Many who go to Orlando debate whether to go to Disney World or Universal Studios. Some say it’s a no-brainer, and that the park to go to is Disney World, since it’s much, much bigger. However, the Universal Studios Orlando vs Disney World debate is more complex than that.
Disney World has four theme parks and two water parks. Universal Orlando has two theme parks and one water park.
However, when it comes to theme park resorts, going big has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
A bigger resort means more options, but since it’s so big it can be exhausting to walk around. A smaller resort like Universal, even though there isn’t as much to do, it’s much easier to see everything the resort has to offer.
Therefore, deciding which resort to go to isn’t as easy as one might think.
Both have their own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to everything – attractions, lines, theming, hotels, restaurants, etc.
This article will list the pros and cons of each aspect of the park – theming, dining, etc. – so you can decide which resort is better suited for you.
This also serves as a fun compare and contrast of the two resorts, so you can enjoy this if you’re a longtime fan of the two parks.
We will discuss eight categories –
- City Walk vs. Disney Springs
Keep in mind that both Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts are worth visiting, even if one is a little better. Both have their highlights and they’re not worth missing.
But don’t feel bad if you can’t do both on your trip – just enjoy the resort you’re at!
1. Theming at Walt Disney World v Universal Orlando
Here, we’ll discuss the quality of theming at both resorts’ theme parks. What counts as “good” theming?
In my opinion, it comes down to consistency and immersion. If you completely forget you’re in a theme park and feel like you’re in a different world, the theming is doing its work fantastically. Both resorts have several instances of this.
Universal has Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, the Lost Continent, and Jurassic Park, while Disney World has Star Wars – Galaxy’s Edge, Pandora, along with Toy Story Land – all of which make you feel like you’re in a different world.
However, what breaks the immersion at Universal is if stand in one land in the park, you can see all the others. A prime example is when you stand in Springfield (from the Simpsons), and you can see the New York area, the entrance for Diagon Alley which resembles London, as well as the Men In Black ride, which is a very sci-fi looking building.
You don’t get this at Disney World. If you’re in Tomorrowland, you can’t see Frontierland. If you’re in Galaxy’s Edge, you can’t see the rest of Hollywood Studios.
To be fair, there are areas where the immersion doesn’t break in Universal, such as The Lost Continent and Diagon Alley. However, rarely does the immersion break at Disney World, or at least, not as blatantly.
2. Disney World or Universal Orlando Lines?
The worst part of any theme park is waiting in line. However, Disney and Universal are known for adding entertainment in their queues, such as videos, animatronics, interactive games, or adding in theming to immerse you into the setting of the attraction.
What makes a good line is if entertainment makes the long wait for the attraction fly by – in other words, you don’t get bored.
Who wins in the Universal Studios Orlando vs Disney World stakes when we are thinking about lines?
At Disney World, a few of their attractions have queues with interactive games, such as Peter Pan’s Flight, The Haunted Mansion, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Universal only has one however, that being the queue for Race Through New York With Jimmy Fallon.
In terms of themed lines, Disney and Universal offer somewhat different experiences. Disney tends to theme their queues around new, original environments that you have never seen before, while Universal usually themes them scenes from movies.
Compare Millenium Falcon – Smuggler’s Run and Forbidden Journey.
Smuggler’s Run is based on Star Wars, but instead of theming the queue around a set from the movies like Echo Base or Endor, they themed it around their own original spaceport – a spaceport you never see in the movies.
Forbidden Journey is the opposite: they replicate sets from the movies, like Dumbledore’s office or the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. This really is one of the most amazing theme park lines ever created – guests can even walk through the line without wanting to ride on the attraction, just to see the features of the line itself.
Of course, there are exceptions on both ends, but for the most part, Universal tries to replicate sets from the movies, while Disney creates sets inspired by the movies.
Both parks have exceptional queues, but if you’re going to a theme park to step into the movies, I’d say go to Universal Orlando.
In addition, the theming in Universal’s queues are usually more interesting, with much more to look at.
3. Disney World and Universal Orlando Lands
What are each of the theme parks themed around? Which movies are the rides based on?
This could be the deal-breaker for some when it comes to picking which resort to go to – not the quality of the theming, but what the parks are themed around.
Both have a good handful of attractions based on popular movies. Disney has Star Wars, Toy Story, Indiana Jones, Frozen, along with many other great attractions based on movies. Universal has the Simpsons, Harry Potter, Men In Black, Dr. Seuss characters, and a few others.
What I’ll say about Universal is they pick outdated franchises to base their attractions and lands on. How many people have seen Woody Woodpecker in recent years? Or Barney? Popeye? Or Brendan Fraisher’s “The Mummy” franchise?
A lot of the characters and franchises they choose to base their attractions on are baffling. Why haven’t they changed them?
You don’t get this as much with Disney. Most of the rides are based on Disney classics, like Snow White, Peter Pan, or Finding Nemo. There are some dated franchises, like Twilight Zone or Dinosaur, but that’s okay because the attractions that are based on those franchises don’t actually integrate much from them into the ride.
Think about it – Tower of Terror barely has anything to do with Twilight Zone. It doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone attraction – it just feels like a haunted hotel ride.
Universal bases some of their attractions and lands heavily on those dated franchises, however. The attractions and lands are good, but a lot of time you’re trying to remember what that franchise was about.
The best thing to do is look through a list of attractions of the resorts’ websites and see if the franchises they base their rides on appeal to you. Obviously if Harry Potter is your thing, you are going to love Universal Studios.
4. Dining at Disney World and Universal Orlando Compared
This is a tough one to call. There are almost 100 full service restaurants on Walt Disney World property. Some are in the theme parks, but you can access many without having a ticket as they are located in the Disney hotels or at Disney Springs.
There really is a dining experience for everyone at Disney World. You can dine around the world enjoying authentic cuisine at these Epcot Restaurants. Or overlook a savanna watching the wildlife to by at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Restaurants.
If you want to dine with a Princess or inside Cinderella’s Castle you can do that too. Or enjoy fine dining overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom Castle. Disney World has some exceptional restaurants to offer.
Just by the sheer volume of choice, Disney probably wins over Universal here. However, Universal Orlando also has a large choice of restaurants to suit everyones taste and preference.
Universal has restaurants in both parks as well as Universal City Walk. Here you will see such favorites as Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and the highly original Toothsome Chocolate Emporium.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal offers some of the very best themed dining in any of the parks in Orlando. If you are a fan of Harry Potter you will love the Leaky Cauldron and The Three Broomsticks. You really do believe that you have entered a magical world. One where they have Butter Beer!
Really it’s a difficult call, and probably not really a very fair comparison as Disney offers so many more dining options than Universal Orlando. However, Disney has the edge here for innovation as well as choice.
5. Disney World and Universal Orlando Shows
There are a countless number of great shows at Disney World. Indiana Jones Stuntacular, Fantasmic!, Finding Nemo the Musical, and Festival of the Lion King are all some of best theme park shows I’ve ever seen.
Universal has some too, like – well… uh… Fear Factor Live?
If it is shows you’re looking for, go to Disney World. None of the shows at Universal are bad, but not many of them particularly stand out. Disney puts on huge broadway-style special-effect extravaganzas, while all Universal has is a cool water tunnel in Poseidon’s Fury.
As for Parades and Fireworks, Disney World is without question the leader here.
6. Hotels at Universal Orlando and Disney World
If we are talking about the sheer number of options of hotels to stay on property, Disney has won hands down. Disney World has 31 different hotels and resorts to choose from. Universal Orlando Resort has seven hotels to choose from.
However, let’s not dismiss Universal so quickly here, as they have some amazing hotel options as well as Disney. There really is something for everyone at Universal and Disney, from Value through to Deluxe Resorts.
If you have to choose the most unique hotel offering it has to be Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort. It’s the only place in North America that you can wake up, go out on your balcony, and see a giraffe. Animal Kingdom Lodge is set in a unique 43-acre wildlife preserve. The savannas have 200 animals and 130 birds including giraffes, zebra, ostrich, and impala. Stay here and you truly will feel that you have been transported to another continent.
However, one of Universal’s hotels also transports you to a different continent. Portofino Bay is one of Universal’s premier hotel resorts. Relax in the ambiance of this beautifully recreated Italian town. You can almost imagine you are enjoying a European vacation in this luxury hotel. Grab a slice of pizza in the piazza whilst you sit and listen to the nightly live opera performance.
Universal and Disney also have a number of value options. A great place for families at Disney in the Art of Animation Resort where you will find suites to accommodate up to 6 guests.
A particular favorite of mine is Universal’s Cabana Bay Resort Hotel. This delightfully 50’s themed hotel also has reasonably priced suites to accommodate up to 6 guests. It is also located right next to Universal’s water park Volcano Bay.
Each park offers perks to guests staying onsite, such as early access to the parks and priority with some dining reservations. One perk which is particularly valuable at a Universal Orlando premier hotel is that guests have the Express Pass which allows them to use the express line at all the attractions where it is offered.
This is a huge perk – but note it is only available for Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay, and Royal Pacific Resort. This can save you so much time and money. If you buy the Express Pass it can be up to $129 per person per day.
Therefore, there really isn’t much to choose between Disney and Universal here. Each offers a range of amazing hotels with perks to entice onsite guests. If I had to pick one hotel which is worth the experience even without the parks though, it would be Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
7. City Walk Vs. Disney Springs
While both resorts’ shopping complexes are similar in a lot of ways, they feel completely different. The Universal Studios Orlando vs Disney World comparison is not an easy one here.
Since it’s Disney, Disney Springs is targeted towards families, and has a very low-key cozy feel to it. Universal Studios Citywalk on the other hand has a more young adult, party feel to it. Not that kids won’t enjoy it there, but the target audience is definitely adults.
In terms of shopping, Disney Springs is a clear winner. There are a countless number of store there, some of which sell merchandise from specific Disney franchises, like Marvel and Star Wars. City Walk has less than ten, however.
City Walks’ dining experiences are much better though. Margaritaville has a great tropical atmosphere to it, Chocolate Emporium has one of best designed restaurant exteriors I’ve ever seen, Antojitos has some of the tasty Mexican food I’ve had – every single restaurant has something to offer! Plus, City Walk has Bubba Gump Shrimp, and you can’t beat Bubba Gump Shrimp…
For shopping, go to Disney Springs, but if you want a stellar dining experience, go to City Walk.
Now here’s the big one – attractions. It really is difficult to make a choice between Universal Studios Orlando vs Disney World.
Disney definitely has a much wider range of attractions, while about half of Universal’s rides are screen-based. This is the one thing about Universal: a lot of the time you’re just going from one attraction where you move around and stare at a screen, to another ride where you move around and stare at a screen.
However, some of these attractions are the best in the entire world, such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures Of Spider-Man.
There are also plenty of great rides that don’t rely on screens and primarily use practical effects, like E.T. Adventure or Men In Black: Alien Attack.
If I’m being honest though, if it’s attractions you want, go to Disney World. Again, there’s a huge variety of rides there, and overall the quality of the attractions is much higher than the ones at Universal.
Although, if you’re a thrill-seeker, Universal might be the better bet. The rides there are usually are a little more adult and intense than Disney rides, so if that’s what you’re looking for, go to Universal.
So Which One Is It?
If you’re looking to ride the movies, go to Universal. If you want to completely immerse yourself into a different world, go to Disney. You can sometimes immerse yourself into a different world at Universal, and you can sometimes ride the movies at Disney, but that’s not what those parks are primarily focusing on.
Universal is about big, action-packed, exciting experiences, while Disney provides an escape from your world, taking you to lots of different places you couldn’t see anywhere else.
I’m a thrill-seeker, so I do like Universal a little more than Disney since their rides tend to be more intense and action-packed. Still I love them both, and will continue to visit them for the rest of my life.
So which do you prefer – Universal Studios Orlando vs Disney World?