I've been visiting Universal Orlando since it opened, and now I venture there once a month.
Over the years, I've figured out some great money-saving tips across the theme park's property.
I think it's always worth it to stay on-site, and I highly recommend getting an annual pass.
Always stay at on-site hotels when you're visiting the parks.
Aside from the eight on-site resorts being impeccably well-themed, each one provides complimentary transportation to the park via shuttle, boat, or walking path.
Staying off-site means having to deal with expensive ride-shares or parking prices.
On-site resorts also grant you access to a private security entrance and one hour of early park admission, ensuring you're able to ride your favorite attractions before the masses arrive.
The three premier resorts also come with the added bonus of complimentary Universal Express Unlimited passes that let you skip the regular lines at some attractions.
Express Passes are available to purchase on their own, but it's almost always cheaper to pay for a resort that includes them than to purchase them outright with other lodgings.
Before you pick your hotel, figure out how much time you'll be spending there.
Sometimes when I go to Universal, especially if I'm attending a special event like the annual Mardi Gras festival or Halloween Horror Nights, I know I'm going to be spending as much time in the parks as possible.
On those trips, I save a little by opting for the Endless Summer Resorts — the property's two budget-friendly value hotels.
There's no point in wasting money on a premier hotel when you're not going to be spending much time there. Plus the value resorts still come with perks, like transportation to the parks.
Buying an annual pass might be worth it.
Aside from accommodations, the other major expense is park admission.
One-day tickets that include access to the resort's two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, start at $164.
But Universal Orlando Resort's annual-passholder program starts at $350, so even if you're only planning on visiting two or three times a year, it could save you money.
There's a slew of perks that come with the passes, too, including discounts on merchandise, food, and resort stays.
If there's something you really want to do, head there first.
If there's an attraction you have your heart set on experiencing, beeline straight there as soon as you arrive at the park.
Florida's weather is unpredictable at best, and a beautiful sunny day can suddenly transform into a deluge without warning.
Many of Universal Orlando's most sought-after attractions are affected by rain, thunderstorms, and colder temperatures, which can cause them to shut down for extended periods.
If you don't get to do your top picks, you'll likely want to return to the parks sooner than later, which will end up costing you.
Don't waste your money on the dining plan.
Whatever you do, don't pay for the dining plan.
Vacations should be about freedom, and the plan can be restrictive. I also don't think the value is equal to the cost.
Instead, I opt for affordable, quick-service snacks that can easily pass as meals.
Green Eggs and Ham Café, a quirky Dr. Seuss-inspired hut, is one of my go-to spots. It offers a range of loaded tater tots that are packed full of toppings.
Other standouts include the generous portions at Central Park Crepes and the interesting ice-cream flavors from Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley.
Always invest in a Mardi Gras tasting lanyard.
If you're visiting Universal for its annual Mardi Gras festivities, there's an easy way to enjoy the event without breaking the bank.
During the International Flavors of Carnaval food festival, which usually runs from February to May, the tasting lanyard allows eager foodies to sample 10 food and drink items for a flat rate.
If you're strategic about the items you order with your lanyard, you can save well over $20.
Pack light if you can.
Universal has some pretty strict guidelines about what you can bring on most of its popular attractions, so packing light is essential for time management and convenience.
It's also a great way to avoid spending a few extra bucks on storage lockers.
Rides like Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and The Incredible Hulk Coaster offer free lockers for loose items and small bags. But if you have a larger backpack, you might have to pay $2 to store your items while you wait in line.
You can store your luggage for free in the theme park.
I usually take an evening flight home so I can stretch out my time in the parks as long as possible.
I've saved time and money by storing my luggage inside the resort's "gratuitous bailment service" located at the lost and founds in both theme parks.
The service keeps you from wasting money on locker storage fees or paying for late checkouts at your hotel.
Be on the lookout for merchandise sales.
Since I visit so often, I try to avoid souvenirs unless it's a limited-release item or something I absolutely love.
Luckily, Universal frequently offers a wide selection of merchandise on sale, so make sure to scan the stores for those sections before you settle on an item.
Skip the photo pass - you can get great pictures for free.
Unless you really want that ride photo of your crew defeating the enemy on Men in Black Alien Attack, I don't think there's a reason to pay extra for the My Universal Photos package.
You can capture photos in front of picturesque backdrops and at character meet and greets yourself at no cost.
Nearly everyone has phones with professional-level cameras now, so there are better things to spend your money on.
Swing by the resort happy hours.
Theme parks aren't exactly known for reasonably priced libations, but there are a few noteworthy deals across the property.
Some spots, like Bula Bar and Grille at the Loews Royal Pacific, offer discounts on beer refills and cocktail refills.
Others, including The Palm at the Hard Rock Hotel and The Thirsty Fish at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, offer happy hours featuring beer, wine, and liquor specials.
Some of Universal's add-on experiences are more worth your money than others.
Universal Orlando offers plenty of add-on experiences for more intimate or special opportunities. But they're not all created equally.
I think going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal is a worthwhile rite of passage for theme-park fans even though it requires a special event ticket.
But add-ons like guided walking tours and behind-the-scenes looks at the sound stages are expensive and unnecessary to enjoy the event.
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