Planning tips for your first/next Universal trip.

Over the past few years I have become somewhat of an unofficial travel agent for my work colleagues, friends and family all wanting me to price them up a good deal. This is usually how the conversation goes…”Do you think this is a good price for a week in Tenerife?” Me(in utter horror)”You realise you could go to Orlando for a week don’t you, including park tickets for that?!” I mean at this point I’m basically just a walking endorsement for Universal Studios Orlando, having convinced a solid 40% of my building to book a Florida trip. If anyone has ever recommended a holiday to someone or actually booked one for someone you will understand how there’s a bit of pressure involved hoping that the person enjoys it as much as you do, and because I can literally talk about Universal Orlando for days these are the kinds of things that I will let them know before they book.

It can cost an arm and a leg or less than a long weekend at Centre Parcs.

I would consider myself a bit frugal so when I hear people tell me they’ve been quoted £12,000 for two weeks in Orlando for a family of 4 it literally hurts my soul.For the past two Christmases I have surprised my mam and brother with a Orlando holiday and on both occasions for 2 weeks at Cabana Bay in August summer holidays with direct flights I’ve paid around £800pp and thats pretty much my ceiling price for a moderate hotel (as much as I love Cabana Bay). Generally speaking for a week at Cabana Bay,Endless Summer, Aventura,Idrive hotels Id be looking at around the £500pp mark and depending where on Idrive I would probably be hoping to spend a little less, you can seriously get your holiday for just over £300pp if you can be flexible. My advice here would be to shop around and don’t be pressured into booking something that isn’t in your budget.I have planned many holidays both Florida and European and am always willing to book a package or separately and have never once booked in store,i am always staggered at the mark ups I see for in store bookings.

You don’t have to drive.

I have never once had a car when I have been to Orlando, the truth is I like a margarita, or two or tres. Getting around is so cheap and convenient that you absolutely DO NOT need to drive and will not be limited in any way. Uber and Lyft are your main options for transport, I’m definitely a bigger fan of Lyft I find them to be a lot more reliable than Uber and you can normally nab a few great coupons for discounted fares. Staying on site at Universal you definitely have plenty of choices for food at your hotel,CityWalk or the parks but if you’re like me you’re going to NEED to go to Chilis a few times and on average you’re looking at $7 each way and a little bit more depending on whereabouts on Idrive you are eating. I’ve also had fares to Disney Springs and WDW for anywhere between $13-17 each way from Universal property and attractions a little bit further away such as Kennedy Space Centre can be booked with transport included, on my last visit to the Space Centre I was picked up at the Royal Pacific Pacifica ballroom and this package is pretty reasonably priced. You can find a fare estimate on both Uber and Lyft’s websites.

Universal doesn’t provide transport to International Drive,BUT…

While Universal doesn’t provide transport to International Drive they do have 2 hotels there. A trick that saved me a little bit of money last year is catching the Endless Summer Surfside Inn bus at CityWalk and taking it back to the hotel, you are then in a great location for some cheap eats such as KFC,Chilis,Miller’s,Applebee’s and Cicis pizza etc. I also used this from the hotel to Citywalk on the way home before catching a Cabana Bay bus. Last July I stayed at Rosen Inn International and what worked well for us was either walking to Surfside or catching the I ride trolley to it to access the parks for free. More and more hotels on International Drive are now charging for transport to Universal or require a booking the night before, if this is the case definitely try your luck at Surfside.

If you are driving at least 1 person in the party should have an Annual Pass

Regular parking at Universal is now $26 and prime parking $40, that is a lot of money to spend on parking over a 1,2,3 week stay. A power pass at $463 offers 50% off self parking,Premier at $503 offers free self parking and the preferred pass at $733 offers both free valet and prime parking. Baring in mind that the cost of a 2 week ticket is around £286 if you are going to be parking at Universal a few times any of the annual passes will pay for themselves within a handful of uses. The annual passes are good for 15 months when purchased before September 30th 2020,see Universal’s website for blackout dates and offers. https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/tickets-packages/annual-passes/promo#3-park-annual-passes

If there’s even a slight chance that you will return next year get the seasonal pass.

Last year my friend and I were bored at work and started looking at a cheap last minute deal for a week long holiday.An hour later we had booked to go in three weeks time, having already purchased my 14 day Universal ticket for my August holiday I started reading up on the 3 park seasonal pass and found it to be perfect for my needs. The 3 park seasonal pass is an upgrade of approximately $40 on the 14 day ticket and can be purchased at guest services,I upgraded my ticket on the last day of my holiday to give me a few extra days on my pass. Although value in theme parks is pretty hard to come by this pass is seriously exceptional value for money,within 1 trip the pass had already paid for itself and made my August holiday practically free. As the pass also includes discount for food and merchandise etc it very quickly starts making you money back on your investment.

The Hard Rock Hotel,Portofino Bay and The Royal Pacific hotels are the only hotels to offer the complimentary express pass.

These hotels offer unlimited use of express pass for the duration of your stay and is inclusive of check in and checkout day so for a 1 night stay you can have 2 days of express pass. Although these hotels are expensive 2 or 3 people in a room completely offsets the price of the hotel considering express pass can be upto $90 a day.If you can’t afford to spend upwards of £300 a night for these hotels don’t worry! I have only used the express pass once and each and every day I have spent in the parks I have managed to get on everything I wanted to.

All guests staying on Universal property can enter Universal Studios 1 hour early, this is usually at 8am. The two attractions open at this time are Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and The Escape From Gringotts. On site guests also benefit from early morning admission to Volcano Bay, early morning admission and late at night is in my opinion the best time to go if you are there for the sliders as most if not all will be ride now.

Volcano Bay should not be missed!

Volcano Bay is unlike any waterpark you have ever been to guaranteed! It is a stunning park and features a lazy river,fearless river,aqua coaster and wave pool etc,the theming is also over the top and very tranquil,I tend to use Volcano Bay as the “rest day” because it is so relaxing.Many people will actually plan in rest days to just lounge around the pool or hotel but if you visit Volcano Bay and see how beautiful and laid back it is,it’s nothing short of a waste to not spend your free time there!

Volcano Bay utilises a Tapu Tapu system, these are wristbands that you use to make life easier. TapuTapu’s can be used to hire lockers, pay for goods and reserve your place in line for slides, you can only be in a virtual line for one slide at a time but in the meantime you are free to enjoy the rest of the park.

You’re looking at around $10+ per meal

Theme park food at Universal is fine (the food at Volcano Bay is actually really good and varied) but you’ll pay as much for some chicken tenders and fries at Mel’s than for a club sandwich at the Hard Rock Cafe at Citywalk. Citywalk has many quick service and table service options and are better value for your money, this is a good way to get out of the sun and chill out for an hour or so.

Download the Universal app.

I would advise anybody with a smartphone to download the Universal app ordinarily and now more so than ever. With the Universal app you are able to book virtual lines and get a return time for attractions such as Fast and Furious Supercharged and Jimmy Fallon Race Through New York, use mobile ordering and check up on wait times, all of these make a day in the park a bit easier. With Universal’s re-opening guidelines and the increased use of virtual lines I would say it is absolutely necessary to have the app downloaded before you enter the parks.

On site guests have (up to) three ways of accessing the parks.

Guests at The Hard Rock Hotel,Portofino Bay,Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls have the option of travelling to citywalk via a water taxi, these water taxis are a particularly beautiful mode of transportation and because your security check takes place at the taxi dock you can bypass the security lines at Citywalk. All hotels run shuttles to and from the parks, they run from around 7am-2am.Volcano Bay does not have a direct bus from the hotels, so if walking isn’t an option you will take your resort bus to CityWalk and jump on the Volcano Bay bus from there.Hotels with the exception of the Endless Summer hotels are joined by a walkway leading past the hotels to CityWalk.

Have a pre-paid card.

I have been using a Revolut card for 3 years now without any issue, I find these cards that you can control with an app the easiest way to save money for my next trip by setting up vaults and recurring payments.

Watch some Vlogs!

I think that the best way to see what the parks and resorts are like is to watch plenty of vlogs on YouTube, you can find ride POV’s, walkthroughs, resort tours,reviews etc and it allows you to better understand the parks. Ride POV’s are great to watch if anyone in the party is bit tentative about going on a certain ride to see in advance what it entails, particularly this is true of Studios where a lot of the rides are dark rides in show buildings so you won’t be able to see what’s in store while you’re in line. I would definitely recommend 2 channels, these are both my favourite YouTubers who I have watched for a few years now. The first is The Despicable Three, a family vlogging trio who are just full of positivity and enjoy every minute of their holidays. On their channel you will find a few years worth of on site hotel stays, so far they have stayed at The Hard Rock Hotel,Portofino Bay,Royal Pacific and Surfside Inn so if you are thinking of staying at any of these hotels give them a watch!You will also find on their channel ‘What we ate” videos which Steph has done a great job on compiling together food reviews, restaurant footage and receipts of eateries both on property and IDrive so you can see what kind of prices you can expect to pay for your party aswell as a “Planning Tips” playlist. They are super relatable and have a great Northern sense of humour and are doing a great job at putting out hilarious home vlogs during lockdown so give them a follow and subscribe to their channel!Youtube/Instagram/Twitter @TheDespicableThree.( The Despicable Three.)

The second vlogger that I would recommend is TimTracker,Tim is a local and frequents the Universal and Disney theme parks. His channel is very informative and his work alongside Universal Orlando resort allows his to film detailed resort tours. He has been in the YouTube game for a long time and has over 4,000 videos so I can guarantee that anything you would like to see he will have made at least one video about it. (TheTimTracker)

These are just some of my planning tips that I thought may be useful to share now as flights from the UK to Orlando are resuming from July 20th.Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my tips for how I save money on booking my holidays and my tips on visiting the parks for the first time. Any questions? Please feel free to leave a comment or ask me on my instagram @thestudiosgirl thanks for reading!

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