Universal Orlando vs. Disney World
I’ve traveled to Orlando theme parks from Southern California with my kids four times the past few years, visiting Universal Orlando every time and the Disney parks twice. We had intended to visit Disney World/Epcot a third time, but the kids voted to spend the day at our hotel instead.
I often get asked to compare Disney and Universal. As far as we’re concerned, our days at Disney are over, but we’ll continue to go back to Universal Orlando – as crazy as that sounds given that we live three times zones away. The five primary reasons why:
1) You can walk everywhere
Disney has four theme parks and two water parks in Orlando, as well as the Disney Springs shopping/restaurant area, but you can’t walk between them, or from the Disney hotels to their theme parks – you need to drive or take shuttles between the sites. If we’re at Disney World but we want to eat lunch at Disney Springs, well, that’s not exactly convenient or a good use of our time.
At Universal Orlando, though, you can easily walk from park to park (there are two theme parks now, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, a water theme park opened in the summer of 2017). You can also walk from all of the onsite Universal hotels to the theme parks, and from the parks to Universal CityWalk, with its stores and dining options. There are shuttle and water taxi options from the parks to the hotels if you don’t feel like walking.
2) Universal has Harry Potter
It’s impossible to exaggerate how cool the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is. Every detail in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley is perfect – you feel like JK Rowling’s books have opened up and invited you inside. We love the rides, the shops, the butterbeer and the overall atmosphere at our favorite Orlando theme park.
3) There are more rides/areas for older kids
Disney is very much based on the idea of make-believe for younger kids and nostalgia for older kids and parents. Universal is almost the opposite – it has Seuss Landing, Minions, E.T. and a few other areas for young kids, but really these Orlando theme parks are for people who no longer believe that Mickey and the other five-foot-tall cartoon characters walking around are real.
Our favorite rides at Universal Orlando are Revenge of the Mummy, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster, the Harry Potter rides, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, the Simpsons ride and Dudley DoRight’s Ripsaw Falls – all extremely fun for kids (subject to height restrictions) and adults alike.
4) The food is better
At Disney, we struggle to find good food options at their Orlando theme parks. At Universal, there’s an abundance of choices, both in the parks (Lombard’s Seafood Grill and Mythos are consistently excellent) and at Universal CityWalk (where we love Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Cowfish and Vivo). You shouldn’t have to settle for dry chicken tenders and bland pepperoni pizza just because you’re at a theme park.
5) There’s no pressure to be happy
Whenever we’ve gone to Disney, the “Happiest Place on Earth”, I’ve looked around at the lines and the crying kids and the frustrated parents and thought, well, this is NOT the happiest place on earth. Of our 100 happiest days as a family, I’ll guarantee you that none of them were the days we spent at Disney parks.
When we walk through the gates of a Universal park, it’s completely different than walking through the gates at Disneyland or Disney World. We see the Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure parks before us and talk about what we want to do first. That’s it. At Disney parks, we immediately ask ourselves “how are we going to maximize our time here so that the kids are happy?” Those are very different things, doing vs. planning. This carries through to the end of the days too. Relaxing in our hotel room after Universal we always feel like we had a great day. At night after Disney, we’re counting the rides that we went on and asking ourselves what we could do better next time to make for a happier experience.
How about you? Do you agree that Universal is the best choice for Orlando theme parks, or do you prefer Disney? Debate is welcome!
Note: We paid full price for three of our visits. I received complimentary one-day park passes on my last visit with my 10-year-old, in August.