Sapphire Falls: Universal Orlando's newest hotel

You can't spend the night in Hogwarts Castle. But with attendance surging at Universal Orlando thanks to Harry Potter's Wizarding World and other recent additions, more muggles want to stay at the theme park resort's on-property hotels. With the opening of Sapphire Falls in July, there are now five places to relax and recharge after a day of casting spells and riding roller coasters.

The new, 1,000-room hotel has a delightful tropical vibe. Unlike the neighboring Royal Pacific, which takes its tropical inspiration from the South Seas, Sapphire Falls is themed to the Caribbean. Cascading waterfalls greet visitors at the hotel's main entrance as well as at the backside where water taxis shuttle guests to and from Universal's CityWalk complex and its two theme parks.

A large earth-toned chandelier dominates the lobby's high ceiling. A huge pool (the biggest among Universal's hotels), generously appointed fitness center, full-service restaurant, and other amenities are located beneath the lobby. Guests could use an elevator to reach the lower levels or take a spiral staircase in a striking, stone-lined turret. Displayed on the staircase's walls are photos of some of the Caribbean locales that inspired Sapphire Falls' designers. According to Barb Bowden, managing director of the hotel, Dunn's River Falls in Jamaica informed the hotel's namesake falls.

Standard guest rooms, most of which include two queen beds, are comfortable but not especially large. Muted pastels help give them an airy look and feel. In the room I viewed, there was a stall shower, but no tub.

Among Sapphire Falls' high points are its restaurants. They embrace the flavors – especially the fiery spices – of the Caribbean. The full-service Amatista Cookhouse serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and features flatbreads with intriguing toppings such as jerked chicken and coffee-roasted pork. Other entrees include mojo-marinated rotisserie chicken. The tasty conch chowder and grilled pineapple salad I tried both had a surprising and pleasing kick to them. Prices are moderate with flatbreads starting at $12.

The Strong Water Tavern offers 75 different brands of rum and a variety of rum-infused cocktails. The signature Strong Water Grog includes cinnamon, orange, allspice, and nutmeg. While imbibing, patrons can share tapas-style small plates such as a variety of ceviche, Ropa Vieja (shredded beef in a yummy tomato and sofrito sauce) and other Cuban dishes, plantain and beef hash from Colombia, and sweet indulgences like chocolate bread pudding. After one visit, Strong Water Tavern immediately vaulted onto my list of favorite theme park eateries in Florida.

Even the hotel's quick-serve New Dutch Trading Co. playfully incorporates the tastes of the Caribbean. It offers more standard grab-and-go fare, but also features "hot pot" items such as tropical braised pork as well as beans and rice.

Like the destination theme park resort's four other lodging options, Loews Hotels operates Sapphire Falls. Along with Royal Pacific, Universal positions the new property as a "Preferred" hotel. In terms of price and amenities, it occupies a middle ground behind the costlier and ritzier "Premier" options, Hard Rock Hotel and Portofino Bay, and ahead of the "Prime Value" Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

Within categories, Universal and Loews allows for some differentiation. Just as Portofino Bay has a few degrees more ritz than the Hard Rock, the Royal Pacific takes the preferred edge over Sapphire Falls. Its common areas are more lush and detailed, for example, and its prices are higher for comparable accommodations.

One of the biggest differences between Universal's two Preferred hotels is that guests staying at the Royal Pacific receive Universal Express, which allows them unlimited line-skipping privileges on most of the theme parks' attractions. (Notable exceptions include the hugely popular Potter rides. But guests staying at all of Universal's hotels, including Sapphire Falls, gain early park admission to The Wizarding World and can beat the crowds.)

Why doesn't Sapphire Falls offer Express passes? "It's about giving our guests more choices and flexibility," Bowden says. So, if you're considering Universal's two preferred hotels, which choice would be the better deal? That depends. During the busier seasons, when huge crowds jam the parks and wait times for attractions can swell to an hour or more, the Royal Pacific's front-of-the-line passes can be a regal benefit.

Sapphire Falls' guests (as well as the general public) could purchase Universal Express passes a la carte. Two-park passes start at $85 per person (above the cost of regular admission to the theme parks) and cost more during peak periods. During slower seasons, such as early December, the regular lines aren't all that bad, and Express passes would only shave off a bit of wait time.

In general then, the lower room rates at Sapphire Falls would offer better value during the off-season, whereas the complimentary Express passes at Royal Pacific would more than offset its higher rates during busier seasons. Since variables include the time of year you would want to visit and the number of people in your room, you might want to run the numbers.

One of the benefits of staying at Universal Orlando compared to the sprawling Disney World is that it is often quicker and easier to get around the more compact resort. In addition to the complementary water taxis and shuttle busses, guests staying at Sapphire Falls can walk to the parks, the other hotels, and CityWalk using the resort's lovely Garden Path (my preferred mode of transportation at Universal). After staring down Lord Voldemort, you'd only be a short stroll away from a pina colada at the hotel's Strong Water Tavern.

USA TODAY


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