The biggest benefit to staying on Universal property is undoubtedly the unlimited Express Pass usable at both theme parks. Even better, everyone on the reservation gets unlimited Express Pass on both the check-in and check-out days. So with a one night stay, you could conceivably receive two full days of unlimited Express Pass included with the cost of the hotel room.
There are three basic versions of Express Pass. The first is the unlimited Express Pass available to those staying on site. Unlimited Express Pass is just what it sounds like – use the Express Pass line as many times as you want at any participating attraction. There are only three rides that don’t offer Express Pass – Forbidden Journey in Wizarding World, Pteranodon Flyers in Jurassic Park, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit over at Universal Studios. It’s also unavailable at Ollivanders in the Wizarding World.
The second variety can be purchased by anyone either at the theme parks or online at http://www.universalorlando.com/Theme-Park-Tickets/Universal-Express/Express-Passes.aspx. That blue kiosk just inside the entrance sells Express Passes and you’ll find additional kiosks all over the Parks. There’s another kiosk behind us if you want to commit to purchasing Express Pass before the Park opens or before you otherwise enter. Online pricing may be cheaper. The downside is that because pricing differs by date, you have to commit to a specific day when purchasing online. When purchased at the theme parks, Express Passes are only offered for that particular day. Express Passes are available for purchase for either one of the theme parks or you can buy a combined pass good for both Parks on one day. Of course, you need to have tickets to enter the Parks as well, so keep in mind that purchasing the Express Pass will not get you into both Parks on the same day unless you opt for a ticket good for entry into both.
Clicking “Buy” on the link above will take you to this screen. Click “Choose Dates” on the left and a new window will open with a calendar listing Express Pass pricing. Above is the per-person cost for an Express Pass valid at both parks.
Express Pass pricing is based on how crowded Universal expects their Parks to be that day – the higher the price, the heavier the expected crowds. So if you’re planning to head to Universal, you may want to check Express Pass pricing even if you’re not planning to purchase it.
Express Passes purchased online or in the theme parks are only good for one use per attraction. This is a key difference between purchased Express Passes and Express Passes available to guests staying at the Universal hotels. The good news is that you probably don’t need Express Pass if pricing is on the low end – $35.99 or $45.99 for both Parks. The bad news is that you probably want Express Pass if pricing is on the high end – $69.99+. The wait times listed above are peak waits on a day when Express Pass for both parks was $35.99. Attractions that now have wait times over ten minutes would have had waits less than ten minutes until at least 10am and wait times will drop again after 4pm. Thus, Express Pass wouldn’t save us a whole lot of time.
If you’re considering purchasing Express Pass, check how much it would cost to spend a night at one of Universal’s hotels. The Royal Pacific is usually the least expensive.
A one night stay on June 26th for four adults is $339. Purchasing Express Pass for June 26th is $69.99/person, or $279.96 for four people. So staying the night is $59.04 more expensive and gets us two full days of Unlimited Express Pass, versus just one day of Express Pass limited to one use per attraction. As we’ll learn later, staying on-site is also going to get us into the Wizarding World an hour early on our check-in and check-out days if we arrive early enough. I’ll discuss the Universal resorts later, but they generally destroy even Disney World’s nicest accommodations for considerably less money. One thing not taken into account in the pricing above is the hotel tax, which would add about $40 to the price of the room.
The third kind of Express Pass is available to Premier Annual Passholders. With one of these $400 tickets, you’ll be able to enter the Express Pass line one time per attraction per day, but only after 4pm.
Did I mention what Express Pass is? It’s basically FASTPASS. Each enabled attraction will have a standby entrance and an Express entrance. You’ll show your room card, Express Pass, or Premier Annual Pass to an attendant at the front of the line who will scan it (or send you through and someone else will scan it later) and you then proceed through the Express line. Waits are usually between five and fifteen minutes. In my experience, wait times with Express Pass have almost always been less than five minutes.
One problem with Express Pass is that you may miss key parts of the story explained throughout the queue. That’s particularly true at Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black (pictured above), and Spider-Man, which have great queues that add to the storyline. If the wait is 15 minutes or less, you may want to elect to walk the queues for these attractions at least once, even if you’re Express Pass enabled.
So what have we learned?
- Express Pass exists. If you’re staying on-site, everyone on the reservation receives free Unlimited Express Pass. If you’re not staying on-site, you can purchase Express Pass online or at the theme parks, but it’s only good one time at each attraction. If you opt for the $400/year Premier Annual Pass, you can use Express Pass at each enabled attraction one time, but only after 4pm.
- There’s a separate line for Express Pass users that bypasses most of the queue, themed or not. You may need to wait a few minutes if other Express Pass users are ahead of you.
The other major advantage to staying on-site is the early entry into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Unlike Extra Magic Hours, the extra Harry Potter hour doesn’t draw additional crowds because it’s offered every day.
To gain admittance, simply walk up to the entrance and flash your room card. They’ll point you toward the appropriate section of turnstiles. In this instance, it’s the turnstiles on the left.
All of the turnstiles in this section will be operating, so don’t be shy about walking up to one without anyone in line. Much like Disney World, people like to line up behind other people. It’s not uncommon to see 25 or more people in line at one turnstile, while the other turnstiles have no one standing in front of them.
Much like Hollywood Studios, the turnstiles usually begin operating 15 minutes before the “official” early entry open. In this instance, that’s 7:45am for the 8am entry. On the morning of December 14th, there were maybe 150 people present at most at 7:45am.
“Port of Entry” is Islands of Adventure’s “Main Street USA” so to speak.
To the left is stroller/ECV/wheelchair rental along with bathrooms.
Explore this area in the afternoon or evening, long after the crowds have rolled in.
Perpetually Christmas at Port of Entry Christmas without perpetual Christmas decorations.
Last Chance before setting off on your adventure I guess. Or your first chance to purchase fruit. I don’t know.
The same stuff you’ll find all over.
I’d only stop if you’re entering the Park in the afternoon. Otherwise, it’s time to high tail it to an attraction.
Arctic Express for ice cream:
As you enter the Park, it’ll be on your left as you arrive at the end of Port of Entry.
Confisco Grill is on your right.
For just a dollar or two more than an old quick service hamburger, you can sit down at Confisco and order one of their reasonably priced salads, appetizers, or entrees.
We’re certainly not talking fine dining, but it’s a good choice for dinner if you’d prefer to dine inside the Park, Mythos isn’t open, and you’re not interested in The Three Broomsticks (or it’s busy and the wait to get in is 20+ minutes).
Croissant Moon Bakery is your Main Street Bakery option (only without Starbucks!) inside the entrance on the right side before arriving at Confisco:
Coffee here is “Lavazza – Italy’s Favorite Coffee,” which is also available in the Italy Pavilion at Epcot.
Cinnabon is the other quick service breakfast option in the Park, located to the right of Arctic Express:
Pricing is in line with how much you’d pay elsewhere. There’s another Cinnabon along CityWalk if you want to pick one up while you wait at the turnstiles in the morning.
Otherwise, Port of Entry is more of the stuff that’s available in the various gift shops you’ll see around both Parks. Shop in the afternoon to cool off or after the Park officially closes when the stores remain open and you’re not wasting time that could be spent experiencing the various attractions.
Touring the Wizarding World during early entry is easy. You’ll walk through Port of Entry, take a right at the end, continue through Seuss Landing, then into The Lost Continent, and then enter Hogsmeade on the opposite side of Forbidden Journey.
It’s cloudy, dark, and decidedly British here in the morning. I’m not sure how Disney does it. I mean, how Universal does it. Dragon Challenge is around the corner on the right. It’s the last attraction you’ll want to do during your first hour in the Park. It takes forever to walk the queue and lines won’t back up until at least 10am if they back up at all. When crowds are low, Dragon Challenge usually peaks with a 15 minute wait because it scares so many people off.
Ollivanders is your top priority if you want to see the five minute show. Only 30 people at a time enter the wand shop, causing waits to be 30+ minutes with only 150 people in line. Wait times will be consistently that long (or longer) through at least an hour before the Park is scheduled to close. The picture above with nobody in line was taken at 8:12am on December 14th.
Only one child is selected…errrrr…the wand only selects one child per show. For a higher chance of having yours picked, have them stand up front and center. With early entrance, you should be able to do Ollivanders two or three times with short waits first thing in the morning in case the shop keeper is a jerk and picks someone else’s snowflake.
After Ollivanders, it’s time to fight the crowds to Forbidden Journey. Ride a second or third time if time permits. Since you’d most likely have unlimited Express Pass if you’re here for early entry, there isn’t that much of a rush to another part of the Park. Ollivanders and Forbidden Journey are two of the attractions that aren’t Express Pass enabled. With kids between 36″ – 56″, you may want to be on your way to Pteranodon Flyers by 9:15am to avoid a line there. More on what to do after early entry is coming up a little later.
If you’d like to ride the Barnstormer-esque Flight of the Hippogriff, you’ll want to do so after Forbidden Journey.
During early entrance, they’ll probably be cycling empty or nearly empty ride vehicles as most people will concentrate on Ollivanders and Forbidden Journey after arriving closer to 8:40am. Riding Hippogriff will only take five minutes.
This is the scene at 8:52am. There’s maybe 25 people visible down the main drag. Forbidden Journey is located just through that archway. I’m standing outside Three Broomsticks.
At 8:56am, the wait for Ollivanders is probably around 15 minutes.
The purpose of this shot was originally to capture Forbidden Journey’s exposed show building as we walk to Jurassic Park, but it also shows Universal team members dismantling the walkway into Jurassic Park. During early entry, you’ll be held at the bridge over to Jurassic Park until right at 9am. At that time, you can hustle over to Pteranodon Flyers with kids or continue walking toward Super Hero Island for Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Dr. Doom.
Speaking of Pteranodon Flyers, I hurried over right at 9am to see if they’d let me on without a child of the appropriate height. Even with nobody else there and clearly empty ride vehicles cycling one after the other, I was still told “No.” I’m not that charming though. You might have better luck.
Super Hero Island at 9:17am. With bone crushing crowds like these we may just want to head to the exit. Spider-Man is around the corner.
A couple minutes later at Port of Entry. This is why Express Pass isn’t necessary when pricing is less expensive. There’s basically nobody here.
Circling back to Wizarding World, this is what it looked like at 10:02am (still December 14th) – a few more people, but nothing crazy by any means.
Another of the ummmmmm…. “benefits” of early entry is that Three Broomsticks serves breakfast.
To be exact.
What it looks like through the window:
The British are not known for their food. While this website is not going to enter the Piers Morgan deportation debate, Britain: Please take back Jamie Oliver. I’m just saying.
I didn’t notice a price at the time of purchase – the electronic breakfast menu is only outside the restaurant. Inside, there’s just a small piece of paper listing the menu items. Deeming the “Traditional English Breakfast” the most bloggable, I ordered it along with a Butterbeer and was quoted a price of something like $15.96, which sounded a bit high for a breakfast entree and drink. But it turns out that for whatever reason my Butterbeer was marked as “Do not make” and the breakfast itself was $14.99 + tax. In fact, all breakfasts are $14.99 for adults and $11.99 for kids.
I still have nightmares about this thing. The beans lacked flavor. I am not a tomato person and there’s a piece of one smack dab in the middle of the plate. You’d be fooling me if the eggs weren’t powdered at some point. I’m not an expert on the finer art of British cooking, but I don’t think a croissant is a traditional breakfast item over there. Maybe after a British military victory over Napoleon (were there any?) they ate his croissants or something.
I don’t want to talk about the blood sausage. It was mealy and thankfully didn’t taste like much at all.
I am not a mushroom person either. The potatoes were lukewarm and greasy. Not much flavor. The two sausages were the best part – extremely greasy still but tasted like sausage.
The ham had been refrigerated and reheated one, two, three, or more too many times.
I left breakfast feeling a little queasy. At fifteen bucks a head, I think you’re better off picking up breakfast elsewhere. But if you’re intent, it’s quite possible that the pancakes or other breakfast items taste better. Or you may be the target audience for tasteless beans, a chunk of tomato, and sauteed mushrooms in the morning. I ordered breakfast around 10:10am, so anyone can head over and order. I think for a while you needed a reservation and/or be staying on-site to eat breakfast here, but word may have gotten around that the food is inedible, leading to fewer “ressies.” You’re more than welcome to recount a positive experience in the comments section. But I would prefer to be backed up.
Standing outside Forbidden Journey at 10:30am, things are busier. Since I sort of turned around on a dime and snapped this picture, I’m wondering if the gentleman in the hat, shades, and trench coat is following me around. Forbidden Journey’s wait is sitting at 30 minutes, Flight of the Hippogriff is 30 minutes, and Dragon Challenge doesn’t even open for another 30 minutes.
But it’s still far from hectic. These people on the left are all lined up for a Butterbeer. Head inside Three Broomsticks or into Hog’s Head and the wait would be zero minutes. I walked into Zonkos and purchased a Duck on a Bike without much trouble as well.
And then fast forwarding all the way to 1:05pm, this is as long as wait times got during the day.
Early entry into Wizarding World and Unlimited Express Pass are certainly some of the nicest theme park perks available. At least until Disney’s MyMagic+ shuts out those staying at Holiday Inn on US-192 and coddles families paying the big bucks to stay Concierge at the Grand Floridian. Early Entry guarantees short waits at the two Islands’ attractions that aren’t Express Pass enabled and puts you in a great spot to head over to Pteranodon Flyers or another attraction right around 9am. If you’d prefer to sleep in, you can simply circle back to Wizarding World in the final 60 to 120 minutes of operation to find shorter waits.
Next up is an update to the Moderate resorts. It will probably be a quiet couple of days.