If you plan to visit the Universal Resort in Orlando at any point in time, I highly recommend purchasing Universal Express passes along with your theme park tickets. These passes let you skip the regular lines, and they were instrumental in giving my family an enjoyable, stress-free vacation.
The regular Express Pass costs as little as $20 per person, but you can only use these once per ride per day. If you want more bang for your buck, you should get the Unlimited Express pass, which lets you use the Express line as many times as you want, all day. I know, I know, they cost extra money on top of an already expensive vacation.... but honestly, I would much rather stay at the resort for 2 days and splurge on the Express passes than stay at the resort for 4 days without them, because you can enjoy the same amount of rides (or more) in a fraction of the time, with zero stress.
In fact, those Express Passes are so useful, I would recommend staying at a Universal Orlando Resort on-site hotel (Loews Portofino, Hard Rock Hotel or Loews Royal Pacific) so you can get the benefit of free Unlimited Express Passes.
But on-site hotels are so expensive, you say. True, you do pay a premium to enjoy the benefits of staying so close to the Universal theme parks.
Or do you?? The free Unlimited Express pass benefit for on-site guests is so huge, it actually pays for itself. I let my inner geek take control and did some simple calculations to see whether the free Unlimited Express Pass is really worth paying more for an on-site hotel.
Option A: Stay at a nearby hotel, purchase park tickets with Unlimited Express Pass
I used rates from the Holiday Inn Orlando, which is just across the street (walking distance) from the Universal Orlando Resort (note, I have nothing against the Holiday Inn, in fact this one is a Universal Partner hotel, I'm just using it for comparison purposes). The rate for a standard room, checking in on 9/19/13 and staying for 3 night,s is $92 per night. Also, I used rates for tickets+Unlimited Express from the Universal Orlando online ticket store, for 2 adults and 2 children ($697.96 for 1 day, $939.96 for 2 days, $1097.96 for 3 days).
$697.96 + $92 = $789.96
$939.96 + ($92 *2) = $1123.96
$1097.96 + ($92*3) = $1373.96
Option B: Stay at an on-site hotel (with free Unlimited Express Pass), purchase standard park tickets
I used rates from Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which is an on-site hotel. The rate for a standard room, checking in on 9/19/13 and staying for 3 nights, is $201 per night. We stayed at the Royal Pacific, and it's one of the nicest hotel resorts we've been to (check out photos of the Royal Pacific on my Flickr page!). Also, I used rates for standard tickets from the Universal Orlando online ticket store, for 2 adults and 2 children ($500 for 1 day, $567 for 2 days, $617.96 for 3 days).
$500 + $201 = $701
$567 + ($201*2)= $969
$617.96 + ($201*3)= $1220.96
..... and the winner is, Option B!! Staying on-site is still cheaper, even when you compare it to an off-site hotel that's half the price. And this doesn't even take into account the non-quantifiable benefits of staying on-site, like early admission to the park, complimentary merchandise delivery to your room, and an amazing hotel that really makes you feel like you've stepped into another world:
Note, I didn't take any taxes and fees into account in either option, and these are off-season prices, so the actual cost and savings will vary. I also didn't take into account any park ticket discounts you might be able to find. Also, the Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino are slightly more expensive ($228 and $251 per night, respectively, for the same dates I used in the calculations above).
You might find a really cheap hotel or stay with your Aunt Agnes and get to use her car for the week. Your kids might order room service and drive the bill up tenfold. You might decide not to bother with Express Passes because you like waiting hours in line. In other words, I can't promise that staying on-site will always be cheaper than staying off-site and purchasing the Unlimited Express passes online. But it can be.
My point is, don't let the higher cost of a Universal Orlando Resort on-site hotel discourage you from staying there. The benefits of staying there could more than justify the extra cost! Do your own cost-benefit analysis similar to mine to see actual dollar amounts before you make a decision.
Disclosure: I did not receive a sample or monetary compensation for this post. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.