Something I often overhear in the parks is along the lines of “Nope, we didn’t get Fastpasses. They’re way too expensive!” This is usually when I butt into their conversation and tell them, “Actually, Fastpasses are free and included with your Walt Disney World park ticket.” Then people get very confused and angry at themselves for not knowing that vital information and wasting more time than need be standing in lines instead of utilizing a free service. I admit, it is confusing with Universal Studios Orlando just down the road, who offers a similarly named “Express Pass” that operates very differently. So what exactly is the difference between Disney’s Fastpasses and Universal’s Express Pass?
The unifying theme of all of the following variations is that they allow ticket holders to skip the standby queue at a number of theme park attractions. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to walk directly onto the ride – think of it more as TSA precheck for rides and shows. Let’s take a bicoastal approach and look at the options at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios.
Let’s start our learnin’ journey over on the west coast at Disneyland Park. Included with all park tickets is Disney’s Fastpass system. These passes are available first-come, first-serve, once you are in either Disneyland Park or California Adventure for the day. There are currently eleven attractions in Disneyland and eight in California Adventure that offers Fastpass service.
To obtain a paper Fastpass for an attraction, you must go to the Fastpass kiosk for that attraction (normally located near the entrance) and scan your park ticket. The kiosk will spit out a paper ticket with a return time window printed on it. You can keep accruing more Fastpasses throughout the day as long as there are still Fastpasses available.
At the bottom of each ticket, there will be a time printed on it when you can obtain an additional Fastpass for a different attraction. As a general rule, this is two hours from when you’ve gotten the Fastpass you currently hold in your hand or the start of your return window, whichever is sooner.
The two exceptions to this rule are the two nighttime shows, World of Color at California Adventure and Fantasmic at Disneyland. Fastpasses for these attractions are available at kiosks at the beginning of the day but they are considered “off-system,” and do not prevent you from getting more Fastpasses right away. Neato!
Introduced in 2017, MaxPass is a paid option for obtaining Fastpasses at Disneyland and California Adventure on your smartphone. At the time of writing, this is an additional $15 per day per person to use. Instead of running to the attraction kiosks, once you enter the park you can select an attraction on the Disneyland app to receive your return time. Just as with the paper Fastpasses, you can get keep getting them throughout the day as long as Fastpasses are still available. It will also tell you when you are able to obtain an additional Fastpass under the same two hours or the start of your current Fastpass’ return time, whichever is sooner.
In addition to obtaining your Fastpasses on your phone, MaxPass also includes unlimited digital downloads of any photos taken throughout the day by Disney’s PhotoPass photographers, including ride photos!
Walt Disney World: Fastpass+
Over on the east coast at Walt Disney World Resort, things operate a bit differently! Walt Disney World switched to the Fastpass+ system in early 2014 in conjunction with the rollout of MyMagic+, which integrates Fastpass+ and Magic Bands with the My Disney Experience app. Fastpass+ differs in two major ways from the previous Fastpass system:
- Instead of waiting until the day you are at the park, guests staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel (and a few select others) can schedule their Fastpasses up to 60 days in advance. For guests not staying in an on-site resort, they may schedule up to 30 days in advance.
- Guests may reserve up to three Fastpasses for each day of their vacation as long as all three Fastpasses on any given day are in the same park.
While it adds an extra layer of advance (and advanced!) planning, the Fastpasses reserved in advance work to provide anchors throughout your day. As soon as you’ve used all three of your reserved Fastpasses, you can continue to pick up more on a one-by-one basis throughout the day. It’s not uncommon for my family to use between ten and fourteen Fastpasses each day of our trip!
At any time after you have made your initial picks, you can cancel or modify your Fastpasses as much as you want. You can do this by going into your My Disney Experience app, selecting your reserved attraction, and clicking “modify.”
Pro Tip! It is not uncommon for my family to only reserve one Fastpass a day, usually what I refer to as Holy Grail Fastpasses. These include Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom, Frozen Ever After at Epcot, Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios, and both Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey at Animal Kingdom. Nearly all other attractions are normally available day-of, which allows for more spontanaeity and lessens the risk of overscheduling your vacation.
Unlike Disneyland’s system, Fastpass+ inventory changes literally on a second-to-second basis. If you click “modify” on a reserved attraction and don’t see what you’re looking for – keep trying! Normally I’m able to pick up a Fastpass for whatever ride my four-year-old decides she has to ride next by the time we walk to that next attraction.
Fastpass+ is included in all Walt Disney World park tickets.
Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood
There are two major differences between Disney’s Fastpass options and Universal’s Express Passes:
- They are a paid add-on to your ticket, with one exception.
- There are no return time windows. Instead, if you have the Express Pass option on your ticket, you can utilize the Express Pass line at any time.
Guests at Universal’s parks on both coasts can choose from the Universal Express or the Universal Express Pass Unlimited.
The Universal Express can be added to any and all days of your tickets on a priced-per-day basis. This allows ticket holders to utilize the Universal Express line on each attraction once during each day you’ve added the pass. If you want to ride Escape from Gringotts eight times in a day (which you absolutely should do), with this option you can use the Universal Express lane once and the other seven times you would go through the regular queue.
For guests who want to experience shorter wait times over and over during the day, the Universal Express Pass Unlimited option is what you’re looking for! If you want to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey eight times in one day, you can totally do that and go through the Universal Express line each time.
There is a limited quantity of both Express Passes and Express Unlimited Passes sold each day, so it is advisable to purchase your tickets and your chosen Express Pass option in advance!
There is one way to get the Express Pass Unlimited: stay in one of Universal Orlando Resort’s three “legacy” resorts – Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Royal Pacific Resort. Guests at these resorts will need to be prepared to show their room key at each Universal Express line checkpoint. For many families, staying at one of these resorts turns out to be a money-saving option than staying elsewhere and adding the Express Pass to your ticket!
To sum up:
At Disney Parks on both coasts, your Fastpasses is included in all park tickets for all guests for no additional cost, with the exception of MaxPass at Disneyland if you would like to make your Fastpasses from your smartphone. You will receive return times that provide guests with anchors throughout their day.
At Universal Parks, with the exception of select resort guests at Universal Orlando, Express Pass is a paid ticket add-on but you can utilize the Express Pass line at any times under the terms of the option that you have elected to add.
And now you know more about Fastpasses and Express Passes!
Photo credits: Disneyland and Universal Orlando photos courtesy of Lynette Kostamo Brown. All others courtesy of the author.
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