What’s the point of going to school in Florida if you’re not going to take advantage of how close you are to the best theme parks in the world? If you’re looking for a staycation, a fun day trip, or just want to get out of the ‘Ville for the weekend, head down to the parks.
The only thing that usually stops people from visiting is the price. It doesn’t have to be that way. As an Orlando-native, forever annual passholder, and current intern at one of the biggest theme parks in the world*, I know a thing or two about getting around the parks, especially on a budget. Here are 5 tips to get the most out of your mini-vacations on the cheap.
1. Buy a refillable souvenir cup
If you’re a big soda drinker, I have news for you –– it’s going to cost you a hefty penny at the parks. When a single drink is nearly $4, it will add up quickly if you’re at the park all day. Save your time and money and buy a refillable souvenir cup. The day you purchase the cup, you get unlimited refills, and every activation after that is just under $10.
At Universal, the drinks can be refilled at the Freestyle machines, which has over 100 different sodas, or the ICEE carts –– yes, ICEEs are included! Even if you don’t plan on going to the parks that often, it’s called a souvenir cup for a reason –– at least you will have a souvenir to remember your awesome time! The Universal Orlando Resort parks all feature these affordable cups, but the Disney Parks unfortunately do not. However, if you ever find yourself staying at a Disney resort, they will have souvenir cups that will be refillable until checkout! The refills will start to pay for themselves in no time.
2. Skip the hotel, do the day trip
Gainesville is less than 2 hours away from every single major theme park. It might seem like a lot to do in one day roundtrip, but the amount of money you’ll save from skipping the hotel could pay for another day trip ticket to the park easily.
If one day isn’t enough for you and don’t want to make the trip down twice, use Expedia or Airbnb to find a cheaper place off-property. BUT, if it’s a special occasion and you’re willing to spend a little dough for the sake of an unforgettable trip, stay on property. Guests who stay at the premiere resorts on property receive complimentary express passes which enable you to skip the long lines. That in itself is worth it, not to mention the luxury rooms, relaxing pools, and ability to walk from your room to the park in just a few minutes.
3. Go in the off season
Any of the Orlando theme parks can be completed in just one day if it’s the right time of year. You’re going to spend most of your time in lines if you go on a busy weekend, major holiday or over summer break. If you’re sticking to the day-trip plan, you need to make the most of your day and complete as many attractions as possible.
By going in the off season, you can do an entire park in not just one day, but sometimes one morning. Once I went to Magic Kingdom on an off-day, and I completed every ride by 1pm. Not sure when it’s busy or slow at the parks? Undercover Tourist has crowd calendars for every major theme park in Orlando. The calendars provide an estimation, so they are not always 100% accurate, but they are helpful in planning your mini-cation so you can gage when it will be busy.
4. Take a backstage tour
A VIP Tour might not be in the budget, but that won’t stop you from a tour of your own. At Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, some of the rides offer secret backstage tours that are totally free.
At the Jurassic Park Discovery Center there is the Nursery Tour, at Men in Black: Alien Attack there is an Immigration Tour, at the Hard Rock Cafe at CityWalk there is the VIBE tour, and many other rides have their own secret tours! Simply ask the Team Member at the front of the ride if there are any Team Members available for a tour, and they will tell you where to go from there. If the ride is not busy and someone is available, you’re in for a treat! This is especially perfect if you’ve been to the parks before and want to try something different.
5. Combine your meals
Eating at the parks can be pretty expensive, and it adds up quickly. No matter what, always eat breakfast at home or your hotel if you plan on being there all day. If you rush out the door and skipped it though, don’t worry –– there’s a Starbucks at nearly every park. But when it comes to lunch and dinner, at nearly $15 for a basic quick service meal, excluding a beverage, you’ll end up spending over $35 on food for just one day. And that doesn’t even include drinks or snacks you might want throughout the day.
Instead of having two quick service meals, snack throughout the day and have one big late-lunch/early dinner at a nicer sit-down restaurant. I know what you’re thinking: I can’t afford that! Yes, you can. Most of the restaurants in the park have meals around $20. That is just $5 more than the quick hamburger you would have got twice! Even with tip, you’ll end up saving money and you’ll eat a much better meal.
If you’re at Magic Kingdom, take the monorail to one of the resorts for an unforgettable meal. If you’re at Universal, leave the park and go to CityWalk if you don’t know where to eat! There’s a Burger King, Moe’s, Panda Express, and delicious sit-down restaurants waiting for you. My personal favorite: Cowfish’s bento boxes. They fill you up for just $16, which is just a little more than a burger in the park. Trying to go even cheaper? Bring your own snacks and sandwiches to the park!
If the line for the turnstiles to get into Universal Studios is too busy, walk over to Blue Man Group and make a right by Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. where you will find an empty entrance that many people don’t know about. The entrance only opens later in the morning, usually around 11a.m., but my favorite thing about the entrance is using it as an exit when the whole park is trying to leave at once through the main exit. It’s much quicker, and you can get to your car and back to Gainesville sooner than you thought!
Now that you know how to make the most of your trip on the cheap, what are you doing still reading this for? Go have fun!