Many non-Disney hotels say they have a theme because they purchased coordinated chairs, pictures, and bric-a-brac from their favorite hotel supply warehouse. Not so at Portofino Bay, possibly the best hotel (for theming) at Universal Studios Orlando. If you want an Italian-themed resort close to a theme park, Portofino Bay is the only game in town – Disney (so far) hasn’t replicated this country.
Decorative touches adhere to Portofino Bay’s theme. Top of the list: The massive buildings look like little buildings – specifically Italian townhouses jammed together in multiple colors, textures, and depths. It feels like a fishing village along an Italian coast inlet, even though the fake façade hides 750 rooms, 45 suites, and a convention center.
Internally, hallways to the side of the main lobby mimic the small streets of a 600-year-old town. Low lights and shadows make them feel like a moonlit stroll in an ancient city. Here and there the smell of Italian cooking wafts from a restaurant.
Operated by Lowe’s, Portofino Bay appeals to guests who can turn in frequent flyer or hotel/airline points for a cheap Orlando vacation. It also has a sizable convention facility. (Unlike Disney, Universal doesn’t oversee day-to-day operations of its hotels.)
Who should stay here
Portofino Bay is the least hotel-like resort at Universal Studios and provides the best I’m-on-vacation atmosphere. It has thick crowds in some spots but plenty of nooks and crannies to escape sandal-footed tourists. The pool’s Roman ruins theme, with a slide, appeals to kids, though adults can bask in relative quiet at two smaller pools.
Who shouldn’t stay here
Guests taking a break from Disney-themed hotels find a bit less magic, simply because Disney tends to take its theming more seriously. That’s not a heavy criticism of Portofino Bay, but a word of warning. Guests used to upscale hotels enjoy the service and change of pace.
All Universal resort guests have free boat service (water taxi) from their hotel to CityWalk. From CityWalk, they can connect to another water taxi. Sidewalks also allow guests to walk to all hotels and parks, but it’s a hefty hike, especially in a steamy Central Florida summer.
Questions to ask when booking
Room views vary from lakefront to pool to less-fun stuff. Ask. The main pool and water taxi docks are at the northern end of the resort; the lobby and some restaurants are in the middle. Guests on the southern end of the property have to walk farther for most services. Conventions take place away from guests’ rooms, but ask about meetings scheduled during your vacation.