Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando. Mickey Mouse. Harry Potter. The debate has raged since both entered the theme park scene in Florida, and is hotter than ever with Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida adding thrilling rides that capture the attention of theme park fans and vacationers. In this battle royale, TWO THEME PARK COMPLEXES ENTER, ONLY ONE WILL LEAVE. (Updated March 24, 2021.)
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 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.
Anyway, this 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 Central Florida. 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.
We receive 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 is the best way to answer it. The fact is, each 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, 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.
As preliminary info, Walt Disney World Resort includes four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, plus Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, 25 on-site resort hotels, and the Disney Springs shopping area.
Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay water park, 8 on-site resort hotels, and the CityWalk shopping area. 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. (Neither Universal nor Disney has reopened all of their hotels, but that’s immaterial to the comparison.)
Note that we update this regularly as things change at both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. Post-reopening, the comparison is dramatically different. While both theme park complexes have modified their operations to varying degrees while navigating the ‘temporary abnormal’ and health safety rules, Universal has been far more aggressive and guest-friendly in restoring aspects of the experience. Meanwhile, Walt Disney World has announced a variety of cuts, many of which are not temporary in nature. All of this has changed the equation when weighing the pros and cons of each.
We will cover all of that in this post, as we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts…
According to some, Walt Disney World is for families with kids and Universal Orlando Resort is for teens and young adults. At least, this is what has been perpetuated. The reality is a bit more nuanced. 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 incomplete. Universal Orlando does skew more towards teens and adults. A total of 24 attractions at Universal Orlando have height requirements, for an average of 12 per park. At Walt Disney World, there are 22 attractions with height requirements, for an average of 5.5 per park.
This is compounded by the fact that most of Universal Orlando’s best attractions–Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black Alien Attack, Transformers, Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, and Incredible Hulk Coaster–have height requirements. Oh, and don’t forget the three flagship Harry Potter attractions: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
A lot of rides are eliminated for families with by virtue of this height requirement alone. While there are still plenty of attractions that kids can do in the Universal parks, these attractions are not Universal’s strong suit, whereas many of Walt Disney World’s classic attractions are aimed squarely at kids. If you have small children and are contemplating a trip to Universal Orlando, you will definitely want to consult height requirement charts to make sure that they are tall enough for at least a chunk of them.
Even if you don’t have small children, you might find many of Universal’s headliners simply too intense. Motion sickness is only an issue with a handful of attractions at Walt Disney World–things like Expedition Everest and Star Tours. Pretty much every thrill ride and/or simulator at Universal can present problems for guests with motion sickness.
The flip side of this is that Walt Disney World is weak when it comes to thrill rides. Sure, there are some options but most of Disney’s rollercoasters are tame by normal standards, and there are fewer of them (hence fewer height requirements).
Exciting, well-themed attractions are squarely in Universal Orlando’s wheelhouse. With the exception of coasters, almost all of these attractions are brilliantly executed, and are not just cheap, amusement park thrills. Transformers, Spiderman, Revenge of the Mummy, and the Harry Potter attractions, among others, are some of the best attractions in Orlando.
These attractions are not too intense for average guests–to the contrary, they command lengthy wait times, so they’re clearly appropriate for most people. If you can handle Expedition Everest or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, you can probably handle anything at Universal Orlando.
In addition to that, they wonderfully fuse thrills with thematic delivery. 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 (more so than at Walt Disney World), but in nearly every such case, screens are 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 has seemingly followed Universal’s lead and placed a greater emphasis on thrilling attractions in recent years. If you look at the biggest recent additions–both rides in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Avatar Flight of Passage, and Slinky Dog Dash–all have height requirements and offer varying degrees of thrills.
Walt Disney World does have more variety and classics than Universal Orlando, with the latter placing a stronger emphasis on contemporary movies and what’s popular now. Disney’s 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. 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.
Historically, Walt Disney World has offered more and better entertainment. Stage shows, atmospheric performers, character meet & greets, and nighttime spectaculars have all been superior at Walt Disney World. Production values have been higher and Disney has access to more beloved characters along with a deep well of nostalgia.
You’ll notice that’s in the past tense. It may be true again someday, but right now, Universal has been trouncing Disney on the entertainment front. One of Universal’s specific post-reopening “wins” is the degree to which entertainment and shows have already returned. For this, it’s probably easiest to simply look at the Universal Orlando Showtimes page.
In short, a lot of entertainment—most of what was available pre-closure–has already returned to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Much is running in modified form, but it still gives the Universal parks more or less the same energy and sense of life as they had before.
Throughout our visits to Universal Orlando since last June, we haven’t been able to walk more than a few hundred feet without stumbling upon an entertainment act of some sort—musicians, stage shows, characters, or atmospheric performers. Whether it’s the Blues Brothers, Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, Bart Simpson, Marilyn Monroe, or Mardi Gras bands, you can’t go far in either of the Universal parks without seeing something.
Universal has further accelerated its efforts to enhance the evenings by bringing back its nighttime spectacular, Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration. This features dancing fountains, scenes are projected onto mist screens, spotlights, pyro, and projections on the buildings that form the backdrop.
By contrast, Walt Disney World has added character cavalcades to the parks, a limited number of selfie spots, a few live entertainment acts, and a couple of stage shows. All nighttime spectaculars, character meet & greets, and parades are temporarily suspended. The vast majority of stage shows remain dark, and entertainment acts have been cut.
Walt Disney World’s cavalcades and character greetings have been good additions, but areas of the Disney parks definitely feel flat. This is particularly noticeable in World Showcase, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.
It’s still unclear when and to what degree live entertainment will return to Walt Disney World. A few months ago, Disney announced that Festival of the Lion King would resume in Summer 2021. That’s one show out of dozens that are missing, and it’s still months away. That does not bode well.
All of this really changes the equation on Disney v. Universal, particularly for those who visit theme parks for entertainment. In the past, the argument could be made that Universal was all about thrill rides and Walt Disney World was the place for those who eschew rides. Now, the tables have turned. Universal is the superior option for entertainment.
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.
For many people, this has been the ultimate hurdle in visiting Universal Orlando in the past. Even those with interest in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter might find that the convenience of Disney-provided transportation from the airport to hotel, and then never worrying about driving on vacation has been very difficult to overcome. Add to this other things like the Disney Dining Plan, Disney Vacation Club, Extra Magic Hours, FastPass+, and other on-site perks.
This is another area where the tables have turned. Many of those perks are also temporarily suspended. Disney’s Magical Express and hotel-to-park transportation is still available, but the airport shuttle service will cease at the start of 2022. There are fewer and fewer incentives to stay on-site at Walt Disney World, and more to stay on-site at Universal Orlando.
In 2021 updates to our Off-Site v. On-Site at Walt Disney World article, we’ve covered this shift in detail. Suffice to say, all Universal hotels offer Early Park Admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay water park one hour before the theme parks open to the general public.
Guests staying at Universal’s Premier Hotels get free Unlimited Express Pass to skip the regular lines at most popular attractions in Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. This is Universal’s equivalent of FastPass, but better—and it normally costs money.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article, Universal Orlando resorts offer many of the same advantages of Walt Disney World hotels. Universal’s hotels also feature great themed design, transportation to the parks, and a great location—most are within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
Another benefit to staying on-site at Universal Orlando is the layout. Universal Orlando can be likened 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, almost all 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 resort entertainment options, like the lazy river and bowling alley in Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
While Walt Disney World still has more to offer beyond the parks, Universal Orlando is gaining ground, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Additions at Walt Disney World have been coming at a snail’s pace, whereas Universal Orlando is building at a break-neck pace. Additional, significant yearly additions are anticipated for the next several years, including a third theme park called Universal’s Epic Universe!
In terms of vacation type, they really both could be viewed as catering to similar demographics. Still, if you are looking for a single-site destination for a longer vacation, 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. If you are considering a theme park-centric trip to Florida with multiple destinations, the best idea is allocating some time at each and doing a split-stay between an official Universal Orlando hotel and an on-site Walt Disney World hotel.
Theme & Atmosphere
One department in which Walt Disney World has a clear advantage is theme and atmosphere. 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. Both of these lands blow me away, 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. In terms of theme, both Universal Orlando parks fall short of Walt Disney World’s 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, its lands are superior.
As someone who loves being in immersive theme park environments, Universal’s thematic missteps are a letdown for me. Again, Wizarding World of Harry Potter does a lot to excuse this–Hogsmeade is a great land and Diagon Alley is next-level. There are also flashes of brilliance in Jurassic Park, San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, Springfield, Lost Continent, Seuss Landing, and other areas. However, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are not as consistently strong thematically.
Which is fine–they’re different kinds of parks. 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.
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.
Moreover, 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. Another one is food, which is probably a push right now post-reopening, but would normally be dominated by Disney. Transportation is yet another; it’s very location-dependent at Walt Disney World, but great across the board at Universal.
The final one is cost. Due to incremental price increases, doing both Universal and Disney will be more than doing one or the other for the same amount of time. With that said, Universal is less expensive than Walt Disney World in most ways. Park tickets and food prices are not particularly noticeable, but the big one is hotel rates. Not only is Universal significantly cheaper, but its resorts include perks that would cost additional money at Walt Disney World.
If you have visited Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure recently, what did you think? Where does Universal surpass Disney, and vice-versa? Is there anything we missed or you think is inaccurate? Do you prefer Universal or Disney hotels? What about rides, entertainment, and food? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!