If you’ve followed the site for any length of time, you may have noticed a handful of articles about how Universal’s annual pass situation has changed over the years. We’re going to detail some of those changes, alongside the most recent one from late last week in an attempt to understand how Universal may have tarnished their goodwill with the pass-holder community by overplaying their hand with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
It all began back in 2014 with removal of several annual pass benefits. Changes like this were to be expected as the park was in the middle of its “Five Year Epic Transformation” to prepare for the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Alongside the shift in pass-holder benefits, we also saw a behavioral shift in the park, as team members were instructed to no longer ask guests if they had a season pass before making purchases that were eligible for discounts. This was easily seen as a shady maneuver, but also done at a time where the lowest level season pass no longer received the 10% merchandise and food discount.
As things progressed closer to the opening, the Premium Star annual pass was discontinued, removing the option to purchase a pass without blackout days or complimentary parking.
This decision – in hindsight – was obviously strategic. The Wizarding World was preparing for an early-Spring opening and Universal wanted to ensure that the majority of Premium Star pass-holders would be required to purchase a new pass or ticket before the land’s debut. It wasn’t until six months after the discontinuation of the Premium Star Pass that we saw a replacement – and what a replacement it was. At first glance, it seemed like a fresh start. All of Universal’s newest passes were valid for 12-months and they appeared to maintain the same consistent calendar for blackout date.
But there were critical issues.
The top tier pass, the Gold Annual Pass, was still limited to a 10% discount, offered no free parking, was blocked out on most Saturdays, and still cost more than $100 compared to the previous Premium Star Pass. At the time, Universal’s top tier pass effectively saw its price increase by 50% yet still maintain a set of blackout dates that would be on par with a “Buy a Day, Get a Year” pass in years prior. Anybody preparing to visit Hogwarts on opening day had their hands tied unless they were willing to purchase a one-day ticket.
Even then, the idea of the passes all being “annual” now and dropping the “season” pass offering didn’t last. Starting this January, Universal ended that streak after less than two months with the reintroduction of the season pass, which by all accounts was a terrible value unless you are able to visit exclusively on weekdays.
This wasn’t the status quo for long, as we now know. Four months later, on the same day that all the 2015 passes were set to expire, Universal unveiled their new Platinum Pass, meant to replace the Premium Star Pass of days past. The 15% discount returned, complimentary parking before 5 PM was restored and as an added benefit, Universal included a free visit to Halloween Horror Nights on a select night. These benefits were offered for $599, discounted by $10 if you purchase online. That’s a 300% increase from the pass price from a year earlier, setting the stage for an effective price increase of $400 in a single year.
That brings us to last week, which saw the removal of both CA Resident passes in favor of a new 2016 Season Pass Plus in an effort to boost weekend attendance in May and June (which the new pass included over the previous CA Resident options). For those keeping count, this had been Universal’s fifth change to the annual pass system in under 18 months.
On top of this, existing pass-holders might have seen an email sent at the end of April inviting them to visit the park on a blacked out Sunday through their online reservation system. Put all this together and you have a pretty concise picture of the pass-holder situation at the park since 2014.
I didn’t expect to write an entire section detailing the history of Universal’s pass system over the last year, but I needed to establish a timeline of all the changes that have happened to the system. If you’ve listened to our podcast, you would have heard that I’ve stated time and time again that Universal was going “full nuclear” on preparations for Harry Potter. This involved building an all new parking structure, having a copious amount of soft opening dates, giving pass-holders an exclusive preview, and having police ready to direct traffic on opening day.
If executives were hoping for more annual pass-holders to visit on opening day (or even opening month), they misinterpreted the interests of their annual pass community – namely the demand for Universal’s highest tier pass. For the same price as the Platinum Pass, you can get a Deluxe Pass at Disneyland, which guarantees at least one weekend day per week, except around Christmas, and grants access to two giant theme parks, each with far more attractions than Universal can offer. When one factors in the per-park price of Disney and Universal’s highest tier pass, Universal is – surprisingly enough – more expensive at $600 per park versus Disney’s $524.50.
I thought that with all these preparations, Universal would have considered alternate situations if their plans didn’t warrant the utter paranoia they were displaying. When the skip-a-blackout RSVP emails went out, it seemed like a test of a system to ease blackout dates on existing passes. If that was a test, then it seems to have failed, as just two weeks later, the park killed off the California passes and just replaced them with a season pass.
We’ve been tiptoeing around analyzing the specific impact of passes on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter because it is indeed complicated. By all accounts, single day ticket sales are through the roof, alongside merchandise sales, but sharp-eyed sleuths may have noticed that the return time ticket kiosks were used for all of 48 hours before being permanently shut off. Without annual pass-holders to bolster guest numbers, the wait time for Potter is barely above 35 minutes most days of the week and often a walk-on anytime past 5 PM. Additionally, hours for May and June have been cut back. That being said, there are a few metrics, outside of raising single-day ticket prices, that shows Universal’s attendance is in some regards healthy. This essentially means that people going on Forbidden Journey appear to enjoy it, but not enough for repeat visits – and that’s where Universal may have overreached. Universal may have won their bet with one-day visitors, but they appeared to have lost their bet with the annual pass community.
From tripling the price of the Premium Star Pass to killing off passes after a mere four months, Universal has shown they have no ability to plan ahead or at least implement changes in a cohesive fashion. It’s really a failure at the highest level if the frequent visitors to a park can’t comprehend what’s going to be the next change to their pass.
It must be said that you can’t foster good will if you constantly play games with the local life in your park. Removing benefits, only to restore them half a year later at three times the cost, means that anyone that renewed during between that gap is stuck in a crossroads. Killing off the 12-month pass, that only can visit two Sundays in May, and replacing it with a cheaper pass than can visit twice as much in the same time period confuses consumers. People aren’t going to purchase a product if they know it might be replaced in two weeks with a radically different implementation.
Take Disneyland as an example. Their pass system changes usually make news when prices go up. But those are expected because of unprecedented crowd levels. Most recently, the company replaced the Premium pass and split it into two passes where the more expensive “Signature Plus” pass is an extra $200 for the last two weeks of the year. Knowing it would be a bitter pill to swallow, Disney saw fit to give those Signature guests free digital PhotoPass downloads as a small concession. The closest Universal saw fit to do was to give an ambiguously dated Halloween Horror Night ticket that doesn’t come close to covering the price of the increase.
In the end, one have to wonder if Universal wants the same number of annual pass-holders as their competitors. Part of that answer is probably no, but we have to wonder if they anticipated this sort of drop in pass attendance with their new tiers. Based on their recent actions, we’re going to have to say that they didn’t. It seems like the entire journey over the last two years has been nothing more than a dart board and misguided estimations with Universal afraid to admit they’ve overplayed their hand.
What are your thoughts on the annual pass system? Do you have a season pass? An annual pass? Where do you think Universal will go next? Is it even possible to predict? Will parking become an optional add-on? Let us know in the comments.