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Universal’s newest hotel in Orlando lets you have a kid-friendly vacation that doesn’t neglect the grown-ups. Pros: connected and sophisticated enough for an adult while catering to families with young children. Cons: slow room service, no Express Passes included.
Universal Orlando Resort may not have as many annual visitors as its Mickey Mouse-themed neighbor down the road, but it is big and growing — rapidly. In 2017, the Universal Studios Florida theme park was the 10th-most-visited theme park in the world with about 10 million guests. For reference, Disney’s Magic Kingdom had about double that number in the same year. However, the number of visitors at Universal Studios is increasing faster than at the Magic Kingdom, and that doesn’t even factor in the new Universal Volcano Bay water park that opened in 2017, or Universal Studio’s neighboring park, Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
All together, the three Universal Studios Florida parks had an annual attendance of over 21 million visitors last year. Those thrill-seekers need somewhere to sleep at night, so it makes perfect sense that Universal Studios has been busy expanding their portfolio of on-property hotels. The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort opened in 2016, Universal Surfside Inn and Suites is scheduled to open in 2019, and Universal Dockside Inn and Suites is scheduled to open in 2020. The Universal Aventura Hotel rounds out that list of lodging projects, and the doors officially opened at Universal Studio’s newest hotel on Aug. 16.
I was curious about this brand-new hotel, so I booked a trip for opening day to see how it stacked up against its neighbors.
Universal’s Aventura Hotel is a 600-room, 17-story hotel that isn’t exactly what you expect when you think of theme-park hotels. It has a sleek and minimalist design, there is virtually no theming, no characters and no waterslide or kids club. But there’s a rooftop bar, a fire pit and an upscale food court called Urban Pantry that serves sushi, poke, gelato, udon noodles, prosciutto pizza and much, much more. Don’t worry, though, this new hotel has a few things for the kids, too.
Universal Studios has four categories of hotels: Value, Prime Value, Preferred and Premier. The Universal Aventura Hotel is considered a Prime Value hotel, which seems to mean that it is one of the more affordable options without being too bare-bones. The Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort is the other Universal Orlando property in the Prime Value category.
For my stay, in keeping with its Prime Value designation, rates for the Aventura started at $116 per night for a standard 314-square-foot room. I wanted to check out the Aventura 575-square-foot Kids Suite that started at $216 per night. On opening night, the Kid’s Suite was $289 or more per night, and I made the booking directly with Universal’s site, as availability was going quickly by the time we locked in our plans.
While we’re on the topic of booking this property, note that I purchased same-day, after-2:00pm, discounted Universal Studios theme-park tickets from the hotel concierge during my stay. I charged the ticket to the room and then earned 3x points per dollar on the room charges by paying with my Chase Sapphire Reserve at checkout. Depending on where you purchase theme-park tickets, they don’t always code a travel charge, but charging to the room is a surefire way to ensure they charge as travel.
Universal’s Aventura Hotel was on the Universal Studios Orlando property and easy walking distance to the new Universal Volcano Bay waterpark. To get there, I exited the hotel from the back of the pool area. To get there early in the morning before the pool area opened at 8:00am, I had to exit from the hotel lobby and walk around the property to access Volcano Bay via a walkway that went underground and then popped up right at Volcano Bay’s entrance.
If I wanted to get to the Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure theme parks, I could’ve theoretically walked the entire way from the Aventura or walked to nearby Loews Sapphire Falls and taken a complimentary Universal Studios boat from there. The easiest option to get from Aventura to the two main Universal theme parks, however, was to take the free Universal Studios bus that stopped right in front of the hotel every few minutes.
The bus went to the Universal CityWalk entrance, where you had to clear security and then enter the main CityWalk area. From there, the Universal Studios entrance was about a two- or three-minute walk for adults, slightly longer for small children.
Immediately upon walking into Universal’s Aventura Hotel, I noticed a difference from many other theme-park hotels: It was big, bright, airy and simple. That wasn’t inherently good or bad, but it was significantly different than many Orlando properties I had stayed in previously, where a main goal of the hotel (other than a place to sleep) was immersive theming.
The check-in desk was fully staffed on opening day, and while the process was a little slower than my average hotel check-in, everyone was professional, and I assume the speed will increase with time. The room type I reserved was ready for my 1:00pm arrival, which wasn’t too surprising, since no guests were there the night before.
The Kids Suite was on the ninth floor at the end of a hallway that featured carpet that looked like rainbow-colored fidget spinners. Interesting carpet selections aside, the keycard opened up the door on the first try, and what awaited inside was a thoughtfully designed space for families. The end-of-the-hallway location likely contributed to a calm and quiet night with no through traffic.
The entry to the Kids Suite was a relatively long and narrow hallway that passed the bathroom and took you into the first of three partially divided spaces.
This first space, the largest of the three, had a work desk, chairs and the king bed.
The walls were massive glass windows, so the TV was mounted from the ceiling instead of the wall. These massive windows were the perfect viewing spot for an evening Orlando thunderstorm or the nightly fireworks displays nearby.
Next to the bed was a tablet from which you could order pizza, gelato, salad or beverages. You could also request items such as a crib, more towels or a blanket without picking up the phone. The tablet featured a chat option with hotel staff and the ability to sign onto your own Netflix or Prime Video accounts and then display those shows and movies on the in-room TV. Wi-Fi was strong and free of charge.
The first part of the room was more than fine for a value-oriented hotel, but what came next was what got me really excited for families. The second part of the suite was sectioned off by a three-quarters wall and a curtain you could open or close to fully section off the final quarter of the space. Behind that wall was the best hotel invention ever, a kids room within a suite.
This smaller room within the suite had two twin beds and its own TV. It wasn’t a true separate room with a door, but rather a semi-private space removed from the main living area. There you could (theoretically) put the kids to bed, shut the curtain and still stay up past 9:00pm! (I didn’t bring kids this time.)
Beyond the children’s sleeping area was a third small space that was a total surprise to me. It had a third TV and a small couch that pulled out to a little bed.
This area would also be a great place to put a crib, if needed. Or you could just use it as a play space for your kids and not junk up the main portion of the suite with all their trinkets and crumbs.
The bathroom in the Aventura Kid Suite was equally as intelligently designed, with a double vanity, bathtub, a separate shower and a room for the toilet. As long as you’re all (very) comfortable with each other, multiple family members could be doing various bathroom-related tasks at the same time.
Considering the kids suite was just 575 square feet, I was completely impressed with how designers used the space. This should be the standard for how hotels use affordably priced suites to actually meet the needs of families rather than simply providing a larger space that still only has one real bed.
On a minor but somewhat less positive note, I was not a raving fan of the bedding in the suite. The bed and pillows were comfortable enough, but the comforter was stiff. Going up a notch on sheet quality wouldn’t have been the worst decision, either. In contrast, the towels were softer and thicker than I would have expected.
A final note about the room: There was a dorm-sized fridge with no minibar items clogging up the space, so it was all ours to use as we wished.
Food and Beverage
The Aventura Hotel at Universal Studios did not have a traditional sit-down restaurant or a full room-service menu. Honestly, it really didn’t need that. The Urban Pantry food court had multiple unique ordering areas with something to please everyone from a macaroni-eating toddler to a 20-something hipster who somehow found themselves at a theme-park hotel.
My favorite space in the Urban Pantry was the area for sushi, poke and noodles. I tried, and loved, the tuna poke that rang in at about $10 and was good to the last grain of rice. It wasn’t the best poke on the planet, but it was certainly the best I’ve ever had at a theme-park hotel. In fact, it was the only poke I’ve ever seen at a theme-park hotel.
On my next visit, I’ll try out the noodle bar where you can choose your noodles, vegetables and protein for $15 and then select whether you would like the ingredients stir-fried or served in a broth.
There was a burger station with grab-and-go burgers and fries, or you could order from the menu for a fresh batch.
There was also a pizza station, gelato station and a carving section with options such as rotisserie chicken, macaroni and cheese, Brussels sprouts and roasted cauliflower. Prices ranged from $10 to $15 for an entree at the Urban Pantry.
Urban Pantry’s breakfast included breakfast sandwiches, waffles, eggs, bacon, ham, biscuits, pastries, yogurt parfaits and a variety of other am favorites.
On the lobby level was also a full-service Starbucks that accepted payment via the Starbucks app and Starbucks gift cards but did not accept mobile orders yet.
The room-service menu at Universal’s Aventura was limited, consisting of salad, pizza, gelato and cookies that you could order from the tablet. I ordered gelato via the tablet at about 10:00pm, mostly to test how the process worked. OK, and to eat the gelato. It was 11:30pm before it arrived, as they were reportedly “very busy,” and that delivery only occurred after I followed up via chat about an hour after the order was placed. On the plus side, there were no mark-ups for room service other than the tip. That meant no delivery fees, no included gratuity fees or anything extra, just a $6 pint of chocolate gelato plus tip at my discretion.
Almost 90 minutes to get a pint of ice cream to come up nine floors was a little excessive, but I was a big fan of the reasonable room-service prices! Other Aventura room service prices ranged from $4 for a cookie bag to $15 for an adult-sized pizza.
Starting at 4:00pm, guests could head up to Bar 17 Bistro and take in the 360-degree view of Orlando while ordering cocktails and bistro bites. Children were allowed, as long as they were accompanied by an adult. Beer was $6 to $8, and cocktails were about $14.
I can personally vouch for the Dew Point Hooligan cocktail, made with sake, club soda, simple syrup, lemon juice, cucumber and raspberry. It was light and refreshing but also packed a little bit of a punch. Fun fact: My beverage also had the distinction of being the first drink served at the rooftop Bar 17 Bistro on opening day.
I didn’t try the food at Bar 17 Bistro on this trip, but the menu included $7 rice and noodles dishes, a $10 beet-and-fig salad, $12 bao plates (for three buns) and $18 wagyu sliders.
The wind blew consistently on the open-air 17th floor, but the menus were printed on paper that kept blowing away, so I hope that heavier menus are in the works. Otherwise, a rooftop bar at a hotel in this sort of location is an unexpected and very grown-up treat.
Universal’s Aventura Hotel had an outdoor pool and a splash pad, but the pool area was tame by theme-park standards. There were attentive lifeguards, but the pool was on the smaller side, with no slides, toys or much of anything beyond refreshing water to swim around in.
The pool area itself was also pretty minimal in foliage or decor, so it didn’t feel like you were in any type of tropical oasis, as you might at Volcano Bay. There were a few palm trees, but that was the extent of the pool’s surroundings.
In short, there was a pool that your kids will probably enjoy because kids like pools, but don’t come here expecting an over-the-top pool experience. Adults, take note of the outdoor bar near the pool area as well as the neighboring fire pit.
On the second level of the Aventura Hotel was a nice gym and, more interestingly, a virtual-reality game room.
I only peeked into the VR room, but there was what looked like a cash register, so I’m assuming these games come with a pay-to-play fee just as games in a traditional arcade do. The VR room was open in the evenings and was staffed by a knowledgeable and friendly staff gamer who did her best to convince me to put on a headset and start playing.
While not an amenity per se, staying at the Aventura Hotel enabled you to get into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Volcano Bay one hour before the parks’ scheduled opening. However, staying here did not get you Express Passes, a perk reserved for the three Universal Premier hotels, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
Universal’s new Aventura Hotel is a hotel within a theme-park resort, but it’s far from your typical theme-park hotel. It’s an interesting blend of sleek and sophisticated, but in a budget-friendly and accessible way. It’s not a hotel designed just for kids, but it is one where kids could certainly stay and have a good time.
At the Aventura Hotel, you’ll find an emphasis on technology and staying connected, with strong and complimentary Wi-Fi, the VR game room, in-room tablet ordering and various charging devices sprinkled throughout the property. I mean, if you don’t post about your Universal Studios vacation on social media, did it really happen?
The Kids Suite, in particular, is a real slam dunk for families. The only problem I’ve found with the suite is availability, as there are many dates where this room type is sold out. Book well in advance if you want to stay in a suite that sleeps up to five in three different defined spaces that are separate, but not too separate.
From a location perspective, the Aventura Hotel is not in as great a spot as the Loews Royal Pacific that we stayed in last month, but keep in mind that Universal Studios is a more compact place than Disney World. This means even the furthest-out hotel isn’t really all that far from where you want to go.
My biggest barrier to booking the Aventura for our own next Universal Studios trip will be that staying here doesn’t get you Express Passes, which are extremely pricey for a family of four to buy a la carte.
That isn’t a fault of the hotel but rather a booking strategy we like to employ. I enjoyed my stay at the Aventura Hotel more than the pricier (and older) nearby Royal Pacific, so if Express Passes and a smaller pool aren’t major issues for you, I’d likely pick this new property over the older and pricier one. There are some new-hotel kinks to work out, but if you want to stay at a new and reasonably priced hotel near the Universal Orlando theme parks in a property that doesn’t feel like a theme-park hotel, the Aventura may be the new spot for you.
All photos by Summer Hull / The Points Guy
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