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 idea 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…

Attraction Demographics

As just a bit of preliminary info, Walt Disney World Resort includes four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, plus 2 water parks, 25 on-site resort hotels, and the Downtown Disney (soon to be Disney Springs) shopping area. Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, plus 4 on-site resort hotels, and the CityWalk shopping area (Wet ‘n Wild Orlando is also technically part of the resort complex). Although it’s often mis-portrayed as a theme park, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not one of the parks at Universal Orlando–it’s two lands within the above-mentioned parks.

Depending upon who you ask, Walt Disney World is for families with kids and Universal Orlando Resort is for families with teens, or this is a terrible myth that has been perpetuated. I think the truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

The big problem with the first statement is that it’s not fully inclusive and assumes too much about the two groups. What about those who fall into neither category? What about those with kids or teens with different preferences than the norm?

Still, it’s a statement that you can take at face value and more or less know what is meant by it, even if it’s an incomplete statement. I think Universal Orlando Resort does skew more towards teens and adults. A total of 21 attractions at Universal Orlando have height requirements, for an average of 10.5 per park. At Walt Disney World, there are 19 attractions with height requirements, for an average of 4.75 per park.

This is compounded by the fact that several of Universal Orlando’s best attractions, including Transformers: The Ride 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, The Simpsons Ride, Men in Black Alien Attack, E.T. Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, Dragon Challenge, and the Incredible Hulk Coaster, have height requirements. Oh, and don’t forget the two flagship Harry Potter attractions, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

A lot of attractions are eliminated for families with by virtue of this height requirement alone. Then, you have attractions like Disaster, Terminator 2: 3D, and Universal’s Horror Makeup Show that may be inappropriate for some kids, even if there is no height requirement. While there are still plenty of attractions that kids can do in the Universal Orlando parks, these attractions are not Universal’s strong suit, whereas many of Walt Disney World’s classic attractions are perfectly suitable for kids. If you have small children and are contemplating a trip to Universal Orlando, you will definitely want to consult the height requirement charts to make sure that they are tall enough for at least a chunk of them.

On the other hand, Walt Disney World does not excel in thrilling attractions. Sure, there are some options but most of Disney’s rollercoasters are tame by thrill-seeking standards. Exciting, well-themed attractions are squarely in Universal Orlando’s wheelhouse. With the exception of coasters like Hulk and Dragon Challenge, almost all of these attractions are brilliantly executed, and are not just cheap, amusement park thrills. Transformers, Spiderman, Revenge of the Mummy, and the two flagship Harry Potter attractions, among others, are some of the best attractions in Orlando.

I wouldn’t say any of these attractions are particularly intense (take that for what it’s worth), but they do wonderfully fuse thrills with thematic delivery. If you can handle Expedition Everest or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, you can probably handle anything at Universal Orlando. These action-packed attractions are Universal Orlando’s definite strong suit, and if this is your style, you will be particularly impressed with what they have to offer. Many of these fast-paced, action-packed attractions are unlike anything that exists at Walt Disney World.

One myth that I do think exists about Universal Orlando is that it leans too heavily on screen-based attractions. There are definitely several instances of screens being used (moreso than at Walt Disney World), but I found that in every such case, screens were used in lieu of animated figures (Audio-Animatronics in Disney parlance) because the situation simply dictated as much. Universal has a lot of fast-paced, action-heavy attractions where animated figures simply wouldn’t be pragmatic.

Transformers wouldn’t be possible with huge Autobots scaling buildings and bouncing all around a city leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Same goes for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, among others. Also to Universal’s credit, but the attractions that do utilize screens don’t utilize only screens. They are all mixed-media, and there’s enough variety that I don’t think you ever really feel that you’re just “watching a video.” Pound for pound, Universal Orlando has more flashy, high-tech attractions with a high “wow” factor than Walt Disney World.

With that said, Walt Disney World does have more variety and classics than Universal Orlando. The attraction lineup has been refined over the last 4 decades, and many of the world’s most iconic and classic theme park attractions exist at Walt Disney World. Depending upon your perspective, this could be a good or bad thing. These classics will appeal to your sense of nostalgia along with the youngest and oldest members of your traveling party, and many have absolutely stood the test of time, but the teens and young adults in your group may find them lame or dated.

Covering the attraction roster at Walt Disney World is beyond the scope of this post (and you probably know it, anyway), but if you’re unfamiliar with Walt Disney World’s ride lineup, we cover it park-by-park in our Walt Disney World Ride Guides. Suffice to say, Walt Disney World has a lot of ‘Fantasyland’ style attractions that will appeal to kids, and a lot of slow-paced attractions that will appeal to an older crowd looking for leisurely things to do.

Theming

Another department in which I think Walt Disney World has a clear advantage is theming. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands (Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade) are brilliant examples of themed design that you do not have to be a Harry Potter fan to appreciate. I was blown away by both of these lands, and I know many of the Harry Potter references were lost on me. These lands aren’t just on par with the best of Orlando, they are Tokyo DisneySea caliber. Likewise, Port of Entry is a very well done land.

Unfortunately, once you get past these three lands, the wheels sort of fall off. Universal Studios Florida gets a bit of a pass on this, as it’s a studios park, and even Disney sort of punts on theming on its studios parks, letting them function largely as collections of attractions that don’t fit elsewhere. But in terms of theme, I think both Universal Orlando parks fall short of at least 3 of the 4 Walt Disney World parks. This is not to say every land at Walt Disney World is a thematic masterpiece (I’m looking at you, Dino-Rama), but overall, I think its lands are superior.

As someone who loves being in immersive theme park environments, Universal’s thematic missteps are a letdown for me, although I have to say that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter does a lot to excuse this. Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are really that well done, with Diagon Alley being the best themed land in all of Orlando, in my opinion. I spent hours just wandering Diagon Alley, going down the little side streets, watching the displays activated by interactive wands, and getting lost in the details. Hogsmeade is a great land, but Diagon Alley is next-level.

The general takeaway from these first two sections is that I do think it’s fair to say that Walt Disney World skews more towards young children and Universal Orlando skews more towards teens. What the other age demographics in your party prefer will largely be dictated by personal preference, but both resorts have a ton to offer a wide range of guest demographics. With the exception of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Walt Disney World parks are generally more enjoyable places to ‘be’ in and soak up the atmosphere, whereas the Universal parks do action-packed attractions better. My personal opinion is that both resort complexes fill attraction line-up gaps not fully served by the other, and if all of the attractions mentioned above appeal to you, a great vacation strategy would be to spend time at each.

Vacation Type

Right from its opening in 1971, Walt Disney World positioned itself as a vacation destination rather than a day-trip theme park. Disney has strengthened its position in this regard, not just with the opening of 3 additional theme parks and all of that other stuff, but with perks and packages that make it an all-inclusive vacation. Thanks to Disney’s Magical Express shuttle from the airport and complimentary bus, boat, and monorail transportation from the Disney resort hotels to the parks, you can visit Walt Disney World without renting a car or using public transportation.

For many people, us included, this has been the ultimate hurdle in visiting Universal Orlando in the past. We’ve had interest in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since its opening several years ago (as well as a slew of other new attractions at Universal Orlando), but the convenience of having Disney provide transportation from the airport to our hotel, and then never worrying about driving on vacation has been very difficult to overcome. Yep, we are lazy. I suspect this is true for many people. 

Add to this other things like the Disney Dining Plan, Disney Vacation Club, Extra Magic Hours, and ticket prices that dramatically decrease (per day) with each day added above day 5, plus tons of other things to do on-site at Walt Disney World, from fishing to fine dining, and it truly feels like a place where you can take an all inclusive vacation, making it all many tourists feel they “need” to do in Orlando. Visitors can easily spend a full week doing other things at Walt Disney World beyond the theme parks if they are so inclined. Due to the spread out nature of Walt Disney World, I actually think it’s difficult to make it a 1-2 day diversion on a trip that includes multiple stops in Florida. Even if you drive yourself, a lot of time at Walt Disney World is sunk in commuting, whereas Universal Orlando is much easier to navigate.

To its credit, Universal Orlando is no slouch when it comes to a variety of things to see and do. I would actually liken Universal Orlando to Disneyland Resort in California. Much like Disneyland, the Universal Orlando parks are situated adjacent to one another and CityWalk is also close by. As is the case with the Disneyland Resort hotels, the 4 on-site hotels at Universal Orlando are all within walking distance of the two theme parks and CityWalk.

Each of these hotels and CityWalk offer various forms of entertainment, shopping, and dining, and Universal Orlando has been aggressively expanding these non-theme park offerings within the last few years, with an eye towards making Universal Orlando similarly viewed as a vacation destination. This has been aided by entertainment options such as a lazy river and bowling alley in Cabana Bay Resort, plus perks aimed at convincing guests to stay on-site, such as early theme park entry and included Universal Express Pass (at 3 of the hotels) for no extra charge.

While Walt Disney World still has more to offer (if you’re so inclined to take advantage of it), Universal Orlando Resort is gaining ground, and is showing no signs of slowing down. While additions at Walt Disney World have been coming at a snail’s pace (with the exception of Disney Vacation Club), Universal Orlando is building at a break-neck pace, with additional, significant yearly additions anticipated through 2020. In terms of vacation type, they really both could be viewed as catering to very similar demographics. Still, if you are looking for a single-site vacation destination, I think Walt Disney World has the advantage. Universal Orlando has the edge if you want to do a variety of things, and only want to spend a couple of days at theme parks since it can be quicker to see and do more of what Universal has to offer. If you are considering a theme park-centric trip to Florida with multiple destinations, I think the best idea is allocating some time at each–assuming both appeal to your party’s demographics.

Allocating Time

From the above, it’s pretty clear that there are advantages to staying on-site at both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. So, if you would like to visit both, where should you stay and how should you allocated your time?

These are not easy questions to answer, especially since my ‘expertise’ in this only covers one recent visit to Universal Orlando. However, I think my experience can be instructive. When visiting Universal Orlando, I stayed on-site at Walt Disney World, renting a car from the airport for the duration of my trip. While I normally don’t mind renting a car when traveling, there is just something about renting a car in Orlando that I don’t like. It always seems like more of a hassle.

I’ll probably do things differently next time. If I want to stay on Walt Disney World property for the duration of my trip, I would use Disney’s Magical Express, and take a Mears Shuttle to Universal Orlando, take a taxi, or rent a car from the Swan & Dolphin. As someone with a rental car aversion when in Orlando, I simply don’t need or want a rental car the days I don’t visit Universal Orlando, so overall, any of these options would have been more cost-effective. If you normally rent a car, obviously you do not have this consideration. I know many people think I’m crazy for not wanting to deal with a rental car in Orlando, so this is definitely a ‘your mileage may vary’ thing.

More likely, what I would do is do a split-stay between an official Universal Orlando hotel and an on-site Walt Disney World hotel. If you’ve read our Off-Site v. On-Site at Walt Disney World article, you know I have a strong preference to staying on-site. Well, that doesn’t apply to just Walt Disney World, but to many places we visit. Universal Orlando is one such place.

Due to the popularity of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, when the Universal parks opened at 9 am, I found myself leaving my Walt Disney World hotel by 7:30 am. Now, this was slight overkill, but given the drive, plus parking, walking from the parking garage to the parks, getting a locker, and lining up to get into Diagon Alley, much of that is necessary.

Had I stayed on-site at Universal Orlando, I could have walked to the parks, entered an hour earlier, and had unlimited Express Pass access (unless I stayed at Cabana Bay). Universal Orlando resorts are competitively priced (read: cheaper), and I like the idea of rolling out of bed and walking from a hotel to the parks.

As for how much time to spend to spend at each resort complex, that really depends upon how much time you have. In an ideal world, I would spend spend 5-8 days at Walt Disney World and 3 days at Universal Orlando Resort. Distilling this into a simple proportionate “rule” isn’t that easy. If I had 10 or 11 days, I’d probably still allocate 3 to Universal Orlando. This is simply because the ‘outside the parks’ stuff at Walt Disney World has more of a draw for me than the things at Universal Orlando. At some point, I would bump that number up to 4 days at Universal Orlando, but outside of Europeans on holiday, I don’t know of many people spending 2+ weeks in Orlando, so that’s probably a moot point. On the lower end of the spectrum, I would be reluctant to drop my number of days spent at Universal Orlando Resort below 3 unless I was spending only 4 days at Walt Disney World, or unless you’ve been to Walt Disney World a lot, and are looking for a change of pace.

My breakdown of the 3 days in Universal Orlando would consist of spending 1 day on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands, 1 day on the rest of Universal Studios Florida, and 1 day on the rest of Islands of Adventure. I think it would be awesome to head into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and immerse myself in those lands for the better part of a day to really get lost in the experience. Given the wait times for the flagship attractions plus the entertainment and dining, that’s not as overkill as you might think! As for Walt Disney World, I think Magic Kingdom and Epcot combined can take 3 days to complete, with Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom taking a day each. The rest of the time, if any, could be spent on the ‘other stuff’ or revisiting favorite parks.

Cost

The biggest downside of doing the split stay is the added cost. At both resort complexes, the per day cost of tickets drops dramatically with the more days you add. An 8-day Walt Disney World ticket is about $30 more than a 5-day Walt Disney World ticket, whereas a 3-day Universal Orlando Park-to-Park ticket (which you want in order to enjoy Hogwarts Express) is around $195. Multi-day Universal Orlando tickets are cheaper than comparable Walt Disney World tickets, but if you’re considering the trip from the perspective of re-allocating some days away from Walt Disney World to Universal Orlando, it’s good to know that this cost differential is significant.

An attractive alternative if you’re also thinking of staying at a Universal Orlando hotel is an Annual Pass. These start at $215 (with some blockout dates) and offer a variety of discounts, including on the hotel. Heck, depending upon the hotel rate that you get and the number of people in your party, the bump in cost via the tickets may be negligible after discounts. You can also save money on dining at Universal (or by eating at off-site restaurants that are close to Universal Orlando).

If you really want to make it work, there are a number of things to change about the trip if you’re really interested in saving money, from staying at a budget off-site hotel to eating entirely off-property when visiting both resorts. In the end, the only things that you have (more or less) a fixed cost are the theme park tickets…the rest of your expenses can fluctuate fairly substantially and you can find ways to travel frugally should you so desire. You can do Universal Orlando in addition to Walt Disney World if you’re on a tight budget, so it’s really a matter of if you want to make it work, not whether it can be done.

Ultimately, Universal Orlando is not going to be for everyone, just as Walt Disney World is not for everyone. If you have a trio of 4 year olds and are also bringing grandma and grandpa (to watch the kids, of course!) on the vacation, your party is probably going to prefer Walt Disney World. If you’re taking your 13 and 16 year olds and planned on staying off-site and renting a car anyway, Universal Orlando should definitely be on your radar.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m far from an expert on Universal Orlando. I’ve tried to cover the high-level things based on what I did right (and wrong!) on the recent trip in response to reader questions, but this really just scratches the surface of the similarities and differences of the parks, and what you might want to know if you’re considering venturing to Universal Orlando Resort.

Before you scream at your monitor that I forgot to provide a detailed account of Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone, this article would have to be 20 times the length if I tried to cover it all, and I’m not sure how useful such minutiae would be to the average reader. However, if you do have some specific differences that you think are important, I encourage you to share them in the comments.

That’s what the comments are there for, and anyone contemplating a visit to Universal Orlando would be advised to seek a different perspective than mine, anyway. There are definitely passionate Universal fans out there who are far more knowledgeable than I am! I just ask that you be respectful and reasoned in any comments that you leave. This isn’t a place for turf wars or proclaiming someone isn’t a “true” Disney fan if they visit Universal Orlando.

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Your Thoughts?

If you have visited Universal Orlando Resort recently, what did you think? Is there anything we missed or you think is inaccurate? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!


107 Responses to “Walt Disney World v. Universal Orlando”
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