Updated: Oct 11, 2021
Ballin on a budget is an art form. It’s the only way our family of five can manage to travel to do many places. Adding children to the mix can exponentially increase your out of pocket spend but it’s not impossible to make great memories on a budget.
We recently visited Universal Studios for maybe the…20th time and wanted to share our top 5 tips on how we make memories in the park without spending a fortune. And as a bonus, we’re sharing the extra Covid safety precautions and tips.
Please note that when we refer to Universal Studios, it refers to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
1. Bring Your Own/ Save on Food
Universal Studios allows you to bring food and drinks (not alcohol) into the park. Take full advantage of that and bring plenty of water to stay hydrated and also bring snacks or any other food you may want. I’ve seen plenty of families bring their entire lunch which can save a ton of money (have you seen the price of food in theme parks? Ouch!) Just make sure you will be able to carry all of your belongings with you because you will be doing lots of walking. What the theme parks sell is “convenience”. If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, your snacks, food and water can easily fit under the stroller.
If you decide to buy food in the park, consider sharing meals. But not the kids meals! Opt in for an adult sized meal and share. We do this all the time. I know our two youngest will likely mess over their food or will only want French fries so we will let them share a meal or each child can share with an adult. Another option that we do is to eat communal style and order a few meals (probably three) and share it all. Three adult size meals usually satisfies everyone, especially considering that they’ll probably want ice cream or churros an hour
Money Saved: Bringing our own water saves us about $15 per day. Sharing meals and bringing our own snacks saves about $50 per day.
2. Consider an Annual Pass
If you plan on visiting a park just once in the next year, then a one day pass is more than sufficient. But if you plan on visiting multiple days throughout the year, it's worth crunching a few numbers to see if purchasing a season pass is advantageous.
Do decide, consider these things
How much is a daily ticket?
How many trips per year do you expect to visit?
How much is an annual pass?
Here’s the math for Universal Studios
1 Day Ticket = $109
3 Trips = $109 * 3 = $327
Florida Resident Annual Pass = $299.99
Non-Florida Resident Pass = $349.99
The prices above are for the cheapest annual pass (which is what we own) and there are options to make monthly payments for your passes as well. But according to the math above, if you plan on making 3 or more trips to Universal Studios Florida in a 12 month period, you may want to consider an annual pass.
This math can be applied to entertainment options outside of theme parks. We use this formula for zoo and museum passes to in our local area.
Money saved: Considering the trips that we've already made as well as the anticipated trips, we would have visited Universal Studios Florida about 4 trips and visit the park about 2-3 times each trip in a 12 month period (we mainly visit this much because we have passes!), but that saves us about $2500 for the entire family!
3. Plan ahead
When planning trips to theme parks, you have to already get in the mindset of knowing that the kids will ask for everything that they see. So, what we do is: allow the kids to spend their own money for all the extras, such as souvenirs.
You’d be amazed how much they will second guess their purchase if they use their own money.
Planning ahead can also include putting extra thought into how often you will eat in the park. On this trip, we took full advantage of continental breakfast at the hotel which also included coffee. This helps us save tons on Starbucks and expensive breakfast sandwiches and pastries in the park. We also consider how long we will be in the park to determine how many meals we will eat. Theme park food is wildly expensive! I prefer to only eat one meal in the park.
Universal Studios used to have meal plans, which we were a big fan of. I hope that the absence of the meal plans are just a temporary thing because they also help us to save money. The meal plans used to be about $25 and it comes with a meal, a drink and 1 or 2 snacks. An adult meal can cost on average ~$18 without a drink. So we always saved a few dollars with the meal plan.
Please bring it back!!!
Money saved: This varies but our kids always end up asking for something! So once factoring in not buying souvenirs and breakfasts, we save about $30 per person each trip.
4. Skip the Photos
Upon first entering into Universal Studios Orlando, there will be someone to take a picture of you as a souvenir which can be viewed and purchased on your way out of the park. Then, after riding each ride, there will also be an opportunity to buy a picture of you riding the ride. Those photos can add up quickly. There are two options here:
Buy the Photo Package
Take Your Own Photos in the Park
We've done both options. If we really like the photo taken by the park, we might buy it. Bust most of the time, it is me with my iPhone taking picture of everyone. If you want a family photo, you can ask a someone walking by to take your photo (then kindly wipe down your phone with hand sanitizer because...well, we're in a pandemic).
Here are a few of our non-professional family memories from our latest trip.
Money saved: $69.99 for a 1 day visit.
A 1-Day Photo Package is $69.99 plus tax at the park which comes with includes
Unlimited digital downloads of park photos including character meet and greet
A lanyard and photo card
Discounts on photo gift products (remember this cost only include the photo and not frames and extras)
View and share photos through the Universal Mobile App
One 4 x 6 and one 5 x 7 photo print
Special pricing on photo prints
Even is you pass on the photo package, you will still have the ability to buy photos you screaming while riding the rides upon exiting each ride. These are a la cart options and, if my memory serves me well, they will cost you about $20 each.
5. Free Refills!
Fam! Consider the souvenir cup! It may seem pricey up front BUT the souvenir cup comes with free refills for the entire day. If you know you will visit multiple days in a row, it's even a better deal to have your souvenir cup be enabled for refills for multiple days. Each souvenir cup comes with a chip at the bottom of the cup which is read by the drink machine. If your chip is valid for that day...FREE REFILLS. We typically will get one cup and share it. We are also equipped with the water cantinas that we bring along with us. On average, we will refill our cup at least 10 times in a day, which makes the money well spent.
Money saved: A non fillable drink can range between $4-5 plus tax. And if you go through about 10 drinks like us, you can expect to pay out about $50 plus tax. A souvenir cup will cost you $16.99 plus tax but will save you about $33 on a 1-day visit.
Carry your own sanitizer. Yes, there are sanitizer stations throughout the park but with the volume of people in the park, the dispensers run out
Carry toddlers using a baby carrier when in line for rides. Of course we brought a stroller but in order to keep our toddler from touching things while in line, I brought my baby carrier to keep him close.
Wear your mask. As of now, the CDC recommends wearing masks indoors but we wore ours indoors and outdoors. The park also plays safety reminders throughout the park to remind people of CDC guidelines. We sought out low populated areas outdoors to rest and take a break from the masks and the humidity that builds up in the masks.
Wash your hands regularly. We try to wash our hands as much as possible.
Hold hands with young kids while walking in the park and in line. Holding hands will decrease the chance that they will grab onto rails, souvenirs, walls etc.
Find times to eat outside of peak meal time. Try eating lunch at 11am or 2pm to stay away from big crowds and long lines.