The New Loews Sapphire Falls at Universal Resorts
The hotel-within-a-theme-park model has hit a spike in growth and competition levels in recent years, and it’s easy see why. One stop allows you and your family to enjoy the amenities (and luxury) of a hotel vacation while easily being able to explore the nearest theme parks all day long, even into the night.
The newest offering from Universal Resorts in Orlando, The Loews Sapphire Falls, takes this convenience to a new level by offering an extremely well-managed, amenity-rich, and beautifully designed hotel with restaurants, just steps from the Universal theme parks.
Photo courtesy of Loews Sapphire Falls
The décor of Sapphire Falls is a real standout compared to that at other hotel options in the Orlando marketplace. Tagged as "Caribbean-themed" the design feels much more like St. Barts than the Bahamas. Modern, sophisticated furnishings like cocoon chairs and an enormous hanging straw lantern (which took 60 days to build) welcome guests into the expansive lobby.
The 1,000 guest rooms feature Hawaiian-esque photos and beautifully tiled floors. Amenities such as 300-thread-count linens, smart room technology, complimentary internet access, mini-refrigerators, and great views add to the luxe experience. The kids suite, offering a king bed and two twin beds in a separate (but connected) bedroom, is an excellent choice for families.
Photo courtesy of Loews Sapphire Falls
The property's pool is more than just an add-on. This 16,000 square foot outdoor oasis is a striking feature of the property. Surrounded by cascading waterfalls, the sprawling pool includes two sand areas, a children’s play spot with pop-up jets, a huge hot tub, a waterslide, and a fire pit — together offering hours of outdoor fun. There’s also a game room, in case your trip happens to be hit with not-so-wonderful weather (it’s Florida, it happens).
The dining options here are a nice mix of high and low cost, all presenting respectable menus with unique offerings. The largest of the three, Amatista Cookhouse, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (note: they have a gorgeous weekend brunch). The Caribbean-inspired restaurant features an open kitchen, high ceilings, loads of seating both indoor and outdoor and regional cuisine. The standout dish by far is their signature mojo-marinated rotisserie chicken,definitely not to be missed.
Also on-property is Strong Water Tavern, a serious rum bar with tapas and large-screen televisions. Diners are met by rum specialists — who, incidentally, really do know their stuff — and are guided through a tasting (they have 75 rums) or assisted with a cocktail selection (if punch is your thing, go for the O Captain! My Captain! with Matusalem Platino, Bénédictine, apricot, and oleo saccharum). The staff's knowledge is truly impressive, and the history of rum makes for some fascinating storytelling.
Photo courtesy of Loews Sapphire Falls
The large dining room, ceviche bar, and patio with a fire pit offer a variety of settings for different groups. The menu offers an assortment of dishes from various Caribbean and South American nations including varieties of ceviche options and foods from regions such as Little Havana, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Jamaica. For a restaurant in the middle of a theme park, in the middle of Florida, the Caribbean cooking is truly impressive. The fish tacos were great, the sweet plantains and beef hash were hearty and unique, the jerk chicken was perfectly spicy and the empanadas were definitely worth the try — and this is coming from someone who knows a thing or two about good empanadas, being from Miami where they’re sold on every street corner.
Drhum Club Kantine at the pool offers everything one would need for a midday lunch or afternoon snack: nachos, wings, salads, cocktails, while the New Dutch Trading Co. is perfect for grab-and-go breakfasts, snacks, ice cream, and provisions.
From the hotel, guests can walk or take a complimentary bus or water taxi to the two Universal parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Best of all, hotel guests are given the opportunity to enjoy early park admission an hour before the park opens to the public. Be sure to take advantage of this, especially at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter where lines can become overwhelmingly long as the day unfolds.
Photo courtesy of Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
CityWalk, Universal's collection of themed restaurants, is located directly at the entrance (or exit, depending on your direction) from the parks. Their newest outpost, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen, is clearly meant to conjure up the Harry Potter feel, though it is not directly branded as such. Any chocolate-lover’s dream come true is this nineteenth-century Steampunk-themed dining experience with a charming backstory and roaming characters -— Penelope and her trusty robot companion Jacques. While the idea of everything chocolate may not be everyone's cup of tea, the restaurant actually handles the concept with admirable restraint. For instance, the chocolate bread served to start the meal is surprisingly balanced with only a hint of chocolate coming through aromatically, while the addition of pumpernickel gives it a nice brown color without too sweet a taste. On the same note, the delicious, chocolate glazed wings are tasty on their own and satisfy both sweet and savory cravings. Since traditional wing sauce is quite sugar-heavy to begin with, offering a chocolate option does nothing to disrupt the expected flavor profile. The same goes for the pork belly sliders with pretzel bun and chocolate covered bacon. If you’re sick of chocolate by this point, remove the bacon; the sliders are great on their own. The nacho kettle chips with pork are not chocolaty, but are an excellently salty starter, as are the Brussels sprouts. Obviously, there is an incredible dessert selection to choose from, including a huge list of milkshake flavors like red velvet and Key lime pie. Additionally, the bakery downstairs is outfitted with glass windows so guests can watch cookie making and milkshake preparations. Service here is very quick and very friendly. After waiting the initial line to enter, plan to be in and out lickety-split.
The Universal parks themselves are a much less overwhelming and a more manageable experience than their Disney counterparts. The obvious standout destination is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is split between both parks with Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hosmeade in Islands of Adventure, connected by the Hogwarts Express. These spot-on “lands” are an absolutely magical experience for even the most casual Potter fan, and a fun escapade regardless of your Potter knowledge. The newly opened “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon” is hilarious, and fun go-to as well.
Dining in the park includes the usual offerings, with some adorable Harry Potter-themed stops along the way such as Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. If a simple, satisfying meal is what you seek, head to Mythos, the park's award-winning global restaurant located in Islands of Adventure. In the midst of the "craggy grotto," surrounded by waterfalls, is a dining experience that well exceeds typical theme park fare. Everything from mezze to meatballs to pad Thai to salmon provide a nice departure from the chicken nuggets and pizza that have likely taken over most of your park meals. The chef’s signature Greek salad is a particularly welcome infusion of vegetables with lettuce, diced tomatoes, red onions, Kalamata olives, feta crackers, herb-lemon vinaigrette, and shaved marinated feta grilled chicken.
With the holidays past us, now is an excellent time to hit Universal and stay at Sapphire Falls. Theme park days can be exhausting, but heading to a clean, calm, luxurious home-away-from-home is a really nice break from the mundane. The hotel consistently has affordable deals around the $200 mark, and in summer is especially well priced. That also happens to be when Universal's new 28-acre water park, Volcano Bay, is set to open, so mark it on your calendars!