Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Buck With a Family of Six in Orlando

We just returned from a fun-filled vacation in Orlando, Florida, where we visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in both Universal Orlando parks, spent a day at Discovery Cove and a day in SeaWorld. My friend asked me for Orlando tips, so I’m sharing them here in case other people are thinking about an Orlando vacation.

First tip is to start saving up for Orlando! A theme park vacation isn’t cheap, even with deals and discounts. We’ve been planning and setting aside vacation money the past two years for this trip. But with these tips I share, you’ll be able to stretch your Orlando budget further.

My advice is to leave your little kids at home! I knew our 2-year-old would not enjoy our crazy parks schedule, and she wouldn’t remember it anyway, so off to Grandma’s and friends she went. If you do bring a toddler, the only perk is that they’re free until age three. But honestly, I think the youngest age that would enjoy Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) is 6 years old.

I recommend reading this book: Universal Orlando: The Ultimate Guide to the Ultimate Theme Park Adventure by Kelly Monaghan — it was so helpful to plan out a smooth vacation at Universal, and it has the latest WWoHP tips.

Orlando Transportation
We decided against a rental car. Because we were staying near the parks, we could walk everywhere, and the parks charge a ridiculous $15-$20 for daily parking, plus there are a lot of toll roads, so it was much more economical and efficient to just hire an airport shuttle service.

I booked Mears Transportation to get us to and from the airport to our hotel. They offer a 10% discount to book online (code is WEB10), and the return trip is always discounted. It was cheaper to hire a luxury van to transport the 6 of us, rather than a shared shuttle van. Our driver was very prompt and got us quickly to our hotel.

In the middle of the week, we switched from our hotel near Universal Resort to a hotel near SeaWorld, so we tried out Uber ride service, and I was very impressed. I found a $20 off code for my first ride, so our 20-minute van ride cost me 81 cents plus tip! Uber drivers aren’t allowed to pick up from the Orlando MCO airport, but they are the perfect solution to getting around Orlando. If you want to try them out, use my invite code, dt6x0, and get a free ride up to $20. I was a bit skeptical, but after trying out Uber, I’m a believer. Download the app, pay for your ride, and your driver will show up within minutes.

Speaking of transportation, your feet will be your primary mode of transportation, so wear good walking shoes. I can’t believe how many people in theme parks wear uncomfortable shoes, ranging from high-heeled wedges to leather boots. Function over fashion, people! Fitbit told me we walked about 24,000 steps each day, which is 10 miles, so be kind to your feet.

My Hotel Requirements
When searching for hotels near theme parks, I only consider a hotel if it meets my criteria:

  1. Free breakfast
  2. Free parking
  3. Walking distance to theme park
  4. Sleeps 6 people (2 doubles/queens and a pullout sofa)
  5. Comparatively inexpensive

There are plenty of hotels that fit this description. They’re usually no-frill hotels, which are just fine, since we’re gone most of the day at the parks. Marriott Springhill Suites is my favorite.

Universal Orlando Resort Hotels and Tickets
The cheapest on-site hotel at Universal Resort is Cabana Bay, and their rooms fit 6 people, but it was still pricier than nearby hotels, plus on-site hotels don’t have free parking or free breakfast. I found a great hotel package off-site: we booked a Universal Partner hotel which gave us early entry to Universal Studios, free breakfast, free parking, was much cheaper than an on-site hotel, and was just a short 15-minute walk to the gate. In order to get the early entry perk, you have to book the hotel through Universal Studios as a vacation package, and buy your tickets at the same time you book. When I searched online, Universal didn’t offer any hotels that would sleep 6 people, but when I called Universal, they easily found a 6-person suite at Comfort Suites on Major Boulevard. So if you don’t find what you’re looking for online, make an old-fashioned phone call.

Our main reason for this trip was going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so getting early entry into Diagon Alley to beat the crowds was our priority. When you walk to Universal, you’ll enter by valet parking. We didn’t buy the park-to-park tickets that included the Hogwarts train for an extra $50 because our friends said it wasn’t worth it, and I’m glad we didn’t. If you don’t book a Universal Vacation Package, be sure to still buy your admission tickets online—they’re about $20 cheaper per day than at the ticket booth. There are a handful of hotels within walking distance to Universal Orlando Resort. And this website has good tips to save at Universal Orlando.

Islands of Adventure
We visited Islands of Adventure (I of A) the first day, where the older Hogsmeade  is located. I checked the crowd calendar online to find the lower crowd days. I of A opened at 9 am– we were in line to the park at 8:30 am so we could easily get onto Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. Then we went on the little roller coaster called Flight of the Hippogriff and then rode The Dragon Challenge, which spins and goes upside down. (I got motion sickness that lasted the rest of the morning. Yuck.) We spent an hour and a half in Hogsmeade and saw it all, including the frog choir, so we went on the other rides in Islands of Adventure the rest of the day. We especially enjoyed the water rides, Seuss Landing, and the Men in Black ride. Bring ponchos and an extra pair of shoes for the water rides—you WILL get drenched.

Universal Studios
We spent our 2nd day in Universal Studios. Currently, only Universal Studios offers early admission. We got in the park at 7 am (yes, 7!). We went straight back to the new Diagon Alley and rode Escape from Gringotts—it was excellent. The entrance to Diagon Alley is just like the book and movie, with a red brick façade blended in with other shops near Kings Cross Station. The Knight Bus with an interactive shriveled head is right outside Diagon Alley too. Touring WWoHP with avid Harry Potter fans like our kids was extra insightful, since they pointed out the details like Sirius Black’s apartment near the entrance. In Diagon Alley, we went to the Ollivanders Wand Shop show where our son was picked out to receive a wand. We loved interacting with the goblin at the Money Exchange, and the wand tricks were more plentiful and interactive in Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley is much bigger than Hogsmeade, and has a more relaxed feel. We enjoyed Beedle the Bard show and simply wandering the cobblestone streets and browsing through the shops. Outside Diagon Alley, we especially enjoyed Minion Mayhem, the Animal Actors show, and the Curious George ball room in the Kids Zone. We went back to Diagon Alley at the end of the day and rode Gringotts again and enjoyed more shows, butter beer, wand tricks, and strolling around. If you only have one day, I’d choose Universal Studios.

Wands, Butterbeer, and Popcorn

Butterbeer consumption
Butterbeer consumption

WWoHP sells interactive wands for $50 each. Fortunately, we were able to borrow our friends’ wands, but if I had spent $50 on one, I would have felt ripped off. There were little magic tricks around WWoHP that our younger son loved performing. Frozen butterbeer is $6.50 and regular butterbeer is $5.50 Frozen was our favorite. Buy the souvenir refillable popcorn bucket at Universal for $5.99 and get $1.29 popcorn refills the rest of your stay. (Totally worth it for my daily Diet Coke and popcorn breaks.) We came home craving frozen butterbeer so we spent the weekend trying out different recipes. (Our favorite version so far is cream soda mixed with French vanilla ice cream, topped with real whipping cream mixed with butterscotch topping).

Universal Dining
Dining in any theme park is expensive, even with counter-service fast food. Entrees were around $10-$15 (not including sodas or sides). Instead, we ate our lunches outside the parks, at the fast food places in City Walk, which is Universal Resort’s shopping and dining area and it’s literally in between the two parks entrances—like less than 100 yards. We found better food and cheaper prices in City Walk at Moe’s, Panda Express, and Menchie’s than in the parks. When we stayed at Comfort Suites near Universal, we ate dinner at the Waffle House and Wendy’s. There was also a Walgreens nearby that was like a mini grocery store to stock up on more snacks in the evening.

Discovery Cove
At Discovery Cove, we snorkeled with real-life sea creatures, fed birds in the aviary, swam around the lazy river, and enjoyed endless breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Spending the day at Discovery Cove was so relaxing, after two rigorous days at Universal Parks. Discovery Cove turned out to be our family’s favorite day in Orlando.

You might have sticker shock when you check the ticket prices for Discovery Cove, but book the non-dolphin swim package during off-season/off-peak dates, and you’ll get a great deal. It includes all-day dining, PLUS 14 “free” days at SeaWorld and Aquatica. We went to SeaWorld the next day, so dividing the Discovery Cove ticket price into 2 days, plus one day of free dining, comes out cheaper than two days at Universal parks. If you want to visit Discovery Cove but don’t want to spend any time in SeaWorld or Aquatica, you can buy one annual SeaWorld pass (to any location) and then get up to 6 guests into Discovery Cove one time for $99 each. You’ll need to call to make this transaction.

SeaWorld Hotel
Biggest tip for SeaWorld is to stay in a SeaWorld Official Hotel Partner for a lot of free perks. We stayed in Marriott Springhill Suites across the street from Sea World with a big, fun swimming pool. The room was a good price, the Marriott breakfasts are always tasty, and it was a short 15-minute walk to Sea World. Perks of staying at an official partner hotel included:

  1. Quick queue passes – this was the best! It got us entry to the front of the line on several attractions, including Sky Tower, Journey to Atlantis, Manta, Kraken, and Wild Arctic. You can buy these passes for $19 in the park, so for my family of 6, we saved $116 by getting free quick queue passes just because we stayed at a partner hotel.
  2. Free behind-the-scenes rescue tour at Sea World
  3. 10% off all dining purchases in Sea World by showing our hotel partner room card.
  4. Free shuttle to and from SeaWorld from the hotel.
  5. Early entry to SeaWorld and Aquatica on select days.

You’ll need to ask for these perks—the hotel doesn’t necessarily volunteer this information at check-in. You can only book these perks in person at the Expedia Concierge Desk in the Sea World partner hotel when you arrive. It’s free to book with the concierge—just tip her because she’s helping you save a lot of money.

SeaWorld Dining
Eat a big free breakfast at the hotel. Take in lots of snacks, and water bottles. You can fill up water bottles at any Coke station throughout all the parks. We bought lunch in SeaWorld, and then stopped for dinner on our walk back to the hotel. Springhill Suites SeaWorld has plenty of inexpensive restaurants near within walking distance–Firehouse Subs, Mellow Mushroom, and Panera Bread. There is a CVS in the same parking lot as Springhill Suites.

When to Visit Orlando
We visited Orlando this time in mid-October specifically because it was cooler temps (80s) and smaller crowds. In past years, we visited Disney World and Sea World in Orlando in January, just after New Year’s, and found off-season prices on hotels with smaller crowds then too. We also visited Disney in late April (after spring break crowd) and mid-May and the temps were nice and the crowds were manageable then too. High-crowds time in Orlando to avoid is spring break (March and April), summer months, and Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks. Theme park tickets are so pricey that I do not want to waste my day standing in long lines, so it’s worth it to miss school in order to minimize crowds. Even the busiest rides were only a 20-minute wait in mid-October.

Souvenirs
Buy them outside of the park! We totally scored on souvenirs in the Walgreens clearance section, near Universal. ­Walgreens in Orlando carries a lot of Disney souvenirs especially. And even a bit of Harry Potter gifts. For example, I was tempted to buy an owl at the Owlery at Wizarding World of Harry Potter for $40. However, that night I found the same plush owl at Walgreens for $5.99! Yes, please.

Enjoy your Orlando vacation!

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