Like Disney's FastPass+, Universal Express is a system whereby guests can “skip the line” and experience an attraction via a special queue with little or no waiting. Guests approach the marked Universal Express entrance at participating attractions, present their Universal Express pass, and proceed to enjoy their ride with a significantly reduced wait – usually 20% or less of the posted standby time, or no more than a 15-20 minute wait.
There are three major differences between Disney's FastPass+ and Universal Express. While Disney's system requires scheduling your ride reservation hours or days ahead of time, Universal Express involves no advance planning; simply visit any eligible operating attraction whenever you chose, no return time windows required. Also, FastPass+ is only offered at a select list of designated attractions, while more than 90% of rides at Universal (with a couple high-profile exceptions, as discussed below) accept Express. Finally, unlike FastPass+, Universal Express is not free.
Three versions of Universal Express are available, all of which require you to cough up more money beyond your park admission:
- Universal Express Pass: Available for purchase online or in the parks, allowing one person one ride on each attraction which participates in Universal Express.
- Universal Express Unlimited: Available for purchase online or in the parks (either bundled with admission or separately), allowing one person an unlimited number of rides on any attraction which participates in Universal Express.
- On-site Hotel Universal Express Unlimited Pass: Included for all guests at the three luxury Universal Resort Hotels (Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Sapphire Falls excluded) at no extra cost, allowing each person staying on-site an unlimited number of rides on any attraction which participates in Universal Express.
No matter which version of Universal Express you use, it works the same: present your pass to a greeter at each attraction entrance, get it scanned for verification, and enjoy your expedited entertainment. At shows, you can show your pass for priority seating 15 minutes before showtime, but that's less of a perk since Universal's large theaters rarely fill up.
It's worth noting that, while almost all the Express queues are themed, in a few cases (Revenge of the Mummy and MEN IN BLACK at USF; Doctor Doom's Fearfall and Dragon Challenge at IOA) they sacrifice significant scenic elements and story set-up that the standby line sees.
Finally, be aware that neither Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey nor Pteranadon Flyers at Islands of Adventure is a Universal Express attraction, nor is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios Florida, or the Hogwarts Express train that connects the two Potter areas. Further, all the above Express types (included the free passes for resort guests) are only valid during regular operation hours, and not during separately ticketed events. Separate Express passes are available at additional cost for special events like Rock The Universe and Halloween Horror Nights.
Universal Express and Express Unlimited for Purchase
Anyone can purchase Universal Express for one or both parks and for either single (one ride only on each participating attraction) or unlimited use, and from 1 to 4 days. The number of Express passes is limited each day, and they can sell out. Increase your chances of securing passes by buying and printing them at home off Universal’s website. They are available up to eight months in advance at tickets.universalorlando.com/Ticket-Store/PurchaseTickets.aspx?ExpressPlus. You’ll need to know when you plan on using it, though, because prices vary depending on the date.
Universal Express Pass prices range from $34.99 for a one-park single-use pass in slow season, to $149.99 for a two-park Unlimited pass on a holiday; the top-tier passes are significantly cheaper when bundled with a park-to-park multiday pass. Incidentally, the online calendar of Express Pass prices is a great indicator of how crowded Universal will be on any given day. Visit the above link and click “choose dates”; the more expensive the passes, the more packed the park will be.
You can also purchase Universal Express Pass at the theme parks' ticket windows, just outside the front gates. Inside Universal Studios, it's available at Super Silly Stuff; inside Islands of Adventure, you can buy it at Jurassic Outfitters, Toon Extra, and the Marvel Alterniverse Store. Universal also sells Express from freestanding kiosks that seem to proliferate around the parks like mushrooms during peak seasons
Universal Express Program Available to Universal Resort Guests
This program allows guests at Universal's 3 original luxury resorts (Cabana Bay and Sapphire Falls excluded) to bypass the regular line and use the Express entrance anytime and as often as desired. Guests must first use their room keys with a computerized kiosk in their hotel lobby to obtain photo-bearing On-site Hotel Universal Express Unlimited Pass cards.
Universal Express for resort guests is available from the moment of check-in until closing time on the day of check-out. And even though check-in time at Universal's on-site hotels isn't until 4 p.m., guests can retrieve room keys and Express passes as early in the morning as they are able to arrive, and may drop their luggage in the lobby and head to the parks until their room is ready. Therefore, a single night's stay on-site yields two full days of Universal Express access. This perk far surpasses any benefit accorded to guests of Disney resorts; combined with the hour of early park admission to the Wizarding World, it helps make touring Universal Orlando a remarkably low-stress experience for on-site guests, even during peak attendance periods.
A father from Snellville, Georgia, did the math and discovered that it was cheaper for his family to stay at a Universal resort than buy a Universal Express pass:
The benefits of that room key alone can be worth the price, with early entry to The Wizarding World and unlimited Express privileges at both parks. We got a room at the Royal Pacific Resort for $349 on a Saturday night, which allowed us to use Universal Express Saturday and Sunday. The room cost $43.63 per person per day, while an [a la carte] Express pass this same weekend would have cost $55.99 per person per day, and we still would have had to pay for a hotel.
Is Universal Express Pass Worth It?
No matter when you use it, Universal Express will significantly reduce the amount of time you spend waiting in queues at Universal Orlando. But whether or not that time savings is “worth it” depends on the season you visit, hours of park operation, and crowd levels. During busy periods, Universal Express users should wait no more than 15 to 20 minutes for a ride, even when the standby wait is well over an hour; the one exception is Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, whose Express queue can approach an hour at peak times due to its limited guest capacity. That's a significant time savings, and may make the difference between seeing all your favorite headliners in a single day and going home disappointed.
During slow periods, Express users should experience little to no wait at most attractions, and can practically “walk on” to most rides. However, the standby waits will typically top out between 15 and 30 minutes at these times, making the total minutes saved with Express much less impressive.
Attendance has jumped at both parks since the opening of each Harry Potter land, especially at Universal Studios Florida now that Diagon Alley has opened. However, the big-ticket Harry Potter rides in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley don’t participate in Universal Express, so you don’t get to cut in line at Universal’s most in-demand attractions.
If you want to sleep in and arrive at a park after opening, Express is an effective, albeit expensive way to avoid long lines at the non-Potter headliner attractions, especially during holidays and busy times. If, however, you arrive 30 minutes before park opening and you use our touring plans, you should experience the lowest possible waits at both USF and IOA. If you are not eligible for free Express passes, we encourage you to try the touring plans first, but if waits for rides become intolerable, you can always buy Express in the parks.
A New York mom had a trouble-free experience but questions the value of the investment:
We bought Universal's Express Pass, but it was neither necessary nor consistently effective. Arriving at park opening, we were able to see many attractions right away without needing the passes at all. They helped on about three attractions between the two parks—a poor return for an investment of $156, but it was like life insurance: a good thing to have "just in case." On Dudley Do-Right, we still had to wait 30 minutes even with Universal Express, whereas with Disney's free FastPass+ we never waited more than 5 minutes for an attraction. The only aspect of UE that was better than FP is that touring order was unaffected: UE could be used whenever you first approached an attraction instead of your having to come back later.
How Universal Express Affects Crowd Conditions at the Attractions
Guests using Universal Express don't have to modify their touring behavior in any way; simply visit any attraction at will, and enjoy the shorter waits. However, the Express effect can be somewhat less salutatory for guests without Express. The standby and Express queues at each attraction meet up shortly before the boarding area, and attendants are supposed to merge them so that Express guests wait 15 minutes or less, without the standby guests' wait being inflated beyond the estimate posted outside.
Typically, this means about half of each ride's capacity is dedicated to Express guests, which ordinarily keeps both queues flowing smoothly. The catch is that, since Universal Express guests (unlike Disney FastPass+ users) don't schedule ride times in advance, the number of them waiting in a queue at any giving time is highly variable and unpredictable. As a result, an unexpected backlog of Express guests – either because of a sudden influx of pass users, or a temporary technical breakdown that pauses the line – can force Universal to increase the ratio of Express to standby, slowing non-Express guests' progress to a crawl.
While great news for Universal Express users, this can dramatically affects crowd movement (and touring plan usage) for those without it, as a woman from Yorktown, Virginia, writes:
People in the Express line were let in at a rate of about 10 to 1 over the regular-line folks. This created bottlenecks and long waits for people who didn't have the Express privilege at the very times when it's supposed to be easier to get around!
If you encounter this situation while waiting standby, simply grit your teeth and take some deep yoga breaths; the situation normally clears up quickly, and your total wait should still be approximately as originally advertised. In case of a major traffic jam where the standby line stops moving altogether, calculate how much time you've invested already, and consider hopping out of line and returning later when things are running more smoothly. And for those who really can't stand watching Express guests pass them by: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
This ride-reservation system also works much like Disney’s FastPass+ but incorporates the small U-Bot device. These water-resistant egg-shaped gadgets (provided by Accesso, the same company behind the FlashPass and Q-Bot services at Six Flags and other regional parks) closely resemble the Tamagotchi “virtual pet” toys that were briefly popular in the 1990s.
Guests can purchase access to the device at an Express kiosk near the front of each park (buying access online is currently not an option). Once you have your U-Bot, you can use the small built-in screen to reserve ride times for any Universal Express attraction. Note that you can make only one reservation at a time; you must use or cancel your first reservation before making another.
Your minimum wait time before you can experience an attraction with U-Bot will be the same as the ride's current standby wait; that is, if a ride's posted wait time is one hour, you can enter the attraction any time one hour or more after making your reservations. The U-Bot will vibrate and display a message telling you when it’s time to ride. Next, you take your U-Bot to the ride’s Express entrance, where the attraction greeter will scan your device and admit you to the Express queue.
U-Bot costs considerably less than an Express Pass (usually by about $10 to $20 per person) and a single U-Bot can be used by up to 6 guests, though the full per-person price still applies. U-Bot can be rented for either park, and can be activated for one reservation per ride per day, or for unlimited reservations per ride (at an additional cost, of course). When renting a U-Bot, you'll be asked to provide a credit card which will be charged $50 if you fail to return your device to a designated location near the park exit at the end of the day.
Despite the lower price and geeky tech-appeal of the U-Bots, they aren't nearly as popular as Universal Express passes, largely because they lack the later's “use anytime” ease. If managed efficiently, U-Bot can help cut time spent standing in queues, but only if you can slip into another attraction while waiting for your next reservation time to come around. Otherwise, most visitors are better off saving their money, or investing a little more in Express.