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Universal Studios 3-Day Trip on a Budget


 The trip that I have dreamed of taking for years finally happened last November. I grew up reading Harry Potter and waiting in lines to get the books when they first released. I will break down where we stayed, the cost, what to splurge on, and what to skimp on when you go to Universal Studios.

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Where to Stay: Cabana Bay Resort

Cabana Bay Beach Resort:

This resort is a value hotel that has a retro theme throughout. You can experience Universal Orlando® for less and still receive the perks. This prime value hotel offers family suites with kitchenettes, or standard rooms, plus tons of recreation for kids and adults.

The resort has two huge pools, a lazy river, bowling alley, and more. The bowling alley and game room are NOT included in the price of the resort. We never visited those areas because we spent as much time as possible inside Universal Studios.

Exclusive Benefits to staying at Cabana Bay:

  • Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, one hour before the theme park opens (valid theme park admission required)-Island of Adventure

  • Complimentary shuttle buses and walking paths to both Universal Orlando® theme parks and Universal CityWalk®

It is definitely worth it to get into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour before. The complimentary shuttle buses make it a breeze to get to the parks and the restaurants at Universal CityWalk.

The decor is retro and fun. If you are wanting a romantic atmosphere this is NOT the place for you. We wanted a fun environment with early admission to the park, and a cheap price. This resort fit the bill!


The rooms range from $152.10 for a standard room to $363.60 for a two-bedroom suite. We chose the standard room because it was just the two of us on this trip. There are food services available inside the resort for an added expense. The gift shops are very nice as well.


Fly or drive

Orlando, Florida was about a 14 hour drive for us. We had time to split it into two days so it wasn’t too bad. Flying wasn’t in our budget at the time. I did like having our vehicle with us so that I wasn’t stressing over luggage space or picking up a rental car. Some areas offer great prices for airfare to Florida. Ours doesn’t, unfortunately. 🙁

Once we paid for the gas, hotel rooms, and food for the trip to Orlando and back home, we paid about $500.


How many park days

Most people combine Disney World and Universal Studios trips. I didn’t. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was my main attraction so I wanted 3 park days to see it all. . .more than once. 🙂 That may sound like a lot, but there is SO MUCH to see and experience at Universal Studios. Universal discounts admission prices the more days you go to the park.

The park-to-park 3-day pass was the ticket for us. (You can’t ride the Hogwarts Express without a park-to-park ticket). The cost for this ticket is $255 per person.


What time of year to go

This is a tricky topic. We are both teachers so we can only go when everyone else is going. . .peak season. The trick is to save a couple of personal days to take prior to a break and enjoy the parks before the crowd hits. We went to Universal in November the Thursday before Thanksgiving break.

Our park days were Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. On Saturday and Sunday the parks were empty. We didn’t have many lines longer than 10 minutes. On Monday, the crowd hit. Everyone was on their break so it became packed very quickly. Thank goodness we rode our favorite rides several times on Saturday and Sunday.

I don’t have any experience visiting Universal Studios at any other time other than November. The weather was perfect. I needed a light jacket in the morning and then it warmed up by lunch time. The nights were the same, a light jacket was all I needed.


Souvenirs are expensive. . .pictures are free!

What I thought would happen:

I had every intention of purchasing a Harry Potter shirt, wand, hat, and everything in between. I even told myself that this was a special trip so I would splurge on the items I really wanted.

What actually happened:

When we arrived I learned very fast how EXPENSIVE souvenirs are. I refused to spend $50 on a wand. The tee shirts were $30 or more. Instead, I took a lot of pictures that were FREE. 🙂

Pack accordingly

We went to Universal Studios in November. The weather was mild in the afternoons. I wore capris, tee shirts, and tennis shoes every day. I brought a light jacket for the morning and evening.

We were only caught in the rain once, and it was after dinner. I suggest bringing a poncho to keep in your bag. You will need tennis shoes for sure. My husband wore sandals the first day, and his feet were killing him by the end of the day.

Depending on the time of year that you go I suggest bringing:

  • tennis shoes

  • socks

  • capris/shorts

  • tee shirts

  • ballcap

  • small purse/backpack

  • sunscreen

  • poncho

  • bottled water

  • light jacket

  • bathing suit for the pool at resort

What to splurge on: Butter beer (non-alcoholic)

I didn’t shell out the cash for souvenirs, but I did buy tons of butter beer. It is absolutely delicious! It ranges from $5-$7 depending on the type. I wanted to try all types. . .numerous times! 🙂

The best, in my opinion, is the frozen and the hot butter beer. The hot butter beer is only available during the chillier months inside the restaurants. It’s definitely worth a taste! 🙂

Give me ALL the butter beer!



The themed restaurants are mostly for the experience. At least they were in my opinion. We didn’t eat at many restaurants inside the park. The Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Cauldron are pictured below. These are the two “famous” restaurants from Harry Potter (so of course I had to try those). The food was good (not great), but it was pricey. You are definitely paying for the experience.

The Universal CityWalk is where the tasty restaurants are located. My favorite is Antojitos. It’s a Mexican restaurant with a fun atmosphere and yummy food. The price is reasonable as well. We visited Antojitos twice during our 3 night stay at Cabana Bay. It was that good!

The Hard Rock Cafe was fun as well. There was music playing, and the memorabilia on the walls were fun to look at while waiting for the meal. Here is a list of the restaurants inside Universal CityWalk:

  • Ben and Jerry’s

  • Blaze Pizza

  • Bob Marley a Tribute to Freedom

  • Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

  • Buca Di Beppo

  • Camacho’s Cantina

  • Cinnabon

  • Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar and Grill

  • Dongpo Kitchen

  • Emeril’s

  • Hard Rock Cafe Hollywood

  • Hot Dog Hall of Fame

  • IT’Sugar

  • Jamba Juice

  • Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville

  • Johnny Rockets

  • Karl Strauss Brewing Company

  • KFC/Pizza Hut Express

  • LudoBird

  • Panda Express

  • Pat O Brien’s

  • Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs

  • Popcornopolis

  • Red Oven Pizza Bakery

  • Saddle Ranch Chop House

  • Samba Brazilian Steakhouse and Lounge

  • Smashburger

  • Sparky’s

  • Starbucks

  • Subway

  • Taco Bell

  • The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf

  • The Crepe Cafe

  • The Flame Broiler

  • The NBC Sports Bar and Grill

  • The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen

  • Tony Roma’s

  • Vivo Italian Kitchen

  • Wasabi

  • Wetzel’s Pretzels

  • Wolfgang Puck Bistro

What you can bring in the park with you

A small backpack and a small travel purse (like one that can fit under your clothes) is needed inside the parks. The backpack and purse needs to be small to fit inside the lockers at each ride. Each day I packed our little backpack with bottled water, trail mix, granola bars, and other snacks. We usually didn’t eat breakfast because we went to the park so early.

It was also nice to have a bottle of water on hand so we didn’t have to search for a drink station. There are many drink stations spread out in the parks. If you purchase a special cup then you can fill it up an unlimited amount of times during your trip.

Sunscreen, chapstick, ziplock bags, a small towel (for damp seats or sweaty brows), antibacterial wipes are just some of the other items that I carried inside the backpack and purse.


Use the lockers

The fingerprint lockers are easy to use and easy to access. If you have a small backpack/purse then those will fit inside the lockers that are available at most rides/attractions in the park. It doesn’t take much time to put your belongings in the locker and jump back in line for the ride. No worries. 🙂


Park-to-Park Ticket

Hogwarts Express at Universal Studios

The Hogwarts Express is so fun and adds authenticity to the Harry Potter experience. A park-to-park ticket must be purchased to be able to ride the Hogwarts Express because it travels between the two parks. It goes from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley. It’s DEFINITELY worth the extra cost.


Express Pass

The Express Passes are kind of confusing but basically they get you through the line faster by offering a second “Express Pass” line to the ride. The problem is if 1,000 people purchased Express Passes for the time that you are visiting the park then the Express Pass line will be just as long as the regular line. See the issue? There were many times when the Express Pass line was the same length as the regular line while we were at Universal.

I suggest riding the most popular rides first thing in the morning and in the evening when everyone leaves for dinner. Those are the times that the ride lines are shortest.


Best Rides/Attractions

The rides at Universal Studios and Island of Adventures are amazing. Some rides are geared towards children (I still rode them ha!) Here is a list of my favorite rides at each park.


Universal Studios Florida:

  • Everything in Diagon Alley

  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

  • Transformers in 3-D

  • Revenge of the Mummy

  • The Simpson’s Ride (sit in the front)

  • Shrek in 4-D

  • Men in Black Alien Attack (shooting game)

Island of Adventures:

  • Everything in Hogsmeade

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

  • Dragon Challenge

  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster (closed while we were there but looks awesome!)

  • Skull Island Reign of Kong NEW

  • Spiderman Ride

  • Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall

Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios
Escape from Gringott’s Universal Studios Florida
Howarts at Universal
Hogwarts: The entrance of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Island of Adventure
Spiderman at Universal
Spiderman Ride Island of Adventure
Transformers Ride at Universal
Transformers Ride in 3-D Universal Studios Florida


There you have it. A fun-filled, action packed trip to Universal Studios Florida! Have you ever been to Universal? What did you think? Let me know of any tips/tricks that you have from your trip. 🙂

Go check out my posts about Packing for 2 Weeks with Carry on Only and Planning a Vacation on a Budget for more travel information!


25 thoughts on “Universal Studios 3-Day Trip on a Budget

  1. Sounds like you had a lovely trip! I have never been to Universal Studios let alone Florida in general! I hope to go with the hubby some day because we really want to go see Disneyworld! We have only been to Disneyland in Cali!

    1. We enjoyed “savoring” our time at Universal. A lot of people spend a week at Disney and squeeze Universal into one day. Just too much to see! Thanks for your feedback. 🙂

  2. I’ve never been–I’ve only been to Universal Studios in Singapore…which I think is quite different! I love theme parks though, and I think my planning style is very similar to yours–how to experience as much of the parks as possible while spending my money as strategically as possible! 🙂

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