A DIFFERENT KIND OF MAGIC: Tales of a Disney Fan on a Universal Vacation | Chapter 2: Universal Express Pass vs. Disney’s FastPass+

In the first article of this series, we focused on the booking process, the planning and build up to your trip, and the general logistics of a Universal Orlando vacation and how it differs from a typical Walt Disney World trip. Today, we are going to look at an area where Universal tends to outshine Disney in the eyes of many guests, the Universal Express Pass. This skip-the-line style pass is very different from Disney’s FastPass+ system. There are multiple versions of the pass at varying price points and availability, and depending on the time of year and crowd levels, it can be the most important thing to consider when planning your trip.

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Express Pass is NOT FastPass+

Disney’s FastPass system essentially allows guests to make a reservation window for a ride. They can return to the ride during that reservation window and wait in a much shorter line for the ride. The new FastPass+ system Disney released a couple of years ago allows guests to make up to three of these reservations for each day of their trip in advance. Once the three advance reservations are used, guests can make new reservations, one at a time, for additional attractions. This system is made available to all Disney World guests as part of their park admission. There is no additional cost for FastPasses. The Universal Express Pass is NOT a Disney FastPass.

The Universal Express pass is a skip-the-line style pass. Attractions at Universal have separate line queues for Express Pass holders just like the FastPass lines at Disney. That is where the similarities end. First, Express Pass doesn’t require a reservation. If you have an Express Pass, you simply enter the Express Pass line and ride the ride. No reservation. No returning an hour later, and, usually, very short wait times. How does it work so well? That is the second big difference. It works because not everyone has an Express Pass. Where Disney makes FastPass+ available to all guests for free, the Universal Express Pass is a paid add-on in addition to your park ticket. So, it is a big trade off. One way or another, there is a cost associated with the Express Pass, but that cost is what makes it work so much better than the FastPass system.

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Understanding The Universal Express Pass

There are a few different versions of the Express pass available at varying price points. It is important to determine which version you need for your day in the park.

Basic Express Pass: A basic Express Pass can be used ONE TIME PER RIDE ONLY at participating rides and attractions. The basic Express Pass can be added to a single day single park ticket starting at $34.99 per person. If you have a 2-Park ticket allowing you to visit both theme parks in a single day, you can add the basic Express Pass starting at $39.99 per person.

Unlimited Express Pass: The Unlimited Express Pass can be used an UNLIMITED NUMBER OF TIMES at
participating rides and attractions. This pass can be added to a single day, single park ticket starting at $49.99 per person. If you have a 2-Park ticket allowing you to visit both theme parks in a single day, you can add the Unlimited Express Pass starting at $59.99 per person.

There are two important points to consider when planning your trip and deciding which Express Passes to get. First, these list rates all say “starting at” for a reason. The Express Pass prices are on a surge based pricing model similar to the hotel room rates. During the busier travel seasons, the Express Pass prices are going to be higher than in the slower seasons. Second, one of the biggest perks of staying at one of the on-site Loews deluxe resorts (Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, or The Hard Rock Hotel) is that they include a FREE Unlimited Express Pass with your room. This is a big deal. It is very important to compare all of the rates and pricing including what you will pay for an Express Pass. It is often cheaper to stay at one of the deluxe resorts which include the Express Pass than it is to stay at a lower level resort (Cabana Bay or Sapphire Falls) and pay for the Express Pass separately.

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How important is the Express Pass?

So that leads us to some big questions about the Express Pass system. How important is it to have an Express Pass? Is it worth the extra cost? How will it ultimately affect my vacation experience?

The easy answer is yes. You do want to have some version of the Express Pass if at all feasible. If your budget is really tight and you are looking for ways to cut back, you really need to examine when you are traveling and what crowd levels are generally like during that period. If you are going to be in the parks during a peak travel season, this is not something you want to skip out on.

Our spring break trip was during a moderately crowded travel period. We saw wait times at 75 to 80 minutes for many rides. With the Express Pass, those 80-minute lines turned into 5 to 10-minute lines. This makes a huge impact on your overall experience, particularly if you are traveling with smaller kids. If you are traveling during less crowded seasons and the average wait times are 20 to 40 minutes, then the Express Pass may not be as much of a necessity.  Universal does a very good job building up the story of a ride with immersive queue lines. A 20-minute wait in a line is sometimes needed to fully experience all a ride has to offer.

So while the value and the expense of the Express Pass may vary based on when you are traveling, its overall importance remains the same. Determining whether or not your family is going to need an Express Pass on your vacation is the first thing you need to decide when planning a Universal trip. That decision is going to affect which hotel you choose, how many days you need, how you plan out your days, and even when and where you eat. Without an Express Pass, a lot more planning will need to go into what attractions you ride, when you ride them, how to navigate the park, planning dining around long wait lines, and when to take breaks to rest your feet. Standing in place for long periods of time can be much more taxing on your feet than actually walking.

It is also worth mentioning that there are a handful of rides at Universal Orlando that don’t accept the Express Pass. Most notable are the main Wizarding World rides – Harry Potter and The Escape from Gringotts and Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey as well as The Hogwarts Express. These rides see some of the longest wait times in the parks. There are always tips and tricks to avoiding these lines, however. To experience these rides without waiting in long lines takes a bit of strategy and planning. In our final article in this series, we will take a look at some tips for planning your days at Universal Orlando. We will show you how to navigate the wait times with and without an Express Pass, and we will discover the magic of the transportation options at Universal Orlando.

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