Welcome to our Universal Orlando Resort summer 2019 trip report! This trip was mostly a chance to visit the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, but will also mark the beginning of our coverage of Universal on this site. This post focuses on booking the trip, including how I hacked my way to over $230 in savings.
About This Trip Report
This trip report covers an August visit to Universal Orlando Resort. As it includes much coverage of the new Hagrid’s attraction, it should be largely useful for the coming months. However, note that as the holidays ramp up, you’ll want to be aware of how they impact your trip. In particular, Halloween Horror Nights is a huge event at the resort beginning September 6.
Trip reports usually supplement our existing coverage, but in this case we are building a significant amount of content based on these visits. Although we’ve visited before, we’ve never done so as serious bloggers. As a result, you might feel like the ride times and photos are similar to, say, our one-day itinerary posts.
I decided it was still worth doing the separate trip report, though, because some people enjoy the less formal nature of trip reports and are just here to see what a trip looks like, not to plan one themselves. Here are all the posts in this trip report (links open in new tabs and skip this introduction):
Universal Orlando Trip Report Part 1 — Picking and Booking Universal (this post)
Picking Universal Orlando Resort
This was a pretty last-minute trip. I was looking to cover the weekend of August 3-4 and some surrounding dates, and I didn’t book until July 29.
Emily was going away on a bachelorette weekend, so this was a solo trip. That meant Tokyo Disney Resort, a Disney Cruise, and Aulani were all out, because I wouldn’t want her to miss out on those. Disneyland and Walt Disney World were also out because I have enough visits to them planned and needed to work on other content.
I originally wanted an international destination—either Disneyland Paris or Shanghai Disneyland. There were no cheap flights to Paris on such short notice, and there weren’t any good options using points or miles. This beauty will have to wait...
Shanghai had a low cash rates in economy and a few decent business options with points or miles at first, but as I delayed booking, I was eventually left just with United’s old 777-200 with 2-4-2 business class. I wanted business class on the way back from Shanghai so I could sleep easily, but I wasn’t about to use my miles for a sub-par business class experience.
Universal Orlando had been on my radar for a while. As it’s a common aspect of Walt Disney World trip planning to look into Universal, I get a lot of questions about it. Despite the fact that some “fans” freaked out about me deciding to visit a non-Disney park, the reception on social media was overwhelmingly positive, so I’m happy I took the trip.
Picking My Ticket
This is a weird thing, but blogging about water parks with one person is difficult. You’ve got to leave your stuff behind, and some rides require multiple people. I also don’t like water parks, and I don’t really feel 100% comfortable as a solo male at them. So Volcano Bay won’t be a part of this trip.
This left me looking at 2-park options. I needed park-to-park to ride the Hogwarts Express and because I would cover park hopping at some point. This is when I came upon my first big find.
A three-day 2-park ticket (below) was priced (pre-tax) $304.99—the same price as a 2-park seasonal pass (above). The four-day ticket I’d need would be $319.99, more than the seasonal pass. The seasonal pass was blocked out in July (among other dates), but completely a fine option for my trip.
Since I paid for the seasonal pass in full and would pay for any future upgrades in full, I can always upgrade a seasonal pass to a better pass later if I need to (granted, I will have missed out on a few days of food and merchandise discounts). So that’s about $15 saved on the ticket by upgrading to a seasonal pass.
(Note: This doesn’t always work at all parks. At Disneyland Paris, for example, the lowest level of annual pass is blocked out the two days after you get it to prevent people from using this exact “hack.”)
Picking My Hotel
I knew I wanted to stay at and review a Universal hotel. I didn’t need the premier hotel perk of Universal Express Unlimited. In hindsight a split stay would have been a good idea. I forget how long five nights is.
The cheapest option was five nights at Aventura Hotel for $931.52 (Cabana Bay was priced similarly). I almost booked myself, but I make the better decision to send an email to my go-to travel agent, Lauren Quirk.
I mentioned in the email that I didn’t need tickets because I’d be purchasing an annual pass when I get there. Lauren got back to me and told me that as long as I had the annual pass at check-in, the Universal agent would let her book me an annual passholder rate of $714.38.
In essence, by upgrading from a four-day ticket to a season pass I was saving $15 (plus tax) on the ticket and $217.14 on my hotel stay, a total of over $232 dollars.
The only rub was that I needed to activate my pass by entering a park before I checked into my hotel. This shouldn’t usually be an issue with a 5:55PM landing time. But, well, you’ll see in part two how this went.
I bought my annual pass using my American Express gold card in order to guarantee access to the American Express Lounge at Universal Studios Florida (nothing special, but has free bags of chips and miniature bottled water), paying $324.82 including tax.
I asked Lauren to book the Universal shuttle from MCO for me. Personally, I’d prefer Uber, but I was planning to review the shuttle experience. The price is $39 per person, roundtrip, which is enough to make it a poor value for even parties of two.
Finally, I found an okay flight price on United, roundtrip to MCO, for $281. It was basic economy, but I didn’t care about seat selection and was flying with a personal item only. I paid with my United Explorer card to get priority boarding.
One small thing—if you book United Basic Economy you typically have to go to the check-in desk first for them to confirm your personal item size unless you buy a checked bag. This is a stupid extra step. Paying with my United Explorer card entitles me to free checked bags (that I don’t use), so United goes ahead and disregards this check.
And just like that, my trip was booked. Total price (assuming all goes well with my hotel discount):
$281 roundtrip airfare
$325 2-park seasonal pass
$715 five night hotel stay
Total: $1,321 for five nights, four full days solo at Universal Orlando Resort