resort “for Walt Disney World fans.” When it comes to immersive themed design, this is on par with Imagineering’s best hotels in Florida. Portofino Bay can hold its own against the Crescent Lake resorts and maybe the lodges, but with nightly rates on par with the Moderate Resorts. As with any hotel, Loews Portofino Bay is not going to be for everyone. If theme is irrelevant and you’re more concerned with modern amenities and accommodations, there are probably better options at Universal. For us, a stay at Portofino Bay is one of the best reasons to make time for Universal Orlando during your trip to Florida.

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 Portofino Bay 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!

38 Responses to “Review: Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando”
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