Where to stay? I say stay on property. My room at Endless Summer was cheap ($80 a night), albeit the rooms are not soundproof and I likely won’t return because of the noise. Everything else was great though, and it’s a nice hotel with a great pool. Haley has stayed at Cabana Bay, the other Value that’s not much more, and recommends it. So I say stay at Cabana Bay.
The “Deluxe” resorts then jump up by hundreds of dollars a night. If you don’t need the Express Pass perk or the nicer accommodations, you probably don’t need to go that option. But they are nice, and people generally have good things to say about Universal Hotels.
Off-property though, you can stay cheap. We’ve stayed at the Holiday Inn across the street for $65 a night and taken their transportation or Uber to the parks, and it was fine. Bonus, we had an Applebee’s to go have happy hour at when the parks closed early and it felt like everything was free after spending money on $11 theme park Blue Moons 😉
How many days? If it’s the slower season and you are an energetic bunch, you could get both Universal and Islands of Adventure done in one day with the hopper ticket. Meaning you could get up at 7am, Uber from Disney, and then Uber back to Disney that night. And probably feel good about it. Otherwise, I vote taking two days at the parks and taking your time. Boys and teens tend to love Universal parks, so possibly even three for these groups.
Universal to/from Disney transport? Uber is around $20 if you don’t need car seats. Car seat options will of course near double, but I’d just Google to see all options.
Park-to-park (hopper) ticket? They try and get you since the only way you can ride the Harry Potter Hogwart’s Express is with a park-to-park ticket. I don’t like to give spoilers, but I was very unimpressed at the actual train ride. The coolest part is just watching it pull up in the station. Otherwise, meh. You don’t need to do park-to-park if you’re trying to save money. Save your dollars and skip it.
Express Pass? Skip it and just have a touring plan if you are going during slow season – it’s not necessary. If it’s busier season, that’s up to you. Make sure to do the math on the option of just staying at one of the Universal Resorts that gives free Express Pass with a stay. You’ll sometimes even save money AND get a nicer resort out of it.
How to tour? I’ll eventually write an Insider’s Guide to Universal (!), but for now, here are some ideas to help you:
– If you’re planning on doing both parks in one day (regardless of how many days you’re doing) I vote to start with IOA and then save Universal for the second half of the day if you’re hopping. Start with Hagrid’s in IOA, and then you’ll want to keep an eye on the King Kong ride and The Hulk. If it’s slower, it’s not going to be too difficult to just feel out wait times and work your way around the park. But I’d plan on doing Hagrid’s + the rest of Harry Potter Land in IOA first, and then save the other headliners for the end of the day if possible. End in Universal and plan on saving Despicable Me as your last ride of the evening.
– If you start with Universal, I’d either start at the front of the park with Despicable Me first, then do other nearby rides, including The Mummy within the first 1-2 hours of opening. Then I’d work my way around the park potentially saving Harry Potter Land until the end of the day if lines for Gringott’s are long.
Food – at Universal, there are a number of food trucks/stalls that aren’t really advertised much on the internet. This currently includes an Arepas truck, Crepes stand, Sweet & Savory Waffles stand, and a Taco Truck in The Simpsons Land. All of these are great options with more “fun/wild” theme park food offerings (and better quality, IMO). If you like more healthy or whole options, go with Today Cafe. I still haven’t eaten at one of the sit-down restaurants in the park yet, but I’ll probably pick the classic Mel’s Drive-In first.
At IOA, the Green Eggs and Ham Cafe is sort of hidden in Seussland and has some interesting and delicious looking options. Make sure to check out a menu. Thunder Falls Terrace is what I like – it’s like a Flame Tree Barbecue – and huge portions. You can sit outside and watch people come out of the big drop on the Jurassic Park adventure ride – it’s fun! Go over to Toon Lagoon if you want more burgers/nuggets/pizza type of options. For a sit-down, Mythos restaurant has won awards for being “best theme park restaurant in the world” from credible sources.
CityWalk – not super kid-friendly, so if I was a mom of kiddos, I probably would have dinner in the parks or at CityWalk and then just leave. There is not even as close as much as there is at Disney Springs. Where would I eat? Toothsome (families or any age) or CowFish (definitely adults or foodie types). Both are good!
Again, this is just a quick summary of some thoughts for people that requested it. I look forward to doing a lot more coverage and then drafting an actual guide in 2021/2022 (come on, world!). Hope this helps even if a bit!