About a year ago we booked 2 nights at one of the 3 deluxe onsite hotels at Universal Orlando as part of a short December trip. We took advantage of a great opportunity to get a rate that is somehow both a bargain and a splurge. Our other nights were spent at a nearby Best Western on points. It worked out so well that we decided to try again this year. However, the website is doing strange things. We did eventually find a rate similar to last year so we made a speculative cancellable booking in case we decide to do a repeat trip.
The Beloved Express Pass
This is the key reason staying onsite at a deluxe hotel is worthwhile.
If you’re familiar with the Universal Studios Resort theme park in Orlando you probably already know about the Express Pass. At Walt Disney World everyone can access Fast Pass+ to reduce time spent waiting in lines for attractions. But at Universal you have to pay for that perk. And that perk has much broader application because it lets you skip the regular line at many rides as opposed to just the ones you selected at Disney. Still, it’s important to remember that it does not turn the rides into walk-ons. You’ll still have a wait but it will be shorter with the pass.
The express passes are not cheap and prices vary depending on the date. It starts at $65 USD per person for the cheaper one that can only be used once per participating ride in one park only. It starts at $89 USD per person for the unlimited version that may be used in both parks. They go way up from there.
If you’re a frugal person it can be an agonizing decision. If you buy it in advance and arrive to see that the lines aren’t too bad, you might be kicking yourself. But if you wait till you’re in the park it can be a little annoying to have to shell out so much extra cash when you’re just trying to have a good time in a theme park after already paying a hefty sum for admission.
While waiting in line at Guest Services I recall seeing a father who was obviously quite unhappy. The mother and children waited outside. The Universal employee offered what appeared to be a refund of their express passes but he insisted on a refund of their tickets as well. It was granted and they exited the park. The weather was quite rainy that day and lines were short. I suspect he felt like they paid for something unnecessary and it dampened their experience dramatically.
While it may be true that an express pass is not always worth the purchase price when crowds are low, it’s still a great thing to have much of the time. This is especially true if your tolerance for waiting in lines is not very high. An alternative is to use the single rider line on rides that offer it, but you’ll be separated from your travelling companion(s).
Rooms That Include The Express Pass
There are now a total of 7 onsite hotels at Universal and they vary greatly in price. Only the 3 hotels in the premier category include an unlimited express pass and it’s valid from the day of check-in to the day of check-out. Thus, a single night stay gives the occupants of the room 2 days worth of express access. These properties are the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Royal Pacific Resort. However, these hotels are quite pricey and finding an acceptable rate is a real challenge if you’re a budget traveller.
Key To The Deal – The Annual Pass Rate
The two rate types that represent the best deal are the “Stay More, Save More” rate and the Annual Passholder rate. The former requires a stay of at least 3 nights. The latter requires you to purchase an annual pass but it gives you the ability to book a stay of any length for a comparatively low rate. Other than scoring one of these hotels through an opaque booking site like Hotwire or Priceline, I believe the AP rate is probably the best you can get.
Note that you do not need to be a holder of the pass when you make the booking. The accepted practice is to show your pass before you check-out to confirm eligibility. And the primary guest on the booking is the only person who must have an annual pass.
Upgrading To An Annual Pass
There are 4 categories of annual passes. The cheapest one is the seasonal pass which includes a number of blackout dates. If you buy a regular ticket you can upgrade to an annual pass before you leave the park by paying the difference in price. The difference is surprisingly reasonable. Here’s a look at current (July 2019) prices:
2 Day 2 Park Pass (park-to-park)
$285 USD + tax
Seasonal Annual Pass
$305 USD + tax
If you find yourself planning another trip that occurs on the blackout dates you can pay to upgrade to the next level of pass.
Redeeming Air Miles
Last year we redeemed Air Miles for 2 Day 2 Park park-to-park tickets and it was only about $30 USD to upgrade to a seasonal AP. Currently the Air Miles website has the same 2 Day 2 Park park-to-park tickets (with 3 bonus days) for 3750 Air Miles. These tickets must be used by December 20, 2019. If you think of the value of those miles in Cash Air Miles terms, it would be around $395 CAD. With tax, the 2 Day 2 Park ticket comes to $303.42 USD (with 3 free days if purchased by July 31). So about $397 CAD which means the redemption just about matches the Cash mile value. Normally one hopes to beat that when redeeming Dream miles. However, as long as it meets that baseline standard it’s a decent redemption in my book. Just consider any other redemption plans before you go ahead with it.
Hotel Rate Mysteries
I don’t know much about how hotel rates are set and adjusted. Revenue management software presumably determines the rates based on various data using complex algorithms and such. Rates often make sense based on the time of year or day of the week. If occupancy levels are low rates sometimes drop a few weeks out to try to fill up rooms. But overall, like airfare, there is an element of unpredictability. This annual passholder hotel discount appears to add a whole other level of mystery.
The lowest annual passholder hotel rate last year was $179 USD plus tax at the Royal Pacific Resort. This year the lowest I have found is $184 USD plus tax. The annual pass rate seems to be available from now till December 19, 2019 but rates in that ballpark are quite rare and it’s very hard to find more than one night at that rate. The website does not allow for a flexible date search. You need to search day by day. You can check rates here.
I just searched all dates from now till December 19th. My target was a 2 night stay in a standard 2 queen room with an average nightly rate of less than $200 USD at the Royal Pacific Resort.
Searching by individual nights:
Sept. 1 – $284
Sept. 2 – $189
Nov. 13 – $319
Nov. 14 – $199
Dec. 1 – $184
Dec. 2 – $284
…but if you do the search as a 2 night stay…
Sept. 1-2 – $189
Nov. 13-14 – $199
Dec. 1-2 – $204 (water view)
Admittedly, my math skills are poor. But I don’t think $199 is the average of $319 and $199. I did some more searches to see if there are similar results for longer stays.
Aug. 31 – $309
Sept. 1 – $284
Sept. 2 – $189
Sept. 3 – $214
…and as multi-night bookings…
Aug. 31 – Sept. 4 – $198
Sept. 1-4 – $189
Although the weather would be hot in August/September, if you can handle the heat you would be there for the passholder appreciation days. If you go in late November or December you’ll be there for all the Christmas festivities. The Grinch will even be there.
Nov. 30 – $419
Dec. 1 – $184
Dec. 2 – $284
Dec. 3 – $284
Dec. 4 – $284
Nov. 30 – Dec. 5
How odd. And when you put the stay in your cart (a cart for a hotel reservation?), it displays the nightly rates like this:
Nov. 30 – $264
Dec. 1 – $184
Dec. 2 – $184
Dec. 3 – $184
Dec. 4 – $184
One would assume that if you removed the first night, you could get a 4 night booking with a rate of $184. But no, it comes out as $284. Perhaps there is an unpublished minimum stay requirement that triggers the lower rate.
I checked the “Stay More, Save More” rate for the 5 night stay above and it comes to $241 per night.
It is possible to find low rates on single dates which would seem to contradict the hidden minimum stay requirement. My suggestion, if you have flexibility, is to check multi-night stays around the date of any low rate you see.
There also appears to be a more obvious glitch on the website. For some dates it will show a rate in the $200s which would indicate a standard room available but when you click through it only displays rates for suites in the $500+ range. Maybe if you call you could get some explanation. Perhaps the rate shown initially can be booked over the phone.
Sometimes rate options will change just by closing the window, opening it again, and repeating the search.
The thought of spending in the range of $200 USD per night is not appealing to a budget traveller. However, if you travel light, the sting of the expense can be softened by staying on points in nearby chain hotels on the nights before and/or after your Universal stay. The closest are the Doubletree and Holiday Inn which are walking distance to the parks. If you have Best Western, Choice or Hyatt points there are options relatively close as well. If you don’t have points, look at the promotions for all of those chains to see if you can get some extra value from your stay in the form of a future free night.
An alternative is to stay other nights at a more budget-friendly onsite Universal hotel. These don’t have the express pass but they do include early entry into the parks and most of them are very new.
Standard rooms at these hotels can sleep 4 people (or 5 with a rollaway) but there is a cost of $35 per additional adult after 2. All guests receive the express pass. If you have friends staying elsewhere you can add their names to your booking even if they’re not staying with you in the room. They pay you the additional guest fees and pick up their key cards to use the express pass. It’s a way to get it at a nice discount. And I’d expect them to buy you dinner for the favour.
If you can find a decent rate at one of the deluxe Universal hotels I think the express pass makes it a worthwhile splurge. There is a nice sense of ease knowing that you don’t need to have any park touring strategy. You can just go with the flow.
When searching rates be sure to check various date combinations to be certain you’ve seen all the possible rate options. Check back frequently in case lower rates open up. Although the low rates are scarce, they can come along at any time so make it a habit to do a quick search every day if it’s something that interests you.
If you get an annual pass be warned that you might feel compelled to go back for another trip before it expires. This is especially likely if they open a new ride that sounds like it’s within your thrill tolerance…or your mother’s thrill tolerance which is greater than yours.