In August 2014, we spent two weeks on vacation in Florida, which included 4 days at the Universal Studios theme parks and 8 days at Disney World. I’ve summarized our vacation in some detail already (planning, Universal, Disney), but here I’m going to look at the similarities and differences between Universal and Disney. I’m skipping the rides, shows, and food, mainly because they’re so varied and you can find ride reviews anywhere. I wanted to focus on other parts of the experience that may not get talked about as much. Primarily, I want to look at the difference between their two “line-skipping” technologies, Disney’s Fastpass+ and Universal Express.
First I’ll describe each one, and then compare them.
Disney’s Fastpass has been around for a while (it was there when we went in 2002), and it recently got changed and renamed to Fastpass+. It allows you to sign up for a ride hours or days in advance and then skip the line. It’s basically a “reservation” for a ride; you are assigned a time range (usually 15 minutes) and as long as you arrive within that time range, you can go into the Fastpass+ line rather than the regular line, and your wait is significantly decreased. For some rides, this is the only way to get on the ride without waiting an hour or more. You can also get Fastpasses for non-ride things like shows, character greetings, and even some restaurants. However not every ride accepts Fastpasses, and for those that do the number they have is limited so you generally have to get them in advance.
You can only have one FastPass+ per ride at a time, so you can’t get a bunch of Fastpasses for Mission: Space and ride it all day. You can get Fastpasses online or through the Disney app, and there are even stations throughout the parks where you can get them.
Fastpass+ is free for all Disney guests.
Universal Express is similar to Fastpass+ but not quite the same. While Fastpass+ is essentially a reservation system, Universal Express is simply a way of paying extra for the privilege of bypassing the normal lines to wait in much shorter lines. It’s not available on every ride, but almost all of the rides that didn’t offer it were the ones where the lines were short anyway. The big exceptions were the Hogwarts Express and Escape from Gringotts.
If you are a guest at one of the Universal hotels, you get Express for “free” (considering the price of tickets and hotels, it’s hard to use the word “free”. Let’s say it doesn’t cost any extra). But if you’re staying off-site, it’s rather expensive. The Express costs anywhere from $34.99 (with restrictions) up to $149.99 (with none, peak time), and that’s per day per ticket. Express is an add-on, so this cost is on top of your regular ticket price.
Compare and contrast
Both Fastpass+ and Express provided lines that were much shorter than the regular lines and in some cases we just walked straight onto the ride, feeling a bit like a VIP. “Sorry, regular people, these people want to ride now, so you’ll all have to wait.”
There are two big advantages to Fastpass+. The first is that you know when you will be riding certain rides, and you can plan your day around that. This is also the big disadvantage – if you decide to change your plans, you either lose your Fastpass or you can try to change it online. But we found that changing it was generally not possible because the times booked up very quickly. You can also only have one Fastpass for a ride at a time, so if you loved a ride, you can’t just turn around and bypass the line again. You can do that with Universal Express.
The second big advantage is that Fastpass+ doesn’t cost any extra and everyone can use it. For those staying onsite, Universal Express is included but otherwise, it ranges from a bit of a pricey add-on to “holy crap, are you kidding?” expensive. There were stations around Universal advertising “Buy your Express pass here!”, and when we were there the cost was around $89.99 (per day per ticket). Since we went to Universal for four days, that would have cost us over $1400. That’s insane.
The biggest advantages for Universal Express is that it’s available on the majority of rides and it’s very flexible – you just walk onto the ride. You don’t need to plan ahead and you don’t need an app on your phone. If you get the cheaper version you can’t use it more than once for the same ride in a day, but the “Universal unlimited” pass (that we had) allows you to use it as many times as you want.
Since we did stay on-site, the price wasn’t an issue for us and so overall I preferred Universal Express to Fastpass+. it was so much easier to simply walk in the Express line rather than booking the time in advance. Having said that, if I had to pay several hundred bucks per day for the four of us to get the Express tickets, that opinion would change very quickly.
In a nutshell, Universal Express was easier and more flexible than Fastpass+, but unless you’re staying on-site, it’s not worth the crazy amount of money.
I originally thought the price was unrealistically high – who’s going to pay that? Why would Universal charge that much? But I figured out why. Having this feature free for hotel guests may push people to stay at a Universal hotel rather than off-site. The hotel may be a little more expensive, but if you save $1000+ by not having to buy Express for everyone in your family, you may decide that the higher hotel price is worth it. If I were going back to Universal again, I’d certainly consider it.
A few other comparisons:
- At Universal, your ticket is a small card (like a credit card) with your name on it and a mag stripe, which you swipe to get into the park and hotel room. Universal Express was a different ticket (WHY?!), and we bought lanyards to keep both tickets easily reachable. For the cost of the vacation, I think Universal could have thrown in four lanyards. Disney used a “magic band” (see right), which is a plastic bracelet with an RFID chip in it. The bracelet was your park ticket (with a fingerprint), Fastpass+ ticket, meal plan ticket, hotel key, and identification for the Disney photographers. You could even use it to charge things to your room (with a PIN). As I said in an earlier article, the only thing it didn’t work for was the in-room safe (which used a large metal key – WHY?!). Advantage: Disney.
- At a number of rides, there were lockers nearby since they don’t want you bringing cameras and backpacks and such on the rides. At Universal (and at Kennedy Space Center too), there were fingerprint scanners near each bank of lockers. You scanned your finger and it would open an empty locker for you to use. When you came back later, you scanned your finger again and it opened the locker. If you were gone less than 20 minutes or so (the time varied with the general lineup length for the ride), the locker rental was free, otherwise you had to pay to get your stuff back. The boys thought that using the fingerprint scanner was pretty cool, though personally I wasn’t as impressed – I wrote fingerprint scanning software two decades ago. Disney had no such lockers. Advantage: Universal.
- Both resorts had free wifi throughout the parks and hotels but Universal’s was much spottier. In the hotel, you had to agree to some terms and conditions before it would let you surf, and I had to agree to those terms and conditions a number of times because it seemed to forget. There were a number of places throughout Universal where the wifi signal dropped to nothing. At Disney, the wifi covered just about everywhere (you might say it was universal) and had a much stronger signal. Advantage: Disney.
One other difference was the staff. The Disney staff seemed to truly enjoy being there, and there were quite a few that went above and beyond. While waiting for the boys and I to finish a ride at Epcot, Gail saw an impromptu “concert” by some of the cleaning staff, who put a bunch of upside-down garbage cans and buckets together and started drumming on them. They called themselves the “Jammitors”. Also at Epcot, we saw another member of the cleaning staff “painting” surprisingly good pictures of Goofy and Donald Duck on the ground with a wet broom. This was very shortly after the park opened, and he knew full well that the pictures would only last minutes because of the heat, but it was fun for him and guests liked it. It’s not that we had any negative experiences with the Universal staff, and some of the people in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley did get quite into character, but more often we felt the Disney staff just went that little bit extra.
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