Is Universal Studios Worth It? An Honest Review

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We want to measure worth in dollars. So when someone asks if something’s worth it, you look at the price tag and consider what else you could have purchased for the same price. But when it comes to things like the family vacation, I’m not sure worth is a matter of dollars and cents. 

Sofia – my oldest – is about to turn 18. And she’s growing up fast. We want to measure worth in dollars, but I think the more appropriate measure of worth is time. How many week-long vacations do I get with Sofia before adult life snatches her away? And so when someone asks me if Universal Orlando Resort or the Walt Disney World Resort is worth it, I have to factor in our most precious commodity: Time. Speaking of worth, when you make your plans to Universal, be sure to compare prices with Tripster for deals on multi-day tickets.

Why is Universal Studios so expensive?

That depends on your perspective. I don’t think it is considering what all you get. If nothing more, Universal is more affordable than Walt Disney World, especially if you’re staying on park and/or have a larger family unit. I also found the dining options to be within expectations both in terms of quality and cost. I’m not here to tell you that it’s super affordable. However, as long as you have realistic expectations, I wouldn’t consider Universal to be outrageously priced by any means.

For instance, I found the Universal value resorts Dockside and Surfside to be affordable, roomy and quite nice. In addition, the Universal attractions – especially the roller coasters – are good even if the two theme parks are over-reliant on 3D motion rides. But when considering worth, there are several factors to consider. So we don’t find ourselves in an existential crisis, let’s break it down into smaller bits – the first of which is monetary. 

A Close-up View of the Universal Globe
The rides at Universal Studios are great, even though they can be a bit reliant on 3D effects (photo by Morgan Overholt/

Are Universal Studios Express Passes worth it?

For me, the answer is no. In most vacation scenarios, they are not. The only exception to that answer is if you only have a day or are an absolute roller coaster nut who wants to ride again and again and again. There are two types of passes, the Universal Express Pass – which allows riders to skip the line once on each participating ride that day – and the Universal Express Unlimited Pass – which allows unlimited line skips. 

an express pass line at universal studios in orlando
Universal offers an Express Pass that allows line skipping on participating rides (photo by James Overholt/

How much does the Universal Express Pass cost? 

And now we’ve found the downside. First, it’s the cost of the Express Passes. The Universal Express Pass can cost anywhere from $90 to $340 depending on the day and demand. The Universal Express Unlimited Pass can cost anywhere from $114 to $390. That’s double your ticket price at least – and maybe even triple.

If you want to get a good idea of what you’d pay, consult an online crowd calendar. The busiest days are the most expensive. If you want an unlimited pass around Christmas when crowd levels are at their highest, be prepared to give up a limb. It’s also important to note that not all rides are currently included Express Passes.

At the time of this writing, the best ride in either theme park, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Islands of Adventure, is not included in the Express Passes. Even though that may soon change, not even a Universal Express Unlimited Pass will get you past the line. 

Universal's Bourne Stuntacular Entrance
The Express Pass includes many rides, including The Bourne Stuntacular (photo by James Overholt/

What rides are included in the Express Pass?

At Universal Studios Florida, the rides include:

  • The Bourne Stuntacular
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • E.T. Adventure
  • Fast & Furious – Supercharged
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • Hogwarts™ Express (park-to-park admission ticket required)
  • Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • Transformers: The Ride-3D
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade Universal Islands of Adventure
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade in Universal Islands of Adventure (photo by Morgan Overholt/

At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the rides include:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Caro-Seuss-el
  • The Cat in the Hat
  • Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
  • Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
  • Flight of the Hippogriff
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!
  • Hogwarts Express (park-to-park admission ticket required)
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Jurassic Park River Adventure
  • Jurassic World VelociCoaster
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
  • Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
  • Poseidon’s Fury
  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong
  • Storm Force Accelatron

That’s a lot of rides. Are you sure it’s not worth it?

I mean, you do you. If you’re looking for a package deal, consider looking at the on-site resorts which include a Universal Express Unlimited pass. Sometimes those are the best deals. Otherwise, if you don’t mind doubling or tripling the cost of your park ticket, go crazy. But in my experience as long as you have three or four days and are willing to make some kind of plan, you can manage the wait times in the regular line by getting to the theme park early. Use the app and get everything you want to do at least once. 

Plus, if you’re willing to use the single-rider lines, you can get several of the most popular rides done more than once. Of course, there were times I looked at the Express Pass line with envy. Particularly in King’s Cross waiting for the Hogwarts Express. But ultimately, I just don’t think the Universal Express Pass value is there, even with the unlimited option.

Harry Potter wands for sale
Harry Potter wands for sale at Universal Studios (photo by Morgan Overholt/

Are the wands at Universal Studios worth it?

In the strictest, most literal interpretation of the question? No, they are not. Did we get them anyway? Yes. We went to Universal Studios with one Harry Potter superfan – aged 17 – and two smaller kids who had seen parts of the movies but didn’t care much at all about Harry Potter, at least until we set foot in the Wizarding World. They were quickly enthralled. 

The three wands we bought currently are sitting in their boxes on a desk or in a closet or somewhere in the house. No one gets them out or looks at them. And certainly, no one plays with them. Could we have spent that $189 plus tax of our vacation money on something else, a souvenir with more staying power? I think that certainly, we could have. However, what we bought with that $189 plus tax was more than the wands which are currently gathering dust somewhere in the expansive Chez Gullion. We bought the experience, and the experience comes much closer to being worth it. However, there was a point where I questioned all of that.

Ollivanders Wand Shop Universal
Ollivanders inside Universal Studios, Orlando (photo by James Overholt/

What’s included in the wand-buying experience? 

The elaborate wand ceremony is generally one of the coolest experiences in Orlando, and you don’t have to buy a wand to participate.

A group is ushered into the wand maker’s shop – either in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. One member of the group is chosen and taken to the front. This is where the wandmaker asks them to try various magic spells with different wands until they find the right wand for the wizard. Now, if you’re chosen, you don’t have to buy the wand. However, you sit through that ceremony and then tell your beaming kid no. I couldn’t do it.

In retrospect, I would have planned the wand ceremony differently. For weeks, the Harry Potter-obsessed teenager talked about how all she wanted to do in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was to get chosen for the wand ceremony. But predictably, on our second attempt, the wandmaker called our youngest forward where she was chosen by a wand while my teenager tried very hard and very unsuccessfully to not turn chartreuse with envy. After a couple of more tries, the teen was chosen and my boy was left to sulk as the only wandless member of the Gullion family. 

While the girls were off doing something, probably waving their interactive wands at a store display or riding the Forbidden Journey, he and I sat and talked. “Buddy, you don’t care anything about Harry Potter. Why do you want a wand so badly?” He looked at the ground. “I don’t know. It just seems like all the cool kids have them.” Well, that solved that. Leslie took him a couple more times and he was finally chosen. She may have set the record for most wand ceremonies attended in a four-day span.

Kids using the Harry Potter Wands at Universal
Guests practice magic with their wands (photo by John Gullion/

What can you do with your wands once you purchase them?

Magic. There are posts set up throughout the Wizarding World in both theme parks where you can practice your swish and flicks and bring the display to life … at least in theory. In our experience, there were more than a couple of the displays that just did not work for us. And – frankly – even those that did were a little underwhelming. The kids found it amusing for about 30 minutes per wand. The wand ceremony itself is the thing. 

the hulk coaster at universal
There’s more than just Harry Potter to enjoy at Universal. The theme park also has great thrill rides like The Incredible Hulk Coaster (photo by James Overholt/

So is Universal Studios worth it? 

Did we spend a lot of money on our Universal vacation? Yeah. But as we said at the beginning, we can’t measure worth in dollars alone. I’ve spent more on a family vacation but I’ve also spent less. But what did I get for my money? First, my youngest daughter Ainsley giggled madly as she interacted with characters that leaped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. I got Donkey teasing my kids as they awaited a picture with Shrek. 

I got my wife’s Julia Roberts’ smile – the one that first caught my eye when we were kids 30 years ago – while being serenaded at Mama Della’s Ristorante at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. And I got all three kids – 17, 10 and 8 – the ones who spend too much of their interactions bickering and fussing – in unanimous awe as they walked the streets of Diagon Alley. We had a vacation that I think they’ll want to replicate when they finish growing up and start planning how to spend the 140 vacation days they get with their families. So, was our Universal Orlando vacation worth it? In all senses of the word, absolutely.

Do you think Universal Studios is worth it? Let us know in the comments!

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for LLC – the parent company of and