“Inherit the Wind” is one of my favorite movies. I especially like a scene in which Spencer Tracey’s Clarence Darrow pontificates about the push and pull of progress.
“Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline,” he says.
I think of that sometimes when I marvel at the modern world of theme parks.
In the past, you’d go on vacation to a place like Disney or Universal Studios Florida with an understanding that you were going to have to spend a significant portion of your time standing in line.
Everyone who bought their park tickets that day got roughly the same experience for their purchase. It was a pain, but it was egalitarian.
But then, the science of theme parks improved. Specifically, the parks got better at understanding how people moved within their boundaries. They debuted things like early park admission.
The old Disney FastPass allowed those who understood the system to improve their park experience. Today, it comes down to simple economics. For instance, do you want to spend less time in line?
Pay for it.
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What does the Universal Express Pass do?
The Express Pass grants you access to a different line, an express line if you will, that is much shorter than the regular line. The lines do not require time slots or reservations.
At Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando, you have two options to skip the line: The Universal Express Pass and the Universal Express Pass Unlimited Pass.
Volcano Bay offers an Express Pass and an Express Plus Pass.
What is the difference between Universal Express and Unlimited?
The regular Universal Express access gives guests one time to skip the regular queue at most of the rides in the parks.
However, there are a few exceptions. Not coincidentally, they are usually the most popular rides in the park.
The Unlimited Express Passes give you unlimited opportunities to skip the regular line at participating rides.
What can the Universal Express Pass be used for at each park?
The options are subject to change, but at the time of this writing, the Express Pass may be used for:
Universal Studios Florida:
- 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
- Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster (closing Jan. 15, 2023)
Islands of Adventure:
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- Flight of the Hippogriff
- 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
- Poseidon’s Fury
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong
- Storm Force Accelatron
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Honu of Honu ika Moana
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- Krakatau Aqua Coaster
- Maku of Maku Puihi Round raft rides
- Puihi of Maku Puihi Round raft rides
- Punga Racers
- Taniwha Tubes
Additional rides are available with Express Plus:
- Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine body slides
- Ko’okiri Body Plunge
- Ohno of Ohyah & Ohno drop slides
- Ohyah of Ohyah & Ohno drop slides
What rides are not included in the Universal Express Pass?
- Jurassic World VelociCoaster
- Pteranodon Flyers
- Fievel’s Playland (closing Jan. 15, 2023)
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure*
*During our last visit, the theme park opened an Express Lane for Hagrid’s. Universal’s website still lists it as being unavailable for Express. It is unclear at the time of this writing whether or not Hagrid’s will become available for Express.
Do Express Passes sell out at Universal?
Yes, they can.
And the prices can be higher when you try to buy them the day of. You’re better off getting them when you purchase your regular park tickets.
How much does it cost?
It depends. For instance, prices vary based on demand. Your Universal Express Pass cost starts at $79.99 per person per park per day. But the two-park pass is only $10 more.
The Express Unlimited Passes are $109.99 per person per park per day. The two-park pass starts at $119.99.
They also come included when you stay at certain Universal Premier Hotels.
You get free Unlimited Express upgrades when you check in at any of the following hotels:
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
How does the Universal Express system compare to Disney?
The Universal system is more expensive but it’s far simpler. You need a Rosetta stone and also a Sherpa to navigate the Disney system.
Disney Genie+ allows you the opportunity to skip the line in most of the attractions in the park for $15 to $22. However, the Genie+ system doesn’t guarantee you a line skip on all of the available attractions.
On average, you’ll get two or three skips per day with Genie+. Disney also has Individual Lightning Lanes where you can pay for a single line skip on the most popular attractions.
It’s complicated because you have to log into the app and manage your line skips and you can’t really do them in advance like Universal.
But at Universal, you make the purchase and you’re done.
Is it worth buying Express Pass at Universal?
I have friends who buy passes every time. They’re adults and they also have season passes. They’re fairly well-to-do and they don’t have kids. The Express Passes are extremely doable for them and it is absolutely worth it.
For me, with a family of five, it’s a different proposition. Before the various discounts that come with multi-day stays, the Unlimited Express Pass essentially doubles the cost of each day’s park tickets.
Unlimited Express Passes for five days in the park for my family of five amounts to roughly $2,500. The entire cost of our last week at Universal, including the hotel stay, was about $3,200.
That’s a tall order.
When you factor in two of my kids who are smaller and don’t do coasters, you really have to say that it’s not worth it.
And I’ve found that with early admission, multiple days and smart planning, you can – for the most part – avoid the longest lines.
If Hagrid’s ride becomes available on the Express Pass system, it changes the equation.
In the years since Hagrid’s opened, the rope drop at Islands of Adventure is a Bataan-style march to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
If you wanted to avoid the two-hour or more wait times, you had to be in the park at the rope drop and haul butt to the queue.
In our case, we never stopped marching as they wound us back through an amphitheater behind Poseidon’s Fury and then up into Hogsmeade.
We never slowed down until we reached the lockers and test vehicle.
Of course, it was a strenuous start to the day.
What if you don’t participate in rope drop?
Now, if you don’t have to participate in the rope drop, it changes the calculus of how you navigate the Islands of Adventure park.
For example, if you have a guaranteed easy entry to Hagrid’s at some point in the day, you can target other experiences with early admission – like the wand ceremony at Olivander’s – and be ready for the VelociCoaster when it opens.
Or without early admission, head straight to Jurassic World or maybe the Hulk to get rides in without much of a wait.
With Unlimited Express Passes, you can essentially ride a top 10 attraction in Orlando as much as you want. Conversely, if you don’t have the Express Pass, the onus is on you to get in the park at the rope drop or risk massive wait times.
With Hagrid’s in the mix, I would say an Unlimited Express Pass would be more valuable and certainly worth at least one day on your trip.
Do you buy Express Passes at the Universal parks? Is it worth it? Let us know in the comments.