“Is that Harry’s room?” I asked my husband, pointing to the spires of Hogwarts Castle floating in the distance, where a few smaller towers could just be seen on the side of the largest one. He joined me at the window of our room at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort on the Universal Studios grounds in Orlando, nodding his assent.
If only I’d had a broomstick, I could have been over there in no time. Happily, as I could also see from the window, the resort offers its share of fun in the shape of a large swimming pool that even has its own small beach.
Families planning an Orlando visit that centers around Universal’s two theme parks (home to Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, for all you Harry Potter fans) should look no further than the resort’s onsite Loews hotels, which are not only convenient and comfortable but offer perks like early park admission.
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The Sapphire Falls Resort is Loews’ fifth and newest hotel at Universal Orlando. It opened in the summer of 2016, and while it’s not quite as high-end as the nearby Hard Rock, Royal Pacific or Portofino Bay properties, it offers plenty of style and amenities for a lower price.
When my son Teddy asked for a Harry Potter trip for his 11th birthday, I knew that a Loews stay would make his gift even more special — my family enjoyed a magical spring break several years ago at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego. Universal Orlando was kind enough to host me, Teddy, my husband Matt, and our 14-year-old son Tommy on a long weekend just after the Sapphire Falls opened in September 2016. We loved its low-key Caribbean vibe.
We stayed in a Kids’ Suite, which offered the perfect amount of both space and privacy. The large main bedroom had a king-sized bed; a smaller adjoining room (with no access to the hallway and thus no ambient noise) had two twins. Other kid-friendly room configurations include a selection of suites and guest rooms with two queen beds and a pull-out sofa.
Tommy and Teddy appreciated that they didn’t have to share a bed, as they often do during hotel stays. There was also no arguing over TV — we had two between the rooms, and free Internet for up to three devices.
I liked the stylish blue-and-white decor, which was reminiscent of both a ship and a cottage but had more space and storage than either. Two large dressers and a closet made it easy to keep things tidy. And getting up before dawn to head over to the theme parks was made much less painful by the Keurig coffeemaker in our room.
Our only complaint was that the sliding door separating the sink area from the toilet and tub didn’t quite close all the way, meaning bathroom time wasn’t totally private.
We were only in Orlando for a few days, and didn’t spend a lot of time in our room. But since we were going hard in the theme parks during our short visit, it was really nice to have a comfortable and quiet place to retreat when we needed some downtime.
Sapphire Falls offers several different dining options. We arrived at the resort on a Friday around dinnertime and decided to eat at Amatista Cookhouse, which serves Caribbean food. I was very happy to start off with one of the specialty cocktails, a margarita made with white rum — it was delicious, refreshing and quite strong.
We sampled widely from the menu and the food was all good, if sold at the expected resort prices (this was true across all the restaurants in the hotel). To start, Matt and I shared conch fritters and the boys had an order of empanadas. My snapper entrée came served on a bed of quinoa and cannellini beans and was perfectly cooked. Matt tried the grilled pineapple salad with shrimp.
The boys weren’t nearly so dainty in their choices. Tommy ordered a steak that came topped with a fried egg and chimichurri sauce, while Teddy had half a rotisserie chicken topped with a fragrant garlic and cilantro sauce. The portions were generous and the chicken included some fun sides like yucca and plantains, which Teddy had never tried before. And somehow, at the end, we found room for a bit of coconut flan.
Amatista also serves breakfast and lunch, but since we were at the theme parks early each morning, we never got to sample their other meal offerings. Instead we chose to grab breakfast sandwiches, pastries and coffee at the New Dutch Trading Company in the hotel lobby, which also sells cereal, yogurt and juice.
The Strong Water Tavern has tons of vintage rums, handmade cocktails and punches, and a yummy tapas menu — it’s a great place to sneak away from the kids and grab a snack and a drink between park time and dinnertime. And if you get hungry while your kids are enjoying the pool, the Drhum Club offers a full menu with items like grilled octopus salad and fish tacos, plus burgers and hot dogs.
All of the restaurants have their own personalities and design, from the open kitchen and bright walls of Amatista to the more cozy paneling of Strong Water and the plantation shutters at New Dutch Trading Company. The service was uniformly excellent and friendly.
The pool at Sapphire Falls is large and lush, with several sandy areas, a slide at one end, a hot tub and plenty of beach balls to play with. There are also numerous lifeguards on duty. My boys both had a great time hanging out there, although the deepest portion of the pool is only 4.5 feet, which put a bit of a limit on how much time they wanted to spend in the water. Of course, that didn’t matter so much when Tommy discovered the nearby table tennis and cornhole game.
The hotel’s public spaces are all really inviting: open, airy and full of bright colors and photographs. I never knew that a chandelier could be beachy, but the one in the Sapphire Falls main lobby can definitely be described that way.
One of the best things about staying at Sapphire Falls is how close it is to both of Universal Orlando’s two theme parks and the CityWalk area, home to numerous restaurants and shops. The resort offers boats that ferry guests from the hotel to all the attractions, which are grouped together. The boats go back and forth, often starting before the parks open and going well into the evening; the ride takes only about 10 minutes.
The one thing to bear in mind about the boats is that when the weather gets bad, as it does for a time almost every afternoon in the fall, they will stop running until the thunder and lightning have also stopped. That means you either have to walk back — there’s a pleasant, landscaped path the entire way, but it takes about 20 to 25 minutes — or ride a bus. These shuttles leave from the far side of the CityWalk and are less convenient and pleasant since they have to use the congested surface roads and also stop at more than one hotel. We didn’t enjoy riding the shuttle, so if you visit Orlando during the rainy season, I recommend coming prepared with umbrellas in your backpack and hoofing it if it rains.
We also got early park admission with our resort stay, which we took advantage of both days we were there. The parks open at 8, but we were able to get in at 7 with our room keys. I can’t stress enough how great this was, as it enabled us to walk right onto some of the more popular rides like Minion Rush and Escape from Gringotts without standing in line. And in addition to being less crowded, it’s also cooler and more pleasant earlier in the day.
The service and style at Sapphire Falls Resort may not have been magic (I didn’t spy any house elves there), but they definitely made for a comfortable and fun weekend for my family at Universal Orlando.
Editor’s Note: Universal Orlando provided a media package in order to facilitate our review. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Mara Gorman.
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