Universal Orlando Resort: Hotels, Tickets and Transportation
When you’re planning your family’s stay at Universal Orlando Resort (UOR), I highly recommend you take a look at the five UOR hotel properties. In addition to proximity and free transportation to the UOR parks, they also offer big perks like discounts when purchased as a hotel/ticket package, early admittance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour before the rest of the parks open, and Express Passes, depending on which hotel you choose.
On our recent visit, we stayed on-site at the Loews Royal Pacific. Because my kids are 14 and 12, we didn’t require a lot of the offerings UOR hotels have available to families, like cribs, high chairs, character breakfasts, or the Kids Club, but we definitely made use of the video game room and the well-lifeguarded pool.
Like most of the properties, the Royal Pacific is upscale, but not at all stuffy. And the staff was incredibly helpful no matter what we needed. Even when what we needed was our room service table unstuck from between two walls at 11 p.m. so we could go to sleep. (Long story.)
What you’re reading now is the Guide to Hotels, Tickets & Transportation at Universal Orlando, but there are two other complementary guides for your reference:
- What to Expect at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! (WWHP) at Universal Orlando
- Universal Orlando (ex-Harry Potter) Rides and Attractions Guide
- There’s also an overall “main” guide entitled Your Everything Guide to Universal Orlando Resort that links to this post and the other two that I just mentioned above.
Here’s what you need to know when deciding where to stay at Universal Orlando Resort:
Where To Stay at Universal Orlando & Resort Transportation
The Universal Orlando Resort has five on-site hotels that are all located as close as you can get to the parks. (The Hard Rock Hotel is the closest to the main gates.) You really can’t go wrong with any of them as they’re all designed for families, and all include certain things like on-site Universal character appearances, and Kids Clubs for parents who want some non-child time to do things like go to the late night clubs at CityWalk (or just sit and stare at the sunset while not being asked to do anything for anyone). However, there are some noticeable differences as to price and perks. First, here are the hotel links:
- Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort – Prime Value (we stayed here in 2018)
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort – Preferred Value
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort – Preferred Value (we stayed here in 2016)
- Hard Rock Hotel® – Premier Value
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel – Premier Value
- Universal’s Aventura Hotel – Prime Value. (Opening August 2018)
In order of ranking as to the “niceness” of the hotels, “Premier” is at the top, and includes the Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock Hotel. These properties are very well-appointed, with pricier restaurants and higher thread-count sheets. For that reason, they are the most expensive by far, but have fewer rooms (650-750 as compared to Cabana Bay’s 1,500), which means fewer kids running loose through the lobbies.
“Preferred” includes Loews Sapphire Falls (opening summer 2016) and the Royal Pacific. These hotels tend to be $50-100 less per night than the “Premier” hotels. We stayed at the Royal Pacific, and it was really lovely and quiet. It seems to attract a lot of business groups, too, as there were one or two corporate functions while we were there. These hotels have a mid-level number of rooms, with around 1,000 each.
The only UOR hotel in the “Prime” category currently is the retro-decorated Cabana Bay Beach resort (with Aventura opening in August 2018), and prices here can be almost $150-200 a night cheaper (for a regular room) than the Premier and Preferred hotels. That’s not chump change if you’re staying for more than a couple of nights. Plus the Cabana Bay also offers Family Suites that include kitchenettes, so you can save on eating out. Oh, and did I mention there’s a bowling alley in this hotel? But keep reading because the Premier hotels do have included values that Prime doesn’t. UPDATE: We stayed at in a family suite at Cabana Bay during our 2018 visit. The plusses of this property are the cool mid-century design, the casual cafeteria style restaurant that we enjoyed, and the fun pool area with slides. It’s also located within walking distance to Volcano Bay. On the non-plus side, the amenities were lacking, as the towels were really thin and the toiletries were of low quality. Consider bringing your own shampoo. It’s laid-out in a motel type of fashion, with doors leading outside, so that can be a bit noisy. Finally, while there are busses to take you to the park, they’re not as quick or as easy to use as the other hotels’ water taxis.
Click through to this chart to see the hotel benefits broken down by category. You can see which benefits come with each.
Every UOR hotel provides free Wi-Fi for up to four devices (yay!), and also free all-day transportation to the parks. We took the convenient and pleasant water taxis from behind the Loews Royal Pacific, but there are also shuttles available if you get seasick on man-made lakes where the water doesn’t move. There are also scenic walking paths from some of the hotels, if you prefer to do that, but odds are you’ll get enough daily steps in during your park visits.
Here’s a view of a water taxi, not unlike the one we would take back each night to the Royal Pacific hotel after a big day. Not seen: my kids resting their tired heads on my shoulders.
And here’s a view of the pool that we enjoyed on our last day. My boys hit the pool like the kids in this picture.
Now, here’s the big news about staying in a UOR property: Every one of the hotels allows guests admittance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before the regular parks open. That’s right—you can be zooming down to Gringott’s as early as 8 a.m.! Whee! (You can walk by the regular park attractions and rides at that hour, but they don’t open until 9 a.m.) An extra hour of Harry Potter is a huge deal, even if it means arriving at the gates at 8 a.m., because you’ll really beat the crowds and get to see a lot while it’s still relatively quiet. You can pick out your wand, cast some spells, and shop for souvenirs all before most witches and wizards wake up. If your kids get a little weirded out by crowds, this is the perfect way for them to experience the “magic.”
Another big perk offered by some of the hotels is the Universal Express Unlimited pass that allows every member of your group to skip the regular ride lines at the park—all day long. That can mean the difference between waiting in line 75 minutes, or waiting for half that time, for one ride. The saved time adds up, granting you the opportunity to see and do more while you’re there.
To use the Express Unlimited pass, you’ll still need to buy your admission tickets, but this is a free add-on that’s valued at up to $89 per person, per day. It’s only offered to guests of Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific and Hard Rock, so be sure to figure that in when you’re calculating the room cost of your various choices. For example, I checked a random weekend this month, and the price of Loews Royal Pacific per night is $165 more a night than Cabana Bay, but the value of two Express Unlimited Passes is $178. For my money, I’d definitely stay at the more pricey hotel and get the passes.
There are also Vacation Packages available that offer ticket prices, plus room costs, at what I think is a slightly discounted rate. I would check your dates and ticket preferences with the package rate, then check what it would cost to buy them separately, to get the best deal. Yes, you’ll have to do some number crunching, but it’s worth it to know you got the best pricing.
Tickets to Universal Orlando
Buying your tickets to Universal Orlando isn’t quite as easy as buying your tickets to an afternoon movie. Rather, there are quite few options and variables, including annual passes, special deals for Florida residents, and tickets that are grouped with other local theme parks. For that reason, I advise you to make the following decisions before ordering (and buy online for better prices, too):
- One park or two parks? UOR has three theme parks, Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florid and Volcano Bay. They each have their own rides and attractions, but they are literally right next to each other. Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley is in one park, Universal Studios Florida, and Hogsmeade is in the other, Islands of Adventure. If you’re okay with visiting just one, buy a Base (Single Park Admission) Ticket (currently $105.00 for adults, $100 children ages 3-9; per day). However, if you’d like to visit both—and ride Hogwart’s Express—you’ll need to buy a Park-to-Park Admission ticket, which raises the price to $155 each for adults (one day price). Recommendation: Definitely get the Park-to-Park ticket because if your focus is seeing all of Wizarding World, you will probably have time to see both in one day. (It will be a long day, however.) Hogwart’s Express is not to be missed. It departs from Platform 9 ¾ in the Universal Studios Florida park, and transports you to Islands of Adventure. BUT you will not be allowed to board unless you have the Park-to-Park ticket.
- How Many Days? The more days you spend at the park, the cheaper the daily ticket price. Stay two days, the price of a Park-to-Park ticket goes down to $110 per adult (from $155 for one day). Four days, it goes down to $60 per adult. Recommendation: Two days seems like the perfect amount of time to see all of Harry Potter and *most* of the rest of the parks. If you want to see everything the parks have to offer, then I’d definitely extend it to three days. Any longer than that, however, and you’ll have what I like to call “Theme Park Homicidal Rage.”
- Pay More to Wait Less? Unlike Disney World, Universal Orlando offers guests the opportunity to skip the lines by purchasing Express Passes in addition to the regular admission ticket. There are two options: The “Universal Express Pass“ that can be used only one time per participating ride for $40, and the “Universal Express Unlimited Pass” that can be used an unlimited number of times at participating rides and attractions for $60. These options are available to any park guests, not just those staying at on-site UOR hotels. Recommendation: I’m a little torn because I think this is a fairly good value that will save you a lot of time and whining by majorly cutting down your wait times. However, the two rides we loved the most at WWHP, The Forbidden Journey and Gringotts, do not accept either of the Express Passes. I suggest taking a good look at the parks’ rides on Universal’s website and seeing which ones accept it or don’t, then make your own decision. Also, if you won’t be there during peak times (summer, school breaks, weekends), you may not have long lines to contend with, anyway.
UPDATE: We had the Express Unlimited passes on this visit, but unfortunately, so did a lot of people. Like, a lot of people. Our wait times were still cut almost in half on most rides, but don’t expect to just breeze right onto a ride just because you have this pass.
PRO TIP: My boys figured out that if they went as Single Riders on participating rides, it was even faster than using the Express Unlimited pass. This means that you maybe sit next to strangers on rides, but if you’re okay with that, you’ll find yourself notwaiting in lines much at all.
- Money No Object? Book a VIP Experience. This adds $200 to your $155 one-day, two-park tour price, but you will have a personal tour guide, go to the front of every single ride and attraction, and receive even more perks. (This isn’t private–you will be in a small group, but private tours are an option for even more money. (To book a Private VIP tour, call 1-866-346-9350.) Recommendation: Probably not necessary during off-peak times like January-April during the week (excluding Spring Break times) when there aren’t huge crowds. But during peak times like school and holiday breaks, and the summer months, if you can swing it, why not?
- Volunteer! Universal has a wonderful program called the Volunteer Vacation that can save you a little money, while also giving you the opportunity to help someone else. Donate four hours at their Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit “storybook” resort for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families who get to experience a memorable, joyful, week long, cost-free visit to Central Florida’s attractions. For a limited time (bookings now through April 12 for travel through May 18), guests who book a Volunteer Vacation will receive a third day free with their 2-day, Park-to-Park admission ticket. Plus, Universal Orlando donates a portion of the proceeds to Give Kids the World. How awesome is that?
Thank you to Universal Orlando for hosting me and my family during our stay and visit; as you read, we had a fantastic time! All opinions are my own.