2019 - Universal Studios Survival Guide on a Budget
So you want a magical day at a popular Southern California theme park, but want to do so without breaking the bank. Thankfully Universal Studios Hollywood is the perfect candidate for a theme park experience that can be affordable and accessible, for locals and natives alike.
Park Tickets: like Disneyland in Anaheim, park tickets will likely constitute the bulk of your visit’s cost. One-day tickets are typically $130 or so at the gate, but unlike Disney buying online at least in a day in advance can save you money for the same days’ admission up to $20. We would almost never suggest this option, as a 2-day ticket is often only $10 more and allows you to take your time (or return at the end of a day of LA touristing to revisit or make up some missed attractions). If you do plan a 1-day only trip, keep an eye on Coke cans and grocery counters in the area—you can find generous discounts and coupons on these items in the off season. College students specifically can find special pricing at their campus if they attend one of the schools listed here: http://www.universalstudioshollywood.com/college/.
Furthermore, annual passes are often an excellent value for locals or multi-day visitors to Los Angeles, as Universal often runs “Buy a Day, Get a Year Free” style promotions. Lower tiered season passes start at $149—and while subject to blackouts, your first day is not, so it’s like buying one day, and paying an extra $20 for the luxury of returning on a rather generous offering of others for an entire year. Even the lower tiered passes usually only block out weekends in summers and winter holidays, providing excellent value to locals and even multi-day visitors not eager to exhaust the park in one rushed day.
Parking: unlike Disneyland, you do not have to use on-site parking as your only option. Parking at Universal costs $25 per day—a hefty investment if you’re not planning a dawn-through-dusk adventure. Thankfully Universal is extremely accessible by public transit. You can park your car (for free!) at LA Metro Line station and take it to the Universal Studios stop, where a free tramcar will take you up to the hill to the CityWalk entrance. Not feeling up for a transit tour of LA? Due to the high cost of on-site parking and central-city location, it may be possible to find local street parking and either walk or Uber/Lyft to the park at a lesser cost—again, up to your time and effort to spare. If you’re staying near site, you’re best walking—while none of the options are attached to the CityWalk/resort, many of the local hotels are easily walking distance and cost < $200/night in the off-season.
Attractions: unlike Disneyland’s Fastpass, the Universal Express priority line pass is not included with your park ticket and costs $70-120+ surcharge for a day, for one time only at each attraction. Our recommendation to hit short lines on a budget is to come on a less crowded day.
Merchandise: Universal’s merchandising is abundant, but thankfully their IPs outside of Harry Potter have abundant availability at retailers like Target, Sanrio, etc. Grab your Spongebob tees before arriving on site and come prepared for some higher quality mid-tier temptations. The best Harry Potter merch value we found were the cardigan sweaters, which are made of real wool and held their own in genuinely cold (by SoCal standards) weather—they are pricey, but less ‘theme park tax’ for the relative rarity, use beyond souvenir, and quality of the garment.
Bottom Line? A one-day ticket almost never pays off, even if you’re only visiting LA. Skip the front of line pass and plan for less crowded days and give yourself the flexibility to visit in pieces to minimize your spend and still get the ultimate Universal experience for less!