How to use the annual pass trick to save money on an Orlando vacation

May 29, 2018, 10:17 AM · A lot of fans planning their first trip to Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando recoil in shock when they add all the costs of visiting the Orlando theme parks. There's the price of airfare, hotels, rental cars, and the biggie for many visitors — the tickets to the parks themselves.

With one-day tickets to all the Disney and Universal theme parks costing more than $100 each, you can't blame fans for thinking that an Orlando theme park vacation just costs too much for their family. But I'm here to talk you through the initial sticker shock and to find ways to get a Disney or Universal trip for much, much less than a $100 a person per day.

We've talked before about where to buy discounted theme park tickets online, so do look at that page before you book your vacation. But I want to introduce another trick that many of us use when we visit Orlando.

On a price-per-day basis, Disney and Universal tickets get cheaper the more days you visit. A one-day ticket to one park costs from $102-129, but the per-day price of a five-day visit drops to as low as $79 a day at Disney and $45 a day at Universal. And the per-day cost of tickets keeps getting lower from there.

But if you want to get the lowest possible per-day cost for theme park tickets, and you're looking at spending several days to a week or more in the parks on each visit, buy an annual pass. Update: Check the comments for the numbers on the "break even" point for annual passes versus multi-day tickets. That point is the longest at the Disneyland Resort in California, followed by Disney World, then Universal Studios Hollywood, then Universal Orlando. For regional parks, it's often better to buy an annual pass if you're visiting just three days a year, and sometimes even just two.

Universal Orlando also offers monthly payment plans for its annual passes, potentially allowing you to reduce the up-front cost of your initial visit as you spread payments over the year. (Disney World only offers a payment plan for Florida residents.)

Notice that I wrote "initial visit." That's because the trick to getting the most value on an annual pass is to plan a second visit to the same parks within the next 12 months. That way, your ticket purchase is covering two visits instead of one, allowing you to use a more efficient annual pass to get you into the parks, rather than two separate purchases of multi-day tickets.

Annual passes also can provide you in-park benefits such as free parking, discounts on food and souvenirs, and park hopping (Disney's term) or park-to-park (Universal's) access, so that you can visit more than one park per day. You would have to pay a lot extra for that perk on regular, single- or multi-day tickets.

The lowest-priced annual passes have blockout dates, so you will need to either time your vacation to periods when the passes are valid or choose to buy a more expensive pass. You can find the prices, benefits, and blockouts of the parks' various annual pass tiers on their websites: Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

Not ready to commit to multiple Orlando theme park vacations? Remember that you can apply the cost of regular tickets to the purchase of an annual pass. You just have to do that before your regular ticket expires. So before you leave the parks on your initial visit, ask at the park's Guest Services office about upgrading to annual pass.

Playing the AP trick doesn't commit you to a lifetime of Orlando theme park vacations. You just need to time two trips within a 12 month period. Then you can take as long as you like before buying another AP and doing another two (or more) trips. Just be sure to call in advance of your pass expiring to cancel if you are on a monthly payment plan, so you are not caught by an automatic renewal.

This annual pass trick works for any theme park, not just the ones in Orlando. And if you're interested in regional parks such as those from Six Flags, Cedar Fair, or the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, you can buy annual or seasonal passes from them that are good at all the parks in their chain. That can make an AP the preferred choice if you are planning a summer roadtrip to multiple parks.

Do you have an annual pass to a theme park? Please share your tips for getting the most value from it, in the comments.

Replies (9)

May 29, 2018 at 11:32 AM

The "break even" for a WDW Annual Pass is typically 13-15 days. Meaning, you need to plan to visit at least two full weeks over the year to beat the savings of multi-day passes. For most guests, that typically means THREE (3) trips to WDW over the course of a year, unless you take one really long (10-day) trip and a shorter long weekend trip.

We always check out the AP costs to see if it ever makes sense, but it always requires too much of a commitment up front, especially since we rarely spend more than 5 or 6 days at WDW on a single trip because we also visit other Orlando parks as well.

The Universal Orlando AP is a bit more economical with a "break even" point of 8-10 days. However, Universal often runs special multi-day ticket deals that get you "free" days if you get a 3 or 4 day pass (pay for 3 days get 5 days of admission over a 14-day period) that can often make the "break even" point for the Universal APs even higher.

FWIW, I think APs are only worth it for DVC owners or those that already have 2 or more week-long trips planned to Orlando. Also, remember that just because you have an AP, you still only get 30 day advanced FP+ reservations unless you're staying at a WDW Resort (or "Good Neighbor" hotel).

May 29, 2018 at 11:46 AM

The 14 day ticket WDW sells to U.K. residents is £369 (it’s been on 14 for 7 forever) or about $488 USD (All prices INCLUDE tax but that’s 20% if you want to strip it out). How does that compare?

May 29, 2018 at 12:38 PM

Robert .... correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the only Disney annual passes that are available to non Florida residents are the Platinum Plus and Platinum ? (Other than the water parks that is) So block-out dates wouldn't come in to it if you are travelling to WDW from outside FL.
At around $900'ish for the plus, the break even would be around 6 days taking into account the cost to get in can be close to $125 and parking is $25 (??).

May 29, 2018 at 1:36 PM

It's $849 for the Disney Platinum Pass and includes Photopass downloads, parking, and food/merchandise discounts. Plus, you're insulated from one price increase for the next year. It could pay off if you buy at Disney Store and not cash in until a few months after purchase. Then use again within 12 months. Of course, you can't take advantage of Fastpass+ until you activate it. With tax, it costs $904 or $452 per trip.

In comparison, a 4 Day Park Hopper costs $455. A 10 Day Non-Park Hopper is $445. An advance purchase PhotoPass Memory Maker is $169.

Supposing you buy a 5 Day Non-Park Hopper for $395 plus PhotoPass for $169 and pay daily parking for $20 per day. This means you're paying $664. Then the math suggests buying an Annual Pass might be the better option if you're coming back again. However, the logistics could mess up your plans if you switch over too quickly. Switching to the Annual Pass too soon means you'll lose your pre-selected Fastpass+ reservation based on the multi-day pass. (You can make Fastpass+ reservations within the 60 day time window if you're staying on-site, or 30 days if staying off site upon purchase. No activation required.) You won't be able to take advantage of Photopass and included parking until you switch over.

So there's another way to look at this. On the fifth day, that's when you switch over, but continue to use your Annual Pass beyond the 5th day especially if you're sticking around 1 week or longer. It's even better if you vacation 10 days. The last 5 days are essentially your second vacation when using your Annual Pass.

May 29, 2018 at 1:51 PM

I used this strategy for Universal when I visited last year, but it was largely so that I could make a one day trip before Dragon Challenge closed than because I'd need it for the main trip in the fall (that said, it did allow me to spread out three days at the resort). If you are certain you'll be making two trips to Universal in a year, and especially if those trips are on dates the seasonal pass is valid (aka not in March, April, July, or December), it's absolutely worth considering the pass approach.

For Walt Disney World, the math is a bit more challenging. In order to benefit from a pass, you need to do at least two trips with at least four park days each, with park hopping on most of your days. Without park hopping, you'd need two trips with eight park days each. More likely than not, unless you regularly visit Walt Disney World twice in a calendar year, a pass won't make that much sense there.

May 29, 2018 at 2:57 PM

If I already have a deluxe Disneyland annual pass and I upgrade to the super duper pass thats good for both coasts, how many days would I need to stay in florida to break even?

May 29, 2018 at 3:53 PM

The family's approach to buying DL's annual passes was centered in the flexibility to go when we want, but that was a local perspective. I didn't need to consider breakeven because I knew we'd get double or more the value. And, we keep and eagle eye on spending inside the park. If you're not local, buying a WDW annual pass is a whole different animal (get your Scrooge McDuck hat out and a sharp pencil). Having an AP for us drove more visits to the park but we didn't give the value back by thinking having a 10% or more discount on food and merchandise made us feel special. It just diminished the savings. If I had a WDW AP living in CA, would I be planning extra visits beyond my normal visiting habit, probably, that's the hook. There's no point in buying a pass unless you're getting incremental value, not breakeven.

May 29, 2018 at 4:00 PM

If you're a Florida Resident and reading this, I've found the best value is the Silver pass. Yes, it has blackout dates like Easter, most of the summer aka hell and Thanksgiving and Christmas but who really wants to go at those times unless they absolutely have to?

I've found I break even after 3 visits and the free parking and food discounts are worth it. Plus this year when I renewed, I got a 15% discount if I renewed before the expiration date. So I waited until the night before and did it via the app. If I had waited until the next day, it would have run me about $100 more with the price increase and no discount.

With annual passes what I like is the freedom to go into the parks for a couple of hours and then leave. I have a Sea World/Aquatica one that's grandfathered back to 2009 pricewise and that's been great too. I go in for some concerts, check out the Christmas stuff and I'm ahead of the games.

May 31, 2018 at 1:29 AM

I'm a little late to the party in responding but I just recently did this exact same trick for Universal Orlando. I've made an annual trip to Universal since 2010 and last year was the first time doing this. I visited in mid May 2017 and again in early May 2018. Just make sure you right down which finger you scan in with at the gates for each member of your party so if a long time span goes by between visits then you can easily remember.

Before I purchased the AP, I used to by the Universal Unlimited ticket which would allow you park to park access as many times you want in a consecutive 14 day period. When I was purchasing the AP Universal still had this option (under a different name) that was including Volcano Bay as one of the parks to go to, but the AP was going to work better for me. If you are visiting for 8-14 days and won't be back within a year, this may be a good option for you as well.

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