Universal's sturdy annual passes are just the ticket

I try to remember not to mock people who get sentimental about theme parks. I try to be understanding when there is weeping about the closing of a ride, anger when a menu changes or Twitter hysteria after another rumor surfaces.

Who am I to judge? I'm unnaturally attached to my Universal Orlando annual pass.

In the scheme of things, my "preferred pass" is vintage — a yellowing plastic card, worn from years of use. It has my photo on it, and that alone makes it retro. It's mostly blue with the word "PREFERRED" dominant, in all caps. The Universal Orlando Resort globe logo — apparently obscuring the sun — is on the right-hand side. A bar code runs across the bottom, along with two sets of numbers.

It's not that thin piece of paper Universal now issues to passholders. My friend Jenn lovingly refers to the old ones as "hard cards."

We admire their sturdiness. (Mine has survived at least 10 Florida summers.) And they look special, not like a print-at-home ticket.

I'm not exactly sure how long I've been carrying this particular card. It's not my first Universal pass, which I purchased when Islands of Adventure was in an extended soft-opening stage in 1999. (I went something like nine consecutive weekends. Do not judge.) I remember having lunch with my pal Michael, a Universal employee who has since passed away, and getting my pass renewed afterward. A fresh picture was snapped in Guest Services. I still own the shirt seen on the card, meaning that I'm extremely frugal or a shirt hoarder.

My hard card frequently gets the attention of Universal workers. It sometimes stumps young workers at the front gate or at the parking garage, but it scans properly and I'm allowed in.

On a recent trip to Universal Studios, my friend Greg presented his hard card to obtain an in-park restaurant discount, and the waiter wigged out a little. "Oh, wow!" he exclaimed. The server said he showed the pass to his manager, who then also wigged out a little, reportedly. Hard cards are that rare, apparently.

I asked Jenn if she still had possession of her hard card, and she shared sad news. Her pass was a victim of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.

"I lost mine this last HHN, and feel like I'm not part of the 'club' anymore," she wrote me.

"Insult to injury — I also let a $50 note slip out of my back pocket with the hard card. They really should stop serving alcohol at HHN," she joked.

She was forced to accept a new paper pass but still acknowledges the draw of the old-school pass. It signals that you're an old hand, a longtime parkgoer who might remember the old "Murder, She Wrote" attraction at the Studios or the summer when low-flying fireworks were shot off around the IOA lagoon.

"I think it's a real status thing to show your hard card," Jenn said. "Shows you've been around long enough to probably lead your groups" through Universal.

In my heart, I know that one day they'll try to pry me away from my hard card. I always renew my Universal pass online for fear they might confiscate it in person. What can I say, I have a soft spot for that hard card.

Elsewhere ...

Meanwhile, over at Walt Disney World, the annual-pass trend is swinging back toward plastic cards. After years of paper tickets, Disney started replacing them with plastic cards that have a magnetic strip. Annual passholders and multiday visitors use the sturdy version now, a move that dovetailed with the company's MyMagic+ project and MagicBands.

In fact, the cards act as a substitute for a MagicBand, a handy fact for folks like me who forgot to accessorize with Disney's admission bracelet before heading to the parks.

The passes come with select Disney characters on them, not photos of passholders. I chose Donald Duck, who, in my mind, is less corporate than Mickey Mouse. The expiration date was handwritten on the back by a cast member.

My SeaWorld Orlando annual pass is paper and faded. The humid conditions in my billfold don't agree with it, leaving some of the type on it unreadable and hard to scan at the gate. You can get a fresh copy, but that always feels like a lot of trouble. The future, SeaWorld, is in plastics. or 407-420-5477

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