Monday, January 15, 2018

Universal Orlando Resort Express Pass: Money Does Buy Happiness

One doesn't need science to prove that money can buy happiness. One simply needs to attend Universal Orlando Resort on two of its busier days without an Universal Express Pass the first day and with an Universal Express Pass the second day to experience the happiness money can buy.

A Universal Express Pass shares some characteristics with Walt Disney World's FastPass+, but there are also some significant differences between the two. Both passes allow the holder of the pass to get on select (typically the most popular) rides in a separate line from the regular (or "standby") line. On the busier days at the respective resorts, there can be a significant difference in total wait time for those with these express/fast passes versus those without them. The difference in wait time tends to get smaller on days when the parks are not as busy.

One difference between Universal Express Pass and Disney World FastPass+ is that the two types of Universal Express Pass are good for at least one ride on each of the rides that have a Universal Express Pass line. The Disney World FastPass+ is ride-specific and the number of these passes available to each participant is limited to three passes initially and then more can be added per day one at a time as the earlier fast passes are used.

Arguably the biggest difference between the two types of passes is the cost: either type of Universal Express pass typically (exception discussed later in this post) requires an extra fee on top of the regular day pass for the park while Disney World FastPass+ passes are included in the day's admission.

We purchased "park-to-park" (passes that allow you to move between all Universal Orlando Resort parks on the same day with the same ticket) three-day passes to Universal Orlando Resort. [Harry Potter fans typically purchase "park-to-park" passes as these allow individuals to ride the Hogwarts Express train ride between Universal Studios Florida (includes Diagon Alley) and Universal's Islands of Adventure (includes Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Castle).]

We purchased these three-day park-to-park passes from a third-party seller for $289 per person (or a cost of a little over $96 per day per person). We visited Universal Orlando Resort in the first week of January 2018, which is a busy time for both Universal Orlando Resort and for Walt Disney World. We spent time in both Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure on our first full day in Orlando so that we could experience the world of Harry Potter in both of those parks and to experience other rides in each of the parks. While the morning went fairly well, the lines got longer and longer in the afternoon. We waited a ridiculously long time for Despicable Me Minion Mayhem because riders with Express Pass were allowed in as soon as they arrived at the ride even while we had been waiting in the standby line for 45 minutes or longer. It became obvious then that our standby line was hardly moving at times to accommodate a steady stream of newly arriving participants with Express Passes.

I decided that I could not do two more days of Universal Parks waiting in longer and longer lines that were impacted by the number of Express Pass holders who wanted to ride that given ride. So, we splurged for Express Passes for our second full day at Universal Orlando Resort. The Express Pass (which does not include park admission and is on top of that price already paid) was $139 per person for that one day. That is not a typo: the Express Pass that doesn't even grant park admission cost approximately $43 more than what we paid for a day's admission to the park. In other words and to emphasize, we more than doubled our overall cost to attend the two Universal parks that second day. That sounds bad as I write it, but it was worth it! If you measure the value of your park attendance by the number of popular rides you get to ride, it was well worth twice the overall cost. We rode more than three times as many popular rides on the day with the Express Pass as we did on the day without the Express Pass. When you throw in the psychological and physical benefits of not wasting time standing around much of the day, it's even more valuable. In fact, if I have to do it again, I'll likely not buy a 3-day pass, but will instead buy a 1-day or 2-day pass and supplement it with the Express Pass.

It's important to note that not every day at Universal Orlando Resort necessarily warrants an Express Pass. We were there on two very bust days, so the benefits of the Express Pass were more obvious. Universal bases the price of the Express Pass on how busy the day is. While we paid $139 per person for the Express Pass, the Universal Express Pass website currently states that these passes start at a much lower price than that, but those are for less crowded dates. This underscores the importance of one of the characteristics of the Universal Express Pass: you must specify the date you are buying the pass for when you purchase it because the price varies based on the date to which it applies. Less popular days are less expensive, but those may be the days you don't really need it as much.

Universal Express Passes currently are offered in different forms. You can buy an Express Pass that is park specific (not park-to-park) or you can buy an Express Pass that applies to all parks. You also choose between an Express Pass that allows you to use the express line one time one for each ride supporting Express Pass or the Express Pass that allows you to use the express line as many times as you like for any given ride ("Unlimited"). The flexibility to use your Express Pass in multiple parks costs a bit more than the one that is limited to a single park and the Express Pass that allows express line usage on any ride as many times as you like costs more than the Express Pass that allows use of the express line once per supported ride. When you mix these combinations of Express Passes with the fact that the prices are based on the day for which they're to be used, it's a bit tricky to summarize the prices of each feature/day combination. The best approach is to check out the web page for the various options for the days of interest. If the cost of the Express Pass is relatively low, this seems to be a fairly good indication that Universal does not expect the parks to be as popular that day as some other days with higher priced Express Passes.

Another consideration with Universal Express Passes is whether to purchase the pass in advance or to purchase it in the park on the day you're there. The downside of purchasing it in advance is that you can run into the situation described in the blog post "Never Buy Your Universal Express Pass Online" in which the author writes, "I ... was kicking myself all day long for buying the Express Pass online before we arrived. We never used them, as there were minimal lines for every ride." As this author states, it can be a wasteful expense to purchase an Express Pass if it provides no advantage over the "standby" line. However, the week in which she traveled (mid-February) probably had a lower than average cost for the Express Pass and that lower price is a good sign that the Express Pass might not be as useful. Express Passes are sold in the parks, so one could wait to see how busy the park is before purchasing the Express Pass. One caveat to this is that the parks are not as busy first thing in the morning, so what seems like a day in which an Express Pass would be of little benefit could change around lunchtime to a day in which an Express Pass is much more desirable.

If one knows that the Universal Orlando Resort parks are going to be busy based on historical data or on the prices Universal charges for Express Passes for a given day, there are some options to reduce or eliminate the Express Pass cost. One option is to purchase a "Park-To-Park Admission + Universal Express Unlimited Combo" that includes the admission tickets and Express Pass Unlimited (the one that lets you use the express line for the same ride multiple times). That "combo" price could possibly be less than what you'd pay even with buying the admission tickets for a cheaper price at a third-party seller and adding on the Express Passes separately like we did. The 2-day park-to-park admission plus Unlimited Express Pass would likely be sufficient for many peoples' needs to ride all their favorite rides multiple times in both non-water parks. We were able to ride all popular rides in both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida in the same day (and some of the multiple times) with the Express Pass Unlimited.

Certain (typically more expensive) Universal lodging packages include an Express Pass in the lodging package. While you will likely pay more for these lodging packages than some other (and especially third-party) lodging, you get the conveniences associated with the Universal lodging and arguably might not be much more expensive overall than buying cheaper lodging and the buying individual Express Passes.

Universal Express Passes are most desirable when they are most expensive (when the crowds are the largest). The riders with the Universal Express Passes can make the wait for those in the standby line much longer than it would be if there were no Express Passes. Express Passes are most desirable in the middle of the day. We did notice on one of the Harry Potter rides at close to closing time that there were little concern about whether one had an Express Pass or not as the employees understandably seemed eager to get as many people on the ride as quickly as possible without worrying about Express Pass status.

Universal Express Passes typically reduce the wait significantly for any ride during the middle of one of the busier days; they may not make as much of a difference first thing in the morning or before closing or on significantly less busy days. The advantage of the Express Pass, just like the advantage of Disney World FastPass+ passes, also depends significantly on how the queue is structured for a given ride. If the Express Pass line merges with the "standy" line early, the value of the Express Pass is lessened. The longer the two queues remain separate, generally the better the Express Pass will be, but it's difficult to know how the rides' queues are configured until you're in them and they can change structure frequently. Some rides have a dedicated separate Express line and those will typically offer the biggest advantage over standby.

One final consideration related to purchasing a Universal Express Pass is how much one plans to ride the popular rides. If one mostly expects to attend shows, shop in the stores, eat at the dining establishments, and ride the less popular rides, the Express Pass is likely not worth its cost. The Express Pass will be most valuable to the park participant who wants to ride the most popular rides more than the other activities offered in the parks.

It was difficult for me to cough up the significant additional money to purchase an Express Pass for our second day at Universal Orlando Resort. However, when I weighed the costs of getting to and staying in Orlando and the number of rides we got for the money and the time we saved, it seemed less obscene. My opinion is that the Express Pass has made it so that the standby line at Universal Orlando Resort is almost unbearable during the middle of the busiest days. By the way, we did not purchase an Express Pass for our third day at Universal Orlando Resort because we were only there for a half day (and the morning was most of that and was relatively less crowded) and because we had ridden every ride we wanted to ride multiple times with the second day's Express Pass (including riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts four times each).

The best plan is to go to Universal Orlando Resort when it's not very busy. The next best plan that I'd recommend to anyone going to Universal Orlando Resort during its busiest days would be to purchase a park-to-park pass with 1 day less than originally planned and apply that saved cost to an Express Pass for the day or days in the park. In other words, on the busiest days, one day with an Express Pass will beat two days without express passes based on the things that are most important to me.

I'll end with one last disclaimer: the weather was too cool in Orlando the week we were there for the water park to be open and most of the rides that people got wet in were either closed or had very, very short waits. The effect of this was that some of the people who otherwise would have been in those parks or on those rides were now in the same parks as us waiting in the same lines.

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