Recently my mother and I returned from a 4 night stay in Orlando, Florida. It was very similar to a trip we took last December and turned out to be just as much fun this time around. As keen collectors of points and miles, this trip was planned with a little more complexity than it otherwise would have been. Several different loyalty currencies were involved and we flew on 2 airlines and stayed at 3 different hotels over the 4 nights. Having now stayed at various hotels in the area, I’d like to try to shed some light on the choices available when selecting accommodation for a Universal trip.
Universal Orlando Tickets – Upgrading to a Seasonal Annual Pass
I’ll start with the motivation for the trip – our passes to Universal. Last year we redeemed Air Miles for 3 Day Park-to-Park tickets. At the end of our trip we upgraded to the lowest level of annual pass, the Seasonal Pass. The cost was only around $30 USD per person and a promotion at the time meant our passes would be valid until March 18, 2020. We had reserved our Universal hotel with an annual pass discount, so, according to the booking terms, at least one of us was required to upgrade our ticket to qualify for the lower rate, although we were never asked to show it.
To get a further look at the pursuit of the Universal annual pass hotel discount, check out out a previous blog post here.
Deluxe Universal Hotels – Unlimited Express Passes Included
The biggest perk of staying at one of the 3 deluxe onsite hotels in the “Premier” category is included unlimited express passes from the day of check-in till the day of check-out. When you factor in the cost of the express passes, it makes the room rate an especially good deal. The cheapest express pass (limited – once per ride) starts at $69 USD and goes up from there depending on the date. All of the deluxe hotels have water taxi access to the parks which is a nice feature as well.
I want to emphasize that the value of the express pass really depends on the crowd level at the parks on the day you visit. Some rides tend to have relatively long lines perpetually so the pass will always come in handy, but there are others that will have very short waits or be walk-ons during slower times of the year. There are also a few rides where you will miss out on some of the story elements of the queue when you use the express line. Overall, it’s really nice to have express but if we had paid for it separately it would have seemed quite overpriced in early to mid-December, in my opinion.
We booked the 2 middle nights of our trip at the Royal Pacific Resort ($184 USD) which is usually the least expensive of the 3 deluxe/premier hotels. That gave us unlimited express passes for all 3 days. So we needed lodging for our first and last nights. We chose hotels that are walking distance to Universal and made sure to pack light, as we always do, to make the transfers easy.
DoubleTree by Hilton At The Entrance To Universal – Hilton Honors
This hotel is made up of two connected buildings. I remember seeing these towers way back during our first trip to Orlando in the mid-80s when we stayed at the long departed Delta Court of Flags nearby. If you’ve been around the Kirkman Rd, Major Blvd intersection after dark while in Orlando you will likely recognize the green outlines of the buildings.
We had originally booked with Hilton Honors points but when the rate dropped we decided it was a poor value and switched to a paid booking. I monitored the rate and noticed a further decrease so we re-booked at the new lower rate of $94 USD.
Hilton Gold status from the Amex Platinum credit card meant free breakfast which otherwise would have been $22 USD per person so not something we would have sprung for. The breakfast was excellent but not really worth the price, in my opinion. There’s a Walgreen’s nearby where you can buy snacks for breakfast. Or maybe save those complimentary Doubletree cookies from check-in.
On the points front, we were able to combine the Hilton “Power Up” double points promo with a targeted promotion that awarded 5000 points on the first stay after registering.
We had no issues whatsoever with the hotel or the room and would happily return.
Holiday Inn & Suites Across From Universal – IHG Rewards
Our last night was at the Holiday Inn directly across from the DoubleTree. A downside to this hotel is the extra busy street one must cross to reach it walking to or from Universal. The rate was $88 USD. It has an onsite TGIFriday’s restaurant where breakfast was in the range of $15, so much cheaper than over at the Doubletree but we didn’t try it so I can’t comment on quality.
I was targeted for a good IHG Rewards Accelerate promo which meant this stay resulted in a nice point total for completing one set of tasks. Another IHG promo that stacks with Accelerate added an extra bonus so I came away with about 20,000 IHG points that I will hopefully be able to use for 2 free nights in the future on a PointBreaks stay.
The room was large and clean but quite well-worn. Our room at this hotel 3 years ago was in much better condition. It was fine for one night but it felt like a notch below the Doubletree for sure.
Trips Past – Best Western Universal Inn and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Nearest Universal
Last year we stayed at the Best Western Universal Inn during a great point redemption promotion. The room was quite dated but clean and fine for our purpose. Breakfast was complimentary and satisfactory. It’s not too much farther away than the DoubleTree. I’d stay again if the rate was super low.
Three years ago we stayed one night at the Holiday Inn Express located a bit further away despite it having “Nearest Universal” in the name. It has been renovated since we stayed and if memory serves, it desperately needed it. I expect it now beats out the Holiday Inn in quality of the room and it of course includes the standard Holiday Inn Express free breakfast. The downside is the extra distance from Universal. I wouldn’t choose it again on this basis.
Flight Halifax to Orlando – Amex Platinum Travel Credit
We booked our outbound flight well in advance this time. Both Air Canada and WestJet had non-stop flights but Air Canada was cheaper so we locked it in and booked it through Amex Travel to make use of the $200 travel credit that came with the Amex Platinum.
Flight Orlando to Halifax – WestJet Member Exclusive Fare
Our flight home was booked on WestJet member exclusive fares which are often a great deal for flights within North America. I wrote about this decision here. The fare later dropped and made me sort of regret not saving those WestJet dollars for a future more expensive flight when the member exclusive fare would represent a bigger savings. However, we were pleased to lock in a good deal on the only non-stop available on our return date.
Which Offsite Hotel Wins?
We’ve now stayed at 4 of the hotels that are relatively close to Universal Studios Orlando. In order of proximity: the DoubleTree, the Holiday Inn, the Best Western and the Holiday Inn Express. For me, the Doubletree is the clear winner in terms of both the standard of accommodation and location. It may cost a bit more depending on the dates, but if it’s within reasonable range of the other 3, then it’s a great deal.
Although there is now a pedestrian walkway over busy Kirkman Rd, it was not yet in use when we were there. I assume it will open soon which means those who hate crossing that very wide busy street can breathe a little easier.
All of these hotels have transportation to Universal available but we like the freedom to just walk there whenever we feel like it. It’s a nice pathway that takes you to the valet entrance to CityWalk so there is never much of a line for security. I’d say it’s about a 15-20 minute walk to the park entrance depending on your speed. We found it quite manageable to come back to the hotel for a rest mid-day. There are a few restaurants nearby including a Miller’s Ale House and a great little Mexican place called Border Grill.
There is a stop nearby for the I-Ride trolley but it’s actually walking distance to the Orlando Premium Outlets if you’d like to do some shopping. It’s only one stop away on the trolley/bus and they don’t come along very frequently but you can check the app for schedule info. Tickets for seniors are only a quarter. Although not many tourists appear to use it, we’ve taken regular bus transit in the area as well.
My mother and I have now enjoyed 3 short getaways to Universal Orlando with a bit of shopping thrown in and it’s been a wonderful experience each time. This trip included a ride on the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure attraction which was fantastic. Even just soaking in some nice weather is a treat when it’s snowing back home.
Hotel hopping is not for everyone. If you like to settle in, unpack and not go through the check in/out procedure multiple times, then it obviously won’t appeal to you. I’ve done it on a few trips to various places when the reward is worth the effort. This time it gave us the opportunity to capitalize on a good rate at a deluxe onsite hotel with its included perks along with scoring some Hilton and IHG points. That being said, I’m sure I’d be quite happy to stay at the DoubleTree for the whole time on a future trip. Mom agrees.