5 mistakes I made visiting Universal Orlando: How to save more time, money than me

·5 min read
Universal's iconic logo serves as a popular backdrop for photos outside Universal Studios Florida.
Universal's iconic logo serves as a popular backdrop for photos outside Universal Studios Florida.

I was not prepared for my most recent trip to Universal Orlando Resort.

I visited Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure numerous times growing up in Florida – and traveled there as an adult – but it had been a few years since my last trip. There was a lot I didn't remember or expect – even as someone who covers parks for a living.

For anyone who has never visited the parks or hasn't gone in a long time, please learn from my mistakes and pack these five things for a smooth (and dry) trip. Your travel companions will thank you.

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It's hard to tell, but we were smiling under our 3D glasses and masks at Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon at Universal Studios Florida.
It's hard to tell, but we were smiling under our 3D glasses and masks at Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon at Universal Studios Florida.

1. Pack comfortable shoes (and Band-Aids)

Unlike Disney World, where guests generally have to take some sort of transit between parks (you can walk from Hollywood Studios to EPCOT), you can easily walk between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure or take the Hogwarts Express. Guests who purchase two-park tickets may find themselves traversing both parks multiple times in a day.

There's quite a distance to cover before even getting to the parks, if you're not staying on property. That's because Universal CityWalk stands between the parks and the massive parking structure where guests either park or get dropped off. Unless you're staying at one of Universal Orlando's hotels, you have to walk through the entertainment complex to get to the parks.

I packed two pairs of shoes – sneakers and Crocs – in hopes of avoiding blisters in the same spot but still managed to get several blisters because neither pair were broken in enough. I didn't pack nearly enough Band-Aids, but First Aid is available at the parks.

Guests who aren't staying on property must walk through Universal CityWalk – a dining, retail and entertainment complex open to the public – to get to the theme parks.
Guests who aren't staying on property must walk through Universal CityWalk – a dining, retail and entertainment complex open to the public – to get to the theme parks.

2. Pack snacks and water bottles

Food can get really expensive really fast. My family of five spent $110 on lunch at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter's Three Broomsticks and just as much (if not more) on snacks.

I didn't realize we could bring our own snacks. Picnic lunches are prohibited, so I mistakenly assumed other outside food would be, too. Guests are allowed to bring in small snacks and any foods required for special dietary or medical needs, baby food and formula.

I wished I had packed chips or cookies to curb my kids' ever-present munchies between meals. Some treats, such as seasonal Mardi Gras beignets and Butterbeer, were worth the splurge, but a churro that cost as much as a fistful of them at Costco made me a little salty, even with sugar coating and chocolate dipping sauce.

At least I thought to bring in a water bottle to save on drinks. Water bottles can be refilled at water fountains throughout the parks. Iced tap water is available for free where fountain drinks are sold.

One churro with chocolate sauce at Universal Studios Florida cost as much as a handful of churros at Costco.
One churro with chocolate sauce at Universal Studios Florida cost as much as a handful of churros at Costco.

3. Pack a poncho or change of clothes

There are ample opportunities for kids of all ages to get wet at both parks.

My kids are a little too old to splash around the fountains in Toon Lagoon and at Curious George Goes to Town in Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone. So I figured we would be fine without extra clothes.

I did not expect every inch of me to get soaked on Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, one of several water rides at the parks. Thankfully it was our second-to-last attraction of the day, but it was no fun feeling and looking like a wet rat afterward.

If you don't want to slosh around, come prepared with a poncho or change of dry clothes, or get ready to pay a premium for branded clothing at just about any gift shop.

4. Pack as much as you can in one bag

A number of popular rides, including Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, do not allow any loose articles onboard. This includes cellphones, sunglasses, wallets, purses and backpacks. Guests must check these items into free lockers provided for the duration of the attractions.

I didn't remember this, so anytime this was required, everyone in our party had to empty every pocket. It wasn't a big deal, but we would've saved time if we had kept everything together in one or two bags that can slide in and out of lockers with ease.

It helps to start the day with extra room in your bag if you plan to buy souvenirs.

5. Pack your patience

There will be lines and crowds. There's no getting around them, unless you have a Universal Express pass, starting at $79.99 per person unless you're staying at a premium hotel on property (then it's free), or pay for the VIP Tour Experience, which starts at $189 per person.

Time is money, especially at theme parks where waits can top well more than an hour per ride. But I was not paying $400 for Express Passes for our family of five.

Instead I maximized our time by consulting the Universal Orlando app to look up wait times on attractions throughout the day. When waits were too long, such as for Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which my middle child pined for, I tried to spin it as something to look forward to next time. I made a point to celebrate what we were able to enjoy and tried to instill that gratitude in my kids.

The trip was a generous Christmas gift from my in-laws. My husband and I paid for our transportation, food and souvenirs. Everything was paid for out-of-pocket. USA TODAY does not accept free press trips.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Universal Orlando tips: 5 things I wish I did to save money, time