4 Ways to Save Money at Universal Orlando This Summer

Harry Potter Diagon Alley
John Raoux/APShops on Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.
Orlando's theme parks have been pretty crowded this summer, once again positioning the country's top tourist destination for another season of record attendance. A generation ago, a trip to Central Florida basically meant a trip to Disney (DIS), but these days it's hard to ignore what Universal Orlando is up to just a few exits northeast on Interstate 4.

Between the magnetic Harry Potter attractions at both Universal Orlando parks and parent company Comcast (CMCSK) continuing to expand with new hotels and attractions, a trip to Orlando now doesn't seem complete without checking out Universal's fast-growing resort.

Universal attracted 16.4 million guests to its Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure theme parks combined last year, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. That's a sliver of the 51.5 million turnstile clicks that rival Disney generated across its four Disney World theme parks, but momentum is the key here. Disney World's attendance rose 3 percent last year, according to Themed Entertainment Association. Universal Orlando experienced a more robust 8 percent spike.

A day at any of the major Central Florida theme parks doesn't come cheap. We covered ways to save money at Disney World a couple of weeks ago. Now let's go over a few of the ways to make Universal Orlando more bearable on your pocketbook.

1. Know your ticket discounts. Universal Orlando's latest rate increase kicked in back in March. A one-day ticket to either park will set you back $108.63 (that's with tax included), and if you want to experience the Hogwarts Express -- the richly themed train experience that connects the two parks -- you will have to pay $156.56 for a one-day ticket that includes access to both parks.

Aggressive discounts were easy to find several years ago when Universal Orlando was desperate. Steep markdowns were offered at area supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and fast-food chains. That's obviously not the case now. There are still some deals to be had, but they won't shave more than a few bucks off your entrance fee.

If you belong to the AAA driving club, you can get a discount at the gate or by buying your tickets in advance. Military discounts are offered for those buying in advance. Florida residents can get a discount, but only on multiday or annual passes.

2. Find an annual pass holder. If you have friends in Central Florida, you may want to ask them if they have an annual pass to Universal Orlando. If they do, you may want to tag along. Annual pass holders can get guests in at a 10 percent discount. Depending on the type of annual pass -- they vary in price from $239 to $479 before tax -- other perks may include free parking and discounts on food and merchandise.

It may be tempting to get an annual pass yourself if you plan to visit the park for more than a couple of days. Annual visitors may even want to consider buying a pass, and timing the trips so they take place within that 12-month span. However, at the very least, hitting the park with a pass holder has its benefits.

3. Load up on souvenirs before you arrive. If you're traveling with young children, know going in that the parks are loaded with stores. Some rides even exit through gift shops, something that Universal and other park operators have learned from the theme park mavens at Disney.

The easiest advice is to resist the temptation. No one needs a souvenir. However, if you feel that resistance will be futile, it may make sense to stock up on discounted character merchandise ahead of time. Universal Orlando is full of licensed properties: Marvel, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park have entire sections of the parks devoted to the popular franchises, and odds are that you can load up on related merchandise at a discount if you shop around before you arrive.

4. Stay at a non-Universal resort -- unless it makes financial sense. Universal now has four lavish hotels at its resort. It's building a fifth. They're not cheap, but perks include complimentary transportation to the parks (saving guests on parking fees) and early entry. Three of the four hotels even allow guests to bypass the lines at most of the rides, something that day guests have to pay at least $35 extra per person to buy.

Work the math and staying at a Universal Orlando hotel may not be outrageous, at least for the days in your vacation when you plan to check out the parks.

However, with hundreds of lodging options in the area offering more than 90,000 hotel rooms, it certainly doesn't hurt to shop around. If the math favors an off-site property, make the most of it and take advantage of the cheaper restaurants available outside of the resort.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He's also spending the summer in Celebration, Florida, covering the industry at mouse level. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. And check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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