Home » Genie+ vs. Universal Express: Which Theme Park Upcharge Is Worth Its Price to Plus Your Trip?

Genie+ vs. Universal Express: Which Theme Park Upcharge Is Worth Its Price to Plus Your Trip?

If we told you two years ago that FastPass would be a thing of the past, you probably wouldn’t have believed us. But here we stand, at the precipice of the Year of the Genie. Disney’s new paid-for priority boarding system is the talk of the town, both for ways its serves as a return to the tried-and-true rules of the past and how it requires a PhD level dissertation to understand. It’s probably a good time to examine how Disney’s line-skipping system works today… and to compare it to its nearest neighbor, Universal’s Express Pass.

Today, we’re diving deep to dissect both Genie+ and Universal Express to see how these two systems approach priority boarding very, very differently. We’ll dig into the pros and cons of each, examine how each one works, and ask you for your input – do you prefer Genie+’s low-cost system dictated by rules, reservations, technology, and microtransactions, or Universal’s high-cost, all-in, VIP solution for guests willing to spend big to get stuff done?

Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane

How it started

Disney Genie+ is the once-in-a-blue-moon product of a planetary alignment between the pre-pandemic announcement of the complimentary Disney Genie trip-planning software, Bob Chapek, COVID-19, FastPass+, and the age of per-capita-as-key-performance-indicator.

As much as Disney’s public relations team would prefer that it not be discussed as “paid-for FastPass,” there’s no doubt that the story of Disney Genie+ begins with our in-depth look at Disney’s FastPass service – a “free” (which really means, included with the cost of admission) system that allowed guests to join virtual queues at select attractions and be assigned an hour-long window to return to the ride and join a “priority boarding” queue.

From humble beginnings in 1999, FastPass grew into a monster of a system, made all the worse by 2013’s FastPass+, which digitized the system, massively expanded its footprint, and led to guests booking hour-long return windows months before their trip, leaving off-site guests with the ride reservation equivalent of scraps.

FastPass+ certainly made in-the-know guests feel that they were getting away with murder, skipping the waits at three or more in-demand attractions each day… but of course, outside of their three pre-booked FastPass slots, every other wait was relegated to a slow-moving, swampy “Standby” queue, each created like a toxic byproduct of FastPass. 

COVID-19 gave Disney a rare chance to suspend FastPass entirely, all but assuring that if the system returned, it would look a whole lot different. After just over a year of having good old-fashioned “lines,” the shareholders came to call, officially killing another Disney guest perk and replacing it with a new upcharge. In October 2021, Walt Disney World launched Disney Genie+ – essentially, a service that restores virtual queues to day-of, rolling reservations like the paper tickets of yore, but operates entirely through the My Disney Experience app. Which brings us to… 

How it works

Anyone who remembers legacy, paper FastPass will catch on to Genie+ pretty quickly, because the new system is dictated by the same general rules: day-of, one-at-a-time, hour-long return windows distributed on a rolling basis throughout the day. In fact, Genie+ is nearly identical to the upcharge, app-based MaxPass that Disneyland tested from 2017 to 2020 (with the added complication of two high-demand rides per park being excluded from the system and purchased a la carte, like Disneyland Paris’ Premier Access system). 

The day begins at 7:00 AM, when anyone who’s bought into the Disney Genie+ service (regardless of staying on-site or off) can book their first return window through the My Disney Experience app’s new Genie Tip Board. Just like the days when guests would race into theme parks and run to a FastPass kiosk to secure a return time for later in the day, the digital rush at 7:00 sees some high-demand attractions “sell out” of Lightning Lane “slots” right away – hours before the park even opens.

Also like in the days of FastPass, that first, high-pressure booking is merely the start of a day that takes planning and work to get “right.” You probably shouldn’t have to read our Genie+ 101 guides for Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom to get the most of your money, but knowing the “right” rides to pick in the “right” order and knowing the “rules” of Genie+ can make or break a day and your wallet.

At a November 2021 investor’s call, CEO Bob Chapek reported that about a third of Disney World guests had opted to upgrade their tickets to include Genie+ during the service’s first month. If that’s true, it surely suggests that Disney visitors either didn’t mind the upcharge or – perhaps more accurately – begrudgingly accepted the inevitability of the change and deemed the relatively low entry cost worthwhile. Trust us: Disney is fine with either.

What it costs

Access to the Disney Genie+ service costs $15 per person, per day at Walt Disney World. Genie+ can be pre-loaded to the length of a ticket like Park Hopper (for example, a five-day ticket can be upgraded to include Genie+ for a flat $75), or Genie+ be purchased one day at a time, on the day of its intended use. (For example, you could wake up at 6:55 on January 24, buy Genie+ for that day for $15, complete the transaction in the My Disney Experience app, then book your first Lightning Lane at 7:00.)

As anyone will tell you, though, even $15 per person per day won’t quite recreate the full FastPass experience of old. Remember, at each park, two of the most in-demand rides are excluded from Genie+. Their Lightning Lanes can only be accessed with (comedically named) “Individual Lightning Lane” purchases, which range from $7 to $14 per person, per ride. (Note that Individual Lightning Lane access goes on sale to on-site guests at 7:00 AM, but off-site guests need to wait until park opening, by which time Lightning Lane access to the two premium rides may be sold out, requiring Standby waits.)

PLEASE NOTE: These prices are correct at the time of writing by prices are subject to change.

In other words, if you’re taking a once-in-a-decade trip to Disney World and have just one day at Hollywood Studios, it’s not outrageous to suggest you might buy into Genie+ ($15 per person) to make reservations for most Lightning Lanes, then also opt for upgraded access to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ($14 per person) and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway ($10 per person). That grand total – $39 per person, or $156 for a family of 4 – will more or less restore the (free!) FastPass experience you might remember from 2010. Repeat that across Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom and… yeah… 

There’s no denying that the out-of-pocket cost of Genie+ – even including one-off Individual Lightning Lane add-ons – is relatively low per day. But the real question is… 

Is it worth it?

If you were to ask 100 Disney Parks aficionados if Disney Genie+ is “worth it,” you’d get 100 different answers. After all, given that the upcharge service maxes out at approximately equivalent to the formerly-“free” FastPass, of course, it doesn’t feel good or worthwhile or fair to pay for something that used to be standard. For some, the argument ends there.

Further complicating the “worth” discussion, Walt Disney World’s second, third, and fourth theme parks have surprisingly few rides to begin with, so pulling two (and by design, the two most popular) from each park’s lineup as “Individual Lightning Lane” rides A) is a bad look, and B) lowers the “worth” of the system considerably. At Animal Kingdom, for example, Genie+ only buys you access to four rides’ Lightning Lanes: Na’vi River Journey, Dinosaur, Kali River Rapids, and Kilimanjaro Safaris – and it’s up to you to know which to prioritize, in what order to book them, and how to secure them.

That said, without Genie+, you’re going to spend a very, very boring hour in the Standby line for Na’vi River Journey, Kilimanjaro Safaris, or both. Aside from an early morning wakeup and a lucky position at rope-drop, Genie+ is really your only chance to avoid that… and even if you can absolutely complete all of Disney’s Animal Kingdom rides in a single day using Standby alone, most people probably feel like $15 per person isn’t such a bad deal if it can skip even a few of the most painful Standby waits… The assurance Genie+ gives you means you can have a low key morning enjoying walk-on rides on Everest and Dinosaur, enjoying a coffee, or, y’know, seeing animals. That’s kind of nice. So I guess in that regard, Genie+ is “worth it.”

To be clear – Genie+ is no panacea. As its relatively low price should tell you, it’s not an unlimited, VIP, “front-of-the-line,” “get-out-of-jail-free,” “perfect-Disney-day” system. Like FastPass of old, those “in-the-know” are much more likely to use the system to its full potential, and even that requires pre-planning, study, tech skills, setting alarms, and vigilance throughout the day, nose buried in the phone. It’s a definite boost, but cynics might remind us that Genie+’s primary purpose is to allow guests to escape the slow-moving Standby lines that Genie+’s existence creates…

Ultimately, Disney knows that we, the fans, will whine and complain and gripe and grumble, but that most of us will opt for the $15 a day at least. Some may say that echoes the short-term gains of the late-’90s when executives cut costs and services, inflated prices, then congratulated themselves over rising revenue… only to see it all collapse when decades of earned good will cratered. Will fans stop buying Genie+? Will guests return home with poor word of mouth about upped prices and having to pay for what used to be free? Or will the added “microtransactions” of Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lanes be written off by tourists as an inevitable cost of visiting?

In any case, Genie+ isn’t the only “priority boarding” system in Orlando… Let’s head up I-4 to Universal Orlando to dissect a very different kind of line-skipping system…

Universal Express

How it started

Though you may not even remember it, Universal Express started as a FastPass-style virtual queue system, included with park admission! Yep, kiosks (in this case, with touch screens) would allow guests to select from hour-long return windows, then print return time slips… Though its surprisingly difficult to find much photographic evidence of it, the system seems to have been in effect from about 2001 to 2004. (FastPass, for comparison, began in 1999.) 

Even then, in lieu of the “free” system, guests could purchase Universal Express Plus, which provided immediate, once-per-ride access to each attraction’s secondary Express line without the bother of securing return times. Obviously, the simple, straightforward upcharge version proved immensely popular. By the mid-2000s, only the paid version of the system remained (though interestingly, the “Plus” modifier stuck around for another decade, even without a non-plussed alternative). 

How it works

Guests with Universal Express are admitted to a secondary Express queue, just like FastPass / Lightning Lane. Most Express queues still pass through major queue show scenes and preshows (which is especially important, for example, in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter). That said, in queues where watching a looping video helps set the mood or explain the story (think, Revenge of the Mummy’s faux “Making Of” featurette that introduces the supposed curse and the lost crew member Reggie, or The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man’s newsreel that highlights the Sinister Syndicate, the kidnapped Statue of Liberty, the SCOOP ride vehicle, and the Anti-Gravity Cannon), Express guests might be just a tad confused once boarding.

Like FastPass or Genie+, Express is a “priority boarding” system… with a twist. Unlike FastPass and Genie+ (which methodically and mathematically dispense return times to distribute capacity each hour and adjust the Standby wait time to compensate), reservations or return times aren’t required. Express guests can join the Express queue for a given ride… well… whenever they want, which introduces unpredictability into the system. 

For example, Universal Express Unlimited users can marathon Mummy over and over if they want, continuously displacing “Standby” guests. Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure going down can see hundreds of Express guests all move to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at once, overwhelming the ride. (That would mean that Express guests would still face a fairly significant wait, and everyone in the regular line will face a really long wait.) There’s a level of chaos inherent in allowing guests to join Express queues whenever they feel like it while promising them that they’ll get priority boarding.

That’s part of the reason why Universal usually holds off a few years before adding the hottest and most in-demand rides to the service. As of 2021, neither Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure nor the Jurassic World VelociCoaster accept Express (though both were built with Express queues, so once their popularity dies down and reliability improves, it’s inevitable.) 

The general rule of thumb is that Express will cut your wait by about 75%. So if the posted wait time for Escape from Gringotts is 60 minutes, Express users will probably wait for 15. That said, even the “standard” version of the service is a big boost if you’re hoping to finish the resort’s major rides in a day or two, and having Express is, frankly, a relief. But there’s no denying that this premium service comes with a premium price… 

What it costs

Universal Express has two different tiers. The “standard” version allows guests to access the Express line one time per ride at either one park (beginning at $80) or both parks (starting at $10 more), the latter of which is a natural choice given how guests flow between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure like they do Disneyland and California Adventure. The “Unlimited” option starts at $110 and $120 for one- and two-park variations, respectively. 

Of course, those are the starting prices, meaning Express Passes would only cost that much on days when you don’t really need it. In 2021, for example, a two-park standard Express Pass carried a $90 price tag on weekdays in early December, but cost $310 per person per day for the days between Christmas and New Year’s – one person’s single day of Express for the price of a three-day admission ticket! (Consider it a tax on people who want to drop into the resort for one day, ride everything with a focus on Potter, then rush off to Walt Disney World.)

PLEASE NOTE: These prices are correct at the time of writing by prices are subject to change.

Obviously, for let’s say a median of $150 per day, a single day of Universal Express is ten times the price of a single day of Genie+. To that end, Express is likely something you’d buy for one day as a treat, not something you’d routinely apply to the length of your trip. It’s priced like a very premium service, and frankly, it is. 

We’re talking about being able to gain priority boarding on nearly every ride whenever you’d like… and even as many times as you’d like. Forbidden Journey. Revenge of the Mummy. Escape from Gringotts. Men in Black: Alien Attack. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Jurassic Park River Adventure. Poseidon’s Fury. The Incredible Hulk Coaster. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Hogwarts Express. Transformers. E.T. Adventure… Of course, there’s also a big caveat with Express pricing… 

If you stay at one of Universal’s three Premier tier hotels – Loew’s Royal Pacific, Loew’s Hard Rock Hotel, or Loew’s Portofino Bay – your room key doubles as a two-park, Universal Express Unlimited pass, totally included with your stay. As Universal’s equivalent to Disney’s “Deluxe” hotel tier, nightly rates at these three hotels rarely drop below $350… but a pair of Universal Express passes can cost that much or more, making an on-site Premier hotel stay a very tempting offer… (Pro-tip: Universal Express is included on both your check-in and check-out day, so feel free to swing by your hotel first thing in the morning. Even if your room isn’t ready, you can “check-in” to collect your key for Express use then head to the parks. That also means that a one-night stay nets you two days of Express access.) 

More to the point, by staying at a Premier hotel at Universal, you can not only rest easy on premium soft goods, but rest easy knowing you won’t have to wait for much the next day. (It should be noted that Disney’s Deluxe hotels don’t even include the $15 per person Genie+, much less something with as much out-of-pocket value as Universal Express Unlimited.)

Is it worth it?

Whether or not Express is “worth it” (or more appropriately, a Premier hotel’s price is “worth it” to get Express) is one of the most fundamental questions guests planning a Universal Orlando vacation face… and so, of course, there’s no one, simple answer.  The double-edged sword of demand-based pricing is that the days when Express is the easiest to buy are the days it’s least needed. In those “off-season” periods, Express will still help you skip moderate waits on major rides, but the line may be so short for “C-Tickets,” you’d feel too embarrassed to use the Express queue anyway.

If you’re going to Universal Orlando during a particularly busy time (think, Spring Break, Christmas Break, 4-day weekends, Independence Day, most of the summer, etc.) and are hoping to actually get on all the major rides in one or two-day visit, then first, you should change your expectations. Then, yeah, you should probably consider Express, though again, a hundreds-of-dollars-per-person price tag would be prohibitive for nearly all of us. (Which is the point. Fewer folks buying in at busy times means fewer guests gaining priority and Standby waits moving faster.)

In any case, the only assurance we can offer is that it does feel good to have Express. Unlike Genie+, which really only further complicates, frustrates, and raises the difficulty of getting a Disney Parks visit “right,” Express makes things very, very easy. No phones. No reservations. No 7:00 AM wakeups. Just VIP treatment. It’s low-tech, low-key, and takes a lot of pressure off your trip to Universal… with a price to match.

The Big Debate

If you haven’t picked it up after two pages of details: Disney Genie+ and Universal Express really have far more that divides them than what they have in common. Sure, both are “line-skipping” systems with “priority boarding” via a secondary queue. And now, both are also upcharges. Both with wildly different price points, perks, drawbacks, and operations, you’d be hard pressed to find much more that they have in common.

Some of Disney’s most defensive fans have been quick to weaponize Genie+ and its (relatively) low price point. It’s true that you can add a week of Genie+ to a seven-day ticket for less than the price of a single day of Express. But obviously, you’re getting something very different – and by design, much more limited in its usefulness – for that price. Genie’s nice, but wouldn’t it be great if Disney offered a high-cost, VIP service like Express that let once-in-a-lifetime guests enter every Lightning Lane once for a premium price?

Likewise, it’s easy for Universal fans to trumpet Express’s simplicity and straightforwardness – one more component of Universal that reads as a direct rebuttal to Disney’s reliance on technology, pre-planning, scheduling, apps, and the “pay-to-play” rat race to avoid the long, slow-moving lines Genie+ creates. Sure, that’s true. But wouldn’t it be great if Universal offered a low-cost, reservation-based service like Genie+ so frequent visitors could book access to a few Express queues throughout the day? 

Get it? Disney Genie+ and Universal Express really are the apples and oranges of the “priority queue” world. Pitting them against one another is as silly as comparing Disney World and Universal Orlando themselves (which means, people will always do it). Both services serve different purposes and target different clientele. Universal’s is a VIP experience for once-in-a-lifetime guests; Disney’s is a low-cost virtual queue system that doesn’t guarantee you a perfect day, or even a day with less waiting overall. The question is, which do you think is the ideal model? And which would you save up to use?