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Vote of the week: Does Disney World or Universal Orlando offer better hotel benefits?

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Published: February 1, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Have you started planning your summer vacation yet?

If you're thinking about a trip to the Orlando-area theme parks, one of the questions you'll likely be asking yourself is "where to stay?" Orlando's big two theme park resorts -- Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando -- each offer a variety of perks designed to encourage you to stay with them.

But which resort offers the better deal?

Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel
Universal Orlando's Portofino Bay Hotel is a former winner of the Theme Park Insider Award for the World's Best Theme Park Hotel.

Disney's Wilderness Lodge
Walt Disney World's Wilderness Lodge also ia a former winner of the Theme Park Insider Award.

We've talked many times before about the perks of staying on-site: free airport transportation, extended park hours and now, Fastpass+ ride reservations at Walt Disney World, and front-of-line privileges and early Harry Potter admission at Universal Orlando. Depending upon the time of year you visit, free dining or other benefits might be available at each resort, too.

But let's share your personal experiences. How many of you have stayed on-site at these resorts? And if you've stayed at both, which resort's total experience did you prefer? Let's limit this to the on-site hotel experience, coupled with the benefits you get from staying on-site at that resort. After all, you can visit the other parks in the area even when you're staying on-site at one resort.


Please tell us in the comments where you prefer to stay in Orlando, and why. If you've stayed on-site with both resorts, I've asked you to pick a favorite between the two. But if after staying with both, you now choose to stay off-site, tell us about that in the comments. Thank you, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider and have a great weekend!

Readers' Opinions

From Dominick D on February 1, 2013 at 12:07 PM
Considering I'm a local I voted neither. However, I do think Universal guests are spoiled by Unlimited Express ;)
From 68.117.28.2 on February 1, 2013 at 12:17 PM
I think the downside to staying at Universal hotels is the cost of the hotels and they charge you for parking which is ridiculous. The express pass is the best feature.

Disney has a great transportation system to and from the parks and the extra park hours is really nice.

From 141.117.27.104 on February 1, 2013 at 12:39 PM
Universal hotels are too pricey to suit me. That situation will be mitigated by the moderates under construction.

While room comfort is generally fine at both, I did not find the lobby provided anything at all for me at Universal. It was poolside or room or park. Disney lobbies and food courts give you more places to be.

The Loews hotel and the Universal parks are more independent of each other, whereas the Disney brand is emphatically reflected in the Disney hotels.

I am sure my comparison also reflects good and bad experiences: On my last day of stay, I had a security concern at one of the Universal hotels and it was not satisfactorily addressed at any level either in hotel or correspondence after. I simply would not go back to the hotel as a result.

From David Brown on February 1, 2013 at 12:41 PM
Universal Guests may well be spoiled by the Universal Express but the simple fact of the matter is that there isn't enough to do at Universal to justify more than 2, maybe 3 nights at most. For anyone wanting a proper vacation Disney is the only option...
From Rob Pastor on February 1, 2013 at 1:09 PM
We stay at Universal for two weeks & find plenty to do between the parks, hotel resort & citi-walk. You can't beat Express Pass. Disney's future perk is going to be My Magic Fastpass+ for 3 whole attractions, which is close to a nothing perk compared to Express Pass. There's nothing comparable to Hotel Express. We stay at Portofino which is equal or better than the Disney deluxe hotels and costs cosiderably less, even without free parking. And the close proximity to the parks & entertainment areas is a big plus. A boat ride or leisurely walk takes you to everything you need for a relaxing casual vacation experience. And none of Disney's resorts have a collection of pools comparable to Portofino. We also stay on site at Disney. Their resorts are nicely themed, but their hotel rooms are generally much smaller than Portofino, and Disney's moderate & deluxe hotel's prices are high for their value. Deluxe hotel restaurants are a toss up. Both Disney & Universal have excellent choices..... The choice is not even close. Universal by a wide margin.
From Melanie Howe on February 1, 2013 at 1:12 PM
Universal, hands-down! To compare:

PRICE: Staying onsite at either resort isn't cheap, but Universal currently offers three properties of similar quality that vary only slightly in price. Plus, Universal offers decent Florida-resident and AP discounts that I'm lucky enough to be able to take advantage of. Universal hotels have the added advantage, for me personally, of being very pet-friendly. Disney has lots more properties at varying price points, but I honestly find their "value" resorts to be not much better than a Motel 6 and I swear I got bedbugs at Music Century once. Resorts like the Grand Floridian, Wilderness Lodge or Animal Kingdom Lodge are lovely, but you don't get near enough return value for what you pay.

TRANSPORTATION: At Universal you have the option of walking to both parks and CityWalk, or taking a leisurely boat trip. They also offer shuttles for bad weather. At Disney, on the other hand, unless you're lucky to be on the monorail line, you have to take their awful cattle-cars -- sorry, buses -- between parks. And, quite frankly, the monorail experience isn't as nice as it used to be either.

PERKS: Universal's unlimited express pass and early entry to WWOHP top anything Disney offers as a perk. "Extra Magic" hours are fine, but not equivalent. The unlimited express provides REAL value for what you pay for your room.

A previous poster pointed out that Universal has less to do to justify staying there for a long vacation, and he has a point. But for those of us for whom 3 or 4 day vacations are MORE than long enough, Universal is perfect and completely relaxing.

Obviously, I've got a bit of a Universal bias. I admit it. I really do love Disney too -- it's got some awesome rides, great immersive themes and plenty of nostalgia -- but I don't find a trip there to be relaxing. Going to Disney is more like work for me. But at Universal, I can turn off my internal planner, completely relax and have a care-free vacation.

From TH Creative on February 1, 2013 at 1:19 PM
Oh great ... Another Disney vs. Universal thread.

Wonderful.

From 86.134.22.60 on February 1, 2013 at 1:45 PM
I am sorry and this isn't meant to be a 'Universal vs Disney' bitch fest but there is no way I would find sufficient to occupy me for two weeks at Universal. I am happy to accept their hotels are better and cheaper than Disney but I know for a fact I can spend two weeks at a Disney location and have plenty to do (and the buses are fine, really - stop being so snobbish). Universal offers me two parks that, thanks to their Universal Express, I can do in half a day each. What the hell am I going to do for the other 12 days? I would gladly consider starting a vacation with a couple of days at Universal, but Disney is going to win every time otherwise...
From Jack Curley on February 1, 2013 at 1:58 PM
Melanie, as someone who has stayed at several Motel 6's during long driving trips, I feel I can safely say that Disney's Value resorts are quite a bit above that (although the only value resort I've stayed at is Pop Sports).
From David Brown on February 1, 2013 at 2:03 PM
OK, I really don't want to start another Universal vs Disney bitch-fest but there is no way I could spend two weeks at a Universal resort. I am happy to accept the quality of the hotels may be better than Disney, and the cost cheaper, but the simple fact is that I can do both Universal parks in half a day each with Universal Express so what the hell am I going to do for the other 12 days? I know from experience that Disney offers me more, (and honestly the buses are fine - stop being so snobbish), so at most I would consider maybe two or three nights at a Universal resort to do both parks and then I'd move to Disney for the remainder of my vacation.
It's not knocking Universal - it's just being realistic about how much there is to do...
From edwin roman on February 1, 2013 at 2:36 PM
I have stayed at disney and universal resorts. I enjoy the perks of a universal one much better and the top 2 hotels, hard rock and portofino to me are equal to the best disney has to offer...now, if its a 2 week stay, its simple. I break it up...one week at disney, one at universal..but, you get more bang for your buck at universal. Another thing, the annual passes are not equal either. Universal has food discounts, gifts, special events added in. I enjoy disney and feel its a must for a parent with a young child/teen. But, I think universal is doing great for teens, adults and will be even more exciting with transformers and more potter. Lastly, anyone who has really used the express pass knows you cannot just ride hulk one time! Or another rides. I know in the summer we have gone multiple times on water rides with zero waits...Not to mention every single show is pass access...whereas you struggle timing the fast pass if your lucky to get one.
From Dominick D on February 1, 2013 at 2:42 PM
Ditto to David Brown.
From 98.196.102.105 on February 1, 2013 at 3:16 PM
It really is a moot point to me. I always stay at BOTH resorts. Are Universal's three little hotels better...well, that depends on which level of
D-clusivity you selected at Disney. I always stay at Universal's Portifino hotel. I have had a few mishaps on their suite levels but they worked the butler service out and were very apologetic.
I cannot ever recommend Disney's lowest level hotels. I tried them once out of curiosity and it was horrible. The food court was awful, the rooms were smaller than my guest closets, and depending on where your room was you have to walk a LONG way from your room the the cattle-car line-up. They do not even have enough thought to put a canopy up to keep some of the sun off their guest while they wait seemingly forever for a bus.
This being said, I am a D23 Lifetime nut and there is ALWAYS something to do all/day all night on Disney's pristine property. I love the Universal guest pass, it is the main reason I stay on their property, but again, as it has been said before, I was able to complete each park in about half a day. Both Universal parks are top notch, but they cannot fullfill a full day...and Disney's parks have added parades, Firework FUNtaculars, and creative visual imaging productions. My MouseEARS off to the King of Mouse.
From Anon Mouse on February 1, 2013 at 3:22 PM
Having stayed at Disney on-site, my feeling is Disney oversold its benefits. Is the cost benefit worth it? For paying much more money, is using the bus and monorail transportation system a good value? Is the theming worth it?

Sometimes it isn't worth it if you're staying further away from the parks at the value and moderate resorts. It is better to stay close to the parks like near the Magic Kingom Lagoon or near Epcot or the Studios parks. Thus you can avoid taking the inconsistent busses.

Visiting the resorts is overrated. I know many Disney fans recommend visiting the unique resorts and eat at the restaurants. I think they are a waste of time. The theming is largely skin deep. Peel back a layer. The themed facades cover for mere hotel rooms.

Universal has its hotel rooms right next door to the parks. This is the best benefit as the star attraction is the parks.

From Bryce McGibeny on February 1, 2013 at 3:40 PM
The hotels are beautiful, the walk to the parks is nice and relaxing, water-taxi is offered, unlimited Express Pass, everything is close, and the rooms/service quality is extremely nice.

Universal wins

From 50.89.13.35 on February 1, 2013 at 7:21 PM
As if the WDW Bashers did not have enogh to SLAM Disney ...

.... apparently they also broke up the Beatles

"Leave it to John Lennon to make the Beatles break up official by signing the termination papers while on holiday at Disney World."

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/john-lennon-ended-beatles-at-disney/

From TH Creative on February 1, 2013 at 7:42 PM
Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook." at Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort.

John Lennon signed the contracts that broke up the Beatles at the Poly.

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/john-lennon-ended-beatles-at-disney/

But I guess getting to the front of the line at Cat in the Hat is more ... culturally satisfying.

(Chuckle)

From 115.64.161.122 on February 1, 2013 at 7:47 PM
I stayed at the Royal Pacific in Nov 2010. Considering I'd travelled from Australia specifically to visit WWoHP, the cost of the hotel seemed reasonable as proximity to IOA was important. The expresss pass and early entry to HP were brilliant.

When the expansion is opened, I'll be returning and will stay on site for sure.

From Justin Knight on February 1, 2013 at 8:49 PM
I think Disney offers the best package when it comes to perks. Even though Universal may offer one hour early entry on select days and express, Disney offers extra magic hours all year long for all the parks. Extra Magic Hours alone is a great way to do all the popular rides in the park with minimal plus if i rememeber correctly you can get Fastpass when Extra Morning Magic Hours are happening.
From Brandon Townsend on February 1, 2013 at 8:50 PM
I love Disney and Universal and would feel badly if I did not stay at both resorts while visiting Orlando. Each have their own unique attributes that make a visit special. I will be visiting from Dubai, UAE in October and will be staying 3 nights at the Loews Pacific resort and 5 nights at the Boardwalk Inn. A perfect combination for my family.

I did not know that bit of trivia about Mr Nixon, TH Creative. Thanks for revealing that. And I believe Bill Clinton said' "I did not have sex with that woman." from the honeymoon suite at The Breakers in Cedar Point.

From 70.126.208.163 on February 1, 2013 at 8:51 PM
I am a FL resident and have stayed at Disney numerous times. Last September my sister and I decided to stayed at Universal to go to IOA to see WWoHP since we were going the weekend after labor day the park wasn't busy so the express passes we received for staying on property wasn't really worth it. On top of that we each had to pay the $17 a day for parking so the hotel ended up costing over $200 even with the FL resident discount, I personally will never stay on property at universal again but love all the Disney hotels and all the extra benefits you get with staying on property there.
From 66.87.91.34 on February 1, 2013 at 9:01 PM
I've stayed in both and to me universal is by far the best!! Disney is nice but with universal you can sleep in go swimming then go to the parks and see all you want.. In other words you don't have to make a schedule. You can do whatever you want whenever you want. Where as disney you have to follow a schedule to get the most out of your day, and to me that's not a very relaxing vacation.. And if I'm there for 2 weeks I stay half at disney and half at universal. I wouldn't stay at either one for a whole 2 weeks at a time
From AJ Hummel on February 1, 2013 at 11:38 PM
I have yet to visit Florida, but when I do my plan is the following: stay at a value or moderate WDW resort for five days while doing the WDW parks, stay at the cheapest Universal resort for two days while doing Universal Orlando, and spend the rest of the trip at a cheap hotel in the general Orlando area while doing the other parks and any other non-park activities. Based on what I know about the resorts, each one has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Without trying either, I can't say which is better, but I will say that it sounds like Universal's benefits are probably better for visitors who just want to do theme parks and/or are staying for a short time while WDW's are better for families who want to do other things in addition to theme parks, are visiting for an extended time, and/or want the full Disney World Experience.
From 70.118.44.151 on February 2, 2013 at 4:47 AM
I have stayed at both, and for me it really came down to the parking. Any hotel that charges for parking loosing points, and therefore I gave the mouse my vote.
From Eric Malone on February 2, 2013 at 8:07 AM
I personally find that Univeral's free Express Pass is the best aspects of staying at the hotels, besides the fact you're within walking distance to the parks. The price isn't much of a deterrence for me because I typically go with at least one other person, so the price of the hotel is split down the middle. A $600 hotel bill is a lot more manageable when it's $300 or $200, definitely.

I haven't stayed at Disney since they started offering Fastpass+, so I can't say definitively which one is better, but in my personal experience, considering how crowded Universal can tend to get since you can actually access both parks and the crowds get atrocious sometimes, the free unlimited Express Pass is a heck of a gift.

From Todd Donahue on February 2, 2013 at 9:42 AM
I split up my vacation last time at Florida, we spent 3 nights at the Hilton Bonnet Creek and 7 nights at Portofino. Bonnet Creek was new and we got a deal for a room under 100 bucks which is amazing because its a Hilton and we could see Disney Studios from our room over looking a beautiful newly (at the time) designed golf course at the Waldorf next door. We went to Animal Kingdom one day and went to Kenedy Space Center and the beach the other two days. The hotel was located in the WDW property and was included in the bus line but was not included in the magic hours. I've stayed at the Polynesian and the value hotels at WDW and the Hilton hands down beats everything if you want to experience WDW in price, even if its 200+ it still beats everything that Disney has to offer in value, admentities, restaurants on site, pools, and friendly helpful staff. I will never stay at WDW resort after that experience. While the Waldorf is way out of my price range we went over to the resort because the two are connected by a conferrence center. If I was going to spend 400+ a night then I would be there instead of some over priced Disney resort. The Waldorf was beautiful and a class above everything else at WDW.

My other portion of my trip was at Portofino were like many other posters before me said staying onsite is the only way to go if your going to do Universal. We turned the car in to the onsite rental place because we already knew we had plenty to do within walking distance. I don't know what people are talking about only spending 2 days at universal and getting everything done. That week we did everything and even some stuff we missed. Looking forward to going back in the near future.

In my opinion, stay at an excellent on property resort not affiliated with Disney at WDW for a better value like the Hilton Bonnet Creek and if you're going to Universal stay at one of the three onsite resorts for the total package like the other posters have said. If you want nostalgia like TH said, then sure you can stay at the Disney properties because nothing says a relaxing vacation than remembering the worst president in recent history and the day music died for an iconic band.... Yeah I want to go there on vacation...... I wonder why the PR guys don't put that in the headlines. "Stay at the Contemporary where Nixon stayed and you can feel like you're lying to the nation all over again"

From Rob Pastor on February 2, 2013 at 10:19 AM
Different people have different wants and desires from vacations. But we enjoy a slow paced relaxing leisurely vacation. Heck, last year we didn't spend two weeks in Orlando, we spent 24 days in Orlando & split them between Disney & Universal. But we prefer Portofino for the reasons listed in my previous post. When we vacation, we tend to spend a real lot of time at the hotel resort. We enjoy sipping drinks & enjoying the sun at one of Portofino's three themed pools or five piazza's,using the spa, piazza outside dining & music, and enjoying the ambiance that goes with those great hotel spots. Hey, we're from western Pa., so its a bonus to have some warm weather & sun in early spring. Generally we only spend 4 or 5 hours a day at the parks and the rest of the time clubbing it at Citi Walk and relaxing on the hotel's grounds.And places like Sea World are as close as the Disney hotels are to their own parks, so we'll take a drive off the grounds sometimes. Portofino has a good discount for long stays so we end up paying just a little more for a deluxe hotel than the moderates at Disney. And you just can't beat the relaxing convenience of having everything within walking distance and unlimited Express Pass. We can't do spring this year due to my girlfriend's work schedule and waiting for Transformers to open, but we're going to Universal in the fall for a couple of weeks and we can catch Halloween Horror Nights for the first time also.
From N B on February 2, 2013 at 2:26 PM
I can only speak from experience. I have said it before and I will say it again. Disney never felt like a vacation. All day and night in the parks to get on a few rides has no value to me.

Being able to ride as much as you like with virtually no wait, leaving the parks to relax for a couple hours, then coming back to do it all on the other park outweighs free parking any day of the week.

At Disney, we felt like we had to rush and plan everything just to get our money's worth whereas Universal is always stress free. If staying on-site at Disney and still having to navigate a sea of sticky kids and strollers for a 2 hour wait on a 40 year old coaster is your cup of tea, I admire you.

I will agree that 2 weeks on-site at Universal would be madness. That would be enough time to visit every attraction at the Magic Kindom at least once... I think.

From Anthony Murphy on February 2, 2013 at 4:47 PM
On paper, I think Universal's is better, but I think that the park and entertainment options are better at Disney.
From 96.241.203.247 on February 3, 2013 at 11:06 AM
I appreciate these threads, and the debate, because it helps those of us who haven't done this yet to be better informed.

I did Universal once, and since I had free lodging (one of those time-share sales pitches) I didn't stay on-site.

And since I plan to do lots of other things in orlando, I would guess that next time, I'll do a few days in the Portifino because it sounds very nice, and then move to a typical inexpensive Country Inn and Suites for the rest of my trip. I'll probably stay a day or two in Tampa as well.

From 63.95.36.13 on February 4, 2013 at 7:10 AM
Again I shake my head at the Disney vs Universal threads, its so dull to keep having to lower every single thread to what park is best. I enjoy both parks I love Florida and all it has to offer, Seaworld, universal, Disney and Busch Gardens and i certainly dont get hung up on where is best ! I am a UK resident and I work hard to afford a 14 day holiday for my family every two years to com to florida, If we are feeling flush we stay on Disney Property, if not we stay in a villa. Satying on Disney property is expensive and at face value not the best value for your buck. But like anything its about what you want to out of your holiday. Without doubt the Disney hotels are beurifully themed with very nice rooms catering for everyones wallet. Are the the rooms better then any on International Drives hotels, not really however, what onsite hotels give you is a feeling of exclusivity and feeling a little bit special. Thats what your paying the xtra for, you need to weight up wether its worth it. So going back to this thread which Comapney offers better benefits, Im sorry the editor needs to do try harder, the 2 parks cannot be compared like for like, one is a 2 day park offering high end thrills, the other is a 7 day minimum emersive expereince. The 2 offer completely 2 different expereinces. Universal has the bonus of having fast pass for all rides, but its only a 2 day expereince with poor and limited choice of dining options. Disney has the waterparks, golf, boardwalk and excellent dining options. One park caters for a broader demographics from babies, toddles pre teens, teens familys and the grandparents. The other park caters for Teens, Adults. I am a father of 2 and i enjoy universal to get a balance of more adult themed rides but i cant fill a 2 week holiday just doing adulkt rides. So Mr Editor please can we have an article or discussion that doesnt just encourage the usual whos parks is best slug fest. Florida is an amazing holiday destination with an amazing variety of different parks catering for ALL. Im sorry disney doesnt suit all pallets but the bottom line is Universal have catered for the Teens + in a dedicated and fantastic park but as a result narrowed its appeal. Disney can be accused of lowering the thrill factor with much tamer rides but appealing to a wider audience. Between the 2 parks there is a happy medium and a visit to both is highly recomended.
From 137.191.228.131 on February 4, 2013 at 9:53 AM
Disney's Deluxes are massively overpriced for what they are. The quality is where the moderates should be. I absolutely love the feel and location (Epcot/ despite it's many problems is still my favourite par) of the Beach/Yacht Club Resort, but the premium you pay for the location doesn't translate into an appropriate room quality. Both hotels are showing signs of neglect and the paper thin walls are completely unacceptable given the price tag. If the rooms were up to standard I think I'd pay it; but when you can get the Waldorf Astoria for a fraction of the price BCR becomes a very hard sell. I feel gouged with Disney and the benefits aren't there to justify it, which brings me to Universal....

Universal's hotels are also overpriced, but the rooms seem better in terms of soundproofing. Their location coupled with the Xpress pass and WWOHH ealy entry makes it a easier pill to swallow.

From 74.204.24.2 on February 4, 2013 at 1:29 PM
We often split our stays. We will stay one night at Universal to get the front of the line pass for both days, then a Disney resort for the rest of our time. We feel the front of the line is much better than anything Disney has in terms of their fast pass system. Two days is all we need to spend in Universal to see everything we want with the front of the line pass. The Universal hotels are higher priced than what we get at Disney. We can usually get Deluxe Disney rooms for about the same price after discounts. I rarely find discounts for Universal that are anything to speak of. So, we like the selection of hotels and their discounted prices better at Disney. But the front of the line pass is MUCH better than Disney's fast pass.
From Mark Hollamon on February 5, 2013 at 6:51 AM
For me it really depends on how long you have to stay on the trip.

If you only have a weekend, then it is hands down Universal Orlando simply because of the unlimited express feature of the room key. It is that big deal! The reason I would use this for the weekend stay is with the room key express feature one can easily get their fill of action and still have time left to LEISURELY enjoy the other amenities of the resort and you can walk to them all.

If you are staying more than the weekend I would select a Disney Resort for a few reasons:

1) The food offered at Disney Resorts is much better than Universal Orlando (my opinion, but I have eaten at every resort hotel on both properties)

2) Disney doesn't charge to park your car at their resort while you are a guest. I have always disliked that about Universal and I get it that they don't have a ton of room....barely enough to build another resort. ;)

3) Disney has enough activities and attractions to keep you busy all week with new things each day. Not so much with Universal.

I really am fond of both properties and jump at the chance to visit either.

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