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Saving time and money at Universal Orlando: Top 12 tips, tricks, and secrets

You’ve reached our famous list of the top 12 easiest ways to save time and money when visiting Universal Orlando Resort! Utilize these tips when hitting up the three parks – Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay – to maximize your time and save money while on vacation.


1. Buy your admission in advance

The number-one easiest way to save money and a heck of a lot of time is to purchase your theme-park tickets and Express Passes in advance. Here’s the information right from Universal Orlando’s website:

Benefits listed on Universal's website to purchasing tickets in advance
Benefits for purchasing your tickets in advance

When you purchase your admission online through Universal’s website, you receive a $20 discount over the gate prices for multi-day passes. (Please note that the discount is already applied to the pricing you see on the site.) This is absolutely a win-win situation for you – you can save a ton of money and you don’t have to wait in the terribly long lines at the ticket windows!

Long line to purchase tickets at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Please don’t get stuck in these lines. Buy your tickets in advance!

Also, when you buy your passes online, you can print them right at home and go directly to the turnstiles.

2. Understand what it means to buy your tickets “in advance”

Electronic Will Call Kiosks area at Islands of Adventure.
Electronic will-call kiosks at Islands of Adventure

If I buy my admission in advance, how far ahead do I have to do it to get the discounts and $150 savings voucher?

Here is something very few guests know: to purchase passes in advance, you do not necessarily have to buy them 24 hours or more before you arrive – you can literally be standing at the gates of Universal Studios Florida and call Universal instead of waiting in the ticket line (and you’ll get that $20 discount off of a multi-day ticket, as we just discussed!). You will then be given a confirmation code to use at the electronic will-call kiosks.

3. Buy the less expensive ticket and upgrade later

As long as you are purchasing your tickets directly from Universal (whether it be online, over the phone, or at the gates), you can easily upgrade them at Guest Services. This is important to note because, if you are not sure whether you want to get, say, a three-day ticket or an annual pass, buy the less expensive option – this way, if you decide you want more, you can just pay the difference and upgrade. Just keep in mind that you must upgrade while your admission is still valid; in other words, if you have a three-day ticket and you want to upgrade to an annual pass, you must do it by the end of day three – otherwise, your ticket will expire, and you will have to pay full-price for any additional admission.

If you are buying your passes from a third-party reseller, be sure to ask specifically about how to upgrade, as some third-party ticket options and other promotions may not be eligible for upgrading.


4. Know what you want before you buy, and avoid heavily discounted tickets

Universal Orlando and the other theme parks clearly state that ticket sales are non-refundable and non-transferable, so be sure you know what you want before you make a purchase, and, again, choose the least expensive option if you are not sure (see the tip above). Also, be aware that you cannot legally transfer ownership of your partially-used tickets to another person or to a third-party vendor; if you do so, the person who ends up buying the remainder of your admission may not be able to use it – that’s why the parks take a biometric scan of your finer.

By the same token, if you are offered heavily-discounted tickets, and all you have to do is meet someone behind a Red Lobster to get them (we actually had a friend who had to do this), you are probably not going to get legitimate passes. In this case, you are most likely buying partially-used tickets or the complimentary ones given out to Universal’s team members, and you may not be able to gain admission to the parks with either of these – and, just as bad, you likely won’t have recourse to get your money back.


5. Purchase VIP tickets or stay on-site instead of purchasing regular Express Passes

Universal's Aventura Hotel exterior
Universal’s Aventura Hotel, in all her sleek and modern glory

This is a great trick that can get you unlimited Express Pass access or accommodations at one of Universal Orlando’s on-site hotels for about the same amount of money you already were going to spend on admission and regular Express Passes.

We give an in-depth explanation for how this works here: Get unlimited Express Passes for what you are already paying.


6. Consider booking your visit as a vacation package

If you are booking an off-site hotel room as part of your Universal Orlando vacation, consider going the full vacation-package route instead; you will likely end up paying close to the same as you would, anyway, for the hotel and theme-park tickets, but you will get the added benefit of Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay.

(Please note that if you are staying on-site, you get Early Park Admission no matter how you book your hotel room.)


7. Use Universal’s Coke Freestyle program

Coke Freestyle cup at Universal Orlando Resort
Coke Freestyle cup at Universal Orlando Resort

Plan on doing a lot of soda drinking during your hot, humid day touring the parks? Then this tip can save you boatloads: if you purchase a Coke Freestyle cup, you get unlimited refills for the remainder of the day. Even better, since the Freestyle machines offer several different basic flavors, there’s over 100 taste combinations possible, meaning you can keep trying out different drinks nearly every single time you fill your cup back up.

There are a few limitations to this thirst-quenching program, we should probably note: you’ll need to wait 10 minutes in between refills; there may be a line of other thirsty guests waiting at the Freestyle machines, meaning that refills may take a little bit of time to acquire; and the units located at CityWalk and the on-site hotels won’t work with the cup you purchased inside the theme and water parks. (And if you just want to get some water, you’ll still need to have a Freestyle-compatible cup.)

Still, even with all of that said, the ability to make your money back five or six times over is absolutely there, and you can add on additional days at a discounted rate. Depending upon how much you like soda, this may very well be a can’t-miss opportunity for you and your family.

(You can read much more about Coke Freestyle and all the other refill programs Universal offers in our complete guide.)


8. Bring a backpack and rent a locker for the day

You may carry your extra items for your theme-park day, like additional clothes and sunscreen, in bags and backpacks of a reasonable size – you just cannot bring any bags with hard sides or wheels, like a cooler, into the parks (soft-sided coolers are allowed if they’re no larger than 8.5″ wide x 6″ high x 6″ deep). And, of course, you cannot bring any weapons or alcohol onto Universal property at all.

Packing a bag is a particularly good idea if you plan on going on water rides, or if you are visiting during a time of the year when the temperature changes considerably from day to night. For example, when we are going to Mardi Gras in February at Universal Studios Florida, and we know it will get cold in the evening, we’ll bring a bag with jackets to the parks and rent a locker. After we stow our gear, we head over to Islands of Adventure and play for the day; then, in the evening, when we come back to Universal Studios for the parade and/or concert, our jackets are waiting for us in the locker. This is a great way to avoid spending $50 per person on Universal sweatshirts.

There are lockers at the front of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure and all throughout Volcano Bay. They can be rented for a flat rate for the day (around $14), and you may open and close them as many times as you want. See our complete locker guide for more information.


9. Get a Universal Dining Plan or pack a light lunch

Unfortunately, Universal no longer offers its unlimited meal plan, called the Universal Meal Deal, which was replaced in 2013 with the two current Universal Dining Plans. These new plans don’t make it quite as easy to save money, but if you know what you’re doing, you still might be able to save a couple of dollars. Also, there are a few other circumstances for which using the plans might be very useful – we explain everything in our complete insider’s guide to Universal’s dining plans.

If members of your party are not satisfied with quick-service food, or if you’re just looking for more inexpensive eating options, you can also bring snacks with you; Universal only states that you cannot bring “picnic lunches or food that requires heating or refrigeration” into the parks (although we see guests bringing in picnic lunches quite often).

One more tip about food and drink: Universal will give you tap water for free basically anywhere that beverages are served, and there are, of course, several water fountain locations, to boot. Finally, guests can carry plastic water bottles, sports drinks like Gatorade, and, even, backpacks with water pouches (like CamelBak) into the parks.


10. If you are buying Express Passes at the park, do so after you get inside!

The Express Pass kiosks outside Universal's Islands of Adventure gates attract long lines.
The Express Pass kiosks outside of Islands of Adventure’s gates attract long lines

Whenever Universal Orlando is moderately busy, temporary Express Pass sales kiosks are brought out and placed at the very front of the entry area to the theme parks – and because these are so visible, they usually attract long lines. That’s why you should know there are additional kiosks just steps inside the gates to both theme parks, and since guests usually want to rush to the attractions after waiting to get through the turnstiles, these extra Express locations inside the park entrances usually have no waits at all. We took this picture literally minutes after the picture above:

Universal Express Lines inside of Universal's Islands of Adventure
Universal Express Lines inside of Islands of Adventure

If you don’t know much about Express Passes, be sure to check out our complete guide.


11. If you are an AAA member or use American Express, bring your cards with you

For AAA members, most restaurants at Universal offer 10% off food purchases, and while this may not seem like much on any one single transaction, over the course of three or four days the savings will certainly add up. (And don’t forget that some of the full-service restaurants at Universal’s on-site hotels also offer an AAA discount.)

American Express is the official credit card of Universal Orlando, and to celebrate this partnership, its cardholders receive certain promotions throughout the year; to see the latest, click here. Cardholders also receive private access to the American Express Lounge inside Universal Studios Florida, which is located near Classic Monsters Cafe (just be aware that, to gain entry, you’ll need to have purchased a multi-park ticket or annual pass with your card directly from Universal); inside, guests can take a “relaxing break,” enjoy complimentary light snacks and drinks, and have a full-time concierge at their disposal.

The American Express Lounge is open seven days a week, from noon to 5:00 pm and is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.


12. Address your grievances before you leave

Guest Services inside Universal Studios Florida
Guest Services inside Universal Studios Florida

No service or venue in the world is perfect, and Universal (or any theme-park operator, for that matter) is no different – rides break down, team members have bad days, and Murphy’s Law doesn’t take a vacation like you do.

If you happen to have a negative experience while you’re in the parks, don’t let it fester in your mind and ruin your trip – simply visit Guest Services at the front of the theme or water parks and let them know what’s up. Chances are good that they’ll acknowledge the shortcoming and work with you to rectify it.

First tip: try to address your grievances while you’re still at Universal (versus once you get home). Often, Guest Services provides solutions that will be useful to you right then and there, like getting an Express Pass for a ride; if you’re already home, then chances are whatever they offer will only be useful on your next visit, and, for many families, that could be years away.

Second tip: the lines for Guest Services inside the parks are usually much shorter than the lines outside the parks. So, if possible, get inside the turnstiles before you head there.

Do you have a question about the information on this page, would like to provide feedback, or did you spot an inaccuracy? Please let us know by posting in our Universal Community Facebook group.