Universal Orlando: Understanding express passes and why they make sense
Universal Orlando consists of two gated theme parks as well as the CityWalk nighttime entertainment complex in between. To make it easier for guests to see and do everything, Universal has instituted a program in both gated theme parks: Universal Express. The program is both similar to and different from Walt Disney World’s Fast Pass program. It is important that you understand the unique concept of Universal Express so that you can decide for yourself whether Express Passes are right for you and your family.
Unlike Walt Disney World’s Fast Pass program, Express Passes incur an additional charge. However, in exchange for the fee, you will receive a pass that allows you to use the special Express entrance at each participating attraction whenever you want, once during the day. This means that unlike a Fast Pass, which gives you a specific return time, an Express Pass gives you the flexibility to visit attractions in whatever order, at whatever time of day, you choose. You will need a separate Express Pass for each member of your party including children, and price varies according to season and park capacity. You can purchase one-park Express, which allows you Express entry at Universal Studios Florida OR Islands of Adventure, or two-park Express which is good for both parks in the same day.
Although the Universal Express advertising often mentions that your wait in line will be 15 minutes or less, it is important to understand that this is not a guarantee. Universal does extremely well at keeping Express lines to a minimum, but you may occasionally encounter a queue that is longer than 15 minutes. The reason for this is simple. By assigning a specific return time, Walt Disney World’s Fast Pass computers automatically track how many people will be in the Fast Pass line at any one time. At a certain cutoff point, the computer automatically advances to the next available Fast Pass Return time. Disney’s system gives guests a better guarantee on queue length, but little flexibility in planning their day. Since Universal Express allows guests to visit the attractions at any time they choose, it is possible that a large number of guests will choose to use Universal Express at the same attraction at the same time. Universal Team Members will do their best to clear an overly long Express queue, but it may take some time to do so.
There are a few tips and tricks that frequent visitors use to help avoid long Express queues. The most important trick is to avoid “show dumps.” Show dump is the term used by Team Members to describe what happens when a large-capacity show ends. Some of the theaters can hold upwards of 1000 guests. When a show ends, most of those 1000 guests immediately head to whatever ride is right next door. The largest capacity ride is Earthquake, which can handle 220 guests per load. Many rides have a much smaller capacity, perhaps 40 guests per load. Therefore, both the Express and Standby queues will overflow immediately after a show dump. To avoid this, keep an eye on your park map. Avoid going on any ride that is right next to a show building right after that show lets out.
If an Express queue seems unusually long, there is probably a reason. The ride may have broken down earlier in the day, and now that it is reopened everyone wants to ride. It is also possible that the ride is currently experiencing technical difficulties which the attraction staff expect to resolve shortly. Serious technical problems will cause the queue to be evacuated, but even a minor reset problem can cause the queue to back up. If the Express line seems particularly long, feel free to ask any Team Member if there is an ongoing situation.
Never be afraid to simply pass up a ride and come back. Again, the flexibility provided by the Universal Express program means that sometimes many guests will just happen to want to ride the same thing at the same time. Except for those rare occasions when a particular ride has technical problems all day, causing its continuous opening and closing, a backed up Express queue, no matter its cause, will generally clear within the hour. Come back later and your wait will probably be shorter.
Now that you understand what an Express Pass is and how best to utilize one, the next thing you must ask yourself is whether you need one. Is an Express Pass truly worth the cost? The answer to this question depends on many factors. During what season are you planning to visit and how large are the crowds during that season? There are certain times of the year when crowds are quite minimal and the Standby lines are generally short. At these times, an Express Pass may be unnecessary. On the other hand, during some holiday and vacation periods crowds are immense and Standby lines regularly stretch to 90 or even 120 minutes. Express Passes are more costly at this time, but well worth the investment if your time at the parks is limited.
How many days do you have to visit each park? If you are trying to see both parks in one day, Express Passes will greatly improve your chances of seeing all major attractions. On the other hand, if you will be at Universal Orlando for a week even during busier seasons, Express Passes are probably unnecessary for those who can tolerate lines and crowds.
What is your level of patience for slow moving queues? If your patience is thin or you get bored easily, the investment in Universal Express may make the difference between an amazing vacation and a miserable one. On the other hand, if you enjoy a slower pace and like to take in your surroundings, you may not want to purchase Express Passes during even the crowded times of year. Universal Express was instituted several years after the park opened, necessitating the opening of Express entrances in preexisting ride buildings. Consequently, the Express queue often bypasses some of the incredible queue themeing, some of which presents the storyline of the upcoming attraction.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to purchase Express and how to use it is a personal one. Many guests choose to buy Express and use their passes only to bypass extremely long lines, while using the Standby line to enjoy the backstory at less crowded attractions. Others purchase Express for the first and/or last day of a longer trip, to ensure that all the major attractions are accomplished, then slow their pace for the middle days of the vacation. The choice is yours, and Universal Express should be seen as an option rather than a necessity.
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