When Should You Buy a Universal Studios Annual Pass?

October 23, 2014, 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.


Replies (11)

October 23, 2014 at 10:37 AM · One of the best investments I ever made. We got three Florida vacations, a total of 35 days from late Sept. 2013 through middle September 2014. We also received numerous food & merchandise discounts. But to top it all off, the additional AP hotel discounts (over & above the regular discounts) more than paid for both passes we purchased. It's an offer you can't refuse......Plus the price of the passes are very reasonable for a world class theme park. The AP hotel discount is a perk that you need to include in this article. As an example I did a 5 day portion of the trip at Cabana Bay and paid $89 a night for a Suite. Like WOW.
October 23, 2014 at 2:04 PM · We've had the Universal Preferred annual passes for years and absolutely love them! {We've had ours so long that they're the plastic kind -- Universal's switched to paper ones now. In the last couple visits more than one staff member has commented "Wow, we don't see those very often!" :-)}

We go at least once a year during HHN for 3 or 4 days, and usually squeeze in another visit sometime in the summer. We don't get that much out of the hotel discounts -- they're usually the same as Florida resident -- but the passholder discounts for HHN tickets are BETTER than resident rates. Plus, the additional savings thru food and merchandise discounts really add up.

October 23, 2014 at 4:06 PM · It might be a good idea to buy an Annual Pass at USH in early 2015 to be used by December 31 so the user can get into the park before prices go up when Harry Potter opens in Spring 2016. This would be my tip. You might save yourself from two prices increases as I detail below.

The "Premium Star Pass" @ $179 seems like a good deal since it includes parking with no blockout dates. If you have a family, buy the $139 passes for the other family members to save money. They don't need the parking benefit. The priority boarding for the Studios Tour will not apply to them, but I don't think its a deal killer. You'll still save $40 per pass, which is a substantial savings for a family of any size.

Prices seem to go up after Disney makes its announcement to increase prices so try to time your purchase in early 2015 (perhaps April) or shortly after Disney makes its announcement in May or June. ONLY thing is make sure you don't have to redeem it until December 31 2015 (see the web site) so you can use it for most of 2016 when Harry Potter land opens.

October 23, 2014 at 4:59 PM · It's not easy to find, but the best deal for USH is a three day pass. It is usually cheaper than an annual pass, but is valid for three visits over a 365 day period (blackout days apply). This pass isn't available on the park's website, so I'm guessing it's something only made available to companies and fan clubs.

I used to do the buy a day, get a year free offer and it is a great deal, but as I would never visit more than three times in a year I now opt for the three day pass if I can find it. I would never recommend a single day ticket to USH unless you have never been and are visiting from out of state: even with a discount, it is just too expensive for one visit.

October 23, 2014 at 7:42 PM · Have I mentioned how much I really, really want Universal to start offering a Hollywood/Orlando annual pass?
October 23, 2014 at 7:51 PM · I have the blackout (lowest cost) non-resident AP at USF. I do not mind the blackout dates because there is no way I'm going to the park as a guest on those peak days.
I would definitely like a bicoastal AP, which I do buy for Disney, but as you say, the USH pass is not so pricey you can't just buy both and tell yourself it's a bundled deal :)
October 23, 2014 at 9:33 PM · As I thought, you have to do the math to see if you are going often. I have a AP for WDW (big surprise, I know). Good perks, plus the DVC discount (halfway of a Discount between residents and non residents).

As for Universal, I wonder if people not from Florida are going there enough. I totally get going to Universal one or two days a year, but is there a huge tourist market for multiple visits? I am curious on this!

Either way, living in FL surely has its perks :)

October 24, 2014 at 2:49 AM · I live in Michigan an have had the Preferred Pass for close to 20 years. It is even better if you go every year. Last year it was only $160 to renew the pass.
October 25, 2014 at 6:04 PM · I have always had the grip over Universal not having a coast to coast ticket. I would like to see a more premium ticket for USH to offer Valet Parking and more because its Los Angeles, and any parking options are appreciated. Priority seating on the Studio Tour does not cut it. Why can't USH copy more of Orlando's style? Express after 4pm would be awesome!
October 27, 2014 at 10:16 AM · I have lived in Orlando for years. I always keep a current Disney annual pass. However, I only get a Universal annual pass once every few years. While the park has some fun rides, the atmosphere just isn't as enjoyable as Disney's for returning time after time to walk and people watch.
I had an annual pass last year for Universal (no blackouts, but not the premium) and let it expire after the new Harry Potter opened. As with everything Universal, it was an "experience it once and you're good" kind of thing.
The only time of year that a Universal pass really gets you your money's worth is during their Mardi Gras event...and that really depends on which bands they've brought in. While the bands were good last year, the amount of near-fights and other security issues we witnessed thanks to the horrible standing venue has made me quite hesitant to return to Universal for a concert, anyway.
FYI, I had the premium pass a few years ago. It was a waste of money. As most locals will tell you, City Walk isn't worth the extra money, and we avoid the parks on days that have long lines, so the Express Pass doesn't mean much to us.
October 29, 2014 at 1:39 PM · I am a Florida resident & plan to buy an annual pass..just waiting for a Universal incentive, to buy.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Visitors guides

Weekly newsletter