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Robert Niles
Editor

When Should You Buy a Universal Studios Annual Pass?

Published: October 23, 2014 at 10:25 AM

At what point do visitors get a better deal by purchasing a Universal annual pass, instead of single- or multi-day tickets? Last week, we answered that annual pass question for Disney theme parks, so let's look at Disney's biggest competitor today.

Universal Orlando charges $96 for a one-day/one-park theme park ticket, a couple bucks more than the $94 that Walt Disney World charges for three of its parks and three dollars less than Disney charges for one day at the Magic Kingdom. But you can buy a Universal Orlando annual pass for far less than the cost of a Disney World AP. Universal Orlando's unrestricted annual pass costs $295 ($260 for Florida residents), which is less than half of the cost of Walt Disney World's $634 annual pass.

Universal Studios Florida

That lower cost should encourage theme park fans to invest in the Universal Orlando annual pass if they are planning more than one multi-day visit to the resort in a 12-month period. At these prices, the Universal Orlando annual pass becomes a better deal than buying four one-day tickets for any out-of-state visitor, and a better deal than buying just three one-day tickets for a Florida resident.

And remember that the annual pass includes Park-to-Park privileges on any day of your visit, a must if you want to ride the resort's highest-rated attraction — the Hogwarts Express. With a one-day, Park-to-Park ticket costing $136, anyone is better off going with the AP than buying three one-day, Park-to-Park tickets in a 12-month period.

Universal is currently running a "third day free" promotion for resident of the U.S. or Canada who buy a two-day Park-to-Park ticket, which is $176 for adults. If you're only thinking about a one-time visit to the resort right now, that's the best deal out there which allows you to experience everything at the resort.

But here's a smart "bounce back" plan, if you decide you'd like to visit again: If you can plan your next visit to fall within the next 12 months, upgrade your current ticket to an annual pass before you finish the last day on your current ticket. (You can do this at any ticket booth, guest relations office, or hotel ticket desk.) If you get the third-day-free deal, you'll pay $119 to upgrade and get as many days in the parks as you can fit before that ticket expires in 12 months.

Universal Orlando also offers discounts on food, merchandise and parking to its annual passholders, which can make buying a pass an even better deal. Remember that Universal Orlando charges $17 per car to park at the resort. You won't have to pay that fee on future visits once you buy an annual pass. Annual passholders also get 10% off food and merchandise in the parks, but so do AAA members, so if you're already using your AAA card for those discounts on a "regular" ticket, upgrading to the annual pass won't get you additional savings there.

Universal Orlando offers a "Premier Pass" for $435, which adds a free Halloween Horror Nights ticket, an upgrade to free valet parking, CityWalk club access, and free Universal Express access after 4pm each day. That's the pass that gets you front-of-line access to almost all Universal Orlando attractions. That ticket is just $385 for Florida residents.

What Universal does not offer, however, is an annual pass that's good for both Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood. That makes Universal unique among all major theme park chains in the United States in that it does not have a chain-wide annual pass option. So if you're considering a visit to Southern California and want to include a visit to Universal's original theme park, you'll have to consider that as a separate purchase from a Universal Orlando visit.

Fortunately, the decision on whether to buy a Universal Studios Hollywood annual pass is absurdly simple. Are you going to visit the park for more than one day in a year? Then buy an annual pass. The only question is: which one?

A one-day Universal Studios Hollywood ticket costs $92. However, for that price, you can buy a "buy a day, get the year" ticket that is good for the remainder of the calendar year, too. (Blackout days apply on your future visits — 79 days in 2015, by my count.) If you buy one of those tickets now, you not only get the rest of 2014, you get all of 2015 at no extra charge, too.

Universal Studios Hollywood also offers a 12-month annual pass that has just 62 blackout dates and 10% off food and merchandise inside the park. (Universal Studios Hollywood no longer offers AAA discounts inside the park.) If you want to visit on the blackout dates, an unrestricted annual pass costs $139 online. Finally, Universal Studios Hollywood's "Premium Star Pass" costs $179 online and includes free parking before 5pm and priority boarding on the Studio Tour for the passholder. (Parking at Universal Studios Hollywood costs $16 a day. Unlike at Universal Orlando, there's no free parking for local residents in the evenings, either. In fact, there's no free parking even for annual passholders in the evenings, ever.) You can buy guest tickets for $12 off and get discounts on Halloween Horror Nights tickets with all USH annual passes, if you'd like to factor that into your decision, too.

Only if you are certain that you will visit Universal Studios Hollywood only one day in the next year should you skip the annual pass options and instead buy a discounted one-day-only ticket online at universalstudioshollywood.com/tickets.

Do you have a Universal annual pass? Tell us in the comments which ticket you bought, and if you're happy with it.

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