If you follow me on social media you know that last week I took my kiddos down to Florida and we spent a few days at Universal Studios. I read forums and blog post before I went, but I don’t feel like it really prepared me for the trip. I did find some useful hints (and I would attribute them if I could remember since I read soo many) that I will share here, but I feel like being a first timer to Universal (OK not first time, the last time was over 20 years ago though) I needed to share some tips that can help make your trip successful, fun, and maybe even save you some money in the process.
.Ok so I did a lot of homework on this subject. I mean like 3 months of going back and forth, and even switching reservations twice. Obviously your best bet price wise is to go in an off-season. This doesn’t always work for all of us, especially those of us with kids going into high school who can’t miss school for a week vacation. So when we go we are going during a very busy time – when prices are up, so some of this might not apply to off-season park visitors, but a lot of this will still resonate with you, just let me get there.
There are 2 types of trips to Universal.
Budget vs Complete Enjoyment
Here’s what I mean.
When you take budget vacations you take the cheap of the cheap. You stay at the cheapest hotel, you buy the cheapest tickets, you pack food and drinks and you come prepared for everything. I have taken lots of these vacations (I remember when we visited when I was 17; we ate continental free breakfast at our hotel, and we shared 1 pop between the 4 of us during our trip. We didn’t eat or get snacks, we left the park to go to McDonald’s for dinner and came back). If a budget trip is the only way you can afford to go here at all, then by all means, do it. It’s worth it. It’s just a lot of work to me.. Like a LOT and I’d rather go without my drive-thru coffee or lunches out for a few months and save to do the ‘complete enjoyment’ trip than the budget trip. But that’s just me.
A complete enjoyment trip to me is you really , for lack of a better word, easy. No need to worry about anything. You pick the time you want to travel and you book it. The end. There’s a few ways to do one of these trips – my recommendation is, if you can afford it, do it. Plan a year in advance like you do for Disney. Buy the tickets, stay at one of the premier on-site resorts so you can get an hour early admission and FREE EXPRESS PASS* (more about this later), buy the food pass (their dining plan) and just go freakin’ have fun with no worries. You’ve already paid for pretty much everything, so any additional money is for extra snacks, drinks, and souvenirs. When we go again ( probably 2 years from now) I will most definitely book one of their premier resorts again, but the one thing I would do differently is buy their dining plan. The park has all kinds of vacation packages and with the research I did, they are the cheapest. I visited all the sites, looked at booking everything separately supposedly getting better deals and that’s a big fat NO. So just book through the Universal website.
Today I looked at booking a 3 day trip to Universal for 2 adults, 2 jr’s and 1 child for next summer. The total cost for the hotel, the tickets & the dining plan (for 3 days) averaged $2,500. If you want to go next year, start putting back $210 a month – and more if you can, for extra expenses. (*This does not include flights, rental car, or any additional fees/taxes,etc)
When I originally looked at staying at cheap motel and buying the EXPRESS PASS I was shocked – for the 4 of us (me and the kids) it was CHEAPER to stay at the premier on-site resort WITH FREE EXPRESS PASS than to stay at the cheap hotel and buy the EXPRESS PASS separate since it came with the resort. Seriously. I double checked it twice myself. Now the EXPRESS PASS prices do change; so off season this might not be the case, you may be able to save more by staying at a cheaper place and buying them; but the convenience of the resorts- well, they are priceless.
We had 3 days at the park, and I wanted to make sure that we hit everything (after all, I really never know when we might be back – if ever). So I try to treat each vacation like it’s our last. The EXPRESS PASS is the way to go!!! We never waited in line for more than 20 minutes – and even though the EXPRESS PASS does NOT work for some Harry Potter rides, those lines seemed shorter than some of the other lines that people were waiting in (maybe the new wore off already?!) We walked past a lot of people waiting in line for an hour or so to get right on. It was awesome, and I will never be able to go another way (and my kids won’t either) in a way it spoiled us, but it gave us the opportunity to ride nearly everything, and even ride quite a few multiple times. If it’s in your budget or possible at all – get it!
Now I’m not a lazy person – I am relatively active though I do sit at a desk 8 hours or more each day; however, nothing could have prepared me for how my feet would feel after day 1. I still say some of it had to do with the EXPRESS PASS – we spent less time just standing in line, and a lot more time walking from place to place (I swear that’s a big part of it). I would suggest bringing multiple pairs of shoes, so when blisters start to appear, you can switch to another pair, and at least get blisters in other places lol. My girls had the same issue so it wasn’t just my old body! So be prepared to walk – and walk some more. Bring Tylenol!
So here’s what I didn’t plan for. I budgeted about $100 a day for food – I was figuring drinks and snacks included. To have real meals for 4 people, that’s not enough. When kids are hot, hungry and cranky you aren’t going to tell them that they budget is exhausted lol. You are going to get them the churro, or the ICEE, or soft pretzel. This is why I wish I would have planned ahead and bought the dining plan. Not only do they give you a discount overall, but then you just don’t have to worry about it. You don’t have to leave the parks and go ‘off campus’ to find something to eat; just stay and enjoy and relax and don’t worry about any of it! If you don’t do the dining plan, PLAN PLAN AND PLAN SOME MORE.
My suggestion for budget-friendly food options is to do this: if you drive, bring a nice big cooler. Stop before you get into Orlando and get bottled water, whatever soft drinks your family likes, snacks that are easily eaten and carried, pick-up some breakfast food, maybe even some lunch meat and bread. Most resorts have refrigerators, but you could also bring in your cooler to keep things cool. We started at the parks early (8 a.m.) so my kids didn’t want breakfast until later; carry something with you that you can eat that’s filling but not too heavy (especially if you are visiting during the summer). We left the park around 5ish each night, and we were too exhausted to go back – we went out to dinner at a local restaurant one night (though the walk allll the way to the car and back in was exhausting) and we ordered room service the other nights. (again, this all stems also from our poor tired feet!) If we would of had some lunchables ,lunch meat or even cereal I could of saved a LOT of money on food for dinners and snacks. You can carry a bag around the park, though I recommend not making it very heavy (and make sure its water proof) more on this later*
UPDATE: See part 2 “First Timers Guide to Universal” here