I hadn’t stayed at a Universal hotel since I was a kid, as I was always too attached to my Disney resorts, but this time I gave in—and boy, am I happy I did. I will do this EVERY TRIP going forward. The exterior of the resort is absolutely stunning. It reminds me of Venice—a small, quaint town with a waterway on which boats (water taxis) carry patrons to their final destinations: either CityWalk (where Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are located, along with an endless list of restaurants and events) or Sapphire Falls Resort, Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel or Portofino Bay Hotel. This complimentary service is truly one of Universal’s best kept secrets. The boats run every fifteen minutes (honestly, I think they take closer to ten) and they make life simple, because they are rarely crowded (more packed at night, after the parks have closed, but that’s a no-brainer). You go through security AT the dock outside of your hotel, so that you can enter CityWalk without those pesky security lines. And they’re quiet, easy—a good break in an otherwise exhaustive day. But there is more to this resort than just convenience. 

One of the best perks about Portofino Bay is the number of exclusive benefits offered to guests. From early park admission to free Universal Express Unlimited passes, you’re sure to make the most of your time there—and your money. I will say that with a four-year-old, the *unlimited* Express Pass was a game-changer. I think we rode Spider-Man four times in a row, and bypassed that long line each time. Even though this resort wasn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, I felt that it was a good deal because it included so many of the additional purchases we would be making if we’d stayed somewhere else (like transportation and Express Passes). Not to mention, it was a better deal than our Disney resort: The Yacht Club Regatta Floor. But who didn’t see that coming? Now, let’s explore the hotel itself. 

Driving up to Portofino Bay, my jaw totally hit the floor. It was a stunning, expansive property that looked just like a little Italian commune. From our view on the shuttle, the water was still and perfect, with birds collecting on the boats floating in the bay. We left the airport in the Universal Orlando SuperStay Shuttle and it was great! Back in the day, I took the Magical Express, which was hectic and crowded, but this was nothing like that.

There were about 10 of us total on the bus, so we could spread out easily, and it made the drop-offs at the hotels quick and seamless. The bus itself was nice, clean and spacious—I had no complaints. It was also nice because all of the hotels are extremely close to each other, unlike Disney’s resorts which are more spread out. Portofino Bay was the third or fourth drop off, and we immediately got help with our luggage and made our way inside. 

From the second we arrived at Portofino Bay, the staff was extremely helpful and kind. In fact, the concierge at the front desk helped us change our dinner reservations three times in one night, and was probably the most upbeat and cheerful person I met during the entire trip. I couldn’t believe how much the customer service had improved since the last time I visited. Also, a little insider tip here: if you’re staying at one of the premier hotels (Portofino, Royal Pacific, or Hard Rock), the concierge can sometimes score you last-minute dinner reservations. We made an 8:00 PM reservation at The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium four hours prior to our dinner and were never charged for any day-of cancelations. That is something that Disney simply can’t compete with. I understand why they can’t (and don’t), but I will say that it really elevated the experience for our family and made us feel like we were getting more bang for our buck. It felt like they were truly grateful we were their guests rather than just a reservation number to scan into the parks (I sometimes feel this way at Disney World – I’ll explain later)

Now, because I’m a Park Snob, it’s my job to be a little snobby and point out things that could use some improvement. Mostly, when it comes to Disney and Universal, I like to ask myself: who did it better? And in one area, Disney is the obvious winner. The up-close exterior of the hotel, as well as the lobby, left something to be desired. There were clear corners cut, from the painted stone on the exterior columns to the cheap trees and tile in the check-in area. As you move further into the hotel, there are some really cool and unique elements that I think are overshadowed by the anticlimactic entry. There’s a fun interior alleyway with little shops mimicking an Italian street corner. It’s so cute! This is where you will find the concierge and ticket desk. And outside, more shops, including an ice cream parlor and my personal favorite: a Starbucks! But again, the front lobby is just a little too plain, especially at a resort where you are spending around $400 a night to be immersed in the experience. 

The hotel room itself is beautiful. The design is really fun and unique, with vibrant colors and a plush blue headboard. We had a stunning garden view that felt private and very European! But again, I could tell there were corners cut, with chipped furniture, a crooked sconce, and cracks in the bathroom walls. I think this is one obvious area where Disney bests Universal: the quality of the resorts themselves. In my opinion, Disney focuses on the details while Universal is a “big picture” kind of place. I think sometimes this “big picture” approach works for Universal (think: the exteriors of the attractions, like Skull Island and The Cat and the Hat), but other times, when you finally notice those details, you can’t look away. It can be distracting. 

Universal Studios Portofino Bay Resort, Orlando
Ryder man just getting used to a life of luxury, posted up at Portofino Bay.

All of this being said, I would stay at Portofino Bay again in a heartbeat. As always, there are little things that can be improved upon, but isn’t that every hotel? I was so blown away by Universal Studios Orlando this trip that I have a feeling they will work these kinks out. 

Overall, I give Universal Studio’s Portofino Bay Hotel the following scores:

Hotel Exterior: 9/10

Hotel Interior: 6/10

Staff: 10/10

Cleanliness: 7/10

Convenience: 9/10

Overall: 8.2/10