Skipping the lines of 12 major rides at Universal Orlando on a $349 group VIP tour
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Theme parks this summer are…busy. Very, very busy.
In a recent earnings call, we got an official statement that Universal Orlando’s capacity and attendance are pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels, which matches what we’ve seen on the ground. After a postponed 2020 trip, we were ready to visit Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter to take our oldest on a delayed 11th birthday celebration (which is, of course, the age when you get invited to attend Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books).
But between the summer crowds, the heat and the ongoing pandemic, we wanted to avoid lines to the greatest extent possible while going full-on into the Harry Potter side of things.
Universal Orlando actually has several available options for those looking for a shortcut to the front of the lines. Universal has private VIP tours and Express Passes, both of which we have tried before. But this much-anticipated trip presented a good excuse to try something situated at a price point between those two choices: the group VIP tour.
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The Universal Orlando group VIP experience gives you a guide, walk-up attraction access, two meals and valet parking, but it costs a lot less than the private VIP tour. It also includes unlimited Express Passes for you to use after the tour concludes, but the ride access it provides during the tour is faster than the Express Pass lines.
After trying the Universal group tour out for ourselves, we found the tour to be outstanding for certain situations — and not so great for others.
Related: Guide to visiting Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando group VIP tour basics
The one-day, two-park Universal Orlando group tour lasts for seven hours and provides priority entrance into at least ten rides and attractions. It will start at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. and run until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. The day starts with a private VIP buffet breakfast at Cafe La Bamba, which is also where the VIP buffet lunch takes place.
Those meals and some bottled water are included, as is valet parking — which was extremely helpful and came with its own security screening. Normally, valet parking costs $75.
The group tour starts at $239 per person on the least expensive days, with rates going up to $300 to $400 per person during peak dates. For our busy Saturday in July, the group tour was $349 per person. This is obviously a lot of money on top of admission tickets, which are not included. However, it’s magnitudes less expensive than paying for a private VIP tour, which costs over $3,000. This is especially true if you only need the tour for yourself or a small family.
You’ll get an Express Unlimited Pass to use when the VIP tour concludes. While the best way to get Express Unlimited Passes is normally by staying at a Universal Orlando Premier hotel such as Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel or Loews Royal Pacific Resort, you can also purchase the passes individually for anywhere between $110 to $240 per person per day if you aren’t staying at one of those resorts.
If you were planning to pay for those extras, you are already a decent chunk of the way to the cost of the group VIP tour price.
You can price out and book the Universal group VIP tour online directly with Univeral or you can book for no extra cost via our friends at Mouse Counselors, who will help you navigate the pros and cons of all of these options for your group.
Our experience on the Univeral Orlando group VIP tour
We spent the night before the tour at the Hyatt Regency at Orlando International Airport using points and made the drive to Univeral Orlando that morning. While there were reports of back-ups in the garage parking and security screening that Saturday morning, we didn’t have any problem pulling right up into valet parking and zipping through that dedicated security entrance.
We were at the Univeral Orlando entrance within minutes after parking, ready to head into the lobby for the VIP tour, where you get your tickets and lanyards for the day. Our check-in time was at 10 a.m. and by arriving about 15 minutes before, we had ample time to pick up the included stroller and head over to Cafe La Bamba for the included buffet breakfast.
The food was good, but not over-the-top amazing.
It’s also important these days to note that it was a traditional buffet, and you are seated at full tables with people not in your party. Masks are not currently required at Univeral Orlando and there are really no pandemic precautions in play on this tour.
Our actual tour started at around 10:35 a.m. when our group of 12 — the maximum size for the group tour — headed to ride E.T.
This classic ride is one of my favorites, but unfortunately, it was “on delay” (aka not working) when we arrived. The same was true for Men in Black, the next ride we attempted to ride on the tour. It finally started working right as we were getting ready to leave the building, so we rode our first attraction of the day at 11:16 a.m. Later in the morning, we had the same problem with Transformers, which we didn’t get to ride.
In fact, we only successfully rode three attractions before lunch, and it got to be a bit frustrating with the amount of bad luck our group encountered. Here’s a quick look at our morning:
- 11:16 a.m. Men in Black Alien Attack (regular wait posted as 45 minutes)
- 11:51 a.m. Harry Potter: Escape from Gringotts (regular wait posted as 50 minutes)
- 12:48 p.m. Revenge of the Mummy (regular wait posted as 50 minutes)
- 1:15 p.m. Lunch break
Lunch was made up of a variety of buffet options such as salad, sliders, chicken wings, salmon, mashed potatoes, asparagus, macaroni, tater tots, cookies, macarons, fruit and beyond. We were also given more bottles of water to get us through the hot afternoon.
Thankfully, the afternoon was significantly more successful when it came to attraction availability. After a slow start that morning, we still surpassed the “guaranteed” 10 rides on the tour:
- 2:25 p.m. Hogwarts Express (regular wait posted as 20 minutes)
- 2:50 p.m. Harry Potter: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
- 3:05 p.m. Harry Potter: Forbidden Journey (regular wait posted as 60 minutes)
- 3:30 p.m. Harry Potter: Flight of the Hippogriff (regular wait posted as 40 minutes)
- 3:50 p.m. Velocicoaster (regular wait posted as 80 minutes)
- 4:15 p.m. Jurassic Park River Adventure (regular wait posted as 60 minutes)
- 4:30 p.m. Skull Island: Reign of Kong (regular wait posted as 70 minutes)
- 5:08 p.m. The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman (regular wait posted as 45 minutes)
- 5:26 p.m. Incredible Hulk Coaster (regular wait posted as 40 minutes)
If the posted wait times were true, that was over nine hours of lines we mostly skipped since this was almost walk-on access (other than the lockers you still have to deal with before many of these rides). You often enter through alternative entrances that usually entirely bypass the traditional queues.
And all of that saved time doesn’t even count the virtual queue we didn’t have to mess with for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures since it was included in the tour. (However, that ride is outstanding and therefore worth whatever effort it takes to get on it.)
Once the tour ended after the Hulk Coaster, we were free to continue our adventure in the park on our own — which is exactly what we did. We rounded out the day with another ride on the Hogwarts Express and more time spent living out our best Harry Potter lives in Diagon Alley.
Is the Univeral Orlando group VIP tour worth it?
Unlike with the (much pricier) Disney VIP tour, there wasn’t a commemorative pin or any tangible takeaway item provided on the tour, but the $349-per-person fee did get us 12 walk-on attractions, an Express Pass Unlimited, valet parking, two meals, multiple bottles of water, large lockers at each attraction where they are required (usually, only the smallest ones are free to use) and a stroller rental.
If we hadn’t hit bad luck in the morning with multiple rides that weren’t working, our ride total could have easily been 13 or 14 rides.
If you put no value on the meals, parking, lockers, the Express Pass, and other extras, that breaks down to $29 per ride for walk-on access. Obviously, the more value you put on those extras, the lower your cost-per-ride.
Given the very high crowd levels on this particular day, I thought the tour was an overall good value for us. However, there are some situations when I don’t recommend this particular group tour.
First, if you have young kids (or kids who aren’t yet over 48 inches tall), you won’t get the full benefits of the group VIP tour.
Our youngest daughter is right at 48 inches. It was a big debate between Universal team members each time she would get measured as to whether she was tall enough for a given ride, so we eventually stopped trying and had her skip rides on the tour.
Unlike on the private VIP tour, where you get to dictate which rides you do and in what order, there are no re-rides on the group tour. This means parents can’t take turns sitting out with a kid not tall enough to ride while each gets a turn.
The tour guide did sit with our youngest daughter while we both did the newer Hagrid’s ride, but for the most part, one of us skipped anytime there was a ride she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.
Second, while this tour does help you avoid time spent in line, you have to be comfortable being in pretty close contact with mostly unmasked people for the day. Your group will stay together, ride attractions together, eat together, and more.
Frankly, while I planned the tour long ago, the pandemic situation was changing (again) by the time it actually happened, and it was uncomfortable for us at several points in the day — especially around the relatively crowded meals.
This is in contrast to the private VIP tour we did a few years ago, where we ate in an essentially empty Cafe La Bama restaurant and were really only in close contact with the tour guide. That may or may not matter to you, but it’s worth knowing these days.
If you want walk-on ride access, have a traveling group that is over 48 inches and are OK not being the one picking out the rides and planning the agenda, the Universal Orlando group VIP tour may be a good fit. It offers many of the conveniences of the private VIP tour but at a fraction of the price.
Being able to truly skip the lines, get some “backstage access,” enjoy valet parking, eat two included meals, score some inside info from your tour guide and get an Unlimited Express Pass to use when the tour ends is a pretty solid return for an added price that starts at $239 per person.
This is not the tour to do with little kids, but if there are just a handful in your group (and you want a special experience at a more reasonable price than a private tour), this may be exactly the tour you’re looking for.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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