June 17, 2024

Why 2024 is a Good Year to Visit Universal

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When to visit Universal Orlando is a good question, with fans wondering whether it's a smart idea to go now or delay a vacation due to the opening of the new Epic Universe theme park

When to visit Universal Orlando is a good question, with fans wondering whether it’s a smart idea to go now or delay a vacation due to the opening of the new Epic Universe theme park in Summer 2025. This addresses whether you should visit in 2024 to enjoy Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida or wait out the new park featuring Super Nintendo World and more.

Fair warning: this is the type of topic that does not have an answer that’s one-size-fits-all. If you’re planning a first-ever vacation to Central Florida and are unlikely to return anytime soon–or ever–your circumstances differ from a frequent theme park visitor who takes a trip to the park once every few years. If you’re on a tight budget, your priorities and calculus differs from someone willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to “buy their way out of” potential problems.

With that in mind, we’re approaching this from the perspective of semi-cost-sensitive theme park fans who have visited Universal in the past and are likely to do so in the future–but that don’t travel to Central Florida every year. Both because this is the core readership of a vacation planning site like this one and because that’s the more interesting demographic for this assessment. If that doesn’t describe you, this still might be an interesting read if you adjust for your own priorities, preferences, and budget.

They say that what’s past is prologue, so let’s start by rewinding to 2018 and 2019 in Central Florida. Before the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World, which was a time we dubbed the calm before the storm. And it really was.

Walt Disney World had a relative lull from late 2018 through Summer 2019. The most plausible explanation for this was that tourists were postponing trips, waiting for that blockbuster new land to open. To combat this, Walt Disney World offered more promotions (like Free Dining) to entice people to travel in the pre-opening period.

Then something interesting happened on both coasts. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened…and instead of being a ‘crowdpocalypse’ scenario as feared, it was shockingly quiet. Disneyland had one of its slowest summers in years, and quickly attempted to remedy the situation by unblocking Cast Members, bringing back Main Street Electrical Parade, and more. It didn’t work.

The Star Wars land at Walt Disney World opened a few months later, and the decision had already been made to offer Extra, Extra Magic Hours there for the first couple months of operations as counterprogramming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Those 7 a.m. park opening times were totally unnecessary. It was a slow 3-month stretch, the calm before the storm that actually arrived around October and didn’t let up until the parks closed in March 2020.

Of course, there are unique wrinkles to this. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge held its grand opening, but it did so without the tentpole Rise of the Resistance ride. That didn’t debut until December/January, at which point both coasts became insanely busy. More significantly, Disney practically warned guests to stay at home during the first few months of Galaxy’s Edge, with reservation systems and other measures that suggested the company was forecasting astronomical attendance. Whatever the reasons, it didn’t happen. Disney either whiffed on the projections or effectively scared people away. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Essentially the same thing happened with Universal in the not-too-distant past, with the opening of Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) at Universal Studios Hollywood. After that land was a smash success in Orlando and Osaka, the decision was made to significantly throttle access of Annual Passholders and raise pricing in anticipation of the new land. Like Disney, they took it too far–Wizarding World of Harry Potter was not overwhelmed with crowds or even all that busy when it officially opened.

The reasons for mentioning all of this are twofold. First, because Universal has likely learned lessons from its own–and Disney’s–past mistakes in making moves to actively discourage visiting blockbuster new additions. Whether that be via changing policies that act as an impediment to locals and Annual Passholders or sending signals that scare people away–Universal hasn’t really done those things since WWoHP at USH.

To the contrary, the opening of Super Nintendo World in both Hollywood and Japan was handled with a lighter touch. The California version of this land is most instructive for a number of reasons (also in the United States, newer of the two, didn’t open during a pandemic, etc.), and there really wasn’t a ton done there to send the message to locals to stay away. And they didn’t. Aside from the slowest dates during the off-season, the two current versions of Super Nintendo World are perpetually bonkers.

The second reason this past precedent is relevant is because it’s incredibly common to have a ‘calm before the storm’ period at theme parks that are preparing to open blockbuster new lands. This has been the case not just at Walt Disney World and Disneyland with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but also the international parks. (Tokyo DisneySea is experiencing this right now in the lead-up to Fantasy Springs.)

Keep in mind, those are just new lands being built in existing theme parks. They are not all-new theme parks being added. It’s been over 20 years since a new gate opened at a major theme park complex. So there isn’t exactly great precedent for how that will disrupt demand and cause people to postpone visits (or not).

My guess is that it’ll have an even more significant impact. After all: new theme park > new land > new ride. It’s just science. But seriously, this dynamic is probably particularly pronounced in the Central Florida market–the theme park capital of the world. In fact, I’d argue that this is more likely in Orlando than anywhere else.

For frequent tourists who are theme park fans, there are more gates than days. It’s easy to say, “we’ll skip Universal in 2024 and go all-out in 2025/2026 when Epic Universe is open.” Then there are the infrequent tourists who could be delaying visits entirely.

Finally, a lot of locals already cycle through Annual Passes, and between the new park on the horizon and many getting their “fill” of Universal in 2020-2023 when it was difficult to buy Walt Disney World APs, I’d be willing to bet many Floridians are taking a year off from Universal.

This isn’t to say the entirety of 2024 is going to be downright dead at Universal Orlando–that definitely will not be the case. But I’d be willing to bet that wait times end up being down for most dates year-over-year, with that trend being most pronounced starting around June 2024 and continuing through Spring 2025. About the only exceptions to this that I’d expect are Halloween Horror Nights (its own beast) and Christmas.

The potential for ‘calm before the storm’ crowd levels that are lower than Summer 2025 and 2026 is one reason we’d recommend visiting Universal Orlando Resort in 2024 (or the first half-ish of 2025).

That’s only part of the equation, though. The other big reason is that Epic Universe is going to have a lot of wildcards, and I fear that some fans are making some overly optimistic assumptions about its operations based on past precedent with Universal’s current parks and resorts.

For starters, anyone who has complained about virtual queues, upcharges, or convoluted access when it comes to Walt Disney World might be in for a rude awakening with Super Nintendo World. We’ve done the two existing versions of this land in California and Japan.  We absolutely adore the land. With that said, we do everything in our power to avoid the colossal crowds. The land is a nightmare when it’s busy.

Super Nintendo World in Epic Universe is going to be the largest version of the land in the world…but that’s not necessarily saying much. Even with Donkey Kong Country and Mine Cart Madness, this land is likely very undersized relative to demand.

How Universal will manage that supply vs. demand capacity imbalance and capitalize on it is the big unanswered question.

Both of the currently existing versions of Super Nintendo World use virtual queues when attendance is high just to enter the land. If those parks aren’t busy, the virtual queue is not needed. I’m reluctant to extrapolate much from that–the Epic Universe version will be larger, but it’ll also have a steady stream of tourists, whereas the California and Osaka parks have huge local fanbases.

Universal Studios Hollywood also sells Early Access Tickets for one-hour head-start in Super Nintendo World before the land opens to the general public. Universal Studios Japan sells Express Pass ‘bundles’ that are valid for one-time use at a selection of attractions, including Mario Kart and Yoshi’s Adventure.

Given that Epic Universe is a brand-new theme park that will draw in free-spending tourists, my expectation is that Universal pushes the upcharges as far as it believes is possible. I have no clue if that means paid Early Access or a unique type of Express Pass–or different upcharges entirely–but my guess is that this Super Nintendo World will have some combination of the above.

This approach makes sense. Comcast faces numerous headwinds (just like Disney!), including but not limited to an underperforming streaming service, challenges for cable television, and slowing broadband growth. Theme parks are likewise a bright spot for the company, and there’s a good chance it’ll want to capitalize on that.

Recouping as much of the substantial investment in Epic Universe as quickly as possible also makes sense. Universal has also learned a lot of lessons from the cash cow that is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and is already leveraging those with the current versions of Super Nintendo World. Expect that trend to continue with the Orlando incarnation.

Of course, this is entirely speculative on my part. It would be fair to point out that, in the past, Universal has actually refrained from offering Express Pass on brand-new attractions and has made efforts to make it easier to access new rides without paying extra. This happened with both VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure. Although it’s not what I expect to happen, perhaps history will repeat itself with all of Epic Universe!

There are also probably many of you out there thinking that whatever happens with upcharges at Epic Universe doesn’t matter, as you’ll simply stay in Hard Rock Hotel, Royal Pacific, or Portofino Bay for a few hundred bucks per night and have access to Unlimited Express Pass.

That might be possible, but it also might be wishful thinking. I don’t know why Universal first opted to offer Unlimited Express Pass to its Premier Hotels, but my shot-in-the-dark guess is a deal with Loews to get that hotelier on board. Accordingly, I would also guess that the only theme parks subject to such a contractual agreement would be the ones in existence at the time.

In other words, I doubt that the legacy Premier Hotels will get Express Pass at Epic Universe. (Honestly, I would imagine that Universal now regrets offering Unlimited Express Pass at the Premier Hotels, but there’s nothing they can do about it.)

This isn’t to say that Universal Helios Grand Hotel–the flagship in-park resort at Epic Universe–won’t offer absolutely excellent access. To the contrary, I think it will–possibly including Unlimited Express Pass, among other things. But I also think Helios Grand Hotel will be priced on par with Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort.

Which brings us to another very important point: pricing.

Universal diehards who have long pointed to the prices at their parks and resorts as being more “fair” or “reasonable” are in for a rude awakening. The notion that Comcast, of all companies, cares about consumers and offers commensurate value for money out of the kindness of its heart is absolutely ludicrous. We’re talking ’bout Comcast?! Not a charity, but Comcast! 

Just like any other business, Universal charges what the market will bear. With Epic Universe opening, that amount soon will be higher than it was several years ago. Prices could decrease if there’s an economic downturn or recession, but the same is true of Walt Disney World. (To be sure, the exhaustion of pent-up demand is precisely why Disney has increased ticket and resort deals–not out of the kindness of its heart!)

This is going to be especially true of Univeral’s hotels, which have been underpriced for a while. They’ve gone up considerably in the last 2 years, but it’s only going to get worse. Some are still a bargain given what they offer–especially if you can leverage Unlimited Express Pass. The lower end of the spectrum offers really great value, too.

This is a direct result of Universal purposefully overbuilding hotels in anticipation of Epic Universe. They currently have more hotel inventory than is necessary to service their 2 theme parks and 1 water park most of the year, but even with the addition of new hotels as part of the Epic Universe expansion, that’ll likely change in 2025.

So even if the current trio of Premier Hotels does manage to offer Unlimited Express Pass at Epic Universe, that will be “offset” by significantly higher prices. Just like Disney, parent company Comcast will charge what people will pay. And people will pay a lot more once Mario, Donkey Kong, How to Train Your Dragon, more Harry Potter, etc. open in a brand-new park.

In short, anyone who thinks Universal is doing fans a solid with current hotel pricing is delusional. As soon as Universal can raise resort rates, the company will. This is not some bold prediction–it’s a straightforward understanding of how supply and demand work. It all really depends upon how popular and good Epic Universe is–the same people predicting it’ll be a smash success should be predicting astronomical price increases, if they’re being honest with themselves.

Ultimately, that’s all a long-winded way of saying that if we were semi-frequent visitors to Universal Orlando, we’d make a point of trying to visit in the second half of this year or first half of 2025. Taking advantage of the potentially lower crowds and prices is too enticing to pass up, and there are so many potential wildcards with the official opening of Epic Universe. Ignoring weather, my sweet spot would probably be August through mid-September 2024 (possibly for an early HHN, but before it gets truly bonkers) or early February 2025 or late April/early May 2025.

In a perfect world, my hope would be that Epic Universe has soft openings for about a month or longer around May 2025. That would be the ultimate ‘best of both worlds’ sweet spot, getting to enjoy the lower crowd levels and more reasonable pricing while also getting to experience the new park prior to its grand opening. Of course, that’s impossible to predict at this point, even if Epic Universe does look like it’s really far along–and progressing quickly.

Conversely, if money were no issue and/or my kids were huge Nintendo fans (obviously, more is coming to Epic Universe than just Super Nintendo World, but that is the big new draw) and/or I weren’t going to get back to Orlando for a while, I’d probably wait. Super Nintendo World is incredible, the rest of Epic Universe looks awesome, and Comcast will almost certainly give you plenty of “opportunities” to buy your way out of crowds and problems in the new park!

Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Universal Orlando Planning Guide for everything about Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. If you’re planning a trip out to the already-open Super Nintendo World, see our exhaustive Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!

Your Thoughts

Thoughts on taking advantage of lower crowds and prices and doing Universal Orlando in 2024? Will you be visiting Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure between now and May 2025, or will you wait until Epic Universe officially opens? Expecting sky-high demand for Super Nintendo World and the rest of the new park? Think Comcast will respond by adding a bunch of upcharges, or will it still be possible to do Universal Orlando properly on a reasonable in late 2025 and 2026? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!

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