This will sound like a bit of a cop-out, but whether an Express Pass is worth it is a highly individual decision based on your personal preferences. When travelling everyone has to balance saving money versus saving time. Let’s look a bit more closely at money versus time.
One side of the balance scale is money. Travelling can be very expensive and most people work very hard to go on their dream holidays. Almost everyone will be looking to save money whenever they’re able to.
If you are looking for a cheaper holiday you might be willing to sacrifice time in one of two ways. Firstly, you might be willing to take a longer amount of time to do things than someone who spends more money could do faster. Secondly, you might be OK with letting go of certain experiences in order to save money.
Most of us only have a limited amount of days we can go on holiday. It depends on your approach to travel, but lots of people want to fit as many experiences as possible into a small amount of time. Also, people have to think about whether they will ever visit this place again. If time is vital to you but you are willing to spend more money, you can comfortably compress more experiences into a shorter amount of time.
Express Passes – Money vs Time
Now, let’s apply this balance of time versus money to the decision of whether to buy a USJ Express Pass. Firstly, I will look at two situations when I think buying an Express Pass is almost mandatory. I will then look at whether an Express Pass is worth it in other situations.
Unless an Express Pass is beyond your budget, there are two situations where an express pass should almost be a mandatory purchase:
(a) Extremely busy days
Universal Studios Japan is one of the busiest theme parks in the world. In 2018, it was the 5th most visited theme park in the world with 14.3 million visitors. On days that are very busy, you can easily spend 3-4 hours in a queue for each of the most popular rides. Our first trip to Universal Studios Japan was on 28 September 2015 and we didn’t have Express Passes as they had already sold out when we went to buy them. Using this past congestion calendar, on 28 September 2015, the park had a congestion rating of 80 which is considered to be pretty crowded. This fits in pretty well with our memories of the experience.
We arrived early at the park (before 8:30 am) and went straight to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without the need for a timed entry pass. We waited for about 30 minutes to board our first ride – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We then went straight to Flight of the Hippogriff which is a less popular ride and the wait time for this attraction was over 60 minutes. By the time we finished Flight of the Hippogriff, we checked the wait times for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and queueing time had soared close to four hours. Because I have an extreme love for all things Harry Potter, we ended up leaving the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at about 1:30 pm.
By 1:30 pm, the crowds at USJ were becoming pretty intense particularly for my wife who is becoming much more crowd averse as she gets older. Over the next six hours, we managed to experience two more attractions – Jurassic Park – The Ride and Terminator 2: 3D. We also managed to watch a parade in that time. We left the park at around 8 pm.
In summary, we spent over 11 hours at Universal Studios on a pretty busy day and experienced four attractions plus a parade. The day was still magical because of the time we spent in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but otherwise, we would have left USJ feeling very disappointed.
On a busy day at Universal Studios Japan, unless your travel budget doesn’t stretch to the cost of an Express Pass, an Express Pass is close to a mandatory buy. You will not regret buying an Express Pass. You will be able to experience so much more with much less stress. On days like this, an Express Pass will turn a potentially very frustrating day into a great day.
There are two main ways to help you work out which days are going to be busy and which days are quieter:
- Use a crowd forecasting calendar such as this one or this one. Such crowd prediction calendars are most accurate for the current month and become less accurate as you look multiple months ahead. Also, be aware that they are not precise. They are forecasts which means they are the best possible approximations based on available data (like weather forecasts).
- If you don’t want to spend your time looking at a forecasting calendar or find them difficult to interpret, simply try to avoid peak times such as school holidays, public holidays (such as Golden Week) and weekends. Monday is the worst weekday to visit and Tuesdays to Fridays are generally the best weekdays. When we were planning our trip to USJ this year, we noticed that either side of Golden Week was relatively quiet. Here is a link with details for public and school holidays.
Another factor when planning a visit to USJ is the weather. For example, summer can be hot and humid. There can also be quite a lot of rain during this period. Typhoon season normally runs from May to October.
(b) If you can only spend one day at USJ and you want to fit in as much as possible
Our second visit to Universal Studios Japan was on 24 April 2019. Using the past congestion calendar, the park had a rating of 19 which is a very quiet day.
If we had more time available to us we probably could have managed without an express pass. However, in our case, we wanted to fit in as many rides as possible into a very short amount of time (5 hours 30 min). The reason for our time crunch was that we had to get to Imabari (which is close to 4 hours by train from USJ) at a certain time so we could check into our accommodation.
Thanks to our Express Pass, we experienced 10 attractions in a very short amount of time including almost all the most popular rides at the park. We never felt stressed or pressured, we still managed a pretty leisurely amount of time in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we had time to buy some snacks and have lunch as well as spend some time souvenir shopping before leaving Universal Studios Japan.
We went on easily more than double the amount of rides and attractions than we could have possibly managed without the Express Pass.
Is an Express Pass still worth it in other situations
Regardless of whether you visit Universal Studios Japan in a low, shoulder or peak time, a USJ Express Pass will be a time-saver. Before making the decision to buy you just have to decide how much value you place on the time you could save and how else you could use that time. I think an Express Pass is worth it in most situations. A different person could reasonably argue that at less busy times (e.g. off-season, midweek on a rainy day) you could manage without an Express Pass.
I’m a bit of a numbers nerd, so I did some number crunching using past congestion calendars for August and September 2019 combined with graphs that showed average wait times for USJ rides over the last three weeks (25 August 2019 to 14 September 2019).
I combined the average wait times for seven of the more popular rides at USJ (Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Flying Dinosaur, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Hollywood Dream – The Ride – Backdrop, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Hollywood Dream – The Ride, and Jurassic Park) for a pretty busy day, an average crowd day, and a quiet day and this is what I came up with:
- Pretty busy day (26 August 2019, 66 points) – Combined average wait time for the seven rides was 679 minutes or 11.3 hours.
- Average day (31 August 2019, 53 points) – Combined average wait time for the seven rides was 440 minutes or 7.3 hours.
- Quiet day (4 September 2019, 28 points) – Combined average wait time for the seven rides was 381 minutes or 6.35 hours.
The message that this number-crunching gives to me is that even on a quiet day you could easily spend 6 or more hours in queues for just seven of the more popular rides. If you had an express pass on such a quiet day you could easily halve the amount of time spent in a queue, giving you time to experience more rides or just chill out and enjoy everything else that Universal Studios Japan has to offer.
My summary is that Express Passes are totally worthwhile in most cases if you can afford it. However, it’s up to you to make the judgement between the time you will save versus the cost of the tickets.
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