Walt Disney World v. Universal Orlando


Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando Resort. Mickey Mouse. Harry Potter. The debate has raged since both entered the studios theme park scene in Orlando, and is hotter than ever with both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida having opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter sections that have captured the attention of theme park fans and vacationers alike. In this battle royale between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, TWO THEME PARK RESORT COMPLEXES ENTER, ONLY ONE WILL LEAVE.

Okay, actually, not really. The point of this post is not to engage in the typical fanboy arguing over which is better. That would be a fool’s errand. Chances are that you already have your favorite (and based on the skew of this site, I’m guessing I know which one that is for most of you), and no amount of impassioned text here is going to change anyone’s mind who is already entrenched in their belief. I will say that any supposed rivalry is mostly an artificial creation of theme park fans, and not something that actually exists between the parks themselves. Disney’s public position has been that “that a rising tide lifts all boats” and that a stronger Universal is beneficial to Disney. In other words, if you’ve ever thought that a visit to Universal Orlando would be tantamount to “betraying” Walt Disney World, banish the thought from your mind. Besides, these are for-profit, publicly-traded companies, not family members. You can’t “betray” them.

None of this changes the fact that a bit of a rivalry does exist among theme park fans, and given that this post is on an unofficial Disney fan blog, you might very well be able to guess where our preferences lie. It would be nearly impossible for me to write an unbiased post pitting the two resort complexes in some kind of head to head battle. Instead, this post is written to compare and contrast Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, to give those of you who haven’t recently visited both an idea of how you might want to allocate your vacation time in Orlando. Hopefully it’s reasonably fair in doing that. Ultimately, I think the two resort complexes are better as complementary destinations rather than competitive ones, so I don’t have much interest in that “battle,” anyway.

Since returning from my first visit to Universal Orlando Resort in over a decade, I’ve already received a number of questions about whether Universal is “worth it?” That’s an incredibly loaded and subjective question, but I feel like this type of comparison post (with Walt Disney World as a baseline of sorts) is probably the best way to go about answering it. Given the sources of these questions, this post is going to assume some knowledge of Walt Disney World, so if you’re a first-time visitor planning your Orlando theme park vacation, you might need to supplement this post with our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide.

The fact is, each complex brings a lot to the table, and has its strengths and weaknesses. For many of you, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando might work well in tandem, and it might make a lot of sense for you to spend some time at each resort complex. For others of you, only one may hold any appeal due to your party’s demographics, advantages of staying on-site at one or the other, cost, or for a variety of other reasons.

We will cover all of that in this post, as we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each… (more…)

101 Delicious Disney World Dining Tips

mickey-mouse-shorts-kitchen-sink-ice-cream-walt-disney-world

There are a lot of restaurants at Walt Disney World and dining can be an important and fun part of any Disney trip. In fact, the single largest component of Walt Disney World vacation planning typically is (or at least should be) dining. Beyond just making “good” Advance Dining Reservations and purchasing the Disney Dining Plan, there are a lot of things that can save you time and money, or improve your Walt Disney World experience just based on little decisions–or big ones–that you make with regard to where you eat at Walt Disney World.

Many of you have loved our 101 Great Walt Disney World Tips post, and since dining is such a big thing, we thought we would see if we could follow that up with one specific to dining. This was no easy task. While there are literally 1,000 tips we could share based on our experiences eating at Walt Disney World, many of those would be hyper-specific, probably too specific, and thus not things we really thought would be good for more than a few slots on the list here and there.

Rather than a list with tons of menu recommendations and things like that, we decided to come up with 101 random tips based upon our experiences in years of dining in nearly every restaurant at Walt Disney World that would be helpful to most readers. These tips consist of both fundamental, high level tips (like the necessity of making ADRs) and some more specific tips (like what to order for breakfast at Roaring Fork).

You’re going to find that some of these tips aren’t applicable to you–that’s probably a good thing, as following 100+ tips just relating to dining on a single Walt Disney World trip would probably take a bit of tenacity. You may also disagree with some of these tips, but such is the nature of such a list, which offers subjective tips.

walt-disney-world-food-005

We do want to point out that many of these tips were submitted by fans of the Disney Tourist Blog Facebook page. We mention this not to say “thanks” but as a follow up to that last point about you possibly disagreeing with some tips. If you do disagree with any of the tips here, they are definitely the tips submitted by readers. The tips with which you agree are the ones I thought up. ;)

Just kidding on that–and a huge thanks to the readers who offered their two cents. Although this list is 95% things we thought of, there were several comments that corroborated our tips, and other pretty clever ideas we had never considered. Plus, it’s always helpful to get multiple perspectives when it comes to anything Walt Disney World-related. On that note, if you have some tips of your own that we didn’t cover, please help others out and share them in the comments!

We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started with our list of 101 Delicious Walt Disney World Dining Tips… (more…)

Top 10 Best Themed Disneyland Paris Restaurants

Disneyland Paris was built with stunning attention to detail, and this is carried through to the themes of its restaurants. During our time in Disneyland Paris, we spent a lot of time exploring the restaurants–even if we didn’t eat at them–to appreciate fully their depth and character. We thought it would be fun to put together a list of 10 that we think have some of the best themes. However, since we were not able to visit every restaurant (some were either closed or table service restaurants that didn’t allow stray guests inside), this is not a top 10 list in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s the top 10 of the ones we saw, which were most, but not all of them.

Ranking the restaurants for theme was not particularly easy. I almost called this the “Top 10 Cool Disneyland Paris Restaurants” because I think some of the restaurants on this list aren’t so much themed as they are beautifully decorated, but I ultimately decided against it because I think “cool” is a hokey buzzword. Some restaurants are arguably not themed, as they convey their backstory or motifs through conspicuous design choices, props, art, and photos on the wall. Other restaurants are truly themed in the sense that they are meant to transport you to another time and place, making the guest a part of the “story” or whatever you want to call it. Regardless, I think you probably understand what is meant by “themed” and hope no one is too nitpicky with the term given that Disney often uses it very broadly, too.

An important note is that this list focuses solely on theme. Food-quality does not enter the equation at all with our rankings of the restaurants. While Disneyland Paris is a beautiful, highly immersive theme park that excels at many things, food preparation is not one of those things. This is both shocking and disappointing given its proximity to one of the culinary hotspots of the world, but c’est la vie.

With that said, so much of the Disney experience is about theme and sense of place. As a result, if you’re visiting Disneyland Paris, we recommend trying a few of these restaurants despite our comments about food quality, as you’d be missing a big part of the overall experience if you skipped them and ate every meal at Earl of Sandwich. Weeks after you visit a Disneyland Paris restaurant, you or your kids probably won’t be raving about one burger versus another, demanding that you phone Zagat immediately. However, you will probably fondly recall dining in a room based on concept art for Discoveryland/Tomorrowland for a long time. Such is the nature of a meal at Disneyland Paris–the food at a restaurant should be important, but it’s really not. 

Let’s dig into the top 10 Disneyland Paris restaurants for theme… (more…)

1-Day Disney California Adventure “Daily Trip Blueprint”

If you’re visiting Disneyland Resort, chances are that you will have one day to spend at Disney California Adventure, the park across the Esplanade from Walt Disney’s Original Magic Kingdom. If we had one day to enjoy at Disney California Adventure these are the attractions we would do, the restaurants where we’d dine, and the metaphorical roses we would stop to smell. This post continues our series of single-day itineraries designed to answer the frequently asked question, “what would you do if you only had one day in ____ Disney park?” We call this series our “Daily Trip Blueprints,” or DTBs for short. 

These Daily Trip Blueprints aren’t touring plans or strategy guides for doing as much in a single day in Disney California Adventure as possible. In fact, if you follow this guide, you won’t come close to doing every single attraction in the park (just the ones we like best). However, as we view Disney California Adventure as the “atmosphere park” at Disneyland Resort, we think this is a good thing. Plus, a lot of attractions at DCA are off-the-shelf filler that are best skipped. Most park strategy guides focus solely on number of attractions, and totally ignore the great things that make Disney Disney. If you’re only after our ride ratings and reviews of each attractions, read our comprehensive Best Disney California Adventure Attractions & Ride Guide post. If you need comprehensive help for planning every aspect of your visit to Disneyland Resort, from where to purchase discount tickets to transportation from the airport and more, read our Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Guide.

Instead, this is a rough blueprint of our favorite things to do in an “ideal day” at Disney California Adventure with low to moderate crowds (adjust expectations downward on busier days), and when you should do them for the ‘best experience,’ but not necessarily the most efficient experience. In other words, this strives to be subjective rather than objective. If you’re looking to develop a plan of attack for visiting attractions in the most efficient order, you should consult TouringPlans.com for Disneyland, which has years of experience and the statistical expertise in terms of “attraction order.”

If budget is no issue, we recommend staying at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel for your visit. Note that we recommended Disneyland Hotel in our 1-Day Disneyland Plan, and that’s because we think that hotel is a better “fit” for Disneyland. If you’re visiting both parks, we don’t recommend changing hotels…that would be excessive and unnecessarily time consuming. Staying at one of these hotels puts you in a good position to utilize Morning Extra Magic Hours to see more (make sure to consult the official Disneyland Calendar to see when these are offered). Plus, these hotels have great location and are just flat out fun. If these hotels are outside of your budget, our pick is the Anaheim Desert Inn, an off-site hotel that is about a 10 minute walk from the parks.

Once you wake up from wherever it is that you are sleeping, here’s what to do… (more…)

Cinderella’s Royal Table Review

cinderella-sarah-tom-bricker

Cinderella’s Royal Table is a table service princess character restaurant inside Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. This review features food photos and our thoughts from dinner at the restaurant. Disney considers Cinderella’s Royal Table a “Fairytale Dining Experience,” which I think just refers to the fact that you can meet Cinderella and other visiting princesses here. The meal also includes a print of your party and Cinderella taken by PhotoPass photographers. The menu consists of American cuisine that is almost fine-dining caliber. This is actually quite a surprise given that it’s a character meal. It’s arguably the flagship restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, and the most uniquely “Disney” restaurant in all of Walt Disney World.

Due to some ADR-hoarding a number of years ago by a group called “Howie’s Angels,” (nothing surprises me in Disney fandom anymore) Cinderella’s Royal Table requires prepayment in full for secure an Advance Dining Reservation. Despite this, it accepts Tables in Wonderland for a 20% discount  (you receive a refund when you present your card in the restaurant for the amount of the discount), and participates in the Disney Dining Plan as a 2-credit Signature meal. Due to its status as a Signature Restaurant, it is not a good use of a Disney Dining Plan table service credit if you’re trying to maximize your value on the Disney Dining Plan.

With Be Our Guest Restaurant now being the top draw in the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s Royal Table ADRs are now easier to score. For years we had no chance at dining here as the restaurant booked up a full 180 days in advance, and we never make ADRs that early. I found this reservation a month before our trip, so we figured ‘what the heck,’ it would be awesome to dine in Cinderella Castle. We had previously been inside the Castle, but that was for a tour of the Cinderella Castle Suite, so…not quite the same.

We cringed at the cost and the idea of paying for a photo package we didn’t really want, and for meeting characters we didn’t really have an interest in meeting. Still, we booked it because it was something new to try, and I really wanted to photograph and see the inside of the restaurant, which I’ve always thought was really cool. I can still remember looking in the Walt Disney World book I had as a kid and seeing the star-filter enhanced photo of King Stefan’s Banquet Hall, and thinking how awesome it would be to eat inside Cinderella Castle. We further justified eating at here despite the price in the name of research, as many people have asked us about this restaurant. 

So, although we figured it wouldn’t be worth the money to us, we convinced ourselves to give it a try anyway. We were downright shocked by the restaurant… (more…)

Disney Magic Cruise Ship Planning Guide

This guide to the Disney Magic provides tips for the newly re-imagined Disney Cruise Line ship, which is especially popular because it’s frequently used on Caribbean itineraries. This Disney Magic Cruise Ship Planning Guide covers the basics of things to know before you go, plus our recommendations for activities, dining, and other things you should try to do once you’re on board the ship.

Originally debuting in 1998, it was the original ship in the Disney Cruise Line, and likely built at a time when there was some uncertainty as to how Disney would do against established cruise lines. Disney Cruise Line was a smash success from the beginning, as evidenced by the 3 additional ships that have joined the fleet in the last decade, with each one also being larger in size. Oldest and smallest is problematic when it comes to cruise ships, so the Disney Magic received a fairly comprehensive overhaul in 2013 to, in a way, keep up with its sister ships.

We had the chance to sail on the Disney Magic a few months after its re-imagining, and we can safely say that it feels like a brand new cruise ship. By way of overview, the ship is 964 feet long and holds 2,700 passengers (plus ~950 Cast Members).  This is a fair amount smaller than the newest ship, the Disney Fantasy, which is 1,115 feet and holds 4,000 passengers (plus ~1,500 Cast Members). Because of its smaller size, the Disney Magic mainly sticks to itineraries in the Caribbean. While the re-imagining couldn’t make the ship longer, it could improve the overall look and freshness of the Disney Magic.

This overall look is evident the moment you step aboard the Disney Magic, when you walk into the Art Deco lobby. The lobby is a signature area of each Disney Cruise Line ship, with each having a one-of-a-kind chandelier, beautiful design and detail work, and great use of color and lines. Now, this isn’t new to the re-imagined Disney Magic–the original design was stunning, too–but it just goes to show how well-designed the Disney Cruise Line ships are.

We will cover other elements of the Disney Magic’s gorgeous design in the sections that follow. Let’s get started with planning your voyage aboard this great Disney cruise ship! (more…)

Miguel’s El Dorado Cantina Review

miguels-el-dorado-cantina-tokyo-disneysea-063

Miguel’s El Dorado Cantina is a Mexican restaurant in the Lost River Delta port-of-call at Tokyo DisneySea. This is the only restaurant with a Mexican menu at Tokyo Disney Resort, so if that’s what you’re after, this is your only choice. Styled like a weathered cantina in the remote jungle, Miguel’s El Dorado Cantina is aged to look as if it has seen better days. Like most of the Lost River Delta, it seems like nature is slowly reclaiming the land occupied by the restaurant. We’ve heard that a mariachi band performs at Miguel’s El Dorado Cantina, but we have not witnessed this the two times we’ve visited.

The backstory here is that the owner Miguel went to El Dorado (the “City of Gold”) with dreams of finding a mountain of gold, but was unsuccessful in his quest for riches. I guess the logical alternative was to open this Mexican restaurant for other explorers?

One thing that boggles my mind about Tokyo DisneySea is that it has so many large restaurants with insane capacity. I understand that the park draws a lot of guests, but there are at least 6-8 counter service restaurants here with more capacity than most restaurants at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. Miguel’s is one such restaurant like this, with two levels of seating, plus outdoor seating. This is really something given that it’s located deep in the Lost River Delta, the port-of-call farthest away from the park’s entrance.

Add to that the fact that it’s one of two counter service restaurants in Lost River Delta with Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe-level capacity (the stated capacity of Cosmic Ray’s is significantly higher than these, but there restaurants appear larger to me), and you’ve really got to wonder why there’s so much capacity. We dined here on a weekend when Tokyo DisneySea was near hitting capacity, and even then the majority of tables here were empty. (The same cannot be said for Cape Cod Cook-Off a/k/a “The Duffy Restaurant,” which has a huge seating area, but had an hour-plus wait.) (more…)

Hong Kong Disneyland Trip Report – Part 2

big-grizzly-mountain-night

Whenever we get off a new-to-us attraction, I always ask Sarah what she thought of it, first thing. I want to get her take before sharing mine, as I am very opinionated (to put it mildly), and I don’t want whatever I have to say to color her opinion. After she shared why she was blown away by Mystic Manor, she asked me what I thought. I was completely inarticulate, stringing together words like “music,” “monkey,” and “magic” along with a series of wows. In my defense, I was still on a bit of a high from the crazy sunrise that morning (if you missed that, make sure to go back and start from the beginning of our Hong Kong Disneyland Trip Report), and actually experiencing Mystic Manor just pushed me over the top. Like I’ve said, it’s really an amazing attraction–one of Disney’s bests ever.

That really set the tone for the rest of our visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. After experiencing Mystic Manor, there was no chance that Hong Kong Disneyland would be a letdown, or that we would regret visiting. It’s crazy to think that a single attraction could justify a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland–and we’re not saying that it does. For us, though, that attraction alone legitimized the park and gave it credibility. Unless the rest of the park were laid out like the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (since I had already seen it that morning and knew it was not), it would not be a disappointment for us.

Mystic Manor exits through a gift shop, and what a gift shop it is. I don’t often go crazy for Disney merchandise (I’m not sure I purchased any merchandise last year in the US parks), but I love some good attraction-specific merch. Mystic Manor has this in spades. That shop had more Mystic Manor merchandise than I’ve ever seen for any attraction, anywhere. Rivaled only by Splash Mountain, Expedition Everest, and Tower of Terror, to my knowledge. I was about to start going nuts in there before Sarah reminded me that we should do Mystic Manor a few times before the crowds got worse.

We did Mystic Manor a couple more times, seeing new details each time. One of the great advantages of the trackless ride system is that there’s the potential for it to be a slightly different ride experience depending upon which ride vehicle you’re in. The vehicles enter and exit the show scenes at different times, and in one case, take different paths. This adds re-rideability, and is really a smart move. It seems like there’s a bit of a trend towards ‘varied’ experiences like this, with Star Tours: the Adventures Continue probably being the best example.

At this point, we didn’t really take the time to explore the rest of Mystic Point, so I’ll come back to it later for my impressions of the mini-land as a whole. After a couple more times on Mystic Manor, we decided to see some of the rest of the park. Crazy idea, I know. We headed to Grizzly Gulch, where the wait for Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars was only 5 minutes. After seeing the trains fly around the track, Sarah decided to sit this one out. Although she’s fine on all of the Magic Kingdom coasters, Expedition Everest makes her nauseous. (more…)