I'm a mom of four kids, ages 8 to 16.
My family has visited Universal Orland Resort five times and spent about four weeks in the parks.
I packed snacks and drinks to have handy at the park and opted for an annual pass.
Over the past year, my family of six visited Universal Orlando Resort five times and spent about four weeks total in the parks.
Even though it takes me 12 hours to drive to Universal, the parks work well for all of my children, ranging in age from 8 to 16. It's not easy to find a destination where everyone has a good time, so I figured out a way to make it work. A seven day visit cost my family of six about $2,000, including food, accommodations, and tickets.
Here's how we did it.
Be creative with purchasing tickets
Universal uses dynamic pricing for their tickets, so tickets are more expensive during peak seasons, including the holidays and spring break. Visiting in the off-season can save a lot of money. Universal also offers discounts for military families and Florida residents. It may also be possible to get discounts from AAA or Costco.
Another way to save money is to look for specials. Universal seems to offer three-day tickets for the price of two a couple of times a year. Unfortunately, I wasn't lucky enough to get any of these discounts or specials, but I did look closely at options to find the least expensive options.
Consider an annual pass
Even though I was not able to get discounted tickets, I spent quite a bit of time comparing options before my trip. I discovered that getting an annual pass was roughly the same price as park-to-park tickets for three days during peak season, which is when I was visiting. I opted out of getting a three-park pass to save money, which meant I couldn't visit Universal's water park, Volcano Bay. I also got the lowest tier pass that worked for my dates.
Getting an annual pass meant that we could visit for additional days on our first trip and visit again throughout the year without paying any additional admission fees. Plus, annual pass holders get several valuable perks. The specific benefits vary based on what type of pass you get. My benefits included free parking, discounted hotel rates, discounts on food and merchandise, and early admission.
One benefit my kids really enjoyed was access to the passholder lounge, which is a cool, quiet place to rest. The lounge is also known for pop-up surprises like a hot chocolate bar or visits from the very popular Grinch. Once I realized how much I would be saving with an annual pass, I extended my first trip and quickly planned others.
Buy souvenirs outside of the parks
There is no shortage of merchandise to buy at Universal, especially for my Harry Potter and Jurassic Park-obsessed kids. I splurged on wizarding wands because they can be used to perform spells throughout the park to make it rain and get a skeleton to dance. I only got one for my kids to share. Purchasing a wand was worth the extra expense to me because I thought it added to the experience. However, I later learned there is an active second-hand market for wands. Had I known that in advance, I would have purchased a used one instead.
Rather than buying other souvenirs, I took note of what my kids liked and let them each pick out one similar item elsewhere.
Bring your own food into the parks
My family usually ate breakfast in our hotel room, which helped keep costs down. When it came to days in the park, I always packed snacks since Universal allows guests to bring in their own food. Water is also free and easily available, so I packed a water bottle and refilled it throughout the day. To give my kids some affordable treats, I bought a refillable bottle on one of my first visits and reactivated it for about $11.00 a day. This included unlimited soda refills and slushies, which were a great pick-me-up. Although some people bring coolers with full meals into the park to save even more on food, I think that would slow me down too much. I usually bought lunch in parks but I scoped out less expensive options like pizza and burgers.
There are budget-friendly hotels
Universal has two lower-priced hotels, Endless Summer and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. I have stayed and both. They both have microwaves and mini-fridges in rooms, which makes it easier to save on food. Another big perk is that they both offer free shuttles to parks. This saves on transportation and parking costs.
Something I learned a couple of trips is that prices fluctuate. Once I booked my room, I kept an eye on prices and called for an adjustment if prices went down.
Between the two, I prefer Cabana Bay. Although it may cost a little more than Endless Summer, the rooms are a little bigger, and my kids love the on-site lazy river. Cabana Bay also gives pool hopping privileges so we could visit pools at other Universal hotels, even pools at the premier hotels. I priced out off-site hotels and found prices comparable.
Budgeting has helped my family enjoy far more trips than we have otherwise. I set expectations with kids early on about buying "extras" at the park, and this worked well for avoiding disappointment once we got there. Although it sounds cliche, the memories made on vacations really are priceless. I'm glad to have found a place and formula that works so well for my family.
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