Along a heavily congested stretch of I-4 in Orlando, a battle wages between Disney World and Universal Studios. The objective from both sides in this war is the same: extract as much of your vacation budget as possible, and keep you from visiting the other guy. While both resorts seek to lure visitors with their theme parks and hotels, understanding the differences between Disney and Universal can be quite daunting. Choosing which resort is right for you and your family likely depends on any number of factors, all of which both sides will claim they perform better. So it is time to clear the air and put my decades of tireless research to work with a side-by-side comparison of Disney versus Universal.
If the winner of this contest were decided by number of theme parks alone, Disney would win without much of a fight. Their four theme parks and two water parks double the offerings at Universal, but as my mom said when my first girlfriend dumped me for the dreamy, most popular kid at school: "It's what's on the inside that counts."
While there are plenty of similarities between Disney World and Universal, when it comes to rides and attractions inside the parks, the two are actually quite different. Universal is more about the thrill and technology, with such heart stoppers as Hulk and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey providing some of the best attractions in Orlando. On the other hand, Disney is all about the story, with each and every ride being carefully designed to help transport the visitor to another time and place.
Beyond the rides, the theming inside the Disney parks is far superior to that of Universal. When you step into Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, you are completely immersed in the scenes of Disney's fairytale movies, with no inclination that Tomorrowland lies just a few steps away. By comparison, walking the streets of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf in Universal makes zero sense when set against the backdrop of a movie based theme park. Across the way at Islands of Adventure, I recently heard the theme song to Jurassic Park playing in Seuss Landing, an attention to detail that would simply never happen inside a Disney park.
Of course, there is one huge exception within this argument, and that is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The new land inside Universal's Islands of Adventure is hands down the most brilliantly designed area of any Orlando theme park. The overall body of work, however, makes choosing the winner of this comparison pretty easy...
Examining the cost of Disney World vs Universal offers something of a mixed bag. Universal serves up the most expensive theme park ticket in Orlando, garnering $179 for a single-day and multi-park ticket. Disney, on the other hand, will set you back about $132 for the same thing. Muddying the water even further are multi-day tickets, which end up costing more at Disney, if only by a small margin.
When it comes to hotels at Disney and Universal, however, the real cost difference between the two takes shape. I priced out the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal for the first three nights in June, and discovered a rate of $299 for a standard room. The Beach Club Resort at Disney - a close comparison to that of Hard Rock - ran $457 a night for the exact same dates.
In all, a three night package for two adults and two children including a three day multi-park ticket came up to $1982 at Disney vs $1483 at Universal. A clear and decisive victory in my book.
I can spot a first time visitor to Disney World from a distance of up to six miles. They're usually the ones that have "I'm completely overwhelmed" written all over their face. What started as Walt's dream for a "Community of Tomorrow" is today the poster child of urban sprawl, with theme parks and resorts spread out over a space of 44 square miles. A network of buses, and to a small extent the monorail, are there to help move guests about property, but getting around will wear on both your time and patience.
Universal, by contrast, is the polar opposite of Disney in terms of logistics. Three hotels, two theme parks, and City Walk - the resort's restaurant and entertainment district - are all located within a reasonably short walk of one another. There are no lines for buses or hour long commutes to dinner. The way I see it, there's plenty of that waiting for you back home. You shouldn't have to deal with it on vacation too...
There was a time when no one questioned Disney's ability to provide an incredible experience for their guest. There's a reason why the company has been the subject of so many books on business management and service. That reputation, however, was built in the early years, when the service was impeccable and no detail or expense was spared in the name of quality. Today, the outside world has slowly crept into Walt's kingdom and corners are routinely cut in the name of the almighty dollar.
Over at Universal, they are accustomed to living in the Mouse's shadow. Where Disney's service has slipped over the years, Universal seems to have seized on the opportunity to narrow the gap between them. On our recent visit to Universal, we had a half dozen employees simply ask "Are you enjoying your day at the parks?" I can't remember the last time that happened at Disney.
Still, as we reached the top of the hill on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster, it was clear why Disney still reigns when it comes to the overall experience. Those 44 square miles of space are the trump card in every hand pitting Disney against Universal. They are able to take you away from reality and, quite literally, into their own world. A place that despite the lines for buses, food, rides, and even the bathroom, you simply never want to leave.
Despite what they might think of one another, there is definitely enough room in Orlando for both Disney World and Universal. They both have their own advantages, be it rides, cost, convenience, or the overall vacation experience, but it is important to remember that this isn't an either/or proposition. When planning your vacation, simply choose whichever feels right for you and your family as a home base, and set aside time for the other somewhere in the middle. That way, you're sure to get the best of both worlds - pun intended.
Enjoy Your Stay