Theme parks are expensive. I know this. And yet, I’m kinda shaking my head about the prices I’m seeing to take my family to Universal Studios in Orlando. We’re considering a trip during the spring break season. And, the prices are blowing me away.
Let’s get some perspective. Disney World is pricey. But, there are strategies to make it more affordable. A special deal for Disney Vacation Club members earlier this year was good enough for us to grab annual passes.
People like to complain about Disney World finding ways to charge people more money to visit the parks. I’ve written about a bunch of special packages, like the private tour that gets you access to Avatar Flight of Passage (only the most popular ride at Disney World right now).
The fact remains that even the most affordable tickets at Disney World give you the opportunity to grab at least 3 Fast Passes, Disney’s version of a cut the line pass. Enter Universal Studios.
I Need A Degree In Astro Physics To Understand Universal Orlando Ticket Options
There are a dizzying number of combinations you can make with Universal Orlando tickets. The standard entry tickets can be found at a discount through various sources. However, no standard tickets come with Universal’s version of Fast Pass (called Express passes).
For a 2-day trip during the spring break season in March, Universal wants a whopping $1700+ for park access and express passes for our family of 4.
They’re really good at pricing, since I found myself saying, “Well, it’s only $200 more to add a 3rd day.”
What I should have been saying is, “Wait, that’s pretty much what I spent for 4 annual passes to Disney World.”
It’s very clear Universal Orlando is pricing based on demand. Wowsers.
The Final Two Pennies
This is an expensive, bad situation to be in. My kids desperately want to go to Universal Studios to see the Harry Potter attractions. The wait for popular rides during the spring break season is expected to be 2 to 3 hours without Express Passes.
Staying at a hotel onsite gets you “free” Express Passes. When I run that math, it’s about $500 more expensive in actual dollars than staying offsite for those days using points. Even if I split up the stay, then we’re moving multiple times during our vacation. Buying discount tickets elsewhere for Universal Orlando means paying more for Express Passes. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see a good option here.
At least the next time someone complains to me about Disney World pricing, I can point them to Universal….
Does anyone have a super secret formula I haven’t discovered to make Universal Orlando affordable, or am I selling a kidney?
These parks were always expensive. In 2018, prices seem through the roof. Ouch!
Dhammer, double ouch! Maybe triple.
I purchase Loews package at the Daily Getaways last year. And just booked this week Spring Break March for two nights. Cost was $325 for the two nights. Gets my express pass. We just need 1 day park hopper to do everything. Could have gotten a discount with amex and undercover tourist.
Karen, you took the words right out of my mouth. I see a lot more value in the Loews packages on Daily Getaways now.
I’m not sure if this still works, but one night of staying on property used to get you two days of express pass…the day you check in and the day you check out. I’m not a huge fan of split stay…but if this still works might not be a terrible use to move the last day of your stay. We did a week’s DVC stay a few years ago during non-peak times and booking a “throw-away” room was actually cheaper than paying for everything. We ended up actually using the room to let our nephew nap so it worked out.
Also, you should check how much it is to get annual passes. We did a 3 night Universal only stay a few years ago and I asked as we were leaving how much to upfare to an annual pass…it was like $30. If there’s even a small chance you might go back in the next year it it might be worth it.
Not sure if it’s still an option, but Universal tickets used to be park of Chase Ultimate reward catalogue. I blew my 300k UR and launched my Reserve card so can’t verify current rates, but last time i did the redemption rates were decent…not Korean Air First class good…but better than 1c per point.
We looked at the math and I don’t think it makes sense to stay onsite. Looking at annual passes, though!
Unless you are a FL resident and get an annual pass on the cheap Universal is the same price as Disney. It’s crazy pricey compared to their other parks.
A, I really was in shock when I saw the prices.
Absolutely agree, Universal tickets are unreasonably high. Trying to figure out which is the best route, is like toilet paper math at the grocery store. What an overwhelmingly confusing process. It was great, but not for those prices.
My wife and I have done Universal and Disney for a week in August for the last few years, but Universal has just gotten totally out of hand. The regular tickets sure aren’t cheap, but the line jumper passes are just crazy expensive. With the ever enhancing ticket prices, I think we’ll figure out something else this year.
Christian, it seems like based on the reports it would be nuts to attempt without the express passes.
Going for spring break and yeah it’s expensive. Ended up buying at their hotel for 1 night to get fast passes and then 2 day bass ticket. Wish thought about it for gateaways 🙁
John, that’s absolutely the right strategy for staying onsite. You and I will be fighting for those Daily Getaways packages!
True! It’s very expensive. When I return I will probably skip the park to park ticket to save more. Last time I used Undercover Tourist. Check out my review and how it helped me save $!
I second the idea to check Undercover Tourist. They saved us a good bit when I took my family of four in 2016.
Tim, I like Undercover Tourist for Universal discounts. Universal has gotten smarter in that if you need Express Passes they’re pricey when you buy them separately from the tickets.
Dana, include a link in the comments to your post if you like! The way they hook me into having to buy Park-to-Park is the Harry Potter train. That’s a must for the kids.
We did each park once with our girls. Never again. Screw both parks. We can afford it but it’s userous. Disney and Universal are preying on people who cannot afford it. I just purchase the stock(s) now and take advantage of their ever increasing ticket prices.
Geoff, I own Disney stock as well. We’ve found plenty of strategies to make Disney cheaper. Not so much for Universal.
If you put one of your kids in a wheelchair would that be a free fast pass for your family?
Ok Julie that is really messed about. But since you brought it up I will say this. I have cancer. This summer the chemo was brutal. I have been through it a number of times. When I was going through chemo the first time we went to Disney. I was too weak to walk the parks and had rented a motorized cart. Disney doesn’t allow people with wheelchairs just to walk up and get on a ride. Too many people abused it. What they allow is for you to get a ticket and come back to a ride at a designated time. If the wait is one hour, you don’t have to wait in line..you come back in one hour. You don’t get more than one at a time. This was so helpful to me. So the next time I got a break from chemo I said “hey let’s try Universal”. So I contacted them about their policy to see if it was similar to Disney’s…and they said they wouldn’t offer it to me. Told me I needed to buy the Express pass or stay at their hotels to get it. They said I could always ask when I got there but there was no guarantee they would accommodate me, They did say that they do offer a system like Disney…one ride at a time. But it was up to their discretion when we came in to offer it. Now do you think I would go all the way there…pay to get in…and then have them tell me no? I asked if I could provide documentation ahead of time. Nope. So guess what…we didn’t go to Universal. We went back to Disney..
AGAIN, the complaints about “FAKE” handicap use forced a more tight policy. I would rather see them lose some business occaisionally then see scammers abuse the system. Sorry, a good person that deserves the benefit got caught up in the correction but this is what happens when too many people abuse the system.
Kelly, I was really disturbed to hear of the folks that abused the disability policy at Disney. The results have definitely hurt folks like you who truly need that path to be able to experience a day at Disney. I’m really surprised (and disappointed) to hear that Universal doesn’t have accommodations for folks dealing with disabilities. I hope your chemo is progressing well!
Wheelchair, no. My husband has Muscular Dystrophy and is not quite at the point where he needs a wheelchair. We came prepared with a doctors note and everything that he cannot stand for long periods of time. Universal flatly refused to give him the handicapped Express pass. They insisted that he rent a wheelchair (which cost us $50 for the day) and then wait in line like everyone else as all of their rides you can basically access up to the point of ride by wheelchair now. We were furious. My husband was grumpy all day in having to use a wheelchair.
Our friends who were vacationing with us, however, were able to get an express pass for free for the entire group because their son has aspergers. They simply walked in and said we need a handicapped pass for our son who is autistic and didn’t even have to produce a doctors note or anything and they simply handed it to them.
It’s not remotely a perfect system. Don’t try and cheat the handicapped express pass though, this is why they are such bastards about it. People abused it.
I do not think this SCAM works anymore. I know it got out of hand at Disney World and they now require proof that a person is handicapped. Used to well off people would “hire” a handicapped person to push around in a wheel chair so they could get their family of 8 to the front of the lines. The handicap policy was very liberal at first, but like most good and decent programs people like YOU try to mouse the system and that changes the rules and requirements again. What you propose is immoral at the very least.
Julio, might be a free pass to get banned from Universal. Also, probably not the example I want to set for my kids.
Download Harry Potter videos to your iPads and take your kids camping.
Jim, I ran this past the kids. Didn’t seem to fly. I’ll get back to you.
Things like this are why, when planning vacations, I occasionally find myself thinking “what would it cost I I went by myself?” 🙂 But, honestly one of the most fun times I’ve ever had with my oldest son was a weekend trip to Disney World. It was perfect.
Over $200 per day, per person is very pricey. You are already halfway to the regular price of an annual pass at Disney World.
Charlie, we do make great memories as a family on trips like this. Make a good dent in the wallet as well.
I jumped on the DVC deal for AP this year. It’s Disney all year this year. Maybe next year we may give universal a try. Sometimes Discover has a package you can redeem your points for. Right now, I don’t see it.
Shannon, we bought Disney APs as well. If I’d known that Universal couldn’t wait another year, I might have made a different decision. The kids are so geeked up to go.
I had my credit card virtually stolen online (never, ever used the card, I mean ever) kept in a desk drawer…perp ordered up 4 tickets to the park. Smart guy!
Steve, that is smart. Wonder if they used them or sold them?
Yeah, the only way to beat this is to book a night in one of the three onsite hotels (not all of them do) that include Express Passes. You get up very early to check in, you leave your luggage at the hotel and get your Express Passes, and then you go get in line to get into Harry Potter early admission. And then you still have your Express Passes the next day.
Brteacher, that may be our plan in the future. The math didn’t make sense on this trip.
Why don’t you take your kids to Universal Studios Singapore instead? Adults are only USD 57 and kids are USD 42? Or you can go to Japan and combine Disney Tokyo with Universal Studios Osaka. You also won’t deal with Spring Break crowds since you’re in Asia, and economy airfare to Asia is dirt cheap, as you yourself often point out. I rarely bother with US domestic and Caribbean travel anymore given how overpriced and crappy the airlines and hotels are (not to mention the crowds during US school holidays).
I really love this idea, but it’s gonna have to wait a bit. Thanks for an awesome suggestion.
You may want to consider the 2-Park Premier Annual Pass. For $540 + taxes (Adult price), you get Express Pass after 4pm with no blackout dates. If you are able to travel this year and next, it would be a great deal.
TropicGal, you turned us on to the perfect idea for us!
The best scenario I can see- tried and true is to go during low crowds and not worry about the express lane! If you can look at historical and projected crowd calendars to plan your dates. We did this in October for our fall break a few years back and never stood in line any longer than the express lines. Crazy me chose March 22-25 this year. I’m not looking forward to the lines, really considering doing the one night Universal Resort stay trick for 2 days of express pass but not sure we’ll really need that since we do have 4 days of park to park passes.
I think its worth it as the lines will be unbearable.. We are staying at Hyatt with points for 2 nights and Universal for 1… This way we only need 2 day base tickets and maybe even cover the water park.
I agree and really wish we could schedule when crowds were lower. We’re going down the same crazy path as you!
You consider this expensive … how about if you do not live in the USA and visiting as part of a family holiday .. Now, add in either Trans-Atlantic / Trans-Pacific or coming from South America airfare, hotels, car rental etc etc and you can see the cost going through the roof
I know of lots of families that now avoid Florida totally for 2 main reasons .. the cost of Disney / Universal and the costs of driving on toll roads in the Orlando / Miami area. So many toll roads are now only doing “SunPass” with no human interaction, that teh car rental companies are price gouging with “administration charges” for toll fees
Michael, no doubt a trip to Disney from South America is brutally expensive!
Michael, all the call rental companies have a toll option that comes with the rental car if you choose it. It’s incredibly cheap, and you’ll get a better price value than sunpass holders get. For about $25 you get unlimited tolls. And by the way, if you’re staying near the I-4 corridor in Orlando you won’t have to take any toll roads. Toll roads are entirely optional and there are no toll roads near the main hotel and resort areas.
Thanks for the extra info, Eric!
Having gone to both Universal Orlando and the Harry Potter WB studios outside London, I personally preferred the WB studios experience. If your kids just want to see Harry Potter, I suggest going to the UK instead. They have diagon alley, butterbeer, greenscreen, etc. Ok so the only thing they don’t have are the rides.
I think you mentioned it before but there is an Amex offer right now of spend $500+ on a Universal Orlando vacation package and get 10,000 MR points. Might help.
Joey, the kids really do want to visit London as well. I think they want to do the rides, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up in London this summer for some Harry Potter fun.
Just say NO and find a less expensive family activity. Its not the cost of family activities that your children will cherish, its the quality time with mom and dad.
Greg, it’s a valid point. I’m sure we spend too much on our kids. You want them to be humble and yet give them the world at the same time.
Skip the Express pass. Doesn’t work on the Harry Potter rides anyway.
yes it does now!
Yes it does, I rode Gringots over and over!
Why get the express pass? It’s a waste of money. Just have the whole family use the single rider line. Most of the time we ended up riding together anyway! The lines are either walk on or only 20-30 minutes usually. If you are not buying the end of the ride photo, why waste all that time in line just to sit next to each other?
Each trip, even during peak days we were usually able to get 75% of the park rides in using the single rider line. We still had time to still sit back and enjoy the park and other attractions too. I know it’s not for everyone, but it works well to keep everyone moving and not bored in line!
We had annual passes to Universal the last couple years. Although we weren’t local, we would fly down for a weekend, stay at a hotel on points and ride at the park.
Bryan, our youngest just turned 7. When he’s a bit older, I see single rider lines in our future. Thanks for the tips!
Mark, my impression was that Express Passes are valid on the Harry Potter rides.
The last time I did Universal (it was 4+ years ago), I ended up purchasing a 3-day pass from Costco (in Colorado) for like $179 total. I know I’ve seen them in store recently, but don’t know if they are still there or the price. But it was the best deal I could find.
Thanks, Brian. Hadn’t thought about Costco.
Prices are going up on everything. I do not like it but I am at a loss as to what to do about it. (except do not go to the parks). Try explaining to a 4 & 6 year old why they can’t go to the parks anymore. I went to buy a new ski coat this winter and I found that even “down” is up!
cliff, chuckle. Down is up! Park tickets are high, but the Universal prices are really a whole other level.
Tough times my friends… When I visited Universal for the first time in 2001 it was not that difficult to find daily passes 50% discounted at any t-shirt kiosks in Town. I used to road trip with friends from Atlanta to Miami and spent a few days in Orlando, in a cheap hotel and do a park with a very limited budget. Then I finally traded my friends for a sweet girl friend and used to pay twice the 50% discount 🙂 Less and less cheaper then, but still worth it thousand times, lot of fun and souvenirs. And then all of the sudden the rates went sky high for any one not having a Floridan ID… 30% different between GA and FL driving license in the late 2000 made me think twice about a stay in Mickey’s town. Then I got married, added 3 kids to the total and it has became completely insane. I no longer stop in Orlando and go direct to Miami when vacation time rings. My kids have way more fun at the beach in a cheaper hotel than staying in Orlando to get the park’s cashier telling us: “well you know it is a lot to do inside… and there are real artists singing and acting…blabblbalblaaaa…” Nothing new I would say… My salary did not reach their sky and as long this is like that I won’t see any further of those parks again. You can still visit via Google map though: https://email@example.com,-81.4733988,2a,60y,194.16h,94.56t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sB7HF2p4lTIHyE5YdxQ0h4Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
dillon, great summary on where prices have gone. It’s tough for families!
Edward, as a FL resident for the past 6-7 years, and a Universal Premier Pass holder for the past 4 years, I can tell you a few things. First, Universal has continued to raise our prices as well, while simultaneously eliminating our perks. It used to be that Premier Pass holders got an unlimited express pass option after 4pm, but Universal put an end to that recently. Our express pass option has now been reduced to once per ride. Completely ridiculous. We used to get coupons for something like 6-8 free bottles of water per year, but they eliminate that option as well. But I digress….
To your question regarding saving time and money: The truth is, there is only 1 good option for visitors who come here as part of a family vacation and are looking to get the most value: pull the kids out of school, rather than plan a vacation around a school break, and do not, under any circumstances, come here during the tourist season, or on a weekend. Sorry, but that is the simple truth. If you come during the week, in mid April or May you won’t have to buy expensive express passes, or worry about crowds. Hotel prices will be lower as well.
Eric, it’s disappointing to hear you’ve lost those options. I suspect it’ll be the only year we buy APs. We do make an effort to find quiet weekends here and there throughout the year.
I don’t know what you all are talking about. Trying to price a week vacation for 2 in either park, Universal comes out to around $1500 (flight, on-site hotel, and tickets), whereas with Disney I find nothing less than 3k NOT including the flight, unless I want to go camping or stay at a children-themed hotel. They are literally twice as expensive.
Martin, the Universal pricing is much more variable than Disney when it comes to ticket prices and Express passes. At the busiest times of year, you can pay $400 per person.