There’s a term in the world of theme parks: The Potter Swatter.
The idea is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was such a breakthrough for Universal Orlando Resort — both in terms of theming and the huge crowds it has brought in — that Walt Disney World needs its own massive land with a beloved intellectual property in order to combat it …
The Potter Swatter.
That fact alone should tell you how much Universal has upped its game in the last decade. Universal’s a true competitor to Disney for your vacation dollars, and for my vacation dollars.
Last month, my girlfriend and I decided we wanted to get out of the Pittsburgh cold and head to Florida. And our first destination: Universal Studios.
Here’s how I accomplished the best value for our winter trip, and you can too …
1. Pick a slow time of year
This one goes out to all my people who have been to Universal in the middle of summer.
Here’s to the 90-minute wait times! Here’s to spending those 90 minutes in a big ol’ switchback line, soaking in that sweet Central Florida humidity! (I mean, literally, soaking.)
Our trip had nothing of the sort, thanks to it being a Thursday, Friday and Saturday in January.
Admittedly, we got lucky. On that Thursday, it rained through most of the morning before clearing up the rest of the day. That little bit of rain was enough to keep the crowds away.
We walked onto Spider-Man. We walked onto Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Hell, if it weren’t for the (marvelously-done) pre-show for the Escape From Gringotts, we could have walked onto that too.
The longest line we waited in during our trip was Saturday, around 40 minutes for the low-capacity Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.
Since we only had three days to hit the parks, the light winter crowds were the key to making sure we hit all the attractions we were aiming for.
Heck, if it weren’t for all the Brazilians, we would’ve almost had the place to ourselves. (Fact: Brazilians flock to Florida in January like Steelers fans flock to any road game. Park workers put out almost as many Portuguese maps as they do English maps.)
2. Consider using Chase Ultimate Rewards points for park tickets
Back when Islands of Adventure first opened in 1999, a one-day/one-park ticket cost only $46.64.
Not anymore, pal.
Nowadays, the same 1-day ticket runs $114. And for Potter fans who have to see both Hogsmeade *AND* Diagon Alley — helpfully connected by the Hogwarts Express — go ahead and shell out $169.
It’s Harry Potter’s world, and we are paying for it.
However, I was able to take advantage of Universal’s current “Buy Two Days, Get Two More Days Free” offer.
I also used some Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay for a good portion of the tickets. Helpful tip: you can use Chase points to pay for any portion of the tickets you’d like, from one point to the whole kit and caboodle.
And if you know what a ‘caboodle’ is, please drop me a line.
3. Stay at off-site hotel, and walk to the parks
You can’t stay off-property at Walt Disney World and walk to the parks. You just can’t do it. Just like you can’t take a stroll from San Francisco to Alcatraz.
But I didn’t realize until this last trip how close Universal’s on-site hotels are to the parks. All of these are a 25-minute walk from the hotel front door to that famous Universal globe: Fairfield Inn & Suites, DoubleTree by Hilton, Holiday Inn & Suites, Hyatt House, Hyatt Place, Clarion Inn & Suites.
We picked the Hyatt House, which is officially opened last August, and only cost $125 per night. And I picked up some always valuable Hyatt points.
The good news is crews were building a pedestrian bridge over the concrete monstrosity. By the time you read this, it may be ready for action.
The rest of the walk is quite pleasant, taking you past the (far, FAR more expensive) Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel.
The best part of the walk: there’s almost no wait for security at the end. The path dumps you off at the Valet Parking lot, where security lines are slimmer than Ariana Grande.
4. The Starbucks in the parks do take gift cards
I know, I was surprised by that too.
5. Lyft from the airport, rent a car there
Since we built the first half of our trip around visiting Universal, I felt no need to rent a car from the Orlando International Airport, an experience that often sticks you with longer wait times than you’ll find at any theme park attraction.
Instead, we took a Lyft. Quick pickup. $28.56 fare before tip. And it got us from baggage claim to Hyatt House in 24 minutes.
But we still needed a car to get from Universal to Sarasota to visit my Dad. Fortunately, each Universal on-site hotel has an Avis car rental kiosk in the lobby.
I set it up so we could spend our Saturday in the parks, then take a quick walk over to the Hard Rock Hotel, grab the car, and at the end, return it at the Avis at Tampa International Airport.
Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. (Cover Girl.)
Using all these strategies, I saved hundreds of dollars.
I proceeded to spend all that money on butterbeers in Hogsmeade and big pink donuts in Springfield.