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Disney vs. Universal: Annual passes


Disney raised the price of its annual passes this past week (for the second time this year, incidentally), and the resulting flurry of activity and commenting that has followed in the announcement’s wake – the cheapest option at Disney World is now $750! – has gotten us here at Orlando Informer wondering what the value of all these different annual pass permutations actually is.

So we laid out the various options, lined them up, and crunched some numbers (but not too many, since math hurts our heads). The results really surprised us, and we think they might cause you to reconsider your immediate sticker shock, as well.

First, though, we’ll need to walk you through what all these different pass options will get you, to allow us to compare themed apples to apples.

Walt Disney World Resort
Once upon a time, Walt Disney World had many different versions of its annual pass, but the current trend is now to streamline the options down to just three (for non-Florida residents, that is).

It’s important to note three key items before we jump in: one, there are no blockout dates for any of Disney’s out-of-state APs; two, Park Hopping (the ability to visit multiple parks on the same day) is automatically included; and three, we’re only going to cover the out-of-state costs for the purposes of this article. Just please be aware that Florida residents and Disney Vacation Club members get special pricing and options.

1. Platinum Pass – $749.00 (ages 3+)

The main thrust of the Platinum Pass is that guests can visit all four Disney World theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), though there are several additional benefits, as well. It’s best to tackle these one at a time.

Disney PhotoPass downloads You can access and download any PhotoPass pics taken during the dates of your tickets (which, in this case – obviously – is a year). Disney will also grant you another year to retrieve your photos, after which time they’re taken out of its system.

Dining discount This is perhaps the most complicated – and, therefore, confusing – benefit, given all the fine print involved. First and foremost, it should be stated that the dining discount is granted only to the passholder – sorry, you can’t extend it to any friends or family who may be eating with you – and it’s not good for alcoholic drinks.

At Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, a 10% discount is given at certain restaurants, typically only during lunch (though some also include dinner, and some are even all-day). It should be pointed out that lunch hours can vary from location to location, so you need to check before you make your reservations, and that, at Epcot, the discount isn’t valid on a whole host of holidays throughout the year.

At Disney Springs, roughly a dozen venues offer similar deals: between 10% and 20% off at specific times throughout the day. And for the Disney-owned and -operated resorts, 10% is granted to the passholder and up to three additional guests at 17 of the hotels, with the usual stipulations of only specific hours during the day being eligible and major holidays being excluded.

Finally, the Platinum Pass provides a $25.00 discount off a Tables in Wonderland membership, which is offered only to Florida residents, Vacation Club members, and, of course, annual passholders (the price of membership is $175.00 for Floridians and $150.00 for everyone else). Tables in Wonderland allows members to get 20% off food and drinks – yes, including the alcoholic kind – at specific restaurants located at both the theme parks and the hotels.

Merchandise discount A discount of 10% to 15% is taken off of specific items at specific locations all across Disney World, including the parks, Disney Springs, Disney Golf Shops, and Best Friends Pet Care.

Other discounts and offers Disney has a grab-bag of additional savings, including sports, recreation, and spa discounts, events and entertainment discounts, and, finally, special offers for stays at Disney hotels. There’s literally too many to cover here, even in abridged form.

Free theme park parking Mercifully, this last benefit is rather self-explanatory.

2. Platinum Plus Pass – $829.00 (ages 3+)

The Plus version of the Platinum Pass mostly covers the same ground as the basic iteration. The added benefits here include free admission to the water parks (both Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, and the Oak Trail Golf Course – which means whether the extra $80.00 a year is worth it is wholly dependent upon your Disney World extracurricular activities.

3. Water Parks annual pass – $99.00 (ages 3-9), $110.00 (ages 10+)

Should you and your family only wish to swim at Walt Disney World and never visit any of the theme parks, the Water Parks annual pass is the way to go for you. It includes, as you might imagine, free admission to both Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach – and that’s it.

Universal Orlando Resort
Like Disney, Universal offers three different permutations of its annual pass, and, again like Disney, each one has park-to-park access built in. However, unlike its competitor down the street, Universal does include blackout dates for one version of its APs.

(Please note that we’re once again only going over out-of-state pricing.)

1. Power Pass – $239.99

Unsurprisingly, the Power Pass offers just a bare minimum of benefits: namely, you can go to the two theme parks for free. There is a major caveat here, however, in that this is the annual pass where blockout dates are in effect.

Curious to see what those dates are? Here we go:

  • December 18, 2015 – January 2, 2016
  • March 19, 2016 – April 2, 2016
  • December 17, 2016 – December 31, 2016

That’s for both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, but the latter has one additional window of unavailability, and it’s a doozy: June 11, 2016 to August 15, 2016.

There are some additional benefits here, however, including discounts on theme-park and special-event tickets, including for Halloween Horror Nights and the Blue Man Group; special deals at CityWalk; and discounted on-site hotel rates (up to 30% off), though these are also only for certain portions of the year. Much as with the miscellaneous Disney offers, there are simply too many to list here, but Universal has a breakdown on its official site.

2. Preferred Pass – $334.99

Universal’s mid-tier annual pass includes all the benefits of the Power Pass, but it features no blockout dates and throws in a couple of extra sweeteners: discounts on food, merchandise, and specialty items at both the parks and CityWalk, along with free self-parking (after your first visit, that is).

These discounts deserve a little bit more of an explanation, though Universal has remarkably fewer restrictions than does Disney. For the theme parks, 10% is taken off at every single store and restaurant, with the twin exceptions of carts/kiosks and any alcoholic drinks; at CityWalk and the hotels, 10% or 15% off is available at certain locations.

3. Premier Pass – $479.99

The Premier Pass, unsurprisingly, features all the benefits of the two previous iterations and adds on even more: free valet parking (after your first visit, and excluding New Year’s Eve, July 4th, and the Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights event nights), free CityWalk club access, a free HHN ticket, free basic Express Passes (after 4:00 pm), and, finally, what is undoubtedly the ace in the hole, eight free bottles of Nestle bottled water.

Price breakdowns
That’s a lot of information to take in, but the single biggest question is: are the prices actually comparable, given everything that the passes offer?

The core consideration here is what parks the passes allow free entry to, since all the ancillary offers tend, on the whole, to cancel one another out (Universal, for example, offers 50% off its pet kennels for Premier passholders, and both Preferred and Premier guests are offered 25% off standard admission to Wet ‘n Wild Orlando). As it turns out, the value rankings of the various APs aren’t what you might think they are.

Despite it being almost twice as much as Universal’s most expensive pass, Disney’s Platinum Plus is actually the best bang for your themed buck, given that it works out to $138.17 per park (and it covers all six of Disney World’s parks). Universal’s Power Pass might seem, on first blush, to be the best value, at $120.00 per park, but it doesn’t allow you to visit Universal Orlando for a pretty hefty chunk of the year (a little over three months, if one factors in Islands of Adventure’s blockout dates). The next cheapest is the Preferred Pass, with $167.50 per park, but this comes at a distinct disadvantage: at $29.33 more per park than the Platinum Plus option, it offers less benefits than Disney’s top AP.

The one wild card in our neat little mathematical arrangement is the Premier Pass. On the one hand, it seems like the worst possible value, given that it costs an astronomical $240.00 per park. On the other hand, however, this annual pass includes a free basic Express Pass literally every day you visit (for half the day, at least), which can cost anywhere from $39.99 to $84.99 per day. When our rankings are expanded to include such periphery costs, the Premier Pass goes from dead last place to an unbelievable first – you’re saving at least $14,500.00 if you visit every single day of the year.


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About Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz is the former editor of Orlando Informer.

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