Is Universal's Express Pass worth it? TPG tested how much time it really saves you in line
When I visit Universal Orlando, I expect to spend some of my time waiting in line. It's as inevitable as the fact that I'll eat something ridiculous like a doughnut sundae with hot fudge on top. The difference is, I would have no problem spending time with my delicious doughnut sundae, but I have a big problem with spending most of my day in line.
That's why I'm a huge fan of the Universal Express Pass – Universal's version of a skip-the-line pass that lets you bypass the traditional standby line on most Universal attractions and hop in what is usually a much shorter line.
To test just how good the pass is at saving you time in line, I headed to Central Florida with fellow theme park aficionado and TPG's Content Operations Editor Madison Blancaflor to put the Universal Express Pass to the test in a TPG-style head-to-head competition.
This test was styled similarly to the one TPG did using Disney Genie+ and Lighting Lane, which are Disney's current skip-the-line options. Buying access to Disney's Lightning Lanes was found to save three hours in line and allow for the completion of six additional rides over just waiting the old-fashioned way.
Would Universal's more expensive Express Pass rate at least as well as Disney's version? There was only one way to find out.
I was lucky enough to draw the magic wand and test out a day using the Universal Express Pass while Madison was chosen to stand in regular lines all day as a "muggle," a task she happily accepted in the name of hard-hitting research.
Here is everything you need to know before securing a Universal Express Pass -- including how much time it saved, how many more rides I did with it and an answer to the age-old question of ... is it worth it?
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Universal Express Pass basics
Universal Express is a skip-the-line pass that lets you skip the standby line on most (but not all) Universal Orlando attractions and use a specially marked "Universal Express" line. Because not all visitors purchase or have access to Universal Express, it can drastically reduce the amount of time you spend waiting in line via the shorter queue devoted exclusively to guests with the Express Pass.
You can purchase an Express Pass as a ticket add-on, or certain top-tier Universal hotels come with included Express Unlimited Passes for everyone registered to the room. We'll dive much deeper into all of that shortly.
Also know that while many attractions at Universal Orlando are eligible for Express Pass, there are exceptions.
Notably, for our test, both Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Jurassic World VelociCoaster, two newer and very popular rides, were not eligible for Express Pass. Jurassic World VelociCoaster has since been added for Universal Express access.
Our goals and testing plan
Our goal when comparing having a Universal Express Pass to not having a pass was to mimic a normal — but busy — day at the theme park.
We started the day when the gates opened but ended the test at 5 p.m. even though the parks stayed open several hours later. There were other "rules," too, like no running or power walking (with one exception) and you had to stop for some breaks, just like on a normal park day with a family.
We spent the night before our big day in one of Universal's on-site hotels to take advantage of the early park access benefit for hotel guests. Our test day had an official park opening at 9 a.m., which meant 8 a.m. for Universal Resort guests.
We awoke before sunrise to be as close to the front of the pack as possible and arrived at the gates of Islands of Adventure by 7:15 a.m. This meant we were toward the front of the crowd when the gates swung open at 7:45 a.m., thus officially beginning our testing day.
We knew knocking out Hagrid's and VelociCoaster (neither of which offered Universal Express) before the regular day guests started rolling in at 9 a.m. was imperative to keep both of our wait times as low as possible — and we were right.
If we had delayed at all in getting to Hagrid's, we would have faced a 245-minute wait, which is just a fancy wait of saying about four hours would have been sucked with one attraction.
Our other priorities for the day at Islands of Adventure were Skull Island: Reign of Kong, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Cat in the Hat and the Hogwarts Express train to Universal Studios Florida.
Once at Universal Studios, our priorities were Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Men in Black Alien Attack, E.T. Adventure, Transformers: The Ride-3D, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.
Not to spoil the results, but I had enough time to add Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious – Supercharged, too.
Related: Universal Orlando’s new theme park, Epic Universe, back on after pandemic delay
We didn't try to do everything in the parks and, with the exception of (safely) hustling to Hagrid's when the gates first opened, we followed all of our self-imposed rules to keep the test relevant to a normal visit. As a nice bonus, this meant that after our first couple of rides, we stopped for a full breakfast with butterbeer in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
How much time I saved with Universal Express
Between when the gates opened to us at 7:45 a.m. and our quitting time at 5 p.m., I rode 15 attractions – seven in Islands of Adventure and eight in Universal Studios Florida.
Without the Express Pass, Madison rode only eight rides – five in Islands of Adventure and three in Universal Studios.
Including breaks, during our nine hours of riding, I averaged 1.6 rides per hour to Madison's 0.8 rides.
Getting on twice as many rides in a day certainly makes Universal Express look initially appealing, but let's break it down a bit further.
To start our day, we first did two rides that didn't accept Universal Express together. I didn't gain any ground on Madison with my pass until after we got off VelociCoaster, enjoyed breakfast and went to our third ride, Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
I flew through that line in only 10 minutes while Madison waited for 38 minutes. This difference pretty much set the pace for the rest of the day.
By the time Madison enjoyed Kong, I had already completed The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. We then caught up with each other while I was taking a quick detour to get my photo taken with Marvel heroes Wolverine and Cyclops.
She chose to forgo the 75-minute wait for Spider-Man and we walked together to The Incredible Hulk Coaster. Madison missing some rides due to longer standby waits was another theme of the day. The gap only continued to widen from there.
Here's a chart showing how it all went down with Express Pass versus without the pass.
|Ride||Line type for Tarah||Tarah's wait||Madison's wait||Posted standby wait||Time saved|
|Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure||Standby.||48 minutes (the ride had a delayed opening).||48 minutes.||N/A.||N/A.|
|Jurassic World VelociCoaster||Standby.||46 minutes.||46 minutes.||N/A.||N/A.|
|Skull Island: Reign of Kong||Express.||10 minutes.||38 minutes.||40 minutes.||28 minutes.|
|The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man||Express.||14 minutes.||Didn't ride.||75 minutes.||61 minutes.|
|The Incredible Hulk Coaster||Express.||17 minutes.||56 minutes (single rider).||90 minutes.||39 minutes.|
|The Cat in the Hat||Express.||3 minutes.||Didn't ride.||5 minutes.||2 minutes.|
|Hogwarts Express: Hogsmeade Station||Express.||5 minutes.||47 minutes.||45 minutes.||42 minutes.|
|Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts||Express.||10 minutes.||Didn't ride.||80 minutes.||70 minutes.|
|Men in Black Alien Attack||Express.||10 minutes.||54 minutes.||35 minutes.||44 minutes.|
|E.T. Adventure||Express.||10 minutes.||Didn't ride.||25 minutes.||15 minutes.|
|Transformers: The Ride-3D||Express.||10 minutes.||30 minutes.||35 minutes.||20 minutes.|
|Despicable Me Minion Mayhem||Express.||10 minutes.||Didn't ride.||55 minutes.||45 minutes.|
|Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon||Express.||20 minutes.||Didn't ride.||35 minutes.||15 minutes.|
|Fast & Furious – Supercharged||Express.||29 minutes.||20 minutes (single rider).||20 minutes.||-9 minutes.|
|Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit||Express.||10 minutes.||Didn't ride.||30 minutes.||20 minutes.|
|Total||252 minutes, 15 rides (average of 16.8 minutes per ride).||339 minutes, eight rides (average of 42.3 minutes per ride). Note: Would have been 596 minutes for all 15 rides.||392 minutes for all 15 rides (164 minutes for just the 8 attractions we both rode).|
As you can see, counting the first two rides, which didn't accept Express Pass, I spent 252 total minutes in line, compared to Madison's 339 minutes.
If you take out the first two rides, I only waited 158 minutes in line, compared to Madison's 245 minutes.
Again excluding Hagrid's and VelociCoaster, which didn't take Express Pass, I spent an average of just 12 minutes in line for the 13 Express Pass-eligible rides I experienced while Madison spent an average of 41 minutes for each of the six Express Pass-eligible attractions she was able to get on.
Using the posted standby wait to account for the rides Madison didn't get on, I saved an average of 26.1 minutes in line per ride.
I don't know about you, but that time saved is pretty valuable. Not only did I stand around less, but I was able to do a lot more. The question is, just how much money are you willing to pay for that extra time to use as you wish?
Everything you need to know about getting a Universal Express Pass
Types of Universal Express Passes
If you are now seriously considering getting a pass, know that there are three types of Universal Express access.
The standard Universal Express Pass lets you skip the line one time per attraction, Universal Express Unlimited lets you skip the line an unlimited number of times and Volcano Bay Express lets you skip the line once per attraction at Universal's Volcano Bay water park.
How to get a Universal Express Pass
You can get Universal Express as an add-on to your park tickets when you make your purchase or you can add it when you arrive at the parks (or at the theme park ticket desk at a Universal on-site hotel) if there is remaining availability. The Express Passes not only surge in price on peak dates, but they do sell out.
Related: How to use points to save money at Universal Orlando
Alternatively, if you stay at one of Universal's top-tier Premier hotels (including Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort), then the Universal Express Unlimited Pass is included for all guests staying in the room for the entirety of the stay. This includes both the arrival and departure day — meaning a single overnight can get you two days of the Express Unlimited Pass.
Last but not least, when you book a Universal Orlando VIP Tour package, your tour guide will usher you to the front line at each attraction included on your tour. Then, after your tour ends, you will have a Universal Express Unlimited pass to use for the remainder of the day as a "parting gift" from your day of being a VIP.
Cost of a Universal Express Pass
Pricing for standard Universal Express access starts at $79.99 per person per day (plus tax), while Universal Express Unlimited starts at $109.99 per person per day (plus tax). This base pricing only includes one park per day. If you have park-to-park tickets for Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, the price starts at $89.99 for standard Universal Express and $119.99 for Universal Express Unlimited.
Volcano Bay Express starts at just $19.99 per person per day (plus tax).
It's important to note that those are starting prices and that actual pricing varies wildly from day to day.
For example, over spring break in April 2022, the price for park-to-park Universal Unlimited went over $300 per day per person. That can add up if you are traveling with family, so we'll talk about strategies for determining the most cost-effective way for you to get Universal Express access.
How to use Universal Express
Universal Express can be used in the form of a physical ticket that resembles a standard Universal park ticket or a digital QR code within the Universal Orlando app.
In either case, you will present your pass to an attendant stationed at the attraction entrance. They will direct you to the Universal Express entrance where you will (typically) breeze right through the line and get on the attraction much sooner than guests in the standby line, though you can still encounter a wait on more popular rides.
How to potentially pay less for a Universal Express Pass
Assuming your day works out similarly to our test day, if you would rather spend an average of 12 minutes in Express Pass-eligible lines instead of 41 minutes without, you may be ready to learn how to buy the Express Pass for less.
Using the example of a family of four visiting for two days with park-to-park tickets on Aug. 8 and 9, 2022, your ticket cost would be $1,267.99 plus tax.
When you add two days of Universal Express Unlimited passes at $139 each per person, your all-in total comes to $2,543.10.
Let's say you stay at Universal's Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites, one of Universal's Value resorts, for two nights at a rate of $174 per night. That would bring your total including tax to $2,934.60.
But since the Universal Express Unlimited is included when you stay at one of Universal's Premier hotels, let's sub in one of those for the lodging and see what happens to the price.
The ticket price of $1,267.99 plus tax stays the same and a two-queen room at Loews Royal Pacific Hotel that includes Universal Express Unlimited will run you $569 plus tax per night for a total of $1,280.25. That's $2,630.63 total for this example vacation, which is over $300 less than purchasing Universal Express separately and staying at a lower-tier hotel.
And — on top of getting the Express Unlimited Passes —you also get to enjoy a higher-tier hotel that is closer to the park gates.
Because you can use your complimentary Universal Express Unlimited Pass on your check-in and checkout days, you could technically save even more by spending just the first night in a Premier hotel and then switching to a lower-cost Value or Prime Value property.
If the thought of checking in to a new hotel after a long day at the park sounds unappealing, that might not be the best option for you — but at least bell services will transport your luggage to the new hotel if you go that route.
No matter how many days you'll be traveling, or how many guests are in your party, it is worth taking the time to do the math and see which option makes more sense. If you plan to get the Express Pass anyway, then paying less and staying in a hotel with larger rooms and more amenities is a pretty good deal.
Downsides to Universal Express
We've already established that Universal's Express Pass can save you a ton of time in line — but in addition to being potentially pricey, there are some other things to note.
You have to keep up with a tiny piece of paper
Before we get to the big dollar sign, I mean downside, let's go over a minor issue I had with the Universal Express Pass.
Universal is known for its thrilling coasters and the powers that be have deemed it unsafe to bring bags or loose items on some of those coasters.
On a few rides, you have to pass through a metal detector and you can't even bring your phone.
They do provide complimentary lockers (and paid lockers if your backpack-size bag won't fit in the complimentary ones), but if you put everything in your locker, that means you'll be without the Universal Express Pass the attendant needs to scan once you are in line.
I was pretty good about remembering to keep it in my pocket throughout the day, but there was one time I forgot and grabbed my park ticket instead.
Luckily, the attendant took pity on me and let me stay in the Express line, but if I didn't luck into appearing trustworthy at that moment, he would have been well within his right to send me back to the standby line.
If you store your Express Pass in the Universal app, you could run into even more issues since you certainly can't bring your phone on certain rides.
Your best bet, in that case, is to show your phone to the attendant before you put your items in a locker. They should provide you with a printed slip of paper that will serve as your Express Pass. Just don't make the same mistake I did and stuff it in the locker with the rest of your belongings.
There can still be waits
I got pretty lucky with most of my attractions, but a shorter wait is still a wait. While I only waited 10 minutes to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts that day, some other co-workers who were not involved in this test waited almost 25 minutes to ride it with the Express Pass earlier in the day.
That's certainly less than the posted 50-minute wait time, but spending hundreds of extra dollars for an Express Pass to still wait 25 minutes may feel like a downside to some.
Is Universal Express worth it?
Whether you purchase it outright or stay in a pricier hotel to unlock the pass, the Universal Express Pass isn't cheap.
But, is it worth it? I would argue it is, and not only because of the time saved.
Yes, I was grateful to have spent only four hours of my day waiting in line instead of more than 10 hours if I had waited standby for every attraction I rode. But even more important to me is the freedom to enjoy my day without worrying as much about wait times or being glued to my phone checking the waits at different attractions.
It's 2022, and it's nearly impossible to visit a theme park without being on your phone to check wait times, order meals and find out what time the fireworks start.
But aside from tracking my wait times for this experiment, I was on my phone very little. I waited between 10 and 20 minutes for most rides and found that it didn't matter to me what the standby wait was because I knew mine would be pretty short regardless.
Universal Express isn't a perfect system.
You have to keep up with that paper ticket or room key (or your phone) all day and the price range is wide with popular dates costing several hundred dollars. You can't use it on every single attraction, so you will still spend some time waiting in line if you want to ride Universal's newest and most popular rides.
When I'm at a theme park, I don't want to be stuck to my phone stressing over wait times; I want to have fun. Having the Universal Express Pass lets me do just that. There are other cheaper strategies you can use to save time, but Universal Express is the only way to get on most attractions with a very short wait.
That — along with the time to then order over-the-top indulgent doughnut sundaes — is a convenience I am personally willing to pay for.