For our 2018 summer vacation, my family and I wanted to go back to Universal Orlando for the second year in a row, but the only open part of our schedule was during the first week of August — peak season, according to Undercover Tourist’s Crowd Calendar.
We hadn’t been there during the busiest parts of summer before, and I worried that we’d spend a sizable chunk of money to only get on a few rides each day, so we started researching Universal Express Pass options.
The price of the Universal Express Pass fluctuates based on how busy the parks are that day. For the dates we wanted, the cost would have been $120 or so per person, per day, in addition to the cost of the general park admission tickets. For the four of us, for the five days in the parks, it would have been $2400 just for the Express Passes. Nope.
$120 x 5 days x 4 people = $2400
I started to look at the only other way to get the Express Passes — staying at a resort where they’re included. There are only three: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. The first two cost about what you’d expect from a premier hotel, but the rates for Royal Pacific weren’t that much more expensive than Sapphire Falls, where we stayed the previous year (about two or three-hundred dollars more for the entire week). Facing the uncertainty of high crowds, we thought this was a worthwhile investment and booked Royal Pacific.
Sidenote: your hotel key card acts as your Express Pass. Get a lanyard to wear your card around your neck, as it’s way more convenient than fishing it out of your wallet for each ride.
Almost all of the rides have a general line and an Express Pass line. After you show your card to the Universal team member guarding the Express Pass entrance, you head down a different path for a shorter route to the attraction. On some rides, like The Simpsons and Transformers, you have to stare into a camera while the attendant ensures that you look like the picture that was taken of you on the previous ride. You eventually get merged into the regular line, very close to the end. As someone who appreciates the line queue experience, I was worried about missing out on some of that, but I didn’t have to. For Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the best part of the experience is feeling like you’re actually inside of Hogwarts and fortunately, the Express Pass path goes through the same rooms as the general line; while our line went straight through, hugging the left wall, the other line winded through the far reaches of each room before you can move on to the next. With most other rides, like Spider-Man, The Simpsons and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, you’re not missing much, so taking the shortcut through isn’t a lesser experience.
What we found over the course of five straight days in the parks is that for the most popular rides, our Express Pass wait averaged about half the wait as the posted times for the regular line queue (yes, we kept track to see if it was worth it). One afternoon, the posted wait time for Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem was 70 minutes, and we waited in line for about ten; I felt guilty as we strolled past the sauna-like regular line queue, as those guests were hunched over and dripping with sweat. For many of the smaller rides, such as E.T., anything in Seuss Landing, or Storm Force Acceleration, we were able to walk right onto those more often than not (less than five minutes on average).
Ok, but is it worth it?
It was definitely worth staying at the Royal Pacific to get the Universal Express access, but I can’t imagine spending anywhere from $80 to $120/day per person for the Express Pass on its own. If you only have one day in each park, and it’s during a peak attendance day, and you invested in Bitcoin early enough that money is no object, go ahead and buy it. Otherwise, you can probably get by without it.
Although it wasn’t peak season the last time we went, it was the third week in August and still moderately busy (6/10 on the Crowd Calendar). Without the Express Passes, we were able to ride every ride at least once, and we only spent two days in Universal Studios and one in Islands of Adventure. Our longest wait was around an hour for the Harry Potter rides. For the most part, we were able to use the Universal app to determine where the wait times were low and headed in those directions accordingly. Even on this trip (8/10 and 9/10 days on the Crowd Calendar), I feel like we could have used the same strategy and still been able to do everything, especially since we had five-day passes; the promotion at the time we purchased park tickets was a buy three days, get two free deal, which felt like overkill. We had been on most rides multiple times by the end of the first day in each park.
If you do decide to buy the Express Passes, don’t buy them ahead of time. You can always buy them onsite; give it a few hours in the park to gauge your wait times, then purchase them if you still feel like it’s warranted.