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.
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?Tweet
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