Is the Universal Studios Orlando Annual Pass Worth It?
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Thinking about taking your family to see Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort? Can’t wait to ride the Hogwarts Express? Be prepared for some serious sticker shock. At times, Universal Orlando ticket prices can make Disney World look downright affordable — even with Disney’s most recent round of pricing changes. Universal is smart with how they help you decide to part with a good chunk of your wallet. For example, if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express (we certainly did!), you’ll need to purchase the park-to-park option. There’s literally no other way to ride one of the most popular rides in the park.
When our family planned our first trip to Universal Orlando Resort, we were thinking that three days would be the right amount of time to explore both amusement parks that Universal has to offer. We quickly found that three-day tickets with Express Passes (Universal’s version of a FastPass) would cost us more than buying annual passes. Two-day tickets with Express Passes weren’t that much cheaper. In short, it was time to head down the rabbit hole that constitutes the various annual pass options that Universal Studios Orlando offers. To save you some of the pain, we’re going to walk you through what you need to know if you’re waffling trying to decide if a Universal Orlando annual pass is worth it for your family.
Universal Studios Orlando: Annual Pass Types
Universal Orlando features four different types of annual passes. Throw in the fact that you can buy a two-park or a three-park version and your head may start to spin just a bit. The four types of annual passes at Universal Orlando are:
The Seasonal Pass comes with a host of blackout dates:
- January 1–3, 2019
- April 12–27, 2019
- July 1–31, 2019
- December 21–31, 2019
There’s also ominous language about concert dates: “Seasonal Passholders are blocked out of Universal Studios Florida on all concert dates and will only receive access to Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Concert dates will be announced at a later date.”
If you choose the three-park option, you’ll be blocked out of the water park, Volcano Bay, for essentially the entire summer (June 14 through August 18). Yikes!
This pass is likely not a good match for families and probably only makes sense if you live in Florida or can get there quite easily. Many of the most popular dates are blacked out, and the concert schedule further complicates matters.
Seasonal passholders do get on-site hotel discounts and discounts on certain special event tickets. The on-site hotel discounts can be helpful if you book one of the hotels where all guests receive Express Passes with their room reservation.
The Power Pass may not have the most appropriate name. Similar to the Seasonal Pass, there are a number of blackout dates:
- January 1–3, 2019
- April 12–27, 2019
- December 21–31, 2019
There are no concert night restrictions. However, if you choose the three-park option, you’ll be restricted from entering the water parks before 4pm from June 14 through August 18.
Power passholders receive the same special event and on-site hotel discounts as Seasonal passholders. In addition, they get free admission to certain concerts and events, such as Mardi Gras.
Lastly, Power passholders get a 50% discount on self-parking.
Preferred passholders have no blackout dates for the two main parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. For three-park passholders, access to Volcano Bay is restricted to 4pm or after from July 14 through August 18.
Preferred passholders enjoy early access to the parks, generally one hour before park opening. There are blackout dates for this benefit. Currently, all of November and December are blacked out for early admission at Universal Studios, where Islands of Adventure does have some dates available in both months.
Along with the discounts that Power passholders receive, Preferred passholders get discounts on food and merchandise as well as free self-parking.
The Premier Pass represents the best value, by far, of the annual pass options at Universal Orlando.
The restrictions part is pretty straightforward. There are currently no blackout dates for Premier passholders. This includes early park admission as well. The Premier Pass is also the only pass that comes with free Universal Express included after 4pm each day. During peak times (and even shoulder seasons) Express Passes can be frighteningly expensive unless you are staying at select resorts that convey it as a perk of staying at that property. Otherwise, this is where the true value of the Premier pass pays off as you could stay wherever you wish and still get some Express Pass benefits.
The official written rule on Universal Express for Premier passholders states that you can only use your Express option once per ride per day unless you have the Express Unlimited Pass. I remember considering this restriction when we were debating whether to buy annual passes or not. By the time we actually visited Universal for the first time, I had completely forgotten about it. It wasn’t until a few nights later when some local friends pointed the restriction out to us. Nobody had actually stopped us from riding a ride more than once. As it’s been described to me, employees usually look the other way unless the Express lines are backed up, though of course that can’t be guaranteed.
Along with all the benefits of the Preferred pass, Premier passholders also are entitled to one free Halloween Horror Night ticket. Considering these start at about $60 for an advance purchase, this can be a big factor in determining the value of an annual pass if your family is up for that event.
Halloween Horror Nights
Halloween Horror Nights mark an important footnote for Universal Orlando annual passholders of all types. These are days when Universal closes the park early to put on an intricate Halloween show, complete with haunted houses throughout the parks. The schedule for Halloween Horror Nights runs from mid-September to early November (September 14 through November 3 in 2018, for reference). With the exception of Monday and Tuesday, Universal Studios will close at 6pm. Islands of Adventure will typically stay open a bit later, but you’ll want to check the schedule closely since October is generally a slower time of year.
18 Months of an Annual Pass for the Price of 12
Universal Resort Orlando is currently running a promotion where new annual passholders and renewing members can enjoy more time to use their annual pass. Through April 4, 2019, if you purchase or renew an annual pass, you’ll receive up to six free months of extra time to use your pass.
Seasonal and Power passholders will receive three free months. Preferred and Premier passholders will receive six free months. We’re going to dive into the math shortly, but these free months really tilt the equation toward annual passes and away from purchasing standard tickets for many visitors.
Be aware that to get the bonus months you must not only purchase, but also activate the passes by April 4, 2019.
FlexPay for Annual Passes
FlexPay is a somewhat unique way to pay for theme park tickets. Universal Orlando will sell you an annual pass and allow you to make payments. You’ll need to put down a deposit of about 50% of the purchase price for the pass you choose. Then, you’ll pay the balance in 11 equal monthly payments. There’s an interesting strategy where you could buy an annual pass and pay the monthly amount once your year is up to extend the pass just a few months if you were trying to squeeze in one more trip. We had contemplated this for our passes. However, the six free months is probably a more attractive option.
20% Discount for Renewals
If you’re a current annual passholder and thinking about renewing, Universal is offering a 20% discount if you pay your renewal in full as opposed to using the FlexPay option. As long as you were able to afford paying the renewal in one lump sum, this is a pretty hefty savings for a family of four.
Universal Orlando Annual Pass Pricing
As mentioned earlier, Universal Resort Orlando has a total of three parks. A two-park pass gets you access to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The three-park option includes access to Volcano Bay. The pricing for a two-park annual pass ranges from about $325 to $596. As you can see from the table below, the 20% discount on renewal takes a huge chunk out of the price when you combine it with a potential six-month extension. The pricing of the Seasonal, Power and Preferred passes is close enough that I don’t see too many solid reasons to choose the Seasonal or Power. Given the blackout dates and restrictions, they’re much harder to get great value out of. Heck, the free parking and discounts on food and merchandise could easily cover the difference in the cost of upgrading to the Preferred pass.
|Free Months||3 months||3 months||6 months||6 months|
The pricing on three-park passes follows a similar ratio to the two-park passes. You’ll pay a pretty decent premium to add on the water park option (from $110 to almost $200 extra). Single-day Volcano Bay tickets run about $80 depending on season. At a bare minimum, you’d need to visit the water park at least twice to make this worth your while, and potentially three times with the Premier pass. Your mileage may vary; however I would imagine you can find more affordable water park options elsewhere. And, you could always just buy a single-day water park ticket to go with your annual pass if you just want to give Volcano Bay a try.
|Free Months||3 months||3 months||6 months||6 months|
Is a Universal Orlando Annual Pass Right for You?
The decision to buy an annual pass probably comes down to how much you like standing in line and how often your family wants to visit. The key attractions, such as the Harry Potter attractions in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, can have quite long lines. Lines for Fast & Furious, Skull Island, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and The Incredible Hulk Coaster are also consistently at least 30 minutes and frequently an hour or more. Unlike Disney World and their FastPass system, if you want to cut the line at Universal you’ll need to fork over some cash. With young children (up to teenage years), I don’t think it’s feasible to attempt Universal Orlando, and especially the Harry Potter rides, during peak times without an Express Pass option (or a plan on how to handle tantrums).
You’ll sometimes find individual ticket specials for Universal Orlando. There’s a current promotion where you can buy a two-day ticket and receive four days of park access. If you were planning to visit for four days, that would reduce your price to about $50 a day to enter the parks. If you’re considering Express Passes, they generally start at $80 per person per day and go way up from there. During holidays, I’ve seen prices almost as high as $200 per day for the Express Unlimited option.
If you stay at a top-tier Universal Orlando Premier Resort that provides Express Passes, such as Loews Royal Pacific, then the Express Pass issue doesn’t enter the equation. However, if you stay at a place like the new (and much more affordable) Universal Aventura Hotel or Loews Sapphire Falls, then Express Passes are very much a consideration as they are not included at those properties.
If we assume an average ticket price of $100 all-in and another $80 per day for Express Passes (and they can easily cost way more), you need at most four days in the park to make it worth your while. Add in some savings on parking, merchandise and a Halloween Horror Night ticket and a Premier annual pass would pay for itself in three days at the parks over the course of 18 months.
To put this another way, Mommy Points visited Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure for one-day in August while there to review the Aventura Hotel. For a one-day (after 2pm) ticket to the parks with an Express Pass, it cost her $243.87. The 15-month renewal price on a Universal Orlando two-park pass is just $16 more than her one-day afternoon ticket. That’s slightly apples to oranges, but shows you how quickly the striking price for an annual pass comes into play at Universal Orlando.
If you think strategically, there are so many ways to get a lot of value out a Universal Studios Orlando annual pass. That might be intentional, given how Universal prices Express Passes for individual tickets and that they’re offering a longer time frame if you’re buying or renewing an annual pass. It might be counterintuitive to think about buying an annual pass for a single trip. But, it may very well be your best option. If two or more trips fall within the valid period of your annual pass, then the equation gets even more interesting — especially with the six month bonus running until April 2019.
As always, once you decide to make a purchase, think strategically about which credit card you should use to pay. Theme park tickets are often excluded from the travel category on many cards, so look to a card such as the Citi Premier Card that awards bonus points on entertainment. Or, simply use the card in your wallet that offers the best return on everyday spending.
If you have done the math on whether a Universal Studios Orlando annual pass is right for your family, we’d love to hear your thought process.
Featured image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy