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Universal Studios Hollywood Sweetens AP Deals

January 26, 2016, 12:18 PM · Universal Studios Hollywood is dropping prices and blackout dates in an effort to boost sales of its new annual passes.

The park announced in an email blast to passholders last night that it is doing away with all blackout dates on its passes for the month of February. The move gives Universal's passholders up to an additional nine days to visit the park during February.

Universal's email announcement

In addition, Universal is discounting its 12-month annual passes by $10 each, when purchased online. This drops the price of a Gold Annual Pass from $299 to $289, the California Resident Plus pass from $199 to $189 and the California Resident Pass from $139 to $129. Universal earlier this month also added a $109 Seasonal Pass, good between now and Dec. 15, 2016. The trade-off with each pass is more blackout dates for a lower price. In addition, the Gold and California Resident Plus passes include a 10% discount on in-park purchases, which the California Resident and Seasonal passes do not.

Universal revamped its annual pass program this year, in anticipation of the April 7 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Soft openings of the new land are expected to begin in March at the latest.) The park did away with its popular "buy a day, get the year free" promotion, though the new Seasonal Pass comes with $14 of the current gate price of a one-day ticket to the park.

Universal's new annual pass line-up puts its prices roughly comparable to annual passes at the Disneyland Resort, when one considers blackout dates, benefits and the accounts for Disneyland including two theme parks to Universal's one. But there remains two important factors that distinguish Disneyland's passes from Universal's.

No High-End Option

First, Universal does not offer anything similar to Disneyland's Signature and Signature Plus annual passports, which include free parking and either no (for the Signature Plus) or very few blockout dates (for the Signature). Disney's top two passes also offer more generous in-park discounts, with 15% off dining and 20% off merchandise, as well as free digital use of Disney's PhotoPass service.

Disneyland's Signature passport sells for $849. If Universal cut that price in half to account for having one park to Disneyland's two, one wonders how many $424 Universal "Platinum" passes the park could sell... if they included free parking, a larger discount on in-park services and no blackout dates. A current USH Gold annual passholder would do better to upgrade to the hypothetical Platinum pass and its free parking benefit if she or he visited Universal just eight times during the 12-month period the pass is valid. With a 15% discount on Butterbeers, that's pretty easy to imagine doing.

No Payment Plan

From what we've heard from insiders, the sale of Disneyland's annual passes really exploded when Disney started offering local residents a monthly payment option. That way, visitors didn't have to spend hundreds of dollars up front for an annual pass — they could get one simply by agreeing to make relatively low monthly payments for a year.

Let's break down the value of Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood annual passes. The blackout calendar for Universal's Gold Annual Pass is roughly comparable to the blockout calendar for Disneyland's Deluxe Annual Pass — 56 blackout dates between now and the end of the year at Universal, with 48 blockout dates at Disney. (Yes, sharp-eyed readers — Universal uses the term "blackout" while Disney uses "blockout.")

Of course, Disneyland's annual pass gets you into two parks, where Universal's covers just one — which accounts for Universal's Gold Pass selling for about half the price of Disneyland's Deluxe. The Deluxe pass is $599, while Universal's Gold pass sells for $299 at the gate. (As we mentioned, Universal just dropped the price online by $10, to $289.)

Neither of these passes includes parking, but Disneyland does offer a loophole, with free or reduced-price parking available for limited times at Downtown Disney. Disneyland posts signs warning that there is no theme park parking in the Downtown Disney lot, but that doesn't prevent many annual passholders from using that lot when making a relatively quick trip to the parks. At Universal, where theme park and CityWalk visitors park in the same garages, the only break on parking is that the price drops to $10 if you park in the evening, which is of no help to theme park visitors arriving in the morning or early afternoon, regardless of how long they spend in the parks.

But the real difference between the two passes is what you have to pay upfront to get one. At Disneyland, a local resident pays $99 down payment (the price of a one-day, one-park ticket) to get the Deluxe Annual Pass, with subsequent payments of $41.67 a month. At Universal, a visitor must pay the full $289 up front.

Disneyland's Southern California Select pass — which includes 181 blockout dates between now and the end of the year — costs $99 up front and $19.17 a month, for a total of $329. Universal's California Resident pass includes 185 blackout dates and costs $129 up front, when bought online. That's less than 40 percent of the total cost of the Disneyland pass, making it less expensive even when accounting for the two parks.

But you have to pay $30 more up front to get the Universal pass, which makes it a less attractive option for visitors who are thinking about their bank balance today, as opposed to months in the future.

In addition, Disneyland can use its annual pass program to upsell one-day visitors to a two-park Park Hopper at no extra up front charge. A one-day, two-park Park Hopper costs $155. But if you upgrade to a SoCal select AP, you spend just $99 today and get to start park-hopping right away. You "save" $56 today... at the cost of making $19.17 payments for the next 12 months. But doing that deal also gives you more than 100 days to come back and visit both parks over the next year "for free," too.

With only one park, Universal can't use the promise of no-price park hopping to upsell one-day visitors. But one wonders if Universal would be able to sell more annual passes if it offered visitors a payment plan.

Imagine this. You want to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on a one-day, online-purchase ticket that cost $85. If you consider upgrading to the Gold Annual Pass, you would need to pay an extra $204 to get that pass, right away. Now, imagine that you could upgrade and pay just the same $85 today, but with 12 monthly payments of $17 after that. Would that make you more likely to consider upgrading?

Replies (9)

January 26, 2016 at 1:33 PM · Great analysis, and breakdown of the costs of the various levels of passes from a consumer point of view.

I'd say that Universal is *strongly* motivated to try to limit crowds once the Harry Potter wizarding world opens, especially during peak periods like summer, spring break, and most weekends because of capacity issues for both the Harry Potter section and the park in general. That's probably the largest reason why they don't offer the parking add-on to any passes that they currently sell.

I also recommend purchasing a Costco pass for $96 (I believe), which is comparable to the California Resident Pass, but for about $30 cheaper, for anyone seriously considering either of the two lower passes, if you have access to Costco in greater Los Angeles. One could say that you are essentially buying one-day admission to Universal (there are no blackouts on the first day of use), and then getting access to the park on select weekdays for another year after first use. (First use must be before late May 2016.)

I'm also 95% sure that they reduced the number of available dates on all three higher-level passes within a few weeks of introducing them last November/December. If they are offering discounts for buying online, that's a separate development than the reduction in available dates.

January 26, 2016 at 1:49 PM · Although I am hearing that the week of February 15th may be the soft opening for WWOHP- it would be awesome if I could still use my pass for the soft opening!
January 26, 2016 at 3:14 PM · I really hope USH continues to adjust their AP system over the next few weeks/months because as it stands right now, it really sucks that there isn't a no-blackout, parking-included option. I'll bet some SoCal residents like me would be willing to pay extra, say, $399 a year or so for a higher-level pass that avoids paying $18 for parking every visit and allows weekend visits to Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And it's very surprising there's no option to split the cost into monthly payments. Universal's playing hardball with Potter obviously but they have a real opportunity here to pull in some "regulars" in addition to those high-spending tourists while Disneyland has a relatively slow year (in terms of flashy new things opening) and Star Wars Land is still years away.
January 26, 2016 at 2:58 PM · The cheapest passes don't include weekend dates. A few select Saturday or Sundays would sweeten the pot. I'm considering buying employee discounted passes that offer 3 days with some blackout dates. This would be a better value than a cheap AP. They don't offer the pass right now. I anticipate they are waiting until Harry Potter opens before they make a better offer. An offer I can't refuse.
January 26, 2016 at 3:55 PM · Looks like USH overestimated the demand for an AP. I'm sorry but how can USH justify doubling the price of their AP's when they only added one new 7 acre land that only has one E-ticket and one family coaster. I think USH is expecting WWHP to be as popular as its counterpart in Orlando. But I highly doubt that it will be anywhere near as popular considering the fact that it's only half the size. Not only that, but for those who have already been to WWHP in Orlando, theres no incentive for them to make a trip all the way out to USH in order to visit the exact same land only much smaller. Plus, for many tourists, they would rather go to USO to experience WWHP because for the price, it just makes more sense considering the one in Orlando is much more elaborate and larger. It just doesn't make sense for anyone but Californians to go out and make a visit to the new land. Furthermore, $10 off a $300 AP does not entice me one bit. Before USH announced these AP price increases, I was planning on purchasing my first USH AP. However, once they eliminated the AP with no blackout dates, and jacked their Gold AP up to $300, I 100% decided not to purchase one. Ok so USH has about 1/5 the attractions (including WWHP) of DLR, but yet they charge half the price of a Deluxe AP at DLR. The absolute maximum that I am willing to pay for a gold USH AP is $150. However, I am willing to pay up to $200 for a USH AP with no blackout dates. The only way I'd be willing to cough up $300 for a gold AP is if it included unlimited admission to HHN. Other than that, USH just lost a potential APer. Also, USH doesn't even offer an annual parking pass, thus making APer's have to pay $18 every time they come. So yeah, it looks like I'll be opting out of purchasing an USH AP and just do my usual routine of visiting USH twice a year during HHN.
January 26, 2016 at 4:13 PM · I had heard that USH passes were not selling as well as the park hoped, and seeing more changes like this makes me think there's a lot of truth to that. At the prices USH is asking, a pass is a tough sell because even though they're one park vs. two at Disney, the attraction count for USH is much lower than that of the DLR (14 at USH vs. 68 at DLR). Personally, I'd probably drop the pass prices to $125/$175/$250, shift the blackout calendar down one level (aka California Resident now uses the California Resident Plus blackout calendar, California Resident Plus uses the the Gold calendar, and Gold has no blackouts (except possibly winter break)), add an annual pass parking upgrade for $100, and get rid of the season pass. I do think, however, that they are very smart to stay away from monthly payments as that is what got Disneyland into trouble. I wouldn't be surprised to see that become an option in the future, but for now USH needs to see what the actual crowds are before doing something that could increase the number of passholders 300+%.
January 26, 2016 at 5:38 PM · I love how people give Disney so much crap for trying to cheat people out of their money while Universal is charging higher upfront prices (with blackout dates no matter what you buy) for a single, 1/2 day park.
January 26, 2016 at 6:32 PM · All great thoughts, I am waiting to see what they offer after the hype of WWOHP opens. It's just such a poor value to have a pass there anymore, especially when they are intentionally not offering a parking option. As a local Californian, I still renewed my UO pass, $160 for preferred- both parks and parking, it's a good value and keeps me coming back.

USH you need to open your eyes, you are NOT superior than UO. Your attraction count is dismal, go back to the drawing board and see how you can plus your park with actual rides before you ask the public to pay premium prices. I will remind you, think back to 2001, when you international business failed, your saved you and like you... don't forget them.

February 2, 2016 at 6:55 AM · Will these passes allow for early admission (that is advertised now on the website)?

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