How Disney seduced me away from Universal...

Walt Disney World: How my 2009 trip to Disney World changed my outlook on Disney vs Universal.

From Don Neal
Posted March 4, 2010 at 7:45 AM
Wasn't looking like this was going to be much of a year for park visits but we recently had a planned trip to Siesta Key with family fall through....soooooo.....WE'RE GOING TO DISNEY!

But how did this happen? How did I become a Disney park fan? When did I stop waving the Universal flag?

I have participated in the many (and I do mean many) Universal vs Disney debates through the years here on TPI (member since 2005). I generally fall into the bucket that the two really can't be compared and are more complimentary of one another than anything. But because of the amazing deals that Universal has made available through the years, we were frequent visitors to Universal Orlando and seldom gave any thought to Disney. We visited Universal in 2000, 2005, and 2007 while only visiting Magic Kingdom once in 2005.

This all changed in the winter of 2008/2009 while planning our June '09 trip. My wife said she was happy to take another trip to Central Florida but needed a break from Universal. She doesn't do coasters and often ended up patiently waiting or taking our girls to ride something suitable for them. I have three kids (One son, 10, and two daughters, 6 & 8). So for the first time we sat down and took a good look at Disney.

I wasn't super excited about this but knew the kids would probably enjoy it and if the wife was happy I would be happy, right? ;) I am a vacation planning junkie. I have spreadsheets, I make Google maps, I build budgets, and even do schedules sometimes. No, I'm not a Nazi. Just helpful to understand how we are progressing. Think of it more like a touring plan. ;)

So I jumped in with both feet., TPI, Disney's website, and a number of other great resources that many of you turned me onto. One of the things that really stuck out to me right away was comparing what you really get for your money when comparing Universal and Disney. We had often purchased the 7 or 14 day $99 Universal pass but really only would go 3-4 times that week. And the third or fourth days were half days usually. I had long compared that to a week at Disney, $250-275 a person for a base ticket so the $99 seemed like a steal. At the time, I am not sure we could have afforded Disney anyway so working on a much tighter budget Universal was a no brainer. To me this is where Universal compliments Disney allowing families on a budget an amazing alternative while still getting the Orlando experience. But after really digging into all the parks and what we could do there it was very clear that 6 days at 4 different parks does not equal 3.5 days at 2 parks (Universal).

Now that we had the budget to stretch out a little and take in Disney, we settled on a 6-day park hopper pass. We had all been to MK in '05 but only I had ever been to DHS. So Epcot and AK were going to be all new experiences for all of us as well as DHS for the rest of the family. I started meal planning and was blown away by the prices to eat on-site. We ended up having to expand our initial budget by about 33% because I had numbers in there based on Universal and City Walk type establishments.

When all the planning and booking was done, we had in front of us our most expensive vacation ever. I was growing concerned that I was going to be let down. I knew I could do Universal for at least 35-40% less than this trip was going to cost us. It wasn't long before June 2009 arrived and we were about to find out if it was worth it.

I posted at least four days of Trip Reports here in the forums. If you read them then you know we had an amazing time. I ran out of steam and time to post the rest of the trip (we were at Disney for 6 days and the rest at the beach and around Orlando) but it was all great. Coming home I felt a bit overwhelmed by all we had experienced. I really didn't know how I really felt about it. I tried to compare it to our Universal vacations but they just seemed so different.

My wife and I have talked further about this a few times since. At first it was somewhat confusing but then I started to change my expectations of what the trip should have been and it helped to frame the trip better. I went in expecting something similar to Universal and walked away with something entirely different. Not better or worse, just different.

When our plans fell through this week to go to Siesta Key, my wife and I started discussing what to do instead. We had planned a trip in 2011 to Universal figuring we would give them a year to work any kinks in the new HP world. But with our Siesta Key trip being moved to spring 2011, we needed to pull something forward. So of all the things my wife suggests we do Universal this year. I couldn't believe what came out of my mouth next..."I think I would rather go to Disney."

After she picked herself up off the floor, I explained why. This is the point where you all start shaking your heads and telling me "I told you so." :)

1 ) The biggest part of the Disney experience that reverberates through my head when I think back through our trip is that our entire family was together for 90% of the trip riding attractions TOGETHER. At Universal, we were always forced to split up for half the day. My son and I would go ride the thrill rides, girls go ride the kiddy rides, then we meet up to ride dark rides, shows, etc. Now this isn't Universal's fault, per say, so I am not knocking them. Their focus is on families with older kids, teens, young adults, or as I mentioned above, a family on a budget. I have long argued that Universal has tons of great rides for kids, and they do, but nothing can compare to being able to get on almost every ride in a park with your kids and everyone enjoy it. That's a benefit I can't put a high enough value on.

2 ) The food. Need I say more? I have been told over and over how great the food is at Disney and I blew it off time and time again saying "sure, but its still theme park food." Now I see why Mythos is such an anomaly at Universal. Its standard at the Disney parks. I didn't eat one thing in the six days we were there from counter service to expensive sit downs that I wasn't satisfied with or didn't enjoy. Color me impressed and wanting more!

3 ) Shows. The shows at Disney really blew my mind. From Lion King to Nemo to the Little Mermaid. I really didn't think I would enjoy them all that much. But they were so well done and very entertaining. I felt like I should have paid for an additional ticket to see them.

4 ) Cleanliness. Unfortunately the Universal parks have not been quite up to par in this regard on our last few visits. They aren't filthy by any stretch but now I see what they could be like.

There are many more things I could go on about but the point I wanted to make is this. Disney vs Universal is often debated and always will be. And there are many truths and fallacies on both sides of the argument. But the biggest reason a person will argue for or against something is their personal experience. If you enjoy Universal or Disney more than the other then great, to each his own but being open minded about the other will allow you to experience new things that you may not have realized were there. I never really understood what it would mean to me to be able to ride so many rides with my daughters. I just figured I would have to wait until they got older or climb on top of the carousel horse with them.

So Disney, thank you for the wonderful experience. We're coming back. Your magic is not to be underestimated nor your ability to offer something for everyone.

And Universal, I am not forgetting you completely. I love Spider-Man, Dueling Dragons (or whatever it's new name is), Men in Black, and the Mummy. I am sure we are just a few years away from my kids wanting to see you instead of Disney. Which was another reason we chose to go this year, I know the window for my kids to fully enjoy Disney won't be open for too much longer. So Universal, we'll see you soon, just not real soon. :)

From Anthony Murphy
Posted March 4, 2010 at 8:48 AM
Probably your first point of Disney is the biggest difference and something that would not seem obvious from the outside.

Looking at it now, the pros and cons of both theme park juggernauts compliment each other. Very good comparison!

From Phil B.
Posted March 4, 2010 at 9:28 AM
Very well written and worthy of being a Flume article on the home page. Kudos!

From Don Neal
Posted March 4, 2010 at 2:31 PM
Thanks for the comments guys. Appreciate the feedback. Already looking forward to this May/June for the reasons listed above! :)

From Robert Mayo
Posted March 4, 2010 at 4:19 PM
Universal is great for kids that are 42 inches or higher. Many people don't even think of height restrictions. The height issue will make or break a fun time at all theme parks. It's real sad when you have to tell one of your kids they can't ride because they are not tall enough yet...

From Pyra Dong
Posted March 4, 2010 at 5:30 PM
I'm still a big Universal freak-- but I normally just go with me and my BF. I HATE going there with my family because we get split up so much... and I agree, food at Disney is better.

As much as I have wandered USO and IOA to the point that I think the parks should be paying me for how many times I've helped lost guests... I want to get a Disney pass soon.

Perhaps it's because I need a change of USO scenery-- or I really want to enjoy a theme park with the entire family-- or I want a theme park where I can just enjoy the view like those 80-year-old couples with big cameras. Maybe I'll be like you, Don, and be a Disney freak soon

From James Rao
Posted March 4, 2010 at 8:54 PM
Good stuff, Don, glad to have you back in the TPI fold.

That WHOLE FAMILY thing is something I have talked about for as long as I have been posting on this site. It is undeniably the single most important factor is Disney's unrivaled success.

And don't get me wrong, I totally love Universal (and Busch, and Herschend, and SeaWorld), but for me and my family, at this time in our lives, nothing beats a trip to a Disney park. Nothing.

Ten days in May....just around the corner. WDW, here I come!

From Don Neal
Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:12 AM
Missed you too James! *grouphug* :P

What dates in May?

From Bob Miller
Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:21 AM
Don, nice to see you on the board again, you've been pretty quiet since your last trip. And James, you've been quiet for awhile, love the barbs between you and TH, who's been quiet too.

Don, I've been going to Florida since the 70's. First with my wife, then my daughter and now with Zachary. Disney by far is the family park for the young ones, and Universal is the 9 year old and up park.

Love both places, but would probably take Disney over Universal, just because of the atmosphere. I don't think Universal will ever come up with anything that can beat Mickey and company. Thats their ace in the hole, a childs' love of Mickey.

Granted, Universal can draw the older kids, but I don't see many families planning trips there just for that purpose, I know I never did. Some years, I would plan a vacation, without Disney, but it was never just Universal. It included Sea World, Disney Quest, Disney Water Parks and other attractions.

But I have planned vacations without Universal and just Disney World. There's just not enough to do at Universal to plan a 14 day trip around, like I did with Disney, jmho. Great thread Don.

From Phil B.
Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:56 AM
Too bad Universal doesn't have the land for 2 more gates, it would really go a long way in making the resort a strong competitor for the extended stay that Disney sees no real competition for. If they could get one more dry, heavily themed park and then a water park on property, it would really split up the people when making a decision to travel to the Orlando area for some extended R&R. Four gates, three top notch hotels and their citywalk dining and shopping district, that would be quite a Universal Resort.

I remember reading years ago that Universal sold off like 1000 acres. Anybody ever heard or read about this too? If they did, I bet they're kicking themselves now with all the growth that's taken place at the resort the last decade or so. They truly could have been a resort destination like disney.

From Don Neal
Posted March 5, 2010 at 8:06 AM
Thanks for the comments Bob! :)

Phil, I total agree with the value additional gates would bring to Universal. With the Nickelodeon and Dreamworks brands they could really run with it and build a more family oriented park as a third gate that would put them back in the mix for families. A four park package that included Nick Studios, IoA, USO, and a waterpark would be great.

From James Rao
Posted March 5, 2010 at 11:35 AM
Don, I am heading back to the world in mid-may, 8th - 18th... got my touring plans (just doing the four parks, Downtown Disney, the Disney Boardwalk, and a little side expedition to Beaches & Cream) and restaurant reservations (Plaza Restaurant, Yak&Yeti, Prime Time, Tokyo Dining, and Kona) already... I am good to go!

Bob, I have NOT been quiet lately! Robert Niles just keeps deleting all my most active threads! =)

From Don Neal
Posted March 5, 2010 at 1:30 PM
We just booked our reservations for Sci-Fi Diner (Kid's pick :P ), The Plaza Restaurant (haven't been here yet), and our second visit to the Coral Reef (YUM). We'll be at Disney on 6 different days so not sure where we'll do dinner the other three nights.

As for lunch we have Cosmic Ray's @ MK, El Pirata y El Perico @ MK on the second day, and Flame Tree BBQ at AK. Any lunch recommendations for our two days at Epcot and our DHS visit?

From James Rao
Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:14 PM
Don, we had several food discussions while you were on your "walkabout." Start with the discussion thread following, then follow the links in that thread to the park of your choice. Lots of good stuff on the menu!

And, make sure to get the Plaza Club when you go to the Plaza Restaurant. You won't be disappointed. At least I wasn't...three years ago when I last had one! =)


From Phil B.
Posted March 6, 2010 at 11:53 AM
I definitely recommend the 50's Prime Time Cafe for lunch at DHS. It's just too much fun to eat there. The theme is played up to the max, and the cast members are out of this world with staying in character and adding to the overall experience. If you have never eaten there before, don't miss out on an opportunity to do so. The food is pretty good, I had Mom's Pot Roast and loved it! For years, dining at this place never appealed to me, and now that I have I am sorry I passed it up so many times. Give it a shot, I just can't say enough good things about how much fun it is to eat there.

From Sylvain Comeau
Posted March 6, 2010 at 3:45 PM
Personally, I think the ideal Orlando vacation includes both Disney and Universal. Then again, Don, you already had your fill of Universal for a while, so it certainly makes sense to focus on Disney on your next trip. Which rides did you prefer, by the way? I hope you got a chance to try TSMM.

From Michael Owen
Posted March 6, 2010 at 4:34 PM
The Universal v Disney debate has always been a strange one for me. Maybe it's because I'm used to spending 14 days in Orlando after travelling from the UK, which allows me to visit all the parks without having to pick and chose.

If I had to pick a favorite I'd have to go for Disney, but that's not me trying to downplay Universal, I love both resorts and as has been said they compliment each other well.

From Don Neal
Posted March 6, 2010 at 7:44 PM
As of tonight, our meal plan is as follows:

Sunday (AK)
- Lunch: Flame Tree BBQ
- DInner: Offsite

Monday (MK)
- Breakfast: O'Hana @ Polynesian
- Lunch: El Pirata y El Perico
- Dinner: The Plaza Restaurant

Tuesday (Epcot)
- Lunch: Open
- Dinner: Nine Dragons Inn (China)

Wednesday (DHS)
- Lunch: Pizza Planet (we did 50's Primetime last year)
- Dinner: Sci-Fi Diner

Thursday (MK)
- Lunch: Cosmic Ray's
- Dinner: Crystal Palace

Friday (Epcot)
- Lunch: Coral Reef
- Dinner: Open

From James Rao
Posted March 7, 2010 at 5:39 AM
Just remember, unless you are traveling during a busy time of the year for the parks, El Pirata y el Perico will be closed. =(

From Don Neal
Posted March 8, 2010 at 7:31 AM
Yeah, we were there last year June 6th-15th and ate there. We'll be there May 29-June 7 so hopefully it will be open like last year.

Space Mountain was closed last year when we were there so I am looking forward to taking the kids on that one. They were too little in 2005 when we went.

And for kids asked that I remove Jungle Cruise from the Touring Plan this year. Ouch! :D

From James Rao
Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:58 AM
^^ Ouch is right!

However, if you get a chance to ride Jungle Cruise in the dark, you should give it a try. The "jokes" aren't any better, but the ride itself seems a little more mysterious.

From Anthony Murphy
Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:02 AM
Love the Jungle Cruise in the Dark.

If its super late, they tend to get a bit ranchy (for Disney, so not very bad)

From Don Neal
Posted March 9, 2010 at 6:23 AM
Here's our daily park visit plan. Last year we only had one day at Epcot which you all told me wouldn't be enough. Yeah, yeah, you were right. :P

Sunday: Animal Kingdom
Monday: Magic Kingdom
Tuesday: Epcot
Wednesday: DHS
Thursday: Magic Kingdom
Friday: Morning @ AK/Afternoon @ Epcot
Saturday: Daytona Beach
Sunday: Venice Beach

From Tyler Bell
Posted March 9, 2010 at 6:12 PM
I am a Universal person,Disney is a very fun place to be ,but at the end of the day after Iexit the park gates of USF or IOA I step into the universe of CityWalk and Im ready for more.Also i like how everything is right there.

From Don Neal
Posted March 10, 2010 at 6:20 AM

I love Universal for those very same reasons. And as I said in closing, we'll definitely get back there. One of my biggest gripes against Magic Kingdom is the half hour it takes to get from your car to the gate. But in some ways that's part of the adventure I guess.

Universal is a better park for me personally as well but as a family, Disney provides a more complete experience due to the ages of my kids. Mostly because of reason #1 in my original post.

From Tyler Bell
Posted March 19, 2010 at 9:44 PM
Yea, I see were you are coming from

From Michael Smith
Posted March 19, 2010 at 11:35 PM
30 mintues from the car to the gate isn't bad. It usually takes me a half hour to get from the toll booth to my parking spot at Universal.. :-/ Then you have the long long walk that wouldn't be as bad if all of the lazy people wouldn't stand on the speedWALKS. Why doesn't Universal put a stripe down the middle and lable one side for standers and one side for walkers like I've seen at airports?

From Amy Wydra
Posted March 25, 2010 at 9:57 AM
We are going to buy a Fl resident annual pass to one or the other...We have a 5 and 3 year old...which one is better for them??

From Don Neal
Posted March 25, 2010 at 6:43 PM
Are you asking which parks (WDW or Universal) are better for kids at their age?

If so, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom win hands down. Tons of great family rides, shows, play places, and animals (at AK) to see and do together.

From Michael Smith
Posted March 25, 2010 at 8:54 PM
Yeah, In about 10 years, Universal will be the perfect place for you. But for now, I'd definately go with Disney for that age. If you are concerned about cost, I would even go with Sea World/Aquatica or Sea World/Busch Gardens before I would Universal.

From Crystal A
Posted March 26, 2010 at 8:05 AM
There are such vast differences between Universal and Disney. I love Universal but my heart belongs to the Mouse. We love to eat in theme parks and I make ADR's for almost every trip we have to Disney. For Universal I don't even look forward to eating because there are so few stand out restaurants in the parks themselves that it really doesn't matter. There are however some good ones at CityWalk. The only thing for me that the Mouse will most likely never be able to top is HHN. Universal does have the lock down on Halloween.

From Mark Fairleigh
Posted March 28, 2010 at 8:42 PM
Great report, Don! I had a similar change of heart this past November when I celebrated my free birthday day at Epcot. It was a magical day for sure. Universal just didn't feel as special afterwards. Still love the place, but Disney is truly king.

That being said HHN is still our main reason for vacationing in Orlando every October/November, so Universal still holds our hearts in that regard.

From Don Neal
Posted March 29, 2010 at 5:57 AM
Thanks for the comments Mark. That magic can cast quite a spell on ya. I know what you mean about still loving Universal but Disney feeling more special.

Recently I found that Google Maps had used their street view technology to map the entirety of both Universal Parks. I took some time and "walked" the parks. I definitely loved seeing all the attractions and it made me want to go back. But it made me wish that Disney had mapped their parks with Google's Street View technology more. LOL :P

I can't wait to take my son on the Hulk and Dueling Dragons, my daughters on Spider-man and Popeye's Bilge Rat Barges. But it will be a few years as I stated above. In the meantime Mickey's Pixie dust has us locked in.

8 weeks, 5 days until Disney!!! YAY! :D

From donna hoyle
Posted April 26, 2010 at 3:16 PM
Need help on choosing between Animal Kingdom (Kilimanjaro safari) or Busch Gardens in Tampa.
I would like to go to the first listed because I heard the safari is awesome. My husband has been told by friends that the place to go is Busch Gardens for animals and rides. Any help out there?? We will have our two children 9 and 4.5

From Don Neal
Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:30 AM
Hi Donna,

I haven't been to Busch Gardens so unfortunately I can't compare the two but have heard good things about it on the site. Perhaps another TPI'r can jump in here and provide some insight.

From Tony Duda
Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:27 PM
There are several old threads in TPI which have Animal Kingdom and Busch Tampa comparisons so, have a look at them. I've been to both parks numerous times and enjoy both but they do have their own personalities.

In a nutshell, my opinion is that Busch Tampa is far superior to AK for animal viewing experiences. You can get quite close to many animals in the several walking and riding tours. BGT also is better for roller coasters. AK, being Disney, is far superior in live shows and theme-ing and character encounters. Each park has a few quality dining experiences and each park has one or two shows or animal encounters as good as the other.

From Andrew Holden
Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:36 AM
I love both theme parks, but with two kids that age, go to Animal Kingdom. Busch Gardens is great for coaster fanatics, but when you have a family, you can't beat Disney. Also, I believe that Disney has better interactive animal experiences with the exception of Jungala, and Kilimanjaro Safaris is better than Rhino Rally.

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