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Central Florida is one of the prime vacation spots for theme park lovers. Two titans of the entertainment industry have been bringing in families from around the globe for decades. As each company releases its new developments, the public anxiously awaits the answer of the next. As the two begin following similar trends, there are more comparisons than ever before. How they are the same, and – more interestingly – how they are different can be explored a number of ways. To get the general idea, we should look at their relative size and audience, as well as the type of vacation experiences they provide and their most recent developments. This Comparison Guide to Walt Disney World VS Universal Orlando will help you choose which to visit (or be like us, and try to do both!)
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Disney World VS Universal Orlando Size
When comparing the sizes of the two resorts it’s better to compare Universal Orlando with one of the other Disney destinations. Not only is it a more fair comparison, it’s more accurate. Walt Disney World is a unique vacation spot with certain liberties and a level of control nobody enjoys anywhere else in the world. Size doesn’t always mean better, but do keep in mind that the FOUR theme parks at Disney World have a sheer vastness that Universal can’t compare to.
CityWalk Vs. Disney Springs
Like Disneyland Resort in California, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Orlando is a two theme park resort. Like Disneyland they also have a shopping and entertainment district. The Universal CityWalk is like Downtown Disney, or better yet, the original Universal CityWalk at Universal Studios Hollywood. This is a dynamic outdoor shopping mall with a lot of things to do and explore. Walt Disney World has Disney Springs. It used to be Downtown Disney and before that Pleasure Island. Like Pleasure Island before it, Disney Springs came with a re-imagined back story. It can be enjoyed as another outdoor shopping mall, or observed in detail from a story perspective. Both City Walk and Disney Springs have very unique and fun dining experiences.
The parks at Universal are Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. While things are trending more toward the immersive in-world experiences for both parks, Islands of Adventure was first conceived for those types of attractions. The park features several “Islands” where guests can be part of the Marvel Universe or Jurassic Park – among other things. Walt Disney World has four theme parks. Magic Kingdom is the one that resembles Disneyland and – like the other 5 Disneyland parks around the world – Magic Kingdom follows the basic model, but is totally unique. Epcot was Disney’s second park in Disney World, but the parks are much farther away than in other resort destinations. That is because Disney has 30,000 acres of space. Walt Disney was able to buy most of the land in secret when it was cheap. Only a small fraction of the land has been developed to this day. Next to Epcot is Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It opened in 1989 just one year before Universal Studios Florida. Disney’s Animal Kingdom was Disney’s last park in Disney World. It opened in 1998, just one year before Islands of Adventure.
Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World also have water parks. Universal’s Volcano Bay is the most recent with some high-tech bands that make waiting in line almost a thing of the past. Walt Disney World has two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon, and Blizzard Beach.
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For the most part the audiences for both resorts are the same. Universal is expected to be more popular with teens due to the number of thrill rides, but Universal has a variety of attractions themed to cartoon characters for whacky mayhem and silly fun kids love. Disney didn’t really start to get into thrills until the 90’s so it’s understandable that they would have a reputation, especially since the main purpose for Disneyland was to create a place where parents can have fun with their children. Universal is able to go further with scares than audiences will allow from Disney. The prompt removal of Alien Encounter at Magic Kingdom is a good example of the impact of such an adverse response.
So, both places are great for adults with or without kids – but guests looking for edgier attractions might find more of what they are looking for at Universal. However, the real difference in audience is what intellectual property is showing up where. Universal, of course has the Universal branded entertainment to work with as well as NBC and licensed property like Dr. Seuss, Marvel, and Harry Potter. Disney has been on a spending spree for the last 20 years, snatching up Marvel, Pixar, Muppets, and Star Wars. Soon, Fox will be entering the arena.
Because of the way Walt Disney World is set up, guests are really discouraged from ever leaving. Some guests rent a car and will leave Disney World for other attractions like Universal Orlando, but most people just find everything in Disney World so convenient that they don’t want to leave. There is a wide range of free transportation and over two dozen resorts to visit. Plus, sports and recreation. That’s after getting your fill of four theme parks. Walt Disney World is a much larger undertaking from a guest perspective and it can be overwhelming. Universal Orlando is a much more direct and straightforward experience. If you have less time for leisure and can only get away for two or three days, Universal Orlando is the more ideal choice. For a vacation of a week or longer, Walt Disney World is more equipped to support a vacation that size.
If you don’t mind splitting up hotels, two to five nights at Disney and two or three nights at Universal will get you the best of both worlds. I like this solution, because driving in and out of Disney World takes up too much precious vacation time.
Universal has done something really unique and it’s so exciting to fans who want to see more and are interested in what’s next: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not only brilliantly and elaborately themed., it’s actually two lands. Hogsmeade was the first one in Islands of Adventure. The new one that opened in 2016 is Diagon Alley and it is even more amazing. The really fun, really fantastic thing is that both Harry Potter worlds are connected by a Hogwarts Express train. So, guests with park hopper passes can board from the Wizarding World in one
park and disembark at the other. Disney’s Animal Kingdom finally opened the long anticipated Pandora addition last year. The Avatar themed world had less fans excited about the lands arrival, but that did nothing to hold back guests from arriving in droves for opening day. The park had to close its gates after just hours. The guests really love the food and the theming, particularly in the queue leading to the ride Flight of Passage, which is one of the most technologically advanced rides to date. Disney Studios also opened a Toy Story Land with two new attractions perfect for kids and plenty of detail to amuse adults. The most anticipated development is the still under construction – Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge – which is supposed to take guest immersion to a whole new level.
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We absolutely love BOTH Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, and try to visit both whenever possible – that being said, we do realize that each has their benefits or the areas they excel in, so depending on your vacation situation (budget, age groups, time, etc) may lead to deciding one over the other.