Why You Should Consider An Annual Pass To Universal Studios Florida

Last Summer Mrs. C. and I took our kids on a trip to Universal Studios Florida.  We purchased 3 day Park to Park tickets and had a great time.  The last couple months I’ve been working on planning out vacations for the next several years and realized that I made a pretty large financial mistake by purchasing daily tickets.

Since we gained custody of our nephews in 2015 we have realized that family memberships tend to be around the same price as buying tickets for 1 day to many attractions.  We save a ton of money by purchasing memberships and are able to stretch our entertainment dollars much further.  Theme parks tend to only offer individual annual memberships, and Universal Studios is no exception to that.  What is fairly unique about Universal is that their annual memberships are not too terribly far off from their ticket prices, so there is a larger value in getting a membership to Universal Studios than to some other theme parks *cough* Mickey Mouse, I’m looking in your direction!

Universal Studios Annual Pass

The cost of a 3 day Park to Park ticket is currently $274. The price of an annual membership with no blockout dates is  $385.  For $111 more dollars we could each go to the park for 365 days out of the year instead of 3.  This is a pretty darn good deal.  Of course, we don’t live in Florida, so this isn’t a no brainer just yet.  It takes 2 days for us to drive from Florida and we have to get a hotel while we are there.

Additional Perks of Universal Studios Preferred Pass Membership:

  • Free Parking: You have to pay for parking on the first day, but subsequent days are free.  This is a HUGE benefit.  Parking is $20 for the day.  That’s $60 – $80 for a 3 – 4 day trip.
  • 1 hour early park access most days (block out dates apply): Once again, this is a major sale point.  Typically only people staying at Universal’s hotels can get early park access.  When we arrived at the park at the normal opening time we got the most done and were the most comfortable.  The sun wasn’t scorching and the crowds weren’t that bad, and that was in June during the busy summer break season!  Getting an extra hour of time like that each morning is a big value.
  • 10% Discounts on Park Food and Merchandise: Park food is extremely expensive.  We packed snacks and such to the best of our ability, but ate at the park a few times.  Not a huge discount, but 10% helps.

 Cost Breakdown With Varying Trip Frequency Single Ticket Trip Vs. Preferred Membership:

Note: I did NOT include food costs, as these can vary wildly.  Some people eat in the park for every meal which is extremely expensive, while some people eat most of their meals out of the park and bring snacks.  It is possible to have food costs be not that far off from normal grocery costs.  The park tickets are based off a family of 6, and the house rentals are based off a $75 per night cost, which is typical for a modest home in the Orlando area.

Cost of a single trip 3 days:

  • Travel In and Out: $300
  • 4 Night house rental: $300
  • 3 Day tickets: $1,650
  • Parking: $60
  • Total:  $2,310

2 Trips in an annual membership:

  • Travel In and Out: $600
  • 8 Night House Rental: $600
  • Season Passes: $2,310
  • Parking: $20
  • Total: $3,530
  • Cost per Trip: $1,765

3 Trips in an annual membership:

  • Travel In and Out: $900
  • 12 Night House Rental: $900
  • Season Passes $2,310
  • Parking: $20
  •  Total: $4,130
  • Cost per Trip: $1,376

4 Trips in an annual membership:

  • Travel In and Out: $1,200
  • 16 Nights House Rental: $1,200
  • Season Passes: $2,310
  • Parking: $20
  • Total:  $4,730
  • Cost Per Trip: $1,182

with the above data, I think the sweet spot is at 3 trips in 1 year.  I would start off with a trip at the end of summer in Year 1.  Then go during Christmas break,  then finish the membership off with a final trip the following summer.  Any further trips and the dilution of the park ticket price is overshadowed by the cost of travel and housing stays.    That’s 3 trips for the price of 1 and 3/4. Staying for 4 or 5 days per trip is also a big savings, since it only costs $75 per day extra (the cost of the hotel).

To get access to the new Volcano Bay water park, Universal charges an extra $99 per preferred pass to visit all 3 parks instead of just two.

 

What about a Season Pass Membership?  

With a season pass membership the savings are more pronounced, as long as you are willing to make your summer trips in the second half of August and first part of September.  I personally felt these blockout dates cut too close for comfort for the kids returning to school and me returning to work.  I also looked at the difference in cost between the season pass and the preferred pass, which is $100 per person.  To justify the difference in price I looked at the following benefits of a preferred pass holder:

1. Parking:  Parking is free for the preferred pass holder.  At 2 trips of 3 days each this is worth $100. At 3 trips of 4 days each this is $220.

2. Early park access:  To me this is a major benefit and I think it is easily worth $100 per day for the family as a whole.  For 2 3 day trips this alone justifies the cost of the preferred pass.

3. No Blockout Dates: This is very important because it means that if we end up with an opening in the schedule, whether it is the kids winter break or spring break, we have the ability to add a trip in.

For families that have the ability to make 2 trips fit in even with the blockout dates, The Season Pass may still be a winner.  It is worth noting that the smaller the family size is, the easier it is to justify the cost of the preferred passes.  Here’s a comparison breakdown of costs:

Cost of a single trip 3 days:

  • Travel In and Out: $300
  • 4 Night house rental: $300
  • 3 Day tickets: $1,650
  • Parking: $60
  • Total:  $2,310

Cost of 2 trips, 3 days each with a Season Pass:

  • Travel In and Out: $600
  • 4 Night house rental: $600
  • Season Pass: $1,650
  • Parking: $60
  • Total:  $2,910
  • Cost Per Trip: $1,455

Of course your mileage may vary.  Some people have relatives they can stay with in Florida.  Some families can make do with a single hotel room, which is far cheaper, especially when using Skymiles or hotel rewards points.  Some people live closer to Florida than we do and drive a more fuel efficient vehicle. On the other hand some people feel a need to stay in a luxury resort and eat in park for every meal.

As with the preferred pass, for access to the new Volcano Bay water park Universal will tack on an extra $99 per pass to have access to all 3 parks.

Cutting The Costs Further:

Over the past 8 years I have traveled quite a bit for work and have been saving up my Skymiles.  I also have a Gold AMEX Skymiles card, which has the primary purpose of giving me free checked bags and priority boarding.  It also allows me to earn 1 mile for every dollar spent and gave me 50,000 bonus miles when I signed up.  Currently I have over 150,000 Skymiles, which are worth roughly 1 cent a piece. By having the card I also have access to the Skymiles Marketplace where I can use my miles for things other than flights, things like hotel stays and home rentals.  The only problem is the redemption value on these is roughly .7 cents per mile, where most flight tickets are between 1 and 2 cents per mile.  BUT our demand for flights is extremely low.  It doesn’t make sense to fly with 6 people to a destination over driving, and Mrs. C. isn’t a fan of plane travel, so even when the kids are grown our air travel consumption will not be very high (and that’s 15 years away!)

SO, it may make sense for me (and possibly for you) to spend Skymiles on hotel/home rental stays in Orlando when pairing with an annual membership. This changes the math dramatically because now the housing rentals are “free”.  With Skymiles I can typically rent a 3 BR townhouse or apartment for 11,000 points.  I currently have enough points then to cover 13 nights.  I’m also adding Skymiles now at a clip of around 40,000 – 50,000 per year.  For my family this could completely eliminate the housing cost for all 3 trips.  Making the 3 trip cost only $3,230 and lowering the per trip cost to just over $1,000. I can also get standard hotel rooms in the Orlando area for around 5,000 miles, but our family is too big for that to work.  This is a MAJOR savings though for a smaller family.

 

Orlando Apartment Skymiles

 

For 2017 we are doing small trips for entertainment.  We are planning on visiting my parents in Kentucky and going to Dinosaur World and to a few state and national parks to visit some caves.  We will be getting an annual pass to the Museum of Science and Industry, which is only 90 minutes away from us, I also have a bunch of IHG points that I can redeem for a two bedroom suite in Chicago to allow for a 2 day trip.

In 2018 we are planning on going to Disney World in late August. In 2019 we will do small local stuff again, and then in 2020 will return to Disney to visit the new Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios.  We should be paying off our house around the same time as this trip.  We may also pick up a Universal Preferred pass at this time and go to Universal as well while we are down there, again at Christmas break, and then once more at the start of summer 2021.

Do you have any big family vacations planned in the near future?  Any Universal Orlando tips? 

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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