Stay and Play at Universal: Options Abound, On-Site and Off

With its ever-expanding roster of rides, events, restaurants, resorts and more, it's simply impossible to take in all that Universal Orlando Resort has to offer in a day, which is why so many Orlando visitors can plan an entire vacation around its attractions. If you're considering such a trip, research is key. Guests at Universal's three deluxe, on-site properties – Loews Portofino Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando and Loews Royal Pacific – will pay a premium, but with the price comes benefits in the form of early-park admission and coveted Universal Express Unlimited ride access. That's a value of up to $89 per person, per day and will ensure you maximize the number of rides you can hit, or the number of times you can hit a given favorite ride. They also enjoy water taxi service to CityWalk and the other deluxe on-sites, a nice feature. Stays at Universal's newest hotel addition, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, don't come with the unlimited ride pass, but its price point (and lovely brand-new pool, lazy river, bowling alley, etc.) make it an alluring choice for visitors looking to pack more value into their visit. Universal also partners with many nearby properties which offer some great benefits, too. Be aware: full benefits – like that all-important early-park admission or and other inclusions which can add up quickly – are generally only available when you book as part of a Universal Orlando vacation. Each of the off-site properties on this list is a Universal partner hotel.

10 Drury Inn & Suites Orlando
Free is this property's middle name -- free hot "Quickstart" breakfast, free "5:30 Kickback" with hot food and cold drinks, free soda and popcorn in the lobby. Sure, Drury offers other freebies, like wireless Internet, but with so many free eats available, you may not even have room for the area's many fine restaurants. You'll have space to swim them off, though, in the hotel's neat indoor/outdoor swimming pool, which means random Florida rains need not send you scrambling for your room. Nearby, attractions like SeaWorld, Aquatica, and the range of Disney's theme parks -- not to mention the near round-the-clock excitement of Universal Orlando -- delight vacationers, but the Drury Inn & Suites Orlando is convenient for business travelers, as well.

9 Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando
Wonderfully affordable, the popular Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando is considered a "value" level Universal Partner hotel with easy access to all the theme parks (there's complimentary service to Universal, SeaWorld, Wet N' Wild and the Rosen Shingle Creek Golf Course) and all the entertainment, dining and shopping of the Pointe Orlando complex so "close to home," you may not even need to rent a car. Wondering if you should save the leftovers from your meal the night before? No problem. Each room boasts a mini-fridge and microwave, plus a coffeemaker to help get you out the door for early park admission if necessary.

8 Floridays Resort Orlando
This all-suite luxury condominium-style property is world's away from the bustle of the busiest tourist corridors and serves up Mediterranean style in the form of two- and three-bedroom suites. Lie by the pool in style and let the kids splash the day away at its unique "playscape" area. Daily poolside planned activities mean that when you're not exploring Universal you can still keep the family entertained while you sneak in a little sun and maybe a refreshment or two from the pool bar. Floridays' expansive property encompasses some 20 well-appointed acres and complimentary shuttle service to all the area parks is super-convenient.

7 Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard
Art deco sensibility and convenient proximity make the Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard a great choice for stylish business travelers looking for easy access to the Orange County Convention Center. But folks in town for a Universal Orlando vacation (or perhaps the many business travelers who allow for some theme-park play amid their work) will love coming back to updated rooms, workout facilities, an expansive pool (and perhaps its on-site Italian restaurant if they haven't filled up at CityWalk). Fancy a jog or walk? Take advantage of the RunWESTIN program and grab a self-guided three- or five-mile route to explore the area around Universal.

6 Rosen Shingle Creek
With its AAA Four Diamond Designation, the Rosen Shingle Creek is the most upscale of Universal's partner hotels and one of the largest full-service convention hotels in the region. That doesn't mean that couples and families vacationing here can expect less than a world-class vacation. Especially if they're sports-focused. With its 18-hole, par 72 championship golf course, four outdoor swimming pools, two lighted tennis courts, basketball, nature trail and more, that's a ton of space to walk off the huge doughnuts and beer they'll be downing at Springfield inside Universal Studios Florida. In fact, you may even get in extra walks bringing Fido along for the fun; the Rosen Shingle Creek has a number of pet friendly rooms available for its guests.

5 The Point Orlando Resort
Like other Universal Partner Hotels, the Point Orlando Resort offers free scheduled transport to the parks -- all of them, not just Universal. If you like, you can even walk there (it's an easy stroll, between 20-30 minutes; depending on the time of year that could be quite enjoyable). This is an all-suite property with an expansive pool and a more upscale feel than many of the other moderately priced venues in the same area. Tropical ambience -- the resort's d?©cor has a South American theme -- helps visitors get in the vacationing mood. The lobby Barista (buffet breakfast served daily) and poolside Cabana Bar & Grill mean you don't need to leave for meals if you don't want to.

4 Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando
Like all of Universal Orlando Resort's deluxe on-site properties, guests at the Loews Royal Pacific enjoy early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter every day -- and just about any Universal regular or local will tell you: early admission really counts! Additionally, water taxi service to CityWalk is both convenient and relaxing. You may also take the transport to any of the other deluxe properties to explore and enjoy their dining options. Immersive Polynesian is likely to lower you blood pressure on sight. If not, cocktails at the Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar will get you all the way there.

3 Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando
This gorgeous property -- its opulent exterior was inspired by the manse on the cover of the Eagles' "Hotel California" album -- has an absolutely phenomenal pool. Its Velvet Bar makes a killer cocktail. It is home to both the Kitchen (imagine an intimate meal in a music legend's home….) and the Orlando outpost of the Palm steakhouse. And, oh yeah, world-famous acts play there regularly. Add to this all the perks of staying at a Universal deluxe on-site, not the least of which include early park admission and Universal Express Unlimited ride access, which means you can jump to the front of the lines as many times as you like, and you may well be sold on the "party like a rock star" way of vacationing.

2 Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando
Loews Portifino Bay Hotel is the definition of a stay-cation. Pay a fraction of the price for an extravagant European vacation but get an authentic escape to the Italian Riveria with the Italian accents, picturesque Mediterranean views and intimate vibe. This Four Diamond hotel boasts the luxurious, full-service Mandara Spa, golf course and a water boat to take you directly to Universal Studios. Not enough perks? You'll get a free Universal Express pass that will let you skip all the lines. With eight restaurants, three pools, an art gallery and boutiques scattered around, you'll never get bored during your stay. TIP: Try and swing for a room near the harbor or you're looking at a long walk to the main lobby.

1 Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Why does Universal's colorful brand-new property take home the top honors? While its funky '50s-'60s kitsch is adorable, its expansive pool and fabulous lazy river are alluring -- especially for families -- and its sleek, mod suites are convenient and stylish, we put it at No. 1 because it allows so many more people to experience the joys of staying on site. And at Cabana Bay, two of them are an on-site bowling alley and a Jack LaLanne fitness center. Offering Universal character appearances, early park admission and many other amazing benefits, Cabana Bay makes the on-site option more alluring than ever.


A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum. A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city. Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.  

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