Some may question the sanity of a man who drives down to Universal Studios Florida with 4 children, his wife, and mother in law in the middle of the summer when heat and crowd levels are at their peak…and those people would be right to do so! Nevertheless, I made the journey and it was something that had been on our to do list for years.
Inflation is running rampant and costs for this Universal trip have ballooned substantially since I first started planning for this trip in 2017. We went to Universal in 2016 and to Disney in 2018, with a plan to go back to Universal in 2020 with annual passes. Obviously 2020 didn’t happen and 2022 was our nearest opportunity.
The Total Cost of A Trip To Universal Studios For 7 People:
- Tickets: $2,675
- VRBO rental: $1,610
- Fuel $558
- In Park Food: $163 *3 “meals” in the park
- In Park Drinks: $182
- Fast Food on Trip: $219
- Groceries: $292
- TOTAL: $5,699
- Cost/Person: $814
Tickets: Annual Pass Vs Daily Tickets:
In 2017 the cost for a preferred annual pass was $385 compared to $275 for a 5 day park to park ticket. With the preferred pass you get access to the parks 1 hour prior to general public opening, free parking ($25/day value) and of course you can go all year.
For our family of 6 in 2017 getting annual passes cost $660 more in total cost. $2,310 Vs. $1,650. To me the $660 increase was easily justifiable. The first $125 would be covered just by parking, and getting access to the parks early is worth $100 a day to me, so that covers another $500. Essentially for $35 I am getting the option to come back for free anytime its convenient over the next year. Which is another interesting point. When I was originally looking into this Universal was running specials where you would get 3 months free with your annual pass, so instead of covering 12 months, it covered 15 months. Talk about value!
Universal has been steadily increasing its prices and there were two increases in the annual passes this year alone. In March they increased the annual pass prices by $50 each and literally the day before I went to buy tickets Universal increased their annual pass costs by $40 per ticket. Doh! I will give a little and say that this is not an apples to apples comparison because since 2017 Universal opened its 3rd park, Volcano Bay.
The cost for 3 park annual preferred pass tickets is now $649 each, while the cost for 3 park park to park 5 day tickets is $397 each. This is a difference of $252 per ticket, or $1,512 for our family of 6. We are also bringing my Mother In Law with and covering her ticket. She has no desire to go to the water park, so she is getting a 2 park ticket. with her ticket costing $334 for a 5 day park to park, or $539 for the annual pass, a delta of $205, bringing our total difference to $1,717.
With the difference being over $1,700 to get the annual passes, and the uncertainty of if we would have an opportunity in the next 12 months to go back, we decided against this. As much as I would like to take advantage of the early park hours, mathing this out became unrealistic. The parks open at 0900, so early admission would be at 0800. We are staying 35 minutes away. We would want to be there an additional 30 minutes early, which means leaving the house at 0655, which means everyone waking up at 0600, and with this group of people, only 2 of us would be able to do that and not be grumpy all day. So we went with the 5 day tickets since we would not be able to take advantage of the early park hours.
We planned this trip well in advance, as it required juggling the schedules of 4 adults and 3 children. Universal announced a few weeks prior to our trip that the Hogwarts express train would be down for the exact dates of our visit. Without the train the park to park tickets don’t make sense for us. Downgrading from park to park tickets provided additional savings. Our 3 park tickets dropped to $327 and the 2 park ticket dropped to $264…or so we thought. These advertised prices are “starting at” prices, and vary based upon the days the tickets will be used. All in all, adjusting for this and the taxes, our total cost for tickets was $2,675 for 7 people.
Note: Reality and planning can be different. We had a sick kid and everyone was exhausted on Day 3. We didn’t have the scheduling ability to stay an extra day so we cancelled going to the water park. It was roughly 100 degrees and 100% humidity most of the week we were there, and as fun as the water park looked, going didn’t make sense. In hindsight we could have all got 2 park 4 days tickets, which would have saved us $378.
Housing For A Trip To Universal Studios:
A long time ago my goal was to bank up a ton of Choice Hotel points (using my Choice Hotel Credit Card) for stays. At the time you could get 2 bedroom hotel suites for the same point redemption amounts as regular rooms. This was amazing for a large family. Unfortunately this practice dried up and although I have over 200,000 Choice points, I am unable to rent these large rooms. For a time there were 2 bedroom suites to be had for 12,000 points a night in the Orlando area. If that was still the case we would go with that option, but its not!
So we went with renting a house. Paying with points when you would have to get 2 rooms for a long stay is not cost effective. We originally were looking at houses to rent for around $150 per night, however the value with a higher price was well worth it. For closer to $200 a night we essentially added 2 bedrooms, a pool, and a hot tub. We rented a 4 bedroom 4 bath house for a total of $1,610 for 7 nights, which works out to $230/night. This includes the cleaning fee, Vrbo admin fees, taxes, everything. For an extra $500 total on the trip we got a place that made our stay much more enjoyable. The per person cost for this place works out to $230 for the week or $33/night.
A smart move that some people do that we did not prepare for, is rent their house out on Vrbo or Airbnb while on vacation. We live in a vacation destination area as well and have a 5 bedroom 2 bath house with a massive yard and a large above ground pool (as well as a playground in our backyard). We could have easily rented our home out for an amount virtually equal to the amount we are paying for our short term rental in Florida to have a wash cost.
This house was a 4 bedroom 4 bath house with almost 3,000 square feet. It had a spa and a private pool. This place was so much more comfortable than a hotel! We all had our own rooms, with the exception of 1 kid who had a fold out couch in a common area upstairs.
We certainly could have got a less expensive house and saved around $600 for the week, but this one was certainly worth it.
There were a few small problems with this place:
- 1 upstairs fan didn’t work
- No dish soap
- Beds didn’t match description. Worked fine for us, but would be 1 less bed for someone else (2 rooms had 2 beds and a 3rd bedroom that was supposed to have 2 twin beds has 1 queen bed)
- Distance: The distance when I mapped this place was roughly a 36 minute drive…I thought this was reasonable, however when traffic is bad this becomes much longer. We had multiple trips that were over an hour. Lesson learned, stay closer to the parks. This place was much closer to Disney, so would have worked better for a Disney vacation.
We did spend Choice points for a hotel on the way down and a hotel on the way up. We spent 10,000 points per room for 2 rooms at the Quality Inn in Manchester TN, and 8,000 points per room for 2 rooms at the Mainstays Suites in Bowling Green, KY on the way home.
Manchester Quality Inn:
I booked this place late at night while we were driving roughly 45 minutes prior to our arrival. It has a 3.5 star rating and I figured this must be an adequate place, after all, we are fairly down to earth people. This place cost 10,000 points per room and each room had 2 queen beds.
Unfortunately this place was a dump. The rooms smelled moldy, and our room had visible water damage on the wall. The poster on this wall was growing mold. The rooms were dirty and in bad repair. There was visible dirt in the AC units, and all “repairs” were obvious half assed jobs. We stayed anyways because we needed the rest and left early in the morning.
I later looked up reviews in depth and the positive reviews were mostly from a long time ago. Recent reviews “terrible” outnumbered “good and excellent” by a 4 to 1 margin. The normal rate for this hotel for a Thursday night is $76, so our point redemption value was $76 / 10,000 points or 0.79 cents per point. This isn’t a terrible value redemption, but these rooms weren’t worth $76, or even $36.
MainStays Suites Bowling Green KY:
This hotel was the exact opposite of the first one. I was not willing to have another bad hotel experience so I dived into reviews of hotels over a long distance on our route home. I looked at not just the total cumulative reviews, but also how recent the reviews were and read the reviews on both Choice’s website and TripAdvisor.
This place is a new construction hotel with nothing but positive reviews. Only 1 review I found was not excellent, and that review had nothing to do with the hotel itself. Unfortunately when I went to book this hotel it showed only 1 room left, and we needed 2. I reloaded the Choice App several times over an 18 hour period and finally got it to show 2 rooms available. I immediately clicked and booked this hotel.
The rooms are Double queen beds with a pull out couch and kitchenette. They are designed for longer stays, but are perfect for a larger family travelling. We got 2 rooms at an insane redemption value of 8,000 points per room. A hotel like this in this area on a Friday night would normally be around 25,000 points. I’m not sure why it’s 8,000, but I’ll take it! Our stay was fantastic, the rooms were extremely clean and comfortable, and as described. The normal nightly rate for these rooms is $200, so our value was $200 / 8,000 points = 2.5 cents per point value. This is an amazing value.
Fuel @ $5.25/gallon and 22MPG: This is much higher than originally anticipated. Originally in my planning fuel was around $2/gallon, now at $5.25/gallon the fuel cost is much higher. At roughly 1,200 miles each way the 2,400 mile trip requires 110 gallons of gas. At $5.25/gallon that’s $577. On a per person basis this isn’t terrible. We have 7 people going so the per person cost is $82.
In reality some of the fuel was less expensive and factoring in the local driving brought total mileage up. Total actual spending on fuel was $558. The estimate was pretty darn close! Of course your mileage may vary as most people who choose to drive to Florida are not as far as I am.
In Park Food:
I paid for 3 Coke Freestyle cups, which for 5 days of use was $182 total. Probably the most I have ever spent on soda! Water and ice are free at the machines, however if you buy pop individually it costs around $5 a can there. I was disappointed at how often we encountered freestyle machines that were either out of ice and/or the drinks weren’t cold.
Most days we packed a variety of snacks. Universal allows snacks that don’t need to be cooked into the park. Their policy is certainly not as guest friendly as Disney, however bringing snacks is a great way to save some money in the park. We packed energy bars, trail mix, pop tarts, and fruit snacks.
Pizza, Fries, 1 Coffee: We ordered a pizza, fries, and 1 coffee at Circus McGurkus for $53. We had ordered in the app and we ran into some issues with the app freezing, charging my card, and then telling me that the order was not in progress. It all worked out, but added to frustration. It was a more difficult to use program that what Disney had when we went 4 years ago. Circus McGurkus has a lot of seating and is a great escape from the mid day heat. It is also the only restaurant with a family size meal.
Fries and Chicken Nuggets: We ordered Fries and Chicken nuggets at Cafe LaBamba in Universal Studios. This place has very limited seating and was packed to the gills. They do have some outside seating with umbrellas to block the shade, so that was nice. We paid over $60 for this meal.
Fries: We paid around $50 for just fries at Blondies at Islands of Adventure. We ate an an off peak time and the place was empty. They don’t have a Coke Freestyle machine, so I went over to the Comic Cafe to refill. The Cafe is much larger and has tons of seating, but was closed for whatever reason. The building was still open with AC running and Coke Freestyle machines. The fries here were terrible. These are the lowest cost crinkle cut fries you can buy and they cost a fortune.
Eating At The House:
The House we stayed at had a full kitchen, which is of course a big difference over staying at hotel rooms. We made Pasta, burgers, baked chicken, and a few other small meals. We ended up getting into the practice for the last 2 days of eating breakfast and lunch at the house, then leaving at Noon to arrive in the park at 1, and then stay until close. This was more to avoid peak heat and crowd levels than to save on food.
I will say that even for a theme park the food is ridiculously over priced. I’m in a much better financial position that probably 75% of the people who go to Universal and I balked at the prices. They sell a hotdog and a bag of chips for $14 outside of Hogwarts! Come on! If it was closer to 50% more expensive that typical fast food they would probably make more money, rather than 3 to 5X more expensive. I would have bought 2 meals a day for 7 people if the prices were more reasonable. I think they miss out on a ton of revenue and profit by having their prices too high.
Additional Costs Not In The Breakdown:
Mrs. C. and the kids are all big Harry Potter fans. She decided with money that is all hers budget free, to buy all the kids a wand from Ollivanders Wand Shop. Wands cost about $60 for a cheap piece of plastic. It’s a gimmick. She bought herself one as well, so $300 on wands…BUT if you buy $300 in gift cards you get a free wand, so she bought $300 in gift cards and ended up with 6 wands.
Paying For the Trip:
The trip costs were split up a bit, which helped. We paid for the AirBnb in May which helped with the monthly cashflow hits and a big portion of the trip was paid with points.
I signed up for a Chase Freedom Card a couple years ago with a decent sign on points bonus specifically to build points for this vacation. In addition to the bonus I receive 1.5 cash back points per dollar spent on average. I have done the bulk of our household spending on this card. I have saved up roughly 190,000 chase points, that I will redeem for a $1,900 statement credit against this purchase.
I also have a Lowe’s Business card that I got roughly a year ago. We earn 2 points per dollar spent at Lowes and 1 point everywhere else. We have roughly 75,000 points on this card, which we can redeem for $750 in statement credit. That $750 is real money that we will transfer between our house remodel budget and our vacation budget.
- Total Trip cost: $5,699
- Points: -$2,650
- Cash Needed: $3,049
I also counted our groceries cost for the week in there, however we would have had to buy groceries anyways, so about $200 of the grocery cost is an offset, dropping our true cash needed to $2,849.
Historically I have kept a separate savings account and funneled all of my money from this blog into it to cover trips like this.
Blog Earnings by year:
- 2019: $1,574
- 2020: $1,710
- 2021: $870
- 2022 YTD: $328
- Total: $4,482
My blog side hustle has fully paid for a 3rd vacation to Florida for our family! This is likely the last one though because my blog income is on a steep decline. I either need to up my focus on blog revenue or I will be unable to finance another trip like this.
Obviously you don’t need a blog to pay for a trip to Universal, but some sort of side hustle is a great idea so the hit doesn’t hurt as bad. Mow lawns, power wash houses, whatever, find something so that the trip money has its own fund instead of coming out of the general budget.
Most people are only going to the parks with a family of four and in doing so their costs for food, lodging, and tickets will be much less. A trip for four should be able to be accomplished for around $3,000. I highly recommend using credit card rewards points to supplement the costs for trips like this. There are several credit card offers out there that have no annual fee and give over $600 worth of points for signing up. Then look at your yearly spending. Putting 2 years of yearly spending on credit cards can cover a significant portion of a trip with the points earned.
Would I Do It Again?
Probably not. At least not like this. I will not go to Florida in the summer again. It is too hot and too crowded to be able to enjoy the parks. We spent a ton of energy trying to cool off and plan around the sun trying to kill us. Mrs. C. has not wanted the kids to miss school and fall behind. Our oldest who struggled the most in school just graduated, and going forward any trips to Florida would likely be done the week after Thanksgiving. This is the lowest crowd levels of the year and highs in the high 70s to low 80s. We would drive down the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving and go to the parks the following week, with the kids missing up to 7 days of school. This next trip would be to Disney and would likely take place in 2024 or 2025.
Have you ever gone to Universal or Disney? What were your costs like?