I've always thought that moms of bigger families have the very best tips and tricks for saving money and family travel. I'm thrilled to be able to introduce you to one of the savviest moms I know, Michelle, an awesome mom of four adorable kiddos. She recently traveled to Universal Orlando Resort and is sharing her amazing tricks for visiting Harry Potter on a budget.
When you're done with this post, don't miss our tips for how to visit Universal's Harry Potter in one day!
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Planning a family trip, especially with a larger family, is often a nerve wracking, uncomfortable, headache of a process. It takes intense amounts of time to figure out the logistics of making it all work while still making it fun for everyone. When I plan for our family of six, the budget is first and foremost in our decisions.
We have generally stayed away from the big theme parks opting for less expensive endeavors. But as extreme fans of Harry Potter, a trip to Universal Orlando Resort simply had to happen. Once we had exhausted the local library programs and camps, it was time to take the leap and go experience the wonders of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley first hand.
Unfortunately, there's no magical spell that lowers costs, but the following budget friendly tips will avoid making your family trip to The Magical World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort feel like a dementor’s kiss sucking your money away from you!
How to visit Harry Potter at Universal on a budget:
1. Stay at a Universal property
While it may be tempting to look for a budget hotel off the beaten path, the properties at Universal often run specials combined with park tickets and express passes that will save you hundreds of dollars. We stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resort which offers larger family suites for a price that is hard to beat!
When you stay on site, you also get early entry into the parks and parking for $12 per night. The parking alone is quite the savings. It costs $20 per day for regular parking, $30 for prime parking, and even higher for valet. We arrived just after 7:00 a.m. on the day we checked in and received our keys even though the room was not yet ready. We were able to park our car, take advantage of the shuttle and the early entry into the park, and received a text in the afternoon with our room information when it became available and our keys were activated.
We just stayed at the park enjoying ourselves until we were ready to leave. Then, we returned to the hotel via one of the shuttles that comes every few minutes and went directly to our room. You can also leave your car parked at the hotel for your entire last day even after you have checked out.
2. Get Express Passes if you go during a peak time.
What?? I’m suggesting you pay MORE as a budget tip? How does that make sense? First, many of the deals from the Universal resorts offer Express Passes at discounted rate or as part of a package deal. I recommend them because you can actually save an entire day or even more at the parks when you can skip the lines. Buying one less day on your pass is one of the biggest savings you'll find.
During peak season like Spring Break, lines can be incredibly long. By shaving hours off line time, you can experience all of the attractions on your wish list in a shorter period of time. Less time per attraction equals more attractions per day means you might be able to check off everyone’s lists in two days instead of three. Unless you have one attraction that you want to do over and over and over, the regular Express Passes would be more economical than the Unlimited.
*TIP: I would only recommend this as a budget tip if you go during a peak, crowded time.
3. Starbucks anyone?
There are Starbucks locations in the parks as well as at the hotel. But, a five dollar coffee drink is hardly a way to save money, right? I’m not recommending family frappuccinos several times a day, but Starbucks can be a wonderful thing for this trip. Before your trip, collect all of your loose change and head to a Coinstar Kiosk. Exchange that change jar for Starbucks gift cards. Also, be on the lookout for Starbucks promotions when they offer deals on gift cards. I know they have them at the stores periodically and at one point Costco had a deal as well.
The Starbucks locations at Universal do accept gift cards as payment and have a decent selection of real food at a better price than some of the other places around the parks. You can get a fruit cup, yogurt, salad, sandwich, smoothie, pastry, etc. Plus, an iced coffee can offer parents a much needed pick me up mid-day!
4. Budget your days before you go and stick to it
This seems obvious, but it is so easy to get swept up in all that is available that your money can seem to disappear. The last thing you want to be doing on your trip is recording each and every purchase, but keeping a general log in the notes of your phone or in a small notebook can really help you stay on track. Another option is to put the daily amount amount on a prepaid credit or gift card and don’t dip into reserve funds when it is gone. That is your budget and stick to it!
I would avoid doing cash in the envelope since there are many rides where you stash your bags in a locker or a cubby. A small card can be kept on your body in a wearable wallet whereas a big envelope of cash is harder to keep on you.
5. Sharing is caring . . . about the budget!
I found the vendors to be accommodating about providing an extra cup/ bowl when asked. Ordering a double/ triple dip ice cream or large sundae and splitting it into separate cups saves over ordering individuals. Get the gigantic donut or pretzel and make it an all-family treat. The same logic applies to purchasing an entire pizza rather than slices and so on. This can actually be more fun for everyone since you can sample smaller bites of a wider variety of the treats the parks have to offer.
6. Limit alcoholic drinks
There are delicious cocktails to be had all around the parks, but they are expensive. If you opt for equally delicious nonalcoholic versions, you will save a bundle.
7. Hold the ice!
Many of the iconic drinks such as Butter Beer and Pumpkin Juice come in a cup full of ice. While refreshing, more ice equals less beverage! Ask for less or no ice and use the cup they give you as a pitcher. Bring smaller cups and split the drink several ways. Bring stackable, small, clear plastic cups and add a Harry Potter sticker to make it feel authentic and special. This is not only a good choice from a budget standpoint but also lets you sample the different flavors. It is so frustrating to spend some serious cash for a “treat” for each of the children to have them take a sip or two and decide they don’t like it. Many of the flavors are strong and rich making smaller quantities a good thing. You can also use those same cups and fill them with water from the drinking fountains found in most of the lines to help help avoid paying even more at the drink kiosks also stationed along the lines.
8. Bring your own postcards and stamps to the Owl Post to get the Hogsmeade postmark
Yes, the store sells stationary, quills, stamps, and everything you need. But, they sell them at a premium price! For the budget conscious, sometimes it is the little things that get under your skin the most. Paying more than retail for a stamp or a fairly high price for a simple postcard can be off-putting even if it doesn’t completely break the bank. They will happily stamp all postcards with the special postmark regardless of where it was purchased. This is a great, unique, inexpensive keepsake that is thrilling to receive once you return home.
*TIP: Get the postmark first and let it completely dry before writing out the postcard and mailing it to ensure the postmark and your message don’t overlap and make both unreadable.
9. Bring your own lanyards
You will see that for ease and convenience many people will have their Express Pass and ticket in a lanyard around their neck. They sell all kinds of choices, often at around $10. You can easily get these before you go for much less money and decorate them with pins or stickers and have a custom, inexpensive option.
*TIP: If you are bringing younger children, tuck your cell phone and contact info under the ticket in case you are ever separated!
10. DIY souvenirs
There are lots of great options for souvenirs and memorabilia that you can buy but the price tags are pretty hefty. With a little forethought and craftiness, you can easily make your own. Instead of buying the Christmas ornament for $20+, take a family picture and have one made on an online site or local store. You can add your own text and make it exactly what you like for only a few dollars. Hand your phone to the workers who will happily take your picture with the characters instead of purchasing the ones sold from the park. You can even customize it at home with borders and text using something like PicMonkey for free!
You might want to check it out:
11. Eat real meals
As tempting as it is to snack your way around the park, the cost of all those little bites adds up and often you don’t feel satisfied or like you really ate a full meal. There are many benefits of eating at one of the sit down restaurants such as the award winning Mythos located in Islands of Adventure.
Taking a break from the crazy to relax as a family and enjoy good food in a comfortable atmosphere is reason enough to make a reservation. From a budget perspective, it still makes a lot of sense:
- The water is free.
- There is an unlimited bread basket.
- The prices are surprisingly reasonable.
- They offer a children’s menu and have appetizers that can easily be a full meal for a child or lighter eating adult.
- Children can also split a larger meal to keep down costs.
Taking a moment to recap the day, sit in air conditioning, plan the evening, and eat a balanced meal while truly enjoying your family and not feeling rushed by people circling for your seats is priceless!
Expect a mark up on all things. Anything you can bring yourselves will help to keep costs down. You are allowed to bring in some small snacks and water. Keep in mind that you will have to store your bags in smallish lockers for many of the rides and lugging large bags is just not fun. You will want to make space count.
Bringing hearty, durable snacks like jerky will go further than a bag of chips. Dense energy bars (nothing chocolate since it makes a mess when melted), trail mix, and applesauce pouches are also good choices.
You can also make or buy your themed shirts before your trip rather than purchasing the ones available on site. Remember to bring sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses for everyone so you don’t buy last minute ones at a premium price. Ditto for basic first aid and medications.
You can refill your water bottles at the plentiful drinking fountains around the parks. You can bring natural flavor drops to add to the water to add variety and make regular tap water more appealing.
13. Use Gringotts Bank Notes to teach kids about budgets
Even with all the planning ahead, DIY, and BYO you and your children may still want to search out that one perfect souvenir that can only be found at the parks. A great way to make staying in budget fun is to change your muggle money into Gringotts Bank Notes. They can be used all over the parks the same as cash. Having their own special money and knowing that finite amount can help the kids realize the true value of what they are purchasing and help teach them to keep to their own budgets in a fun vacation-themed way.
14. Take advantage of all of the free entertainment and explain your family guidelines before entering all the excitement
Parades, shows, special effects, characters, and discovering little details tucked away everywhere are all included with cost of admission. However, there are also carnival games with tantalizing prizes, face painting, hair wraps, tattoos, etc. that cost extra.
Be up front with the kids before you even set foot in the park. Tell them that you are there to have a great time and enjoy all the attractions Universal has to offer. Give them each their own map and show them all of the wonderful things they will be able to experience. Explain to them that you won’t even be able to come close to seeing everything that is already included in the price of the tickets. Tell them that you will absolutely not be partaking in any of the extras and to please to not even ask.
Instead, make lists and plans for all that you will be able to do. I have found that preemptively acknowledging that the option will be there and addressing that we won't be partaking of it before we go, the kids do much better than seeing the option first, asking, begging, pleading, and then getting upset when we say no. Just taking the extras off the table beforehand works best!
It is completely possible to have a magical family trip to Universal Resort Orlando despite not having a vault full of gold. It really is a must-see location worth saving up for in your family budget and has provided us with priceless memories that will last a lifetime!
Michelle is the happy mom of four awesome kiddos. Her frugal travel tips are perfect for families of all sizes looking to experience adventures on the go while keeping to their budget.
The more money you save? The more fun you can have!
Thanks to Universal Resort Orlando for providing the passes to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in exchange for this review. All thoughts and opinions are our own.