In this post, we provide a guide to Express Pass at Universal Orlando. This “skip the line” system promises you access to shorter waits, but it comes at a hefty price. Is it worth it? Read on to learn everything you need to know about Universal Orlando’s Express Pass system!
What is Universal Express Pass?
Universal Express Pass is the “skip the line” system at Universal Orlando Resort, including at the two theme parks—Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure—and the water park, Volcano Bay. This post focuses on Express Pass at the two theme parks. It does not cover Express Pass at Volcano Bay.
Using an Express Pass allows you to access a shorter line than other guests at select attractions. The passes start at $65+tax per person on low-season days and go up to $190+tax on peak dates. As we’ll cover more below, certain hotel guests receive complimentary Express Passes.
Express Passes are good for only one calendar day. When you purchase, you must specify the date for the pass, and it is only good for that date (even if you don’t visit all the rides that day).
Express Passes are also good only for one person, they cannot be shared. So a family of four in peak season purchasing the most expensive pass for one day will spend $760+tax.
What rides are included in Universal Express Pass?
Most rides at Universal Orlando, 29 in total, are included in the Express Pass. The most notable exclusion as of this writing is that Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is not included in Express Pass.
A 29-item list of basically every ride isn’t a good use of space here. There are two ways to get the “official” list. First, you can use the Universal Orlando app (recommended) or website and filter the attractions by Express Pass usage:
Second, you can visit the various Express Pass pages on the Universal website (like this one) and then click the “Terms And Conditions” links, which will tend to list exclusions.
Buying a Universal Express Pass
In this section, we cover the different types of Express Pass options, their costs, and how to purchase them. As a reminder, we’re not talking about Volcano Bay Express Pass here.
How much does Universal Express Pass cost?
Depending on the exact type of pass you get and the date you visit, you can spend anywhere between $65+tax and $190+tax on an Express Pass. We cover the different types of Express Passes next, but the lowest level pass costs between $65+tax and $140+tax, depending on the date.
Universal Express Pass vs. Universal Express Unlimited
This is an easy distinction to understand. Express Pass allows you to skip the line at each eligible ride once. Express Unlimited allows you to skip the line at each eligible ride as many times as you want.
Depending on the date, the extra cost for “Unlimited” is about $15 to $30 per person. Personally, we don’t really see the value in this, but we’re not big ride geeks. We also don’t have kids who are going to scream “again! again!”
We’re more about experiencing the entire park, which we don’t need multiple rides for. Also keep in mind that you can still arrive early and catch some short waits before you resort to using your Express Pass. Or, on select rides, you can use single rider (especially if only one member of your party really needs to ride multiple times).
1-Park Express or 2-Park Express?
Universal makes this decision pretty easy for you. 2-Park Express Pass and Express Unlimited passes typically cost only $10 more than their 1-Park counterparts. They’ve priced it aggressively to pull you in, and we recommend you let them win this one and give them the extra $10.
Of course, if you don’t have park-to-park tickets, you’ll have no need for 2-Park Express Pass, either. And if you’re in one park all day, you likely don’t need Express Pass to begin with.
If nothing else, upgrading to a 2-Park pass ensures you’ll get the most out of the pass. You’d hate to be stuck in lines at one park more than you planned and then only wind up using half your rides at the other park.
Where to buy Universal Express Pass?
You can buy Universal Express Pass online, via the Universal Orlando app, at the gate, or at select spots within the parks.
If you buy online or via the app, we recommend selecting a will-call or in-park pickup option, as we’ve had a lot of issues with the machines not being able to scan the QR code digital Express Pass.
Express Passes can sell out for a day, but we don’t generally recommend buying in advance…
When to buy Universal Express Pass?
Generally, we recommend waiting until you’re at the park to buy a Universal Express Pass because that’s when you’ll know whether or not you really need it.
Obviously if you just know you’re going to want it, fine, go ahead and buy it. Although if you’re visiting in mid-January or other off-times, you really, really should wait.
If you’re arriving early, you probably won’t need an Express Pass to get short waits to start the day anyways. When you want to make the decision to buy the Express Pass is probably around an hour into the day when wait times are climbing and you realize you won’t be able to visit every highlight without it.
As we said, Express Pass can sell out. So would we buy in advance for major holidays—Christmas, New Year’s Eve? Sure. But most days it will make sense just to wait and see how your morning goes.
Complimentary Express Pass for Premier Hotel Guests
Guests of the Premier Hotels at Universal Orlando Resort get complimentary Express Unlimited for the durations of their stay, including check-in and check-out day.
This is something of a fascinating perk, to say the least. The Premier Hotels start at about $140 per night more than the lowest priced Universal hotels, and start at $60 per night more than the “Preferred” tier beneath them:
This means that for many guests it will just make sense to stay at one of Universals Premier Hotels, rather than purchasing Express Pass Unlimited outright.
Obviously the best way to “hack” this is to stay at the Universal Premier hotel for just one night and have the Express Pass Unlimited for the two days on either side of that night.
For a family of four, this could mean big savings. Let’s say they find a Premier room for $300. For a 2-Park Express Pass (not Unlimited), they were going to spend at least $300+tax for one day. Now, they get two days of Express Unlimited for the same price.
How Helpful Is Express Pass (Example Waits)?
I’ve only actually tracked Express Pass wait times once, but I’m happy to share the results with you. In the past, I’ve been largely satisfied with Express Pass, but if you’re not paying attention to how long regular wait times are, it’s easy to be satisfied with your relatively short waits.
The full narration of this day can be found in part four of my summer 2019 Universal Orlando Resort trip report. Here are the wait times from that day:
The Incredible Hulk Coaster — 45 Posted, 23 Express
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man — 65 Posted, 11 Express
Doctor Doom’s Fearfall — 25 Posted, 11 Express
Skull Island Reign of Kong — 80 Posted, 33 Express
Jurassic Park River Adventure — 25 Posted, 9 Express
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — 45 Posted, 10 Express
Hogwarts Express — 30 Posted, 3 Express
MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack — 45 Posted, 6 Express
The Simpsons Ride — 20 Posted, 17 Express
Transformers — 30 Posted, 10 Express
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem — 40 Posted, 17 Express
Revenge of the Mummy — 30 Posted, 10 Express
ET Adventure — 35 Posted, 13 Express
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts — 45 Posted, 22 Express
Of those fourteen rides, three had waits over 20 minutes, which I would call “unacceptable.” One—Kong—was over 30 minutes, but I also chose to test Express Pass on that one when the standby wait was 80 minutes.
There are tons of reasons why you shouldn’t just compare posted wait times to my wait times. For example, posted wait times often measure to something earlier than setting foot on the ride vehicle, which is what I measure. Posted wait times are also notoriously inaccurate, which is why we always provide my actual vs. posted wait times when narrating our days.
But you’re going to do it anyways so I’ll save you the math—that was 560 minutes posted wait time and 195 minutes actually waited. Very roughly, my Express wait times average 1/3 the posted wait time. I think targeting a 30-minute wait and expecting to wait 10 minutes is reasonable.
It’s sort of crazy…I still spent over three hours in line. For 14 rides, I waited an average of about 14 minutes. Universal’s rides are about six minutes long (that’s a total spitball), so figure 20 minutes per ride.
There are 29 rides at Universal Orlando Resort that accept Express Pass. If you averaged 14 minute wait and 6 minute ride time on those, it would take 9 hours and 40 minutes to ride all of them. But realistically, it would take less time. For one thing, at least seven of the rides I skipped will always be walk-on with Express Pass. For another, if I were trying to ride everything, I would have waited until Kong had less of a wait.
Is Universal Express Pass Worth It?
Well…look at the above “analysis,” look at the price, and decide. But here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in doing this analysis.
Should you just extend your trip? For the price of Express Pass, might it be easier just to add a day to your trip? This is no guarantee you won’t need it, but we think any trip two days or longer will rarely need Express Pass.
Did you consider a premier hotel? Just in case you missed what we said above, it might be cost-effective to pay for a night at a premier hotel (complimentary Express Unlimited) rather than paying for Express Pass for your entire family. Scroll back up for that one.
How many days are you visiting? With multiple days, you definitely can try things without Express Pass on day one. This will give you a fine sense of whether you need it for later days.
How early will you get up? Rope drop is the most important part of the day at any theme park. If you’re at the gates at least 30 minutes before the scheduled open, you’re in a good position to catch a few rides with short waits, which minimizes your need for Universal Express Pass.
How much time do you have at each park? With one full day at any park, you shouldn’t need Universal Express Pass. Except on the busiest of busy days, there aren’t really enough attractions that you should need to skip the lines to fit all, or at least all the highlights, in.
Does single rider work for you? Read the next section, but if Single Rider (available on 11 rides) works for your trip, it might be a better option than Express Pass.
Do you need to repeat rides? If you need to repeat rides, Universal Express Pass or Express Unlimited might be for you. Yes—Express Pass only allows one line skip per ride, but you can always also wait in the regular line for the ride, too.
If you don’t have an Express Pass, you’ll be in a difficult situation to ride everything and ride some things multiple times, at least during peak season.
Express Pass vs. Single Rider
Single Rider allows individual riders to use a separate line so that Team Members can use them to fill ride vehicles when perfectly sized groups aren’t available.
Single Rider lines are available at eleven rides at Universal Orlando. This is significantly fewer than Express Pass’s 29, but the Single Rider lineup comprises mostly very popular rides.
Included are: Incredible Hulk, Rip Ride Rockit, Spider-Man, Forbidden Journey, Reign of Kong, Transformers, Escape from Gringotts, Revenge of the Mummy, Hagrid’s (not on Express Pass), MEN IN BLACK, and Fast & Furuious.
The first three of these alone are enough to significantly improve your overall day at the parks, and if you don’t mind riding separately I think they offer an easy alternative to Express Pass. But…
Single Rider queues aren’t always open at rides, and their wait times can vary wildly because Team Members don’t need to rush through them, as they (theoretically) do with Express Pass. If groups are fitting perfectly onto rides, you can wait five to ten minutes even if you’re the only single rider.
For the most part, it’s reasonable to expect single rider waits to be about the same as Express Pass. This isn’t a lock, but it’s a fine rule of thumb for evaluating in advance whether you’ll try to use single rider or purchase Express Pass.
Single Rider queues aren’t as reliable as Express Pass, but they are free. Remember, if your family uses the single rider line, you will need to ride separately. This also means a large family might wind up spending some extra time waiting for everyone to get on.
How to Use Universal Express Pass
Using Express Pass is incredibly simple. Approach the entrance of any ride with Express Pass. Ask a Team Member where the Express Pass queue is if you can’t find it. Typically, they’re well-marked:
There will typically be a Team Member stationed outside to quickly check that you have Express Pass before letting you into the Express Pass queue.
If you’re riding Rip Ride Rockit or Incredible Hulk, you cannot bring your phone on the ride. If you have a digital Express Pass, show it to the Team Member at the front of the queue. You’ll be given a receipt. Then to place your phone in a locker, and the receipt will serve as your Express Pass.
Farther into the Express Pass queue, they’ll scan your Express Pass. Because the cell phone screens don’t always scan well, we recommend having a physical ticket for Express Pass. Universal is using facial scans on many Express Pass queues to confirm it’s the same person using them.
Universal Express Pass Strategy
There’s not much we have to say here. With Express Pass, you shouldn’t need that much strategy because simply going to a random ride and using it should work well enough.
That said, there’s no reason not to at least give you a few tips. These should help you get the most out of your Express Pass.
Rope Drop Hagrid’s. Remember—Hagrid’s does not use Express Pass. Since you have Express Pass, you don’t need to worry about starting at the Hulk or getting other rides don’t quickly. Start your day with Hagrid’s, the most popular ride at the resort and the only major one without Express Pass!
Prioritize Outdoor Rides. Rides that will shut down during storms (basically anything outdoors), should get priority. Your Express Pass is useless for a ride that isn’t operating.
Avoid 60+ Minute Waits. Remember, a longer standby wait usually means a longer Express Pass wait. When Kong had that 80 minute wait, I waited 33 minutes in the Express Pass line.
Chances are you’ll need to visit one or two rides with 60+ minute waits, but try to avoid them. There are plenty of rides with short waits in the parks. Unless it’s late in the day and you’re worried about missing something, just wait to try and use Express Pass when the regular wait is under 60 minutes.
Don’t Go Overboard Park Hopping. With Express Pass, it’s easy to look at the list of must-do rides and just check them off, ignoring which park they’re in. The five minute walk between parks might not be much, but add in the walk time between rides and the front gates, and you can easily waste 20+ minutes walking from Kong to Escape from Gringotts. Try and stay in your first park at least three hours, riding as much as possible.
Volcano Bay Express Pass
Because the ride line system at Volcano Bay is completely different from the theme parks, the Express Pass system is also very different. It is also sold separately from the other Express Pass offerings, so you don’t really need to include it as part of your theme park Express Pass analysis.