Tips for Visiting Universal Orlando Resort on a Budget

It can feel overwhelming if you’re planning your very first visit to Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.

There’s a wide range of options for guests for dining, accommodations, and how and where you’ll decide to spend your time in the parks.

I’m sharing tips to help you save money and time for planning your next vacation to Universal Orlando Resort on a budget.

Family at Universal CityWalk

I spent 3 nights at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort with my husband, younger son, and his friend.

We visited restaurants at Universal CityWalk each day and spent 2 days between both Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.

Universal Orlando Resort

Portions of our visit were hosted by Universal Orlando Resort, others were not. As always, all opinions are my own. This article contains affiliate links.

Universal Studios Orlando

Do Your Research and Plan Ahead for Universal Orlando Resort

Families can visit Universal Orlando Resort on a budget if they’re willing to plan around and prioritize what’s important to their family.

Budgets are subjective but the important part is prioritizing and determining what experiences you want to share during your visit.

Half the challenge for families is getting the time away between everyone’s schedules and physically getting there.

It’s less to pay for some of the experiences you want to try while you’re there vs. coordinating everyone’s calendar again to plan another trip to come back.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Questions to Think About Before You Visit Universal Orlando Resort

How many days is your vacation?

How many days do you want to spend at the parks?

Which parks do you want to go to during your visit?

Do you want extra time/ days to relax at your hotel?

Do you want extra time to explore Universal CityWalk (A mixed-use space with restaurants and retail)?

What special meals, snacks, and drinks do you want to try during your visit?

Are there special experiences or purchases you want to make? (Ex. purchase an interactive wand at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter)

Do you like to experience a theme park full throttle or take your time and be spontaneous without much planning?

Are you flying or driving to Orlando?

Staying onsite or off-property?

Universal globe at Universal Studios Florida

How Do You Find the Best Ticket Prices for Universal Orlando Resort?

I’d recommend comparing prices from multiple sources based on your needs, interests, and availability.

Multi-day/Stay Packages tend to have the best value because they typically include your admission to the parks and accommodations.

You’ll want to check out the packages on the Universal Orlando Resort website and with a trusted travel advisor, like aRes Travel, registered to sell vacations for Universal Orlando Resort,  who may have access to additional vacation packages.

Florida residents also have exclusive deals just for them.

Find Discounted Tickets to Universal Orlando Resort and Ticket/Hotel Package Deals Here

For example, the best time to visit Universal Orlando Resort is during the winter after the holidays, through the spring when there are fewer crowds and the average temperatures are 70 degrees.

This is a great time to visit and take advantage of the warm weather, especially if you live in the North and want to go with fewer people in the parks.

Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando, Florida

What Are The Pros and Cons of Staying Onsite at a Universal Orlando Hotel vs. A Cheaper Hotel Offsite?

Universal Orlando Hotels has 8 themed hotels with amenities and price points for all budgets in the following categories:

All of the Universal Orlando Hotels have the following perks for guests:

  • Early Park Admission up to one (1) hour before the theme parks open – (You still need to purchase theme park admission)
  • Complimentary resort-wide shuttle bus transportation
  • Resort-wide room key charging privileges
  • Free merchandise delivery to the hotel for your purchases at select stores in Universal’s theme parks and CityWalk.
  • It’s a short walk from Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort to Universal Volcano Bay
  • Complimentary Fitness Center
  • Complimentary wireless internet access
lobby at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Third-Party Bookings for Universal Resort Hotels

Universal Orlando Hotels can’t modify reservations made through a third-party site. You’d need to deal with the third-party site directly for issues and changes.

If you book a Universal Orlando Hotels “Premier Hotel” through a third-party site you will still receive the complimentary Universal Express Unlimited access.

water taxi at Universal CityWalk

Universal Premier Hotels that Include Universal Express Unlimited

If you’re staying at one of the following Universal Premier Hotels you’ll receive a Universal Express Unlimited for the number of guests staying in the room for the length of hotel stay.

The Universal Express Pass allows you to skip the regular lines at participating park attractions in Universal Studios Florida and Universal Island of Adventure (Valid theme park admission required)

If you book a Universal Orlando Hotels “Premier Hotel” through a third-party site you’ll still receive the complimentary Universal Express Unlimited access.

Another perk is the “Preferred” category hotels have complimentary water taxi service and dedicated walking paths to Universal Studios Florida, Universal Islands of Adventure, and Universal CityWalk.

lazy river at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort

What We Liked About Staying Onsite at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort (A Prime Value Resort)

We parked once and didn’t use our vehicle until the day we left because we used the complimentary shuttles during our visit.

After a LONG day at the parks, it was so nice to take the shuttle back to the hotel vs. finding our vehicle in the parking lot and driving back 15-20 minutes to a hotel off-site.

We enjoyed easing into our visit by spending time at the pool during the day, exploring Universal CityWalk for dinner, and going to the parks the following morning.

The vibe at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort was very laid back and family-friendly. There’s an assortment of reasonably priced menu options for families on a budget.

You can read my full review of our experience at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort here.

kitchenette in family suite at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort

We stayed in a family suite with a small kitchenette, that included a mini-fridge, a sink, and a microwave.

This is a great option for families who want to save money on drinks, snacks, breakfast, etc. You can warm up leftovers the following day too.

We were also able to use the pool the day we checked out. It was nice to soak up a few more hours in the sun by the pool before we headed to our next vacation stop in New Smyrna Beach.

Staying at a Hotel Offsite

One of the disadvantages of staying off-site is that you’ll need to allow extra time to find parking in the morning and drive back to your hotel after a long day at the park.

You also miss out on the free shuttles and early entry into the theme parks.

You’ll need to weigh the cost of the hotel and the ala cart ticket for the parks, distance and drive time from the hotel to Universal Orlando Resort, parking, and amenities for factoring in your decision.

You Can Compare Price of Hotels Offsite Here
teenagers walking  toward Jurassic World VelociCoaster

Is The Universal Express Pass Worth The Price?

I would say that the answer depends on the time of year you’re visiting and how important it is for you to maximize your time on popular rides in the parks.

If you’re shorter on time and visiting the parks during peak season, you may want to consider an Express Pass if your goal is to ride as many rides as possible.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit  Universal Studios Florida

Also, consider what you value in your quality of experience during your visit.

If you or your family members tend to get extremely grumpy waiting in lines on a hot day, you may want to consider Express Passes to avoid meltdowns, especially if you don’t plan on returning to the park again for a few years.

If you purchase an Express Pass you can save money by bringing your own retractable lanyard for the pass vs. purchasing one onsite.

You show an attendant your Express Pass at the line entrance. Later in line, another attendant will scan your Express Pass so it’s nice to have it handy where you can’t lose it.

Zippered pockets for your shorts or a thin fanny pack can work too.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure

I highly recommend taking a picture of the front and back of the Express Pass before you visit the parks in case it gets misplaced. I speak from experience!

The thrill rides were our top priority during our visit. We wanted to ride as many roller coasters as possible during our visit.

Jurassic World VelociCoaster Universal Islands of Adventure

Our Top 3 Rides at Universal Studios Orlando

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure

Our Top Rides at Universal Islands of Adventure

If you don’t like thrill rides there are still plenty of other rides for families.

Types of Universal Express Passes

Universal Express– You can skip the line, one time per participating ride at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure.

Universal Express Unlimited – You can skip the line, unlimited times participating rides at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure.

Volcano Bay Unlimited – You can skip the virtual line, one time per participating ride at Universal Volcano Bay.

*The Universal Express Passes are not transferrable and must be used by the same person, each day. There is limited inventory for the passes and they can sell out.

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Which Rides Are NOT on the Universal Express Pass?

These Universal Islands of Adventure rides are NOT on the Universal Express Pass.

  • Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
  • Pteranodon Flyers

Pro tip- You can significantly lower your time in line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure by choosing the “single-rider lane.”

Hogsmeade Station at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

What’s the Big Difference Between the One Park Admission Vs. The Park-to-Park Ticket?

The Park-to-Park admission tickets allow you to ride the Hogwarts Express between The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

You don’t have to be a huge Harry Potter fan to appreciate the theming of the Hogwarts Express.

It’s important to note that the ride experience has a different storyline in each direction so you’ll want to ride the train both ways.

We enjoyed the flexibility to go back and forth between Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure during our 2-day visit to the parks.

The train ride also saved us some steps from walking through Universal CityWalk to access the parks on opposite ends.

Universal Orlando Resort App

Download the Universal Orlando Resort App Before You Go

The Universal Orlando Resort app is your go-to resource while visiting the park.

The app has a map of Universal Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, Universal Volcano Bay, and Universal CityWalk, check ride wait times, live shows, and dining options.

fajitas at Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food
Fajitas at Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food

Ways to Save on Dining at Universal Orlando Resort

We thought the dining prices at Universal Orlando Resort were comparable to restaurant prices outside of the parks.

I recommend downloading the Universal Orlando Resort app and glancing over the restaurant menus before you choose where to dine.

Most menu prices are listed within the Universal Orlando Resort app which gives you an idea of the cost of fast casual and table-service dining options.

If you have younger kids, many menu items could be shared. Guests can bring small snacks into the park that don’t require heating.

The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

You can make dining reservations ahead of time for many popular restaurants through the app. Don’t delay making reservations if there’s a special restaurant you’re looking forward to trying!

For example, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen is a popular spot for dinner at Universal CityWalk.

There are also select restaurants in the parks and CityWalk where you can place mobile food and drink orders to save time in line.

CityWalk also has several familiar fast-casual options including Moe’s Southwest Grill and Panda Express.

Souvenir cup at Universal Orlando Resort

Ways to Save on Drinks at Universal Orlando Resort

You’ll want to stay hydrated at the parks, especially on a hot day.

Universal CityWalk

The Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Refillable cup is a great option with stations throughout both parks and refills available every 10 minutes. You can add another day to the same cup for an additional price.

Guests can bring bottled water into the parks with a maximum of 2 liters per guest.

frozen butter beer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Plan Ahead for Some Splurges at Universal Orlando Resort

Part of the experience IS the fun food and drinks. I wanted to try the frozen Butter Beer in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to see if it was worth the hype.

The parks have seasonal limited-time treats too.

fish and chips at The Three Broomsticks at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We also ate fish and chips at ‘Three Broomsticks” at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade, a quick-service dining option in a beautifully themed dining space.

milkshakes at The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

We didn’t eat dinner at The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen and instead, we rewarded ourselves with their giant milkshakes after a long day in the parks.

view from airplane

Additional Travel Tips for Visiting Universal Orlando Resort

Flying- Compare airfare prices on Google Flights, Southwest Airlines, and other budget airlines’ individual websites.

The closest airport to Universal Orlando Resort is Orlando International Airport (MCO).

Consider using airline miles or redeeming credit card points if you have them. Also, consider what type of packer you are and if you’ll need to bring multiple suitcases for your vacation.

We booked our flights through Southwest Airlines and the fare included up to 2 free checked bags, a personal item, and a carry-on suitcase.

The Southwest fare was cheaper than the budget airlines after we looked at the fare cost after the additional fees for adding luggage.

If your flight is during peak season you’ll want to allow extra time at the airport before your flight, especially if you also need to drop off a rental car.

Orlando International Airport

Schedule Your Security Time at the Airport in Advance

Flights between 6:30 AM – 8:30 PM qualify for the MCO Reserve security line at Orlando International Airport with security screening times available from 5 AM – 5 PM.

Passengers can schedule a time to go through airport security at MCO Reserve for FREE.

You can reserve your time slot up to 7 days in advance. Keep in mind that there are limited slots available each day.

*This service is available for passengers who DON’T have TSA Precheck or Clear+.

When you arrive at the airport you’ll join the MCO Reserve lane, scan your QR code, and move directly through the standard TSA screening. There are dedicated MCO Reserve lanes in Terminals A, B, and C.

luggage with ribbon at the airport

Have travel insurance for your trip.

This type of trip typically involves a lot of planning in advance and you want to ensure that you’re covered if something unplanned comes up that’s out of your control.

Use colored ribbons or pick really bright or unusual luggage tag holders to make it easier for you to spot your group’s luggage at baggage claim.

We always bring a luggage scale to avoid fees for overweight luggage on our flight back.

rental car driving on New Smyrna Beach

Rental Cars in Orlando

We typically book our rental car through Costco Travel because we get a second driver for free, there’s no cancellation fee and I can compare multiple car rental locations and vehicle prices in one place on their site.

I’ve found that their prices tend to be lower but I also like to compare prices with car rentals from Expedia and Kayak.

We’ve found that minivan rentals work better for our family for more space for luggage and leg room for older teenagers, even if it’s just two kids.

If you booked a rental car at Orlando International Airport you don’t need to go on a tram or shuttle bus to pick up your rental car after picking up your luggage at baggage claim.

Many of the roads in the area have tolls. If you go on a toll road you’ll need exact cash or expect to pay additional fees charged on the bill with your car rental company.

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