With summer break quickly approaching, it’s time to start planning the annual family trip.
And while theme parks are high on the list of favorite vacation destinations, they can get really expensive really quickly when you factor in extras like hotels and food.
Here at The Penny Hoarder, we believe in a healthy balance between work and play. So if you can afford it, take that dream vacation and enjoy every second of it — just make sure you don’t completely abandon your penny hoarding ways.
If you’re headed to Universal Orlando Resort — home to the incredible Wizarding World of Harry Potter — this summer, check out the insider tips I’ve developed as an Orlando native and former witch at Universal’s Diagon Alley. You’ll save money in the parks without sacrificing any of the fun.
Find Tickets for Less
Your savings can start before you even step through the turnstiles — check out these ideas for cutting the cost of park admission!
1. Buy Your Tickets Ahead of Time
The simplest way to save on Universal Studios’ prices for park entry is to buy your tickets before you get to the gate. You can save up to $20 per person when you buy multiday tickets online. If you’re traveling with a family of four, that’s $80 in savings already.
2. Use Your AAA Membership to Your Advantage
Prices vary, so make sure to ask about discounted Universal tickets at your local AAA office. Most offer tickets at a discount of about $35 per pass. For a family of four, this can mean a savings of $140.
3. Buy the Lowest-Tier Ticket and Upgrade Later
As long as you purchase your tickets directly through Universal Studios, you can upgrade your tickets at guest services at any point during your trip.
This is a good idea for anyone traveling with kids — they get sick, burned out and do not care if you spent a hundred extra dollars on a three-day ticket.
If you come to find everyone is up for an extra day, you can upgrade your tickets by paying the difference — as long as you do so before you leave the park. Once your tickets expire, you’ll have to pay for new ones.
4. Shop Around Carefully
Orlando is riddled with sleazy ticket vendors promising half-price theme park tickets.
But beware — even if the tickets you purchase are real, these vendors may be selling them illegally. These tickets often come from park employees or locals who work special events and receive complimentary passes. Universal does not permit the sale of these passes.
If you get caught at the gate, you’re out of luck — and money.
Still, there are some reputable ticket sites out there. Just make sure to do your research on the seller before buying.
Travel and Accommodations
After tickets, the hotel and travel fees are the biggest items in your vacation budget. Here are some strategies for saving on these expenses.
5. Book Everything in Advance
If you’re a seasoned Penny Hoarder, you probably already know this tactic: Purchasing plane tickets and reserving your hotel room ahead of time are the easiest ways to get the best rates.
6. To Resort or Not to Resort?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here: It’s going to take some number crunching on your end to figure out which hotel situation is right for you.
There are less expensive hotels (or Airbnb rentals!) if you leave the Universal Resort property, but you may end up paying more in the long run because you’ll miss out on some pretty sweet perks at the parks.
To keep it brief(ish), here’s a cost-effectiveness breakdown: Select Universal Resort hotels include shuttle transport to and from the airport and the parks. So staying on the property could save you on transportation costs, plus the $20/day parking fee you’d pay if you were driving.
But more importantly, and something to consider if you had planned to buy Express Passes anyways: Certain resort hotels throw in free Universal Express Unlimited passes for each member of the family — an $85 value per person per day. (Think: Family of four spending four days in the parks. $85 times four people times four days = $1,360.) Another bonus? Universal Resort hotel guests get early entry to the parks: You’ll get a whole hour to explore each morning before the major crowds come pouring in.
Whew. Did you catch all that? Great, because I have one final point to make: If you go the Universal Resort hotel route, and you take advantage of those Express Unlimited passes, you could feasibly cut a day off your in-park time and a day off your trip (which means one less day paying for tickets and a hotel.)
If you’re not concerned about crowds, wait times or transportation (maybe you’re driving in to save on airfare!), then a cheaper, off-property hotel might be the right answer for your family. I’m just trying to show you all the options, friends!
Bonus Tip: Free child care is another huge perk. Universal Resort hotels provide activity centers so parents can leave their children in a safe environment before heading out to enjoy the nightlife that Universal CityWalk is known for!
Making the Most of Your Time
By making the most of your time, you can hit more attractions without shelling out for extra days inside the gates.
7. Decide if Express Passes are Right for You
If you’re still on the fence about whether to secure Express Passes for your trip (and you’re not going the resort hotel route), here are some points to consider. Visitors can often package Express Passes with admission tickets, lowering the overall cost significantly. However, if you’re a serious Harry Potter fan, you should know that Express Passes are not valid for most attractions in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Here’s a really helpful guide that breaks down Express Passes along with the rides and attractions they work on.
If you decide you don’t need to skip the lines all day every day, you could buy each member of your family a one-day Express Unlimited pass. You can knock out a pretty hefty list of attractions that day, then go at a more leisurely pace for the remainder of your trip.
8. Plan Your Vacation Around Peak Season
Check this handy crowd calendar from Orlando Informer (a seriously great resource for all things Orlando and theme parks) to figure out which days will be the least crowded. Smaller crowds mean less wait time; less wait time means you can spend fewer days in the parks; and fewer days in the parks means you save on tickets. Attendance is lowest on weekdays, particularly in late fall and late winter. If your family can afford the time off work and school, you’ll get the most bang for your buck at these times.
Save on Universal Studios’ Prices Inside the Park
While most of your savings will come from big-ticket items like park entry and the hotel, the little things can add up quickly.
9. Don’t Forget the Coupons!
Yes, you can coupon your way through Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. When you purchase a multiday, park-to-park ticket online, Universal will throw in a coupon book that offers up to $150 in savings. The coupons are mostly buy one, get one free (with a few complimentary perks), but if you’re planning to buy meals or drinks anyway, it’s definitely worth picking up your copy.
10. Use the Lockers
Bring everything you think you’ll need with you, and rent an all-day locker for about $10 per day. You get unlimited opening privileges, unlike the timed and complimentary lockers, so you can use your locker as a home base to return to when you need to reapply sunscreen, change into dry clothes or grab a sweatshirt for the evening chill (yep, even in Florida).
Even though you’re paying $10 a day, you’re saving money by not shelling out for $40 sweatshirts for the whole family when the sun goes down.
11. Avoid Paying for Pricy Food
Theme park food is expensive. On your way to your hotel, purchase breakfast food (if your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast) and portable snacks. The parks allow small snacks that don’t require heating or refrigeration — and while you can’t bring a picnic lunch, the rules are a little fuzzy as to what constitutes a “small snack,” so you can probably make a case for many items.
Avoid buying expensive sodas and bottled water inside the parks — you can bring in sealed or empty water bottles to refill throughout the day.
Now, while this Penny Hoarder would usually recommend bringing all the snacks, splitting meals four ways, and avoiding expensive alcohol and novelty treats, I do have one caveat: If you’re primarily there for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience, consider investing in a dining plan. Even if you just purchase one, your whole party will be able to sample the fun Wizarding World treats — and if butterbeer is a non-negotiable, you’ll save a good bit of money with the dining plan.
12. Purchase Souvenirs Ahead of Time
The parks are full of fun T-shirts, plush toys strategically placed at a kid’s eye level and themed gear, such as wizarding wands and robes, all at a huge markup.
Save money on souvenirs by purchasing toys from a different retailer and packing them in your suitcase. Then, when you arrive at your hotel, sneak them out and make them magically appear on your kids’ pillows. Wizarding World house robes go for about $110 in the park, compared to $25-$75 on sites like Amazon.
13. Take Advantage of Every Discount
AAA members receive 10% off food inside the parks, so make sure to take your membership card with you. American Express also offers discounts, but the perks change often. You can download the Universal Orlando app to see which offers are available through American Express.
14. Complain a Little
This one comes not only from me, the former theme park employee, but also from me, the lifelong Florida theme park visitor. I’ve got some experience navigating the system.
Now I don’t mean you should fuss, moan and stomp your feet. Believe me, that gets you nowhere with most employees. But know that Universal’s main goal is to give every guest an incredible experience. You just don’t build an empire on fantasy and fun without having some extra special perks for your visitors.
If something goes wrong, don’t be afraid to let a team member know about the issue. If you reach the front of the line after an hourlong wait just to see the ride shut down for maintenance, ask for an Express Pass so you can come back when the ride is running again. If someone runs off with your kid’s brand-new stuffed Spider-Man toy, flag down an employee and ask what they can do to help.
Some team members have the power to procure free treats and gifts to make your experience the best it can be. So don’t be afraid to ask for some extra perks — within reason, of course!
Even (or Especially) on a Vacation, You Need a Budget
Whether you decide to bundle your vacation package or cobble together a kick-ass trip on your own terms, just make sure you’re hoarding pennies wherever you can.
Take time to sit down and decide exactly how much you can afford to spend on your theme park vacation. Once you have a number, put together a trip that works within the confines of that budget.
And don’t be tempted to go above your set amount — even if you see a $300 wizard’s chess set that you just have to have. (You don’t need it, I promise.) If you’re cringing over Universal Studios’ prices every time you hear a register cha-ching, you’re not going to enjoy yourself, and you’ll have wasted your money on a trip that left you frustrated and mentally exhausted.
Stick to your budget, and enjoy every minute of your Universal Orlando vacation — after the hard work of planning this thing, you deserve it!
Your Turn: Are you planning to visit a theme park this year?
Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Orlando-born and bred, she knows her way around the theme parks!