UNIVERSAL ORLANDO PLANNING GUIDE
Welcome to the Universal Orlando Planning Guide and thank you for being a Base Camp member! This page will be regularly updated with new information as it becomes available, so be sure to bookmark it for easy, future access!
This guide consists of the eight steps to follow when planning your adventure and covers topics such as budgeting, what to pack, booking your hotel stay, and creating a daily plan. If while reading this you need a little extra help, don't hesitate to contact us. Or, as a Base Camp member you can request a free Embark Session where we can answer your questions, help you with a specific topic, or just walk you through this planning process.
This guide was updated on August 19th, 2020 to include the changes to Universal Orlando ticket pricing.
SET YOUR BUDGET
With some resorts’ starting rates at over $350/night and ticket prices at around $100 per day, a Universal Orlando adventure can get expensive from the outset. Therefore, before you embark on planning your adventure, we recommend that you sit down and figure out how much you want to spend on your vacation.
First, a general budgeting tip: figure out how much you want to spend before getting your hopes up for a specific resort or length of stay! If you don’t, you are more likely to end up spending more than you are comfortable with budget wise.
Once you have defined your budget, it's time to start figuring out how to spend it! Are you the type of person who prefers to spend more per day (staying in luxury hotels, eating nice meals) or would you rather have as many days as possible and maybe cut back on the spending in some areas? Or, are you somewhere in the middle? In order to help make these decisions, we recommend viewing your costs as a combination of cost per day and the number of days.
Once you understand your cost per day, you can now make decisions on where to stay and what dining choices to target.
The first major daily expense will be the resort cost. Resorts at Universal are divided into Premier, Preferred, Prime Value and Value, with Premier costing around $350, Preferred $225, Prime Value $150 and Value $100. Prices do fluctuate around these numbers, but generally this is a good starting point for understanding this expense. There are also numerous off-property hotels ranging from $50 to over $300 (all hotel costs are per night).
Most of the resorts also have options to upgrade your room to one with a better view, different theming, or better amenities. From a simple $20 a night upgrade to move from a view of the parking lot to the view of a garden to over $500 to get access to the club level, there are numerous options for enhancing your stay at various price points.
The second major daily expense is meals. Dining at Universal Orlando is also divided into three types. There is fine dining at the resorts, which runs around $45 and up per plate. Then there are other casual table service locations located mainly at City Walk and in the parks that will run around $25 per plate. Finally, you have quick service options, which will generally cost around $15 per plate.
The final daily cost will be your tickets. At Universal Orlando ticket prices vary based on the date of your adventure and start at $109 per day. One day tickets tend to vary significantly by day of week, with weekend passes costing about $20 more. When purchasing more than a single day ticket, the rates tend to be more consistent throughout the week and only vary by time of year. Additionally, Universal will often offer a free extra day or two when you purchase a 2 or 3 day pass.
For a four day trip we recommend you budget for about $75 per day for tickets. You will then have the option of adding on the park-to-park option which allows you to go to multiple parks each day. The cost for this is $60 per ticket for just the theme parks. If you want to also visit the water park, you can add that to your ticket for $40 per ticket. Combining both, to allow you to hop between the theme parks and water park on the same day would be $100 per ticket (this option is not available on a 1 day ticket). To be clear, these add-on prices are to the total cost of the ticket and not per day, no matter how many days you purchased. Check out Undercover Tourist for the current best deals on Universal Tickets.
Finally, don’t forget to budget for the additional cost of airfare if you plan to fly to Orlando or gas and meals on your travel day if you choose to drive.
How to save money is a frequently asked question when planning a Universal adventure. There are definitely ways to save about 5 to 10% throughout the process, but the biggest savings come from one very simple choice. Can you cut back on your cost per day and still have just as magical of an adventure? The answer is without a doubt, YES. And, it could save you up to 50%!
To save on your cost per day, you can have a great time in a Value resort, or even stay off-site, while eating at mostly quick service dining areas with a few more expensive dinners mixed in. This is our favorite way to still enjoy a great Universal adventure and great dining without feeling like we’re missing out.
If cutting back on fine dining and luxury resort options isn’t for you, the other way to save money is by purchasing your hotel and tickets through third party providers. They often have the best deals, and pass on parts of their commission to their customers. Check out Undercover Tourist or Get Away Today for these discounts.
CHOOSE A DATE
Choosing a date for your adventure is a crucial component of traveling to Universal Orlando, as a week sooner or later can make or break the enjoyment of your time. Understanding crowd levels, projected weather, and park hours will help you make a wise decision on dates for your trip.
You should start out your planning by consulting a crowd calendar. You can find several crowd calendars online that can give you a great place to start on this decision. The best crowd calendar can be found at Touring Plans. There is a fee associated with the calendar, but their research has been our go to source for all crowd data for years. Undercover Tourist also has a great FREE crowd calendar that we would recommend. However, with the current low crowds, crowd levels won’t be a major deciding factor for your adventure until spring of 2021 at the earliest.
Historically, the best times to travel considering all factors are late January to early February, April to early May, September and October, and the week after Thanksgiving through the first week of December. But given the current low capacity, anytime in 2020 should have low crowds. However, we would recommend consulting with your family, and health provider about whether 2020 would be an appropriate time to visit.
BOOK YOUR HOTEL
You should plan on booking your resort for your Universal Adventure about three to six months in advance of your vacation. However, the earlier you book the better your options and opportunities for saving money will be. With most hotels offering free cancellations until a week before your check-in date, we recommend grabbing your hotel as soon as you have settled on a date for a trip. Then, if there are deals that come available later on, you can always rebook your stay for a cheaper rate!
We recommend using a third party online travel agent like Undercover Tourist or Get Away Today to scope out the best rates for your trip. They will generally have the best prices available, so check them out first.
ON-SITE VS. OFF-SITE
Universal Orlando has 8 “on property” hotels. They are divided by price point into four categories, Premier, Preferred, Prime Value, and Value. All of their offerings come with early park admission every day to Universal Studios and Volcano Bay (early park admission is not currently offered at Islands of Adventure) with limited ride availability throughout the park. Additionally all on-property options offer complimentary transportation to and from the parks.
The Premier and Preferred properties all offer boat transportation to the theme parks that drops you off at City Walk, where you can skip the crowds at the main security area. These resorts are close enough to walk if necessary as well. The Prime Value hotels are also close enough to walk but do not offer direct boat access. However, you can always walk to the nearby Preferred hotel (Sapphire Falls Resort) and take the boat from there.
If you are interested in transportation to Volcano Bay, the water park, all of the resorts offer direct bus transportation except for the Prime Value hotels which are both within walking distance of the park.
The final perk offered by staying on-site is for Premier hotels only. When staying at these resorts, you get a free Unlimited Express Pass where you can skip the lines for most rides as many times per day as you desire. This is a huge perk and is provided to everyone staying in the room and would cost $90 per person per day to purchase separately.
As you would imagine the resort categories also come at different price points:
Value: $100 per night
Prime Value: $150 per night
Preferred: $225 per night
Premier: $350 per night
Keep in mind that these rates definitely fluctuate based on date and actual hotel you choose to book.
If your budget allows, staying in a premier hotel on Universal property can be a great decision. The proximity to the parks and the free Universal Unlimited Express Pass make these hotels worth every penny!
If this isn't in your budget and you don’t plan on going back and forth between your hotel multiple times per day, an off-site hotel can offer a great place to stay at a lower price. Or, if you want to use points for your vacation you can find several Hilton, Marriott and Wyndham properties nearby as well.
When considering an off-site hotel the main thing to consider is transportation to and from the parks. If you plan on driving or renting a car make sure to factor in parking fees at the hotel and the $26 per day rate of regular parking (or $36 for prime parking) at the parks (you can leave and return the same day for free). Additionally, most nearby hotels offer scheduled transportation to and from the parks, meaning that the bus will leave the hotel and parks at certain times and do not run continuously throughout the day. Your final option is to use a ridesharing app. It will drop you off very close to the entrance and is a great choice when running late or when the busses aren’t convenient.
You should also consider the location of your hotel when staying off property. There are two main areas. The closest area is to the east of Universal and north of Interstate 4. However, most of the hotels are located to the South of Universal and on the other side of I4 (along International Drive). We recommend staying in the area east of Universal or at the northern end of International Drive.
PLAN TRAVEL TO ORLANDO
One great way to get a little bit of extra magic out of your adventure is to show up as early as possible on the day you check in. All Universal Resorts allow you to begin using the amenities of your hotel on the day you arrive, however early that might be! If you are staying off-site, check with the hotel specifically to see what their policy is as most have a similar policy to Universal’s.
This means that if you show up to your resort at 9AM, the resort will store your luggage for free while you spend that entire day by the pool, exploring the resort, or by using the extra time in your day to enjoy the park! With the current reduced crowds and hours, you can save a night in a hotel and still get the same amount of park time by scheduling your arrival early on your check in day.
If you choose to drive, consider staying off property or even an hour to two away the night before you check in. It's a great way to save a little money on your Universal adventure without sacrificing the experience.
When flying to Universal, plan to arrive at the Orlando International Airport (MCO). This is where all major US and international airlines fly into, and is the closest to Universal. As with driving, we recommend trying to arrive in Orlando as early in the day as possible.
GETTING FROM THE AIRPORT TO YOUR RESORT
Once you arrive, we recommend choosing between a rideshare option or renting a car to get to your resort as none of the major properties provide complimentary airport shuttles. A rideshare from the airport will cost around $30 to $40 and is often the best choice when staying on Universal Property as Universal charges between $15 and $28 per night for overnight parking at their resorts depending on where you are staying.
When staying off-site, we recommend renting a car as most off-site hotels do not charge for parking and you can control your schedule a little more freely (check with your specific property on their policy before making this decision). However, you will have to pay for parking at the parks each day so make sure to factor that into your budgeting decision. A car will also provide you some added flexibility if you need to make a quick run to Target or the drugstore during your vacation; who hasn’t needed that on past adventures!
BUY PARK TICKETS
You can always purchase your tickets when you reserve your hotel. However, since most ticket purchases are not fully refundable, we recommend waiting to purchase your tickets until a month or so prior to your adventure.
As we have mentioned several times, the best deals can be found through third party ticket sellers like Undercover Tourist. You can generally find discounts of around 5%-10% and these tickets allow you to go straight to the gate and skip the ticket window. Additionally, Military and Department of Defense civilians can get a similar discount through Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) benefits site.
Universal Orlando offers two types of tickets, one park per day and park-to-park. As the name would suggest, the one park per day allows you to only choose one park each day where the park-to-park option allows you to visit multiple parks on the same day. We generally always recommend the Park-to-Park option for most travelers as it will allow you to follow our favorite method for visiting any theme park.
Get there early and go, go, go!
Leave after lunch and enjoy a nap or pool time
Head back out to a relaxing afternoon in a different park
The reason this works so well is that rest and variety during each day is key to not burning out during your adventure. Plus, you have to have this type of ticket to enjoy the Hogwarts Express, which is almost worth the price of the ticket itself! You should make sure to buy this add on when purchasing your tickets, as adding the park-to-park option can be much more expensive when adding it on in the park.
The other option you must consider when purchasing your ticket is if you want to purchase for 2 or 3 parks. The two park pass includes entry to only the theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Whereas the three park pass also allows entry to Volcano Bay. You can then combine this add-on with the park-to-park option to allow for access to multiple parks per day.
CREATE DAILY PLAN
As you may have realized, there is a lot to do at Universal Orlando and depending on the length of your adventure you may not be able to do everything on a single trip; honestly, you probably wouldn’t want to. Creating an effective plan for the restaurants and rides that you most want to experience will help you to optimize your time in the park and get the most out of your adventure.
PRIORITIZE DINING & ATTRACTIONS
We have provided our recommendations on the top rides you should target as well as notes on some that we think you can skip if needed. Take a look at these rankings to determine for yourself which rides you must do and which you’d be ok with skipping: Simulator Rides & Coasters + Water Rides.
As far as dining goes, Universal Orlando does offer the normal theme park fare (burgers, fries, hot dogs, ice cream) at several of their quick service locations. However, it also has recently added some very uniquely themed, fun restaurants that won’t break the bank.
Finally, we know that one of the top attractions to Universal Orlando is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is divided into two lands: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. To see what to skip, and where to eat in these wonderfully magical lands, check our blog posts for each land: Diagon Alley & Hogsmeade.
We highly suggest that each person in your traveling party write down the top 5 attractions that they must do on the trip, plus their top 2-3 restaurants. This is a great way to get everyone excited and to ensure that you can end up doing as many of their top attractions and restaurants as possible.
You will also need to start considering if you want to use the Universal Plan or not. For most people it’s worth skipping it as it just provides more food than the average person would normally eat. However, for Universal’s quick service plans you can just purchase one plan for two people for $26. This plan comes with 1 entree, a non-alcoholic drink, 1 snack and then one additional non-alcoholic drink throughout the day. If you plan to share a meal at lunch and take advantage of the more expensive entree and snack options you could save around $5 - $10 per day on dining. For $35 you can also get an unlimited Coca-Cola freestyle mug for unlimited drinks throughout the day on top of the other quick service food offerings.
Universal also offers a full service dining plan that can only be purchased as part of a Universal package. Generally, this plan is only worth it for those who would prefer a fixed price for their trip up front or if Universal is running a promotion.
FINALIZE YOUR PLAN
Once you have your attractions and dining prioritized, you should start to create a day by day plan for your trip. The first step here should be select the park where you will start each day. Next you should add where you want to eat, keeping in mind which park you will be in and your plans for heading back to your hotel in the afternoon or evening.
Unlike at Disney World, you do not need a dining reservation for most table service Universal restaurants. Therefore, you can have a little more flexibility when planning any of your fine or casual dining options. Additionally, there is no credit card required for making a reservation and no fee for missing one. Our recommendation is to use your day by day plan to grab your reservations a few weeks ahead of your trip. Once you get on your adventure, you can always move things around or even change your plans at the last minute as needed.
Finally, use this time to start getting familiar with your touring strategy to make sure you know how you will optimize your time in the park for the day. Think through the attractions you want to experience each day and start to plan in what order you will target riding them. While this will often change once you get in the park, it's good to have a plan early so that you can more easily adapt for rides that break down or if there are longer/shorter lines than expected.
GATHER YOUR GEAR
As your adventure approaches, you will need to start gathering everything you need for your trip. We won’t bore you with a full packing list here, you know to bring a pair of worn in shoes, toothbrush, and underwear. . . At least we hope you do!
Instead, here are a few items that we find particularly useful:
A second pair of “worn-in” shoes: Watching all the people walking around in their wet shoes from the pop up thunderstorm the night before while you are in dry soles will make you super grateful. But, make sure that the second pair is just as comfortable as the first. Because, the last thing you want is fresh blisters while walking around Disney World
Moleskin padding: Speaking of blisters, moleskin padding is a lifesaver and we don’t ever travel without it. Whether covering up existing blisters, or placing it on potential problem areas, your feet will thank us
Snacks and a reusable water bottle: In order to save time on breakfast, and money on overpriced snacks and water, we recommend bringing some breakfast and bars along with a refillable water bottle on your trip. Instead of spending time and money at your hotel food court, just grab a bar in the morning and then stick a few in your bag for later. You can use that food court to fill up your water bottle with fresh ice water at the beginning of your day.
Ponchos, rain jackets and flip flops: Remember that you are going to Orlando and passing, quick storms are very likely. Additionally, there are numerous water rides where some sort of water proof covering and shoes can come in very handy. We actually recommend bringing both a poncho and rain jacket. Ponchos are a great lightweight option to bring to the park every day for riding a water ride or in case of a shower, whereas a rain jacket is a better choice if you know it's going to be raining all day and you need a more durable solution. Also, a pair of flip flops can help you avoid having soggy shoes
Comfortable backpack: Just in this list we have mentioned snacks, a water bottle, a poncho and a pair of flip flops to carry with you during your daily adventure. This is why we recommend investing in a sturdy and comfortable backpack for your trip.
You can find all of our specific recommendations on our Amazon list here.
This is the most important part of planning your Universal Adventure, especially with the uncertainty that the current pandemic brings. Universal may change their policies between when you book and when you actually go. Throughout your planning journey keep an eye on our blog and this page to see what changes will be coming.
Throughout your planning journey keep an eye on our blog and this page to see what changes will be coming.
Once you are on your trip, your plans will change as well. Weather, broken down rides, or even sickness can all crop up to throw off your plans, and this will require you to adjust and adapt. Hold your plans loosely, and be okay with some blips. Additionally, when something goes wrong, don’t avoid going to Guest Services. It's definitely worth a few minutes of your time to stop by if you’ve experienced something unforeseen. The staff at Universal are kind, and want you to have a great adventure. If they can help you out, they will do everything they can to assist.
Finally, we know all of this can seem like a lot. Honestly, it is. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed with all the advice we’ve given. But we want you to learn from our experiences, both positive and negative!
You probably still have a lot of questions. If you want some additional help, we are here for you! You can take advantage of a free Embark Session where we can answer your questions, help you with a specific topic, or just walk you through this planning process.
If you want more, we offer a variety of services where we will help you work within your budget to have the most magical trip possible. Additionally, since we do not sell travel ourselves, we won’t recommend add-on’s that you don’t want or need. We will share advice learned from years of research and traveling ourselves, tailored exclusively for you.