It took me almost fourteen years to muster enough courage and make the trip to Orlando and experience the craziness that is Universal Studios. Many individuals gave me advice, ranging from “It’s a lot of walking,” to “Don’t bother going.” But after I received a free ticket through my work e-mail, coupled with a free Florida resident’s coupon at home, I saw no reason not to take the trip with the ever-vigilant, fun-loving girlfriend. Upon my return, as I traveled the treacherous I-4, I knew exactly what to write about once I got home. In the past, I have offered quite a few tips on money-saving, and this experience taught me a very valuable lesson: Sometimes it is close to impossible to save money at highly featured theme parks…even when the entry fee is free.
First of all, if you are going to Universal “spur-of-the-moment,” it will cost you approximately $77 for a two-park pass per person. (Doesn’t the sentence roll so smoothly off the tongue? No? I didn’t think so either then). Tickets bought in advance on-line will cost $75. Keep in mind, this is only for park access, or the privilege of walking around the place. The smarter individual can book a hotel in advance, preferably one close to Universal Theme Parks, and buy tickets directly from stationed sellers. At the hotel we stayed, there was a decent deal of $50 for a two-park pass. Shopping around is key here, because most of the money-saving ends right there.
Upon entering either park (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are positioned side-by-side) you will notice a lot of advertisements for something called “Express Plus Pass.” This special novelty ticket (which is actually an armband) will allow you to go on a shorter line (cutter, cutter peanut butter) and get you on the rides faster. The cost? $57. So far, for the average Joe, we have run up a tab of over $130. However, if you are a ride freak, and must try the newest advertised psycho-thriller that Universal tries to hammer into your mind on Floridian TV, the purchase of this armband may be quite necessary. Otherwise, expect a line that will swerve and swivel like a giant Anaconda; The Mummy ride at Universal Studios had a wait time of 75 minutes. Is sacrificing 75 minutes worth a 3 minute thrill? If your answer is a resounding no, be sure to get to Universal early in the morning before crowds become frantic, loud, and sweaty. It will knock time off of your wait, parents won’t smell as bad, and five year olds will not be pushing against your rump in a vain attempt to see “Shrek” or “Doc” from Back to the Future.
Next, attempt to purchase a decent meal at a price that will not break the bank. The rule of thumb: expect to pay double for any food or liquid refreshments than you ordinarily would. At Jurassic Park, featured at Islands of Adventure, I purchased a grilled chicken sandwich, small fries and a soda…for almost $13. Ouch. Make no mistake: bring small snacks with you to appease the hunger that goes hand-in-hand with an awful lot of walking and waiting on lines. Packing drinks in a knapsack may not be as wise, particularly during the summer. Unless you have a rather small cooler, you will probably have to bite the bullet and buy a 20 ounce water. $3 never went so fast.
Which brings me to an all important tip: Locker usage. Lockers are free for the first hour and a half at Universal Studios, but at Islands of Adventure you will have to part with some dough: $2 per hour will be the cost for a maximum of $14 for the day. Since the girlfriend and I brought cameras, we played a never-ending game of dropping off our knapsack, then picking it up every hour or so. (And on that note, unless you love being price-gouged, bring a throw-away camera from home instead of buying one at the omnipresent gift shops.) Be very careful to remember where your locker is situated, what the locker number is, and not to totally forget that you dropped your stuff off, because it will be removed overnight. After a crazy upside ride like “The Hulk” good luck remembering your name, let alone where you left your items!
The bottom line? Even if you are lucky enough to score two free tickets, after you assume a decent 2 night hotel accommodation, meals, Express Plus Pass, and a ton of green aloe gel that becomes necessary due to excessive sunburn (I knew I forgot something!), figure to part with $300. This does not take any travel into consideration either, and with $3 a gallon and higher on the horizon, coupled with the intermittent, violent thunderstorms that plague Central Florida this time of year, ask yourself a final question: Is now the time to update my queue on Netflix?