Back in March 2020, the unthinkable happening for the Orlando area economy. Theme parks were closing for an abundance of caution. This directly led to theme park resorts closing. At Universal Orlando, all their resorts will finally reopen by mid-June 2021. This is good news for any traveler wanting to enjoy Universal Orlando since you can choose between eight different Universal Orlando Resort / Loews resorts. We are going to help you with selecting the proper Universal Resort for your Orlando vacation.
No written article under the size of the average doctoral dissertation can cover all the different pros and cons of hotel/resort choices at Universal Studios. Some of the main variables are overall purpose of vacation, need/desire for express passes, size of room needed, and total number of people in your group. Please do not let these details deter you because you came to Orlando to ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster and ride an enchanted bench in the Wizarding World, not to obsess about your hotel.
Now if deciding on a resort makes you tenser than a plate of food near Ron Weasley, please be aware there is good news. You can have a fabulous vacation at Universal Orlando Resort no matter where you stay. All UOR resorts get early park admission (EPA) to at least one land park and usually Volcano Bay before most of the public. This can be a huge advantage that should not be overlooked, especially for Volcano Bay during the summer. Another huge benefit is ease of using Universal Orlando Resort transportation compared to Walt Disney World resort version. This transportation is free to use so if staying on-site looks out of your price range, you should factor that part in your budget. You also can have any purchases made in park sent to your Universal resort at no additional charge.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORTS?
Currently, Universal classifies their resorts into four categories: value, value plus, preferred, and premium. We will begin with the premier resorts. The three premiers (Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, and Royal Pacific) are the original Universal Orlando resorts. They have the most upscale amenities, best dining, and most importantly, guests staying get unlimited express pass for Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Each of these resorts has boat transportation to the main parks and their own security entrance. However, these are your most expensive resorts of the UOR options with highest parking fee at $28/ night.
The next level, preferred, consists of only Sapphire Falls resort. This is arguably the most picturesque resort with the largest pool. The room quality might even be higher than some of the premier resorts. This resort offers boat service to the parks. Also, it may have some of the better dining and alcohol options on-site at a lower price point than the premiers.
This brings us to the most popular level of resorts: value plus. This level includes Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Aventura Resort. The best news about this level is the noticeable price drop for these resorts compared to the previous mentioned ones. Once should expect to pay about $150/night on average. The two resorts at this level are quite different. Cabana Bay is full of family friendly amenities such as pools, a waterslide, its own lazy river, and bowling alley. Whereas Aventura is about technology and being more adult in focus. There is a VR arcade, the in-room amenities are controlled by a mobile tablet, an in-resort robot to deliver items to your room, and the rooftop bar. Both resorts feature a Starbucks and a quality food court. Now officially, these resorts only offer bus service to the land parks but they both have a walkway to Volcano Bay if that is a priority for your stay.
The final category of resorts is value. This is the Endless Summer Resort located in former wet-n-wild property. Technically, there are two “sister” resorts here with Surfside and Dockside. Unlike the value plus options, these resorts are remarkably similar. The main difference is that Dockside is larger and themed to being near water at a dock but surfside is themed to beach and surfing. Both resorts are the lowest priced of UOR options. They are very competitively priced even compared to off-site I-Drive hotels. They offer excellent bus service to the parks. Like the value plus resorts they both feature a Starbucks and a food court. They also are in International drive area so you could easily walk to other dining options and a Walgreens.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHERE TO STAY AT UNIVERSAL?
The good news is that all the UOR / Loews resorts are good values. At time of writing this article, I just booked a stay at Surfside for $79/night in September 2021. In contrast, I have friends staying at a Universal premier resort during a similar time for about $325/night. Both of those are great values for a value and premier resort but what is best for you? The answer to that question comes down to what you really want.
The thorniest variable in determining resort value is this: Do you need unlimited express pass for your time at Universal Orlando Resort? If so, and you are going with a group then it is always cheaper to stay at a premier resort to have unlimited express pass included. If you want to feel like Nicholas Flamel but on a Weasley budget, then having express pass can achieve this. Even if you only stay one night at these less than budget friendly hotels, you can get two entire days of unlimited express passes on the day you check in and the day you check out. You may want to consider a split stay with part of your stay at a premier and part at a lower tier resort, but the nature of your group will decide that. All other evaluations in this article will be based on not needing express passes. If express passes are a must, then premier is way to go.
If you have decided to try a split stay or do not think you will need express passes, then the next question to answer is: What type of vacation are you having? If you can forgo express passes but want a feel of luxury with a touch of romance, then Sapphire Falls may be the best value for you. If you are going to be spending quality time at your resort pool and you do not have small children with you, then Sapphire can easily be seen as best value.
Now let us envision, you are a group without small children but want to spend less time at your resort and more at the parks, then Aventura or the Endless Summer resorts may be the best value for you These resorts would allow you save some money of your accommodations that can be spend on something else like the rooftop bar or using ride share to enjoy a fine dining experience outside the resort.
If you have a group with children or teens, then Cabana Bay or the Endless Summer resorts may be your best value. Cabana Bay has enough entertainment options for a family to just stay at their resort all day. Surfside and Dockside have amenities also but if you can save another $50-80/night by staying there then indulging elsewhere.
As you can see, there are no simple answers because depending on the nature of your group, the best value may look different. There are a few more things to consider like parking fees. Currently premier resorts charge $28/night for parking with the price going down to $!5/night at the Endless Summer resorts. You will need to build this into your budget, but UOR/Loews resorts do not add “secret resort fees” as many other places have been known to do.
Are you planning to stay at an UOR resort but visit other area attractions? If so, then the value or value plus resorts are your best option. Do you need more than two queen beds due to size of your group? If so, the best values are at Dockside, Surfside, and Cabana Bay. Cabana Bay has suites that can sleep up to eight. Dockside and Surfside have suites that can sleep up to six at the price point of barely more than a value plus standard room. If you want to avoid having to pay for more than one room, these may be your best value.
If you are planning to go to Volcano bay, then the value plus is your best value. Cabana Bay even has volcano view rooms to show how close that resort is to Volcano Bay. You might assume that the value resorts are your best budget choice. They are lower in price which means less amenities. For example, Dockside/Surfside standard rooms do not have coffee pots. The more you pay the more you get at UOR resorts. Take some time and/or reach out to a travel agent that can help you at no additional cost to you to finalize the best value for your time at Universal.
Jon Self is an avid theme park fan who has the high privilege to serve as a pastor at an American Baptist Church (fbcmacomb.com) while also trying to find the proper life path with his loving spouse, a bigger theme park fan than Jon. You can follow him at @pastorjonself on Twitter. Jon writes for various theme parks sources. He also writes for faithelement.net.
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