Comparison is inevitable. You’re going on a vacation to one of the premier destinations in the world for theme parks. You have to spend your precious vacation dollars somehow. So what’s it going to be? The Walt Disney World Resort or the Universal Orlando Resort?
Let’s start with a caveat. Of course, you can do both. Excluding the water parks, you could have a six-day vacation in which you hit the four Disney parks and the two Universal Studios Florida parks and have the best of both worlds. You might not survive that vacation, but it can be done. However, realistically the multi-day pricing options are set – especially at Disney – to reward you for staying on brand for the entirety of your stay. In other words, a six-day vacation at the Disney parks would be – in terms of ticket prices – more affordable than four days at Disney and two at Universal.
What’s the difference between Disney World and Universal Studios?
It depends – on a certain level – on how philosophical you want to get. On a supreme macro level, there’s no real difference at all. Dining, resorts, attractions, entertainment – it’s the same stuff in different intellectual property wrapping. Mickey, Minnie and Donald versus The Simpsons and the Grinch and the Lorax. That said, there is an art to Disney’s operation intertwined with the particular science of running a theme park. Disney is modern and technologically superior while managing to traffic in nostalgia that is utterly compelling. Universal Studios has been soundly beaten at the nostalgia game. Disney has multiple rides that existed on opening day.
A while back we took my grandmother’s on her last Disney trip. When we got my grandmother, my mom, my aunt and my daughter all on the Peter Pan ride, I cried. Is there anything that could make me cry at Universal? Well, yes. For instance, when the kids finally all got chosen for their wands, I can be pretty sappy. But it doesn’t disprove the larger point. The only ride at Universal that was there on opening day in the early 1990s is the ET ride, which we love. It’s the closest you get to Disney-style nostalgia in Universal. However, it can’t compete with the Haunted Mansion, Small World or Pirates of the Caribbean.
Is Disney World or Universal better?
Here’s the real question and there’s no better way to break it down scientifically than with a tale of the tape. But we should note that even though these are the two monsters of the world theme park scene, Universal is fighting up a weight class. Disney World has four theme parks in Orlando vs Universal’s two if we’re not including the waterparks. That’s a significant weight advantage. When Universal’s Epic Universe opens in 2025, it will be closer to a fair fight. But we can’t measure these things based on the future. All we have is the now, baby.
1. Is it cheaper to go to Disney World or Universal Studios?
In terms of a single-day ticket? It’s not much difference. But, if you’re factoring in an on-property resort stay, Orlando is significantly less expensive – especially if you have a family of five, which Disney views as a barnacle on society’s bottom. None of the Disney value resorts have options for a family of five that do not include a significant price increase. A week-long vacation for my family – staying on property – is about $1,500 cheaper at Universal than it is at Disney.
Using Disney’s best current deal for a family of four – and not using Universal’s – a five-night, four-day vacation with four-day theme park tickets is about $250 cheaper at Universal than Disney. If we remove any deals and just price a random week over the summer? The difference jumps to about $800.
2. Which is better for younger kids and toddlers?
Universal Studios Florida has SpongeBob but the Woody Woodpecker and Curious George areas are about to close. Islands of Adventure has Seussland – which is pretty awesome. But, in terms of service to toddlers and young kids, Disney has the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasy Land, Mickey and Minnie and all the Pixar stuff. This category goes to Disney World and it’s not even close.
Point: Disney with a bonus point for nostalgia. (Disney 2, Universal 1)
3. Which has better roller coasters and thrill rides?
This category has tightened up recently with the Guardians of the Galaxy ride in EPCOT – which may be the best ride in Orlando. But Universal has hung its hat on roller coasters and is certainly ahead in the category. From the Incredible Hulk to the impossible-to-spell Velocicoaster to Hagrid’s and the Revenge of the Mummy, Universal is the clear winner when it comes to coasters. The Tron coaster in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom – which opened in spring 2023 – isn’t enough to swing this vote, but it did make it closer.
Point: Universal (Disney 2, Universal 2)
4. Which has the better non-coaster rides and attractions?
Right now, this is Disney by a mile. If Guardians isn’t the best ride in Orlando, then it’s Rise of the Resistance. Truthfully, if you take out roller coasters, Disney might have the top 10 rides in Orlando. Avatar Flight of Passage is a miracle in the Pandora section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Smuggler’s Run in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios is fantastic. The other two trackless dark rides, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure are both great as well.
Universal relies heavily on interactive dark rides like Spider-Man and Transformers and Fast & Furious that are fine and fun but are showing their age. The screens and footage – especially in Fast & Furious – can be painfully bad. Hopefully, the renovation of the Mummy ride means Universal recognizes the issue and is upgrading. We must also acknowledge the numbers game advantage Disney has with its four parks. It’s difficult for Universal to compete.
Point: Disney (Disney 3, Universal 2)
5. Which park has better immersive intellectual property?
Both parks are blessed with a deep IP bench. However, Universal has more characters that I doubt the younger generation connects with. I grew up with Popeye. I don’t think my kids have ever seen a Popeye cartoon. Betty Boop? Get outta here. But for this question, we’re only talking about the worlds within the park where you feel like you’ve stepped into a movie set or the book. At Universal, that means The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Jurassic Park. In Disney, that means Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora, the Avatar world. I’m not even sure Jurassic Park qualifies here. Is it immersive in the same way Diagon Alley is or are we just in Florida? Hard to say. Let’s include it.
First of all, each of these sections is magnificently done. This is the direction of the theme park’s future and the future looks great. Universal’s Epic Universe is expected to feature four immersive worlds and so, I suspect they’re going to be mind-blowing. I could wax on about how I’m a Star Wars guy and seeing the Millennium Falcon was a near-religious experience. I could tell you how much I love Harry Potter and about feeling that blast of cold air and looking up as we stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Diagon Alley. The truth is I love them all. The only real winner here is those of us who get to visit these worlds.
6. Which park has the better water park?
Disney has two – though one has been down for refurbishment and the other is about to be. Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are fine. Volcano Bay is better.
Point: Universal (Disney 3, Universal 3)
7. Which has the best in-park shows and entertainment?
Well, as much as I enjoy a good Blues Brothers musical revue, it’s Disney by a mile. The Lion King Show at Animal Kingdom is great. Fantasmic is back at Hollywood Studios. There’s not a lot that Universal has that competes with it. Disney’s parades are top-notch as well. Universal does have some great character meet and greets, specifically with SpongeBob, the Simpsons characters and Seussland. But it’s hard to get a better character interaction than with Mickey Mouse and Donald and the crew.
Point: Disney (Disney 4, Universal 3)
8. Which has the better out-of-park dining and shopping location?
Here we’re asking what’s better, Universal’s CityWalk or Disney Springs. I think the shopping is better at Disney Springs and I think both have legitimately great food offerings. But there’s something about CityWalk that I like. I think it’s just the vibe. The way it’s built on multi-stories makes it feel like more of a happening and the fact that you have to walk through it to get to the parks gives it a little something extra.
Point: Universal (Disney 4, Universal 4)
9. Which has the best in-park dining?
We were certainly won over by the options, especially at Universal Studios Orlando. I don’t think I’ve had a better in-park meal than we had at Lombard’s Seafood Grill. It was fantastic. We also enjoyed the more ballyhooed Mythos. The Harry Potter dining options were less than great but the butterbeer makes up for it. We love a lot of places in Disney – Casey’s is a must – but the point here goes to Universal.
Point: Universal (Disney 4, Universal 5)
10. Which park has the better customer service?
I was surprised at how much Universal struggled in this category. We had a couple of instances where Universal employees went above and beyond to make sure we were having a great vacation. But there were also multiple times we were treated quite poorly. For instance, a cast member told me to “figure it out” when I asked a question about seating on a ride. This wasn’t the only negative interaction we had. On the other hand, I can’t remember a negative interaction with a cast member at Disney.
Point: Disney (Disney 5, Universal 5)
11. Which park has the best resorts?
This is another numbers game for Disney, which has many more resorts on the property than Universal. I’ve never had a bad experience at a Disney hotel. They’re great. From the theming to the pools and onward, I’ve got nothing bad to say about any of the Disney resorts we’ve visited or stayed in.
That being said, I liked the value resort experience at Universal. We stayed in a suite at Surfside and had absolutely no complaints. We visited some of the more expensive hotels and they certainly looked on par with anything Disney offers. Ultimately, I’m tempted to reward Universal here for understanding that sometimes family units have more than four people in them. But they earned a point for being less expensive already.
12. Which parks have better shade?
Shade, who goes to a theme park for shade? When the unrelenting Florida sun is pounding the sweat out of you, being able to cool off is vitally important. A couple of years ago, we were crossing the bridge into Pandora on a particularly hot day in Orlando, and I stopped for like 60 seconds thinking my wedding ring had fallen off. I looked around for it in a daze before I remembered I’d lost it a decade before while spinning it like a top in my office at work. I look for it periodically but it’s been 15 years and I’m beginning to lose hope.
Anyway, the more modern parks are better designed for creating ways to get you out of the heat. EPCOT and Magic Kingdom are awful for this. Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are better, but oddly I always feel like Animal Kingdom is the hottest Disney Park. Universal Studios has Central Park where you can find some relief and the alleys also block the sun somewhat. Islands of Adventure is probably the best for helping you prevent heat stroke.
Point: Universal (Disney 5, Universal 5)
13. Which has the better technology and ride queue system?
Disney’s tech is top-notch with Magic Bands and the My Disney Experience. Sure, the Disney Genie and Genie+ thing is overly complicated. But at Universal, I had to buy a $15 lanyard to keep my ticket around my neck the whole time. And while the Disney Genie+ system is expensive, the Universal Express pass is more so. I’m hoping when Epic Universe opens, Universal will roll out some new guest tech to go along with it.
Point: Disney (Disney 6, Universal 5)
So there you have it, as Nick Bakay used to say, it’s so easy when you break it down scientifically. Which is better? It’s Disney, at least for now.
Do you have a favorite between Universal Studios and Disney World? Let us know in the comments!