As kids we all saw the Universal Studios Orlando commercials and wished we could be taken there. At the time, we all thought that it was just a decision away and the only thing stopping us was (what we would consider) the mean parents.
As adults (and I use the term loosely) with kids of our own, we now see that it was not as easy to pack up and go to Orlando as we always believed. It's very expensive to take a family of four (two kids over the age of nine) there for seven nights, while visiting the actual park just a few days of the trip.
Last year my wife and I made the decision to take the kids to Universal. During the budgeting and planning, we came across ways where we would save money and not miss out during the trip.
Here are my five best ways to travel there on the cheap, starting with the biggest money saver:
1. ANNUAL PASS
The annual pass was the biggest budget saver. A standard park-to-park daily pass is sold only up to four days. The pass will run you $1,022.36 (four adults over the age of nine). The annual pass cost us $1,427.08 for 365 days. We stayed for eight nights and went to the park everyday. With the flex plan they offer, we paid $713.54 up front and then $64.88 a month after that. The flexibility allowed us to come and go as we pleased and enjoyed every aspect of the park without rushing around on a time limit. Plus the pass offers discounts on many things.
Let me put it simpler, it would have been $2,044.72 to be at the park for eight days on that one trip. It cost us $1,427.08 to go for eight days and we are going again this year for another eight days. For a total of 16 days for that one price.
2. ON SITE HOTEL STAY
This one is very simple, Cabana Bay Beach Resort. This is their version of an economy hotel. It's a very nice, clean and entertaining hotel which also offers family suites. Their shuttle is always there and you get early access to the park as they do at the pricier hotels. Those other hotels do offer the express pass for more money, but when you are there with no time restraints on the park, you can take your time. The annual pass also offers a rate discount upon checking in. We booked our eight night stay for $1,367.84, but once they applied the discount, we ended up paying just a little over $1,000.
3. HOTEL AND PARK FOOD
As with the hotel reservations, the annual pass also allows you to save on food while visiting the park. We averaged about 15-20% (percentage varies with each restaurant) discounts during our visit at the different hotels. We went thinking we would buy food to cook and then eat in the hotel room, but that never happened. Between the hotel cafeteria and the discount, we only spent $80 over our total eight day daily eating budget, without the hassle of cooking.
4. DRINKS AT HOTEL AND IN THE PARKS
Best recommendation to save on drinks while there is to pick up a unlimited fill up cup from the hotel and then at the park (we purchased two at each location). In the hotel you get unlimited free refills on the soft drinks using their unlimited cup for the length of your stay. In the park you can purchase one of the few character cups that will then cost $0.99 to refill at certain stations.
5. TRAVELING TO ORLANDO
This could vary depending on the part of the world you are in. If traveling by plane, the best times to fly in and out of Orlando would be Tuesday or Wednesday. If you live within a 24 hour drive to Orlando, then drive. We live in Boston, MA, and flying to Orlando would have run us about $2,700 round trip and that didn't include the $300 car rental. We choose to take the 21 hour drive. After gas, tolls, and food, we only spent a total of $600 round trip. The drive was not as bad as I would have thought, and saving close to $2,400 made it even better.
A family of four would have spent just a little over $6,400 (not including food or drinks) for the same amount of time and living within the same distance as us. The trip cost us $2,487.08 (not including food and drinks while in Orlando). That's over 60% saved. To push the savings even more, we also get the benefit in 2016 to be able to visit the park without buying tickets and just paying for travel and hotel.