Universal’s Express Pass v. Lightning Lanes & Genie+ at Disney World

Since Genie+ replaced free FastPass at Walt Disney World, we’ve received questions asking about comparisons between Lighting Lanes and Express Pass at Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure. In short, both line-skipping services offer lower wait times, but with different tradeoffs. This article covers Lighting Lane v. Express Pass: benefits & downsides, pros & cons, so you can determine if either or both are worth buying.

Let’s start with the basics. Genie+ is a service at Walt Disney World that you can purchase in the My Disney Experience app that will give you priority access via the Lightning Lane at a variety of attractions, like Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Slinky Dog Dash, Frozen Ever After, Tower of Terror, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, and about 3-dozen other rides. In total, Genie+ offers line-skipping access to over 40 attractions.

Genie+ is essentially a digital version of paper FastPass, which was used prior to FastPass+ at Walt Disney World. Except instead of walking around the park to obtain paper slips with day-of return times, you do that via your phone. Using Genie Plus, you can book next-available return times to the physical Lightning Lane entrances at select attractions. There’s a lot more to it than that, as covered in our breakdown of the basics of Disney Genie.

Universal’s Express Pass is a line-skipping option at popular rides in Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure that promises to cut wait times in half. You present the pass at participating attractions and enter a separate ‘fast lane’ (sound familiar?) with a shorter wait time at each attraction.

Logistically, redeeming Express Pass is quite similar to entering the physical Lightning Lanes (or prior FastPass queues) at Walt Disney World. It’s what you do before entering each physical queue that varies considerably between the Universal Orlando and WDW options.

Before we get down to brass tacks of the comparison, here are the eligible Express Pass attractions in each park at Universal Orlando Resort:

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA

  • The Bourne Stuntacular
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • E.T. Adventure
  • Fast & Furious – Supercharged
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • Hogwarts Express
  • Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • Transformers: The Ride-3D
  • Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster

ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE

  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Caro-Seuss-el
  • Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
  • Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
  • Flight of the Hippogriff
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!
  • Hogwarts Express
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Jurassic Park River Adventure
  • Poseidon’s Fury
  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong
  • Storm Force Accelatron

These are the high profile attractions with the longest wait times on average in each park, with two significant exceptions. Both of the two newest and most popular roller coasters, Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Wizarding World of Harry Potter, are not eligible for Express Pass.

Express Pass is available as a ticket add-on or with select hotel stays. You can purchase two varieties of Express Pass, regular or unlimited. The regular version allows you to skip the line once per eligible attraction in either park. Universal Express Unlimited offers line-skipping privileges, as the name suggests, an unlimited number of times per attraction.

Unlimited Express Pass is available at the Premier Hotels, which are Universal’s highest-tier resorts. Guests who stay at Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay all receive Unlimited Express Pass included with their stay at no additional charge (including check-in and checkout days).

We hesitate to call Unlimited Express Pass that comes with hotel stays “free” since it’s arguably priced into the nightly rate. However, we’ve had some stays that literally cost less than Express Pass would’ve when paying out of pocket, so perhaps free is apt!

As a general matter, all three of these hotels are nice and on par with Walt Disney World’s Deluxe Resorts. They also generally cost less than they’re Disney counterparts. If your budget allows for it, we’d highly recommend one of Universal’s Premier Hotels if you want the Unlimited Express Pass perk or a good location near the parks or a cool luxury-caliber themed resort. If you’d be staying at a nice hotel anyway, this trio is definitely worthy of your consideration. See our reviews for photos, video, and comprehensive thoughts:

When included as part of a Premier Hotel stay at Universal Orlando, Unlimited Express Pass absolutely trounces Genie+ at Walt Disney World. There is no comparison. It wins hands down in every category, including cost.

If you aren’t doing a hotel stay, you’ll have to pay for regular Express Pass or Unlimited Express Pass out-of-pocket. This changes the calculus considerably, as the out-of-pocket cost of regular Express Pass starts at $79.99 per person plus tax. However, that is very much the low-season starting rate. Most dates cost more, especially weekends, holidays, and school breaks.

We’d estimate that the average cost for the remainder of this year is $99.99. Looking forward to 2023, that appears to be the new starting price, with the average being $129.99 (next summer is currently even higher, with most dates costing $189.99 to $209.99). Currently, peak season dates for regular Express Pass top out at $249.99.

Then there’s Unlimited Universal Express Pass. For the remainder of this year, Unlimited Express Pass ranges from $109.99 to $279.99. Looking forward to 2023, prices are even higher, with $149.99 appearing to be the average and summer dates mostly starting above $200 and approaching $250 many dates.

In short, a family of 4 can expect to pay anywhere from around $400 for the basic one-time use Express Pass to over $1,000 during peak season for Unlimited Express Pass. To put that into perspective, we’ve routinely booked stays at Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, or Hard Rock Hotel for under $300 per night. (Granted, most of our stays are in the off-season and with Annual Passholder discounts, but still. You can routinely book one of the 3 for $400 or less!)

Turning back to the Genie+ service at Walt Disney World, which now uses date-based pricing as opposed to its previous flat-rate fee. While this new variable-pricing scheme is still in its infancy, Walt Disney World has indicated that Genie+ prices will range from $15 to $22 plus tax for now. That’s simply example pricing, and no details have been provided about the minimum or maximum over the course of the year.

It’s safe to assume that Genie+ pricing will more or less track with date-based ticket pricing. That means that this Thanksgiving and Christmas when day ticket prices max out at $159, the cost of Genie+ should be around $23 or $24 on those days. “Should” is the operate word–if there’s one constant about Walt Disney World, it’s price increases.

While the out-of-pocket cost of Genie+ is significantly cheaper, it’s worth noting that the gap potentially closes when adjusted on a per attraction basis. While I’ve done over a dozen attractions in a single day with each, I’ve done that number effortlessly with Express Pass. If you aren’t savvy and don’t put effort into leveraging Genie Plus, that number might be 2-3 Lightning Lanes (which is the official number that Disney gives).

Unlike Unlimited Express Pass, there is no included option for on-site guests of all or select Walt Disney World resorts. Anyone who wants it must pay for the Genie+ service. Additionally, it doesn’t cover all headliner attractions; Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and Avatar Flight of Passage are not included in Genie Plus, but line-skipping for those can be purchased on an a la carte basis via Individual Lightning Lanes.

Next, there’s the issue of time-savings between the two line-skipping services. This is also difficult to compare in an honest and straightforward manner. If we’re just looking at how long it takes from the time you enter the average ‘fast lane’ at each attraction at the respective resorts, it’s a close call.

I’m inclined to say that Lightning Lanes are slightly faster on average, but I also have to admit that I have far more experience with Disney’s system than I do Express Pass. I do have enough experience with both to know that they can be highly variable. If you use one on a busy day or when there’s a lot of ride downtime, these ‘fast lanes’ can back up. If you visit during the off-season when occupancy or attendance is lighter, both can be veritable ‘walk-on’ passes. So it’s hard to say, and I haven’t timed this comprehensively. But it doesn’t matter–all of this is beside the point.

Comparing only wait times upon returning to the lines would be disingenuous. When using Express Pass, I can do all attractions in any order I desire, building my itinerary around what I want to do, my existing plans, and order of convenience. Since I’m always using Unlimited Express Pass (via hotel stays), I can repeat the thrill rides I enjoy most, or just loop E.T. Adventure all dang day, as Spielberg intended. (Hours upon hours of E.T. Adventure…talk about the ultimate director’s cut!)

Moreover, I can do the parks without ever stopping to screw with the Universal Orlando app. That’s a ton of time I’m not wasting, and it’s not easy to quantify all of that. In short, even with the possibility (but not certainty) that wait times are longer upon return with Express Pass (they’re definitely less predictable due to the lack of scheduling), my view is that Universal’s system saves considerably more time overall.

To that point and as intimated above, Genie+ is a system within the My Disney Experience app that requires making ride reservations throughout the day. You can make one ride reservation at a time–with the ability to make a subsequent reservation immediately upon tapping into a Lightning Lane at an attraction or pursuant to the 120 minute rule.

This might sound simple enough, but it’s complicated in practice. You need to balance attraction popularity with your previously-made plans with your desire or ability to backtrack to walk a lot, and more. You also need to navigate a My Disney Experience app that is glitchy, unintuitive, and feels like it’s still being beta tested about a decade after it was released.

By contrast, there is no tech component to Express Pass. While it’s significantly more expensive out-of-pocket, it’s also totally frictionless.

You simply go up to the attraction, scan your pass, and use your Express Pass entitlement. There’s nothing to reserve or hassle with in an app. It’s a totally “dumb” system–and I mean that in the best way possible. Express Pass involves zero technology and screen time. It’s completely hassle-free.

For first-timers, this might come as a surprise given that we’ve dedicated substantially more text explaining the basics of Express Pass than we have the Genie+ service at Walt Disney World. That’s because this is a Disney blog, and one that has dedicated (literally) dozens of blog posts in the last year-plus to addressing confusion, complaints, and questions about all things Genie+ and Lightning Lanes.

By contrast, this is our first post dedicated to Express Pass. That isn’t due to a lack of Universal coverage or interest. To the contrary, we’ve used Express Pass many times (albeit never paying for it out of pocket). However, we’ve always just mentioned it in passing in other posts and planning guides for one reason. It is simple. 

Frankly, there has been no need to over-explain Express Pass because it’s intuitive and works exactly how you’d expect. When it comes to itineraries, we’ve repeatedly conceded that they aren’t really necessary with Express Pass (especially when coupled with Early Park Admission for on-site hotels).

In short, if it seems like the explanations are disproportionate for the respective line-skipping services at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, that’s because the starting points differ. This is built atop voluminous resources about Genie+, whereas it’s foundational info about Express Pass plus the comparison.

The bottom line is that Universal’s Express Pass is easier and more efficient than Genie+ at Walt Disney World. Frankly, we think Express Pass is substantially better than Genie+ and Lightning Lanes.

This is especially true if you remove price from the equation by getting Express Pass for ‘free’ by virtue of an on-site Premier Hotel stay. Then it’s truly no contest. Univeral’s top tier hotels are typically cheaper than Walt Disney World’s and they include the valuable line-skipping service, which is not given out to Deluxe Resort guests at Walt Disney World.

To that last point, let’s switch gears and offer some pointless (but possibly fun or interesting?) commentary. Previously, we’ve mentioned that Walt Disney World could not replicate everything people love about Express Pass since the inputs differ between Universal and Disney. Assuming, arguendo, that Walt Disney World did switch to a ‘dumb’ line-skipping service like Express Pass, it is guaranteed that changes would be made out of necessity or economics.

In short, we say to Walt Disney World fans: be careful what you wish for. 

Some Walt Disney World fans say that they’d happily pay $80 to $120 for line-skipping like Express Pass. However, there is no guarantee that Disney’s equivalent would be priced at this level. As should be clear by now from the endless parade of price increases, Walt Disney World has pricing power. Its demographics are also different.

While fans frequently blame one another for tolerating paying more and getting less at Walt Disney World, this is much more likely attributable to first-timers and those taking rite-of-passage trips. These free-spending guests pull out all of the stops for fear of missing out, and almost certainly visit Walt Disney World at disproportionate levels as compared to Universal. I would be willing to bet that per guest spending is considerably higher at Disney than Universal.

In short, neither of these businesses set their price points as a courtesy to guests. They both charge what the market will bear. With that in mind, Universal’s pricing for Express Pass is what you see for various dates. That does not mean Walt Disney World’s pricing would be identical. (Side note: enjoy this while it lasts, Universal diehards–your on-site hotels likely won’t be this cheap for much longer!)

Then there are the calls for Walt Disney World to include unlimited Lightning Lane access with on-site stays. Again, the circumstances differ dramatically. In total, there are just under 7,000 hotel rooms at Universal Orlando Resort.

By contrast, there are approximately 40,000 rooms at Walt Disney World, which includes all of the Disney-owned and operated properties plus the Disney Springs Resort Area, Bonnet Creek, Swan & Dolphin, Shades of Green. These third party hotels are included because they’re technically on-site and, more importantly, have contractual deals with Disney to offer certain guest perks and amenities.

However, for the sake of the included Unlimited Express Pass or theoretical included Lightning Lane, we can narrow that down to just the Deluxe Resorts at Walt Disney World or Premier Hotels at Universal Orlando. In that case, Universal Orlando has under 2,500 eligible rooms. To put that into perspective, that’s fewer rooms than Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts alone.

In total, Walt Disney World has approximately 13,000 rooms that are typically eligible for Deluxe Resort-caliber perks. However, Walt Disney World also has 4 theme parks as compared to Universal Orlando’s two parks, so we should probably cut that number in half for a more accurate comparison. In which case, we end up with 6,500 v. 2,500. (I’m going to purposefully exclude Volcano Bay as I doubt it adds meaningfully to capacity or crowd-absorption and would just muddy the comparison.)

That’s still not apples to apples because we’re not comparing the theoretical or actual capacity. Unfortunately, this is not something I’m capable of doing. Simply counting eligible attractions isn’t enough here–you have to know the capacity of each, the degree to which they’re utilizing line-skipping, and more.

There’s too much that’s simply unknowable or would require guessing. For example, I know the theoretical hourly ride capacity of Jungle Cruise, but I don’t know its average Lightning Lane to standby ratio, nor do I know its actual operational hourly ride capacity right now. (I’ve heard it’s not good!) I also don’t know what percentage of guests are actually using “filler” Lightning Lanes like those for Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage.

Finally, I don’t know the nuances of Universal Orlando’s hotel business as compared to Walt Disney World. What’s the occupancy rate of the top tier hotels at each? What about the average number of guests per occupied room? My guess is that Disney has higher numbers on both fronts but I have no clue to what degree. (Disney Vacation Club skews the former while family demographics skew the latter.)

Beyond these “known unknowns,” there are probably variables I don’t even know…that I don’t know. I can’t tell you what those are, since I don’t know what they are. [Insert drunk face emoji]

All of this is to say that it’s probable that Walt Disney World couldn’t simply “lift” the idea of Express Pass from Universal Orlando. The variables are different and the unintended consequences would likely cause the system to break in new and different ways. (And Genie+ has already broken plenty in the last year!)

Perhaps you don’t find the comparison and breakdown above to be persuasive. Maybe you’re convinced that Walt Disney World could do free Express Pass for Deluxe Resort guests with a few tweaks. In that case, consider this: Genie+ is essentially Walt Disney World’s attempt to port the beloved MaxPass from Disneyland with minor tweaks.

Suffice to say, a lot broke in the process. Not only that, but there were myriad unintended consequences and results that were not forecast by Walt Disney World’s internal teams working on Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. (It’s almost unbelievable in light of how Disney has attempted to throttle demand since launch, but the original plan called for a Genie+ Annual Pass add-on to debut only a few months after launch.)

I’m not pretending to know how all of this would shake out, and I’m cognizant of the fact that some of these variables are at odds with one another. The salient point of all this rambling, I guess, is that there is no “simple” solution in which Disney can or will copy and paste Express Pass to Walt Disney World.

All of this theoretical analysis is entirely academic, anyway. It presupposes that Walt Disney World has an appetite to include Lightning Lane access in Deluxe Resort stays and, let me assure you, that is absolutely not the case. You probably didn’t need any such assurances, as it’s patently obvious from the way Walt Disney World has been cutting on-site perks rather than adding them.

I don’t know why Universal first opted to offer Unlimited Express Pass to its Premier Hotels. (My shot-in-the-dark guess is a deal with Loews to get that hotelier on board.) Regardless, the only reason to start offering ‘free’ line-skipping now would be to entice people to stay on-site and increase hotel occupancy rates.

Walt Disney World does not have this problem. Even several years ago when occupancy numbers weren’t as strong, Disney didn’t offer an unlimited “golden” FastPass. Instead, they tried to entice people to book Club Level stays by selling additional FastPass+ reservations.

Ultimately, I could see Walt Disney World offering “free” Genie+ down the road to guests of certain resorts if there’s an economic downturn and bookings slump, but as the service currently exists and not an unlimited version of it. Even then, it would probably be a replacement for Free Dining or some superior past promotion. I could also see Disney continuing to tweak Genie+ to make the system more intuitive while trying to minimize (but not totally obviate) complaints about screen time.

However, I cannot see Walt Disney World switching to a ‘dumb’ (again, in a good way) system like Express Pass. Despite being absolutely abysmal at it, Disney fancies itself as a tech company. It has too much of an obsession with crowd management, logistics, and guest data–even though it doesn’t know how to fully leverage this info. (Similarly, our dog loves to chew on the remote but doesn’t know how to use the TV.)

Anything is possible at Walt Disney World in the long-term, especially if guest satisfaction–and more importantly, behavior and visitation trends–takes enough of a hit and management is forced to do something. But for now, these are the line-skipping systems in place at Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, and we’d expect them to remain substantially the same for the next few years.

If you have questions about the basics of using–or not using–the paid FastPass service, see our Guide to Genie+ at Walt Disney World & Lightning Lane FAQ for all of the foundational need-to-know info. This whole system is confusing and convoluted, so you might have a question or two-dozen. That answers all of the most common ones we’ve been receiving from readers.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Do you prefer Universal’s Express Pass or Genie+ and Lightning Lanes at Walt Disney World? Wish WDW included Lightning Lane access with Deluxe Resort stays? Do you prefer paying for these line-skipping services or simply sticking to standby? Other thoughts to share? Do you agree or disagree with my comparison? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

39 Responses to “Universal’s Express Pass v. Lightning Lanes & Genie+ at Disney World”
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