Last week I flew to Orlando, Fla. to attend ScholarCon, an annual conference for college students in honor societies. I spoke to the students about student loans, how to pay them off and how to start your financial life after graduation.
On my off day, I decided to visit Universal Studios. My parents took me to Orlando twice when I was a kid, and I loved the rides, the mascots and the gift shops.
My mom told me the first year we went to Disney, I asked her to buy me some overpriced souvenir. My parents and I had only moved to America a few years earlier, and we were still struggling. (If I remember correctly, my parents financed the entire vacation on a credit card).
They didn’t buy me the toy, and I probably cried and I threw a fit.The next year, I was receiving a weekly allowance and had saved up for the trip. But now that it was my own money I was spending, I was hesitant to buy myself anything.
A few months later, I started receiving a small allowance and my parents reminded me to save my money for our next trip to Orlando. I was so excited to go and finally be able to buy myself whatever toy I wanted, no matter the price. But now that it was my own money I was spending, I was hesitant to buy myself anything.
This year’s trip to Orlando was like the latter. The older I get, the more I want to save money when I can. Here are some things I learned on my recent trip.
Skip the Souvenirs
For me, going to Universal was a treat in of itself, so I wasn’t tempted to spend money on souvenirs. I had already dropped $100 on a ticket, so buying a $25 t-shirt didn’t seem practical.I couldn’t believe how busy the shops were – who are these people spending hundreds of dollars on Harry Potter broomsticks? I saw one family spend $60 on ice cream – that’s more than how much I spend on groceries in a week.
But I couldn’t believe how busy the shops were – who are these people spending hundreds of dollars on Harry Potter broomsticks? And wands? I could fashion a wand out of a wooden twig for zero dollars, and no kid would be the wiser. I saw one family spend $60 on ice cream – that’s more than I spend on groceries in a week.
It’s so easy to get entranced when you’re somewhere like a theme park. Everything is so insulated, and everyone is so happy shopping that no one stops to think about a budget. My trick, when I feel overwhelmed, is to avoid buying something the second I see it. If I still like it a few hours later, I’ll come back and get it.
The only thing I bought in Orlando was a coffee mug for my husband. There’s a store at the theme park that sells Ireland-related goods, and they had coffee mugs with various Irish last names on there. I found the mug with his grandmother’s maiden name and bought it for him.
Sometimes buying something for someone you love is a treat, and studies show that we actually feel happier spending money on someone else. I felt so lucky that I could afford to not only visit the park but also afford to leave with a small reminder of it. I’m not saying you should avoid treating yourself on vacation. But food and gifts are some of the easiest ways to save money on your trip to Orlando.
Bring Food With You
I didn’t realize this until after my trip, but Universal (and other major theme parks) allow you to bring in your food and water. Can you believe that? I have to smuggle in my own M&Ms in the movie theater, but Disneyworld is cool if I bring my own 23-oz water bottle?
Of course, carrying enough food for a day can be cumbersome, so I recommend bringing a few granola bars so you aren’t forced to buy an overpriced turkey leg. I ate before I came and left right around dinner time. so I wasn’t tempted to buy more than one meal there. I still paid about $20 for lunch at The Leaky Cauldron, so I definitely could’ve saved a lot of money there.
Money saved: None
Ask the hotel for suggestions
If you’re staying a hotel with a concierge, ask them for recommendations on how to buy your theme park ticket. When I asked my concierge about getting a ticket to Universal, she told me that because I was staying as part of the conference, I received a special rate for theme park tickets. Not only did I get a conference discount, but also a youth discount since the conference was for students. Score! I only paid $107 for my one-day pass to Universal.
Not only did I get a conference discount, but also a youth discount since the conference was for students. Score! I only paid $107 for my one-day pass to Universal.
Money saved: $5 (I would have saved more with a multi-day pass, but I only had one day to explore. If you have two or more days, then a multi-day pass is almost always the better deal).
I had considered buying an Express pass so I could skip the lines. Being in Orlando is fun, but standing in line for 45 minutes by myself is not my idea of a good time (especially since I didn’t pack a small book with me).
But the concierge told me about the Universal theme park app that allows you to see how long the wait time is for all the rides. She said using the app is an easy way to save time without buying the Express pass. It wasn’t perfect – I was already in line for one of the Harry Potter rides when they had to stop for an emergency and I ended up waiting more than an hour. But if you’re on a tight budget, I recommend using the app to plan your adventure.
Money saved: $99
It was only after I arrived in Orlando that I learned there was an airport shuttle that was cheaper than a cab, but that you had to reserve it before you landed. I spent about $60 on cab rides to and from the airport, and the shuttle only cost $18. The conference also had a 10% off coupon if using the shuttle.
It pays to know what you have to book in advance – like an airport shuttle – and what you don’t – like tickets to Universal. Sometimes you might save money waiting until the last minute, but usually it’s worth your time to research your options. At least you know beforehand what you have to do.
Money not saved: $58
What are some ways you’ve saved money in Orlando? Do you have any tips on visiting the theme parks without getting gouged?