Dani’s Best Week Ever July 21, 2016: Loews Sapphire Falls at Universal Orlando

Summer is in full swing and it seems every week there is something new opening at one of Orlando’s theme parks. Among the latest places to open in Orlando this week, we have Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando and over at Disney Springs there is Homecoming Florida Kitchen. Originally my week, and weekend, was supposed to be much different than it turned out to be. Some of it for the better, and some of it, well… not so much.

A spur of the moment opportunity early in the week lead me to a place that has been on my Florida bucket list for nearly a year: the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Hollywood Beach, FL is about a three hour drive Southeast of Orlando. If you are a fan of relaxation and have time for a side trip, I recommend a night or two in this Parrothead paradise. I did not get to do much relaxation since I was “working” during the trip, thus I can’t wait to go back and really soak up the sun here. If it is any indication of the resort that will opening next year here in Orlando, well, we are in for a treat!

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Nadirah Shakoor (a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band) performs at Margaritaville Beach Resort
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Radio Margaritaville’s JD Spradlin hosts a dance party and concert at Margaritaville Beach Resort

Sapphire Falls Resort

Despite a tiring trip to Hollywood Beach, and some challenging news on the home front, I was able to make the most of a Sunday afternoon and explore Universal’s newest resort. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is another game changer for Universal Orlando.

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I love hotels. It’s what I do for a living. A really good hotel, no matter the category, can transform guests, making them feel refreshed and taken care of. Loews Sapphire Falls is one of the largest hotels in Orlando, with 1,000 guest rooms. This is on par with other large resorts in the area that primarily cater to groups.

The curb appeal of Sapphire Falls is strong. Water cascades down the front entrance sign. The porte cochere is a round-about with more water flowing in the center island, with an impressive collection of palm trees, lush foliage, and even a tropical banyan tree.

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As I arrived I parked in the self parking garage. Currently there is no need for a ticket to get in and out of the parking garage and thus no charge for parking, however, it is unclear how long this will last because self parking is currently listed as $20.00. As I walked up to the lobby I noticed a pick up truck pull into the front drive with a Hertz Rental Car sign resting in the bed of the truck. It was a literal sign that the finishing touches are still be implemented here.

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Once inside, I observed how large and expansive the space is, a very casual space. The first center piece is the large light fixture that resembles a fun collection of beach balls. To the left, a long front desk with a tropical scene as the backdrop. To the right, the quick and casual eatery, Dutch Trading Company, and the Universal Studios Store. The theme here is islands of the Caribbean and it comes on pretty strong.

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My first impressions is that Sapphire Falls falls perfectly in between Cabana Bay and the Premier Hotels (Portofino Bay and Hard Rock Hotel). It is a step up from Cabana Bay, but there are plenty of elements that do not quite elevate to the point of Royal Pacific, yet it is in the same category as Royal Pacific. These two hotels are essentially considered one “complex” and are known as “Preferred Hotels.”

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The furniture, the pictures, and the fixtures do not feel quite as refined and exotic as Royal Pacific. Rather than paintings, the walls are adorned with large photos that resemble stock photos that come standard on Windows 8 for desktop backgrounds. Instead of a beautiful water feature to gaze at, the lobby has a large video wall. This same video wall is also in the Strong Water Tavern. This feels out of place to me, but then again this hotel will focus primarily on groups and conventions and being able to stay up to date on news and sporting events is important for this demographic.

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There are some breathtaking views of the pool, lagoon, and the two Universal Orlando theme parks. The back portion of the lobby has a floor to ceiling window that frames up some of Islands of Adventure’s skyline beautifully. Next to the front desk another large window overlooks the winding, curvy pool (the largest of the Universal Orlando hotels).

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After scoping out the lobby I headed into Strong Water Tavern. I had enjoyed a rum tasting experience here a few nights ago, but did not really have a chance to look at the decor and details. I find it interesting that this lounge, with a great menu of drinks and food, does not open until 4:00 PM, but the seating area is open in the early afternoon. I observed a few families hanging out, overflow from the lobby.

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I noticed the large amount of empty Strong Water rum bottles that lined shelves throughout the lounge. This house rum is made exclusively for Sapphire Falls. I tried to determine the name of the distillery responsible for producing this exclusive rum, but was unable to confirm this information. I wonder if by chance Terressentia, the folks that make Fire Whisky for Universal, also make this rum. It is $9.00 plus tax on its own, and can be found in many of the mixed drinks throughout the resort.

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Since the tavern wasn’t open for business just yet I decided to head out to the pool and check out the pool bar. Dhrum Club is located on the back side of the pool area. The bar itself is tucked inside what resembles the remnants of a stone fort. There are additional tables and chairs to the side where you can order food and drinks from a server. As I walked out along the pool area, I enjoyed seeing the recreation area being utilized by some guests. Further along the walkway the beauty of the waterfall overlook area caught by eye.

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Something wasn’t quite right. The sun shined bright, the skies a lovely sapphire blue, yet there was no one in the pool. In the distance I heard thunder. A storm was within close enough range to signal for pool closure. It is quite an intriguing sight to see a brand new pool with no one in it.

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I made my way over to the Dhrum Club Katine, and found one vacant bar stool. Thankfully I came prepared and plopped down a souvenir cup from the Hard Rock Hotel. Why would I do such a thing you ask? Because any souvenir cup from any of the Preferred or Premier level hotels’ pool bars can be used to receive the refill price on mixed drinks at the rest of the participating pool bars. Without the cup drinks are $15 plus tax and 18% service / gratuity. With the cup it is $10 plus tax and 18% service charge.

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I’ve been gravitating toward grapefruit flavored drinks as of late, so the Grapefruit Rum Rita caught my eye. Plus, it is made with the Strong Water Rum, so I wanted to give it a try. The creme de pamplemousse is a grapefruit flavored liqueur. The sweet & sour mix overpowered the other flavors, unfortunately. It was difficult to really taste the rum and the grapefruit. I ordered Vegetarian Empanadas, but as I waited for them to arrive from the kitchen the storm moved in closer. Everyone was asked to vacate the pool desk. My empanadas arrived in a to-go box and so it became my mission to find a decent seating place inside. No such luck. I decided to simply chow down whilst standing in the lobby.

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Eating in the lobby wasn’t too comfortable, but I made due. The Vegetarian Empanadas are $9.00 plus tax, and the 18% service charge. The serving size is decent, three slightly large empanadas with a cilantro garlic sauce (which I quickly found out can cause some bad breath, just FYI). They are filled with black beans, corn, red bell pepper, cheese, and I am pretty sure diced yucca. Overall a nice choice.

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After enjoying my light meal and margarita it neared time for me to hit the road, but I wanted one final round of exploring. I headed back to the spiral staircase just off the lobby. This is the way to the pool, recreation area, and Amatista restaurant. This staircase is quite the eye catcher. It reminds me of stone forts and castillos found in the Caribbean, such as Old San Juan. At the bottom of the staircase are some barrels and a large pot, looks to be some of the tools for making and storing rum. I found the guest room hallway just off the stairs’ landing to be a stark contrast to the feel of this stairwell.

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And perhaps that’s really what my first impression of Sapphire Falls is all about: contrast. There are moments of well executed theme and detail. Then there are moments when it really feels like a hotel, as a opposed to a themed resort. I believe this resort fits nicely in the current portfolio of on-site hotels at Universal Orlando. It may not be my pick for best ever, but it certainly presents another wonderful place to spend some time at Orlando’s most exciting theme park destination.

Dani

Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams come true, Dani has always had a passion for tourism and hospitality. She is a proud Orlando Native who loves sharing her hometown with others. With work experience in six of Orlando's theme parks, she now works in the world of hotels. Follow her adventures on Twitter @thisfloridalife

12 thoughts on “Dani’s Best Week Ever July 21, 2016: Loews Sapphire Falls at Universal Orlando

  • July 22, 2016 at 9:06 am
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    We have booked two rooms at Sapphire Falls in September – I didn’t feel the WOW factor when I read your article – I hope I am not going to be too disappointed 🙁

    • July 22, 2016 at 9:10 am
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      Hi Ruth, I am sure you will ensure Sapphire Falls. It is a nice resort and does have some great amenities. It may not be as immersive as Royal Pacific or Portofino Bay, but it has some great features. Have you stayed on-site before?

      • July 22, 2016 at 12:32 pm
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        I have stayed in several Disney resorts but this is the first time we have booked a Universal Resort.

  • July 22, 2016 at 9:55 am
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    The term “game changer” seems to get thrown around a lot… but I fail to see why Sapphire Falls is a game changer. It seems like a fairly generic hotel with some moments of good theming.

    Unless you mean the included gratuity on what is essentially counter service is a game changer.. but that’s not a change I want to see bleeding into the theme parks.

    • July 22, 2016 at 10:03 am
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      Hi Lisa, thanks for reading and for taking the time to add your comment. When I used the term “game changer” I was referring to a few things. 1) This is the first time a hotel has been added to Universal Orlando that is considered part of a complex. The GM oversees both Sapphire Falls and Royal Pacific. 2) It is the largest hotel at Universal. 3) It has the most amount of meeting space / largest ballroom at Universal. 4) It is considered a “Preferred” category hotel, same category as Royal Pacific, yet it really feels to me like a perfect “in between” of Cabana Bay and Royal Pacific.
      The 18% service charge has been at play at the Universal Orlando pool bars for quite a long time. I believe one of the purposes it serves is to help the poolside wait staff and bartenders earn tips since tipping is not common practice in many parts of the world that many Universal Orlando hotel guests hail from. Such a practice is definitely a topic that generates much debate. Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • July 22, 2016 at 10:44 am
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    Thanks for the review Dani. Couple questions…

    1. What time does the rum bar open?….is it somewhere we could go for lunch?

    2. I see on their site that pets are allowed….please tell me that they have separated rooms/wings for those people that feel the need to bring their animals? I can’t imagine that a “preferred” hotel would allow animals in all rooms. If that is the case, we would never stay there, and I would imagine the property going downhill fast.

    • July 22, 2016 at 10:51 am
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      Hi Keith,
      Strong Water Tavern currently opens at 4:00 PM

      All Loews Hotels nationwide are pet friendly. I am not sure of their operational practice, but considering this is a major differentiation for Loews Hotels, a feature they are proud to offer, I would feel confident in saying I am sure they have a solid operation practice when it comes to pet friendly rooms and wings.

      I’ve stayed at three Loews Hotels, including at Universal and elsewhere, and although I am a pet owner who has considered bringing along my pet, I have not done so. Therefore I have experience in staying in regular rooms at Loews Hotels and had no cause for concern in doing so.

      • July 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm
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        Thanks for the response….I was under the impression that Royal Pacific and Portofino Bay only allowed pets in designated wings. I guess I need to investigate further to see if they have changed that policy

  • July 22, 2016 at 3:47 pm
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    Am I the only one who thinks the lobby looks like a cafeteria? It looks like I’m standing on the upper floor of the land pavilion looking down at Sunshine Seasons. Great pool, cool staircase, nice landscaping, but that lobby needs work.

    • July 22, 2016 at 3:51 pm
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      Hi MeLissa,
      I do agree with you for the most part. The lobby really is the best example of how this resort is smack dab in between a “Prime Value” hotel and a “Preferred” hotel. I described the resort as being contrasting, and the lobby really is contrasting. Some elements are lovely and immersive, while other elements are simple and basic. It is a great resort, just very interesting to see the contrasting elements.

      • July 23, 2016 at 8:58 am
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        I am not impressed at all with the inside bits – the outside bits seem to be better. I am just hoping that it is better than it looks when I get there. The inside communal rooms look so basic. I have stayed at several Disney Resorts before ranging from the All Stars to the Grand Floridian and have enjoyed them all – I appreciate that Sapphire Falls is not a Premier Class Hotel – but if this a Preferred Hotel – what is it preferable to? What are Universal basic hotel like? I can’t comment because I haven’t been to one. Sorry if I appear negative – its just that I was looking forward to going – its not particularly cheap to stay there – and I was expecting something a bit more themed/special like I have been used to in Disney Hotels. Perhaps I need to get back into the Disney bubble lol.

  • July 23, 2016 at 9:10 am
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    Staying there for 2 nights at the end of October chose this hotel because it’s new and we are only utilizing it to relax between HHN tours and 2 nights of the event itself. Looking forward to seeing it! What type of transportation is there to the parks?

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