Disney Springs vs. Universal CityWalk: Who's winning now?

June 6, 2016, 11:13 PM · In the ongoing Disney vs. Universal war of improvements in Orlando, it's not just the theme parks that are benefitting. Their respective dining/shopping centers have also undergone some major upgrades over the last few years. Of course the real winner of this brawl is you and me. And my stomach. The only real loser so far is my wallet.

Now that Disney Springs has finally unveiled the final piece of its Springs puzzle, the Town Center, it seemed like a great time to visit and compare and contrast the two competitors for your dollar.

If you had visited the former Downtown Disney over the last year or so, the overall experience during construction phase was tantamount to driving I-4 during rush hour with no air conditioning, two screaming kids, your flatulent Uncle Arvind, and a motion sick dog. Only less fun. Surrounded by construction walls that packed you in like mice in a maze, unable to get your bearings, and driving around for hours trying to find a parking spot within a 5K distance of Downtown was a meeska mooska Mickey mess.

But I am happy to report that the walls have come down, a whole lot of new stores and restaurants are open, and with the addition of the Lime Parking Garage to the pre-existing Orange one, parking is a breeze.

Disney has done a great job with the new architectural features here. I particularly enjoyed the Old Florida feel of the Town Center with its country-style Welcome Center, many fountains, and the beautiful blue springs from which Disney Springs derives its name. TIP: Take a moment to let the kids (or yourself) hand-crank the wheel to draw some water up from the spring via the giant Archimedes screw, it's very cool.

Okay, so the place looks cool, but its purpose is to thicken your stomach at its eateries and thin out our purse or wallet at its shops. Does Disney Springs achieve that goal?

That's a resounding yes from me on both counts. We arrived at 10am as the Springs opened for business and our first stop was Sprinkles for some cupcake snacks. While a bit pricey (a dozen cupcakes will set you back $52), they are good. While the cake part of the cup was extremely tasty, I thought the icing was a bit on the overly sweet and thick side.

Next up was some shopping. We checked out new stores like Kate Spade, Tommy Bahama, Under Armour Brand House, Na Hoko Hawaiian Jewelry, and old standbys like the Lego Store where I may as well direct deposit my paycheck thanks to my little builder. There are a LOT of shops now, around 80+ with more scheduled to open in the coming months. TIP: Pop into the Under Armour Brand House for two great photo ops, a giant (and I mean giant) Under Armour Tee in the entry and a (slightly) smaller Hulk on the second floor.

Whereas in the old Downtown Disney, the emphasis was more on hawking Disneyana and Disney-branded merchandise, the wider selection of shops now making their home at Disney Springs has opened up the shopping appeal which in turn will open up tourist wallets even wider. Trust me. It's not hard to spend a fortune here.

Carrying around all those shopping bags for my wife is hard work, so she periodically feeds me to keep my energy up. Lunch was at the new D-Luxe Burger, and let me tell you this place is good.

I would strongly argue it is the best burger I have had on WDW property, though it might be hard to comprehend my argument as I stuff a Southern Classic Burger in my mouth. The fries are really good too, not greasy at all. TIP: Get here EARLY! We rolled up for lunch at a respectable 11:40 and the line was literally out the door.

The smell inside is torture as you wait for your meal which leads me to TIP #2: The burgers here are served pink in the middle, so if you like well done make sure you order it that way, but it does take quite a few mouth-watering minutes longer.

After another round of shopping, dinner was reserved at Morimoto Asia. The food here is simply amazing, the d├ęcor is beautiful, and the service was on point. (I would say on fleek, but that would earn an eye-roll from my teenager.) We loved the Orange Chicken, Chicken Fried Rice, Chicken Dumplings, and Vegetable Egg Rolls. I can also recommend the citrus salad and the Miso Soup.

We have also eaten at The Boathouse which was really fresh and tasty seafood, but be prepared for sticker shock at the end of the meal. Even the kids menu is pricey. Raglan Road is always fantastic, and if you go for dinner you get to see a spectacular live dance performance as well.

And there are still a bunch of little snackeries we never got to sample that we want to try such as The Daily Poutine, Aristocrepes, and B.B. Wolf's Sausage Co.

But how does the new Springs stack up to Universal CityWalk? While Disney was undergoing its transformation from Downtown to Springs, we certainly had been visiting CityWalk more often, particularly for the restaurants.

Some of our CityWalk favorites include: Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (you can't go wrong with beer and burgers), Antojito's (good Mexican and a great Mariachi show on certain nights), and Vivo Italian Kitchen (surprisingly affordable yet excellent Italian eatery), and the NBC Sports Grill (sit at one of the combo food/foosball table, it's awesome!)

So for awhile, CityWalk held the edge, but now I would say Disney Springs takes the top foodie honors especially with the recent opening of STK Orlando and more great restaurants on the way. Although I am very eager to check out the fabulous-looking creations at CityWalk's Toothsome Chocolate Emporium when it opens later this year.

As for the shopping at CityWalk, I think Disney Springs now holds the edge there too. Universal just doesn't have that many great retailers at City Walk, and even their own Studio Store is fairly lackluster especially compared to the World of Disney.

I think Disney has really created something special with the new Disney Springs. The theming is up to Disney top-notch standards, there are a surprising amount of new locations here in which to shop and visit and dine in addition to the old favorites, and they're not even done.

When the parks are packed, Disney Springs just makes a great getaway. Park yourself in one of the rocking chairs on the Welcome Center porch overlooking the crystal blue springs, grab a snack of your choice in hand, tuck your shopping bags at your feet and enjoy!

Replies (28)

June 6, 2016 at 11:52 PM · Disney springs looks the part but every item on sale there is way overpriced.
June 7, 2016 at 12:31 AM · '...it seemed like a great time to visit and compare and contrast the two competitors for your dollar.'
I thought you would compare the dollar/quality thing. Sure there are some great but hugely expansive restaurants at DS that, to be honest are not worth the price to me. Shopping I also found very expensive and above that the collection in the rather small shops suffer greatly.
CW has created a more party atmosphere and although I never had a bad meal anywhere, and some also offer more adventures options, the price is always in line with the experience. For an (outlet) mall I could go anywhere saving a lot of money and having a better collection. Although I think for some who don't leave the Disney property and really need to shop during their vacation they now have an option.
June 7, 2016 at 4:02 AM · First it was Disney Village to capture some more tourist dollars. Then it became Downtown Disney to crush Church Street Station. Now it is Disney Springs, and trying to crush CityWalk. One wonders what it will be in another ten years.
June 7, 2016 at 5:13 AM · I like how your experience differed so greatly from mine, it makes an interesting read. I found the new Disney Springs to be awful, it feels like I'm at the outlet mall across the street, with the same level of poor customer service. Most of the staff seemed to not want to be there and even the front door woman at Sprinkles was incredibly rude (I ended up not trying the cupcakes because her attitude ruined my experience.) it doesn't feel like a fun Disney trip anymore, it just feels like spending the day with someone who wants me to know they are better than me. City Walk is more accessible and keeps more with the spirit that Universal provides so for me it wins by a long shot.
June 7, 2016 at 5:47 AM · And don't forget that Universal charges you to Park (excluding FL residents after 6 PM) while Disney Springs' parking is all free. And I love the system that tells you how many spots on each floor and row are open.
June 7, 2016 at 6:33 AM · We always very much enjoyed Downtown Disney, but Disney Springs is a far, far superior experience. WE love all the shopping and dining of course, but very much enjoy the architecture, the live evening entertainment, the food trucks, Jock Lindsay's Hangar Bar (a lot!) and are looking forward to the opening of The Edison. It is a place we'll visit 2 or 3 times during each trip, and spend sevearal hours each time.
June 7, 2016 at 6:48 AM · Love the Disney Springs atmosphere but disappointed that every shop and most eateries cater to those with beaucoup money. Hard for a middle class family to enjoy anything more than the atmosphere and a burger when every other offering is centered around fancy designers and expensive concept restaurants. I feel CW offers better value and affordability even if it doesn't have as much "stuff". But DS is gorgeous for sure!
June 7, 2016 at 7:05 AM · Great article, totally agree that the changes to springs were necessary and worth it. Surprised you never mentioned Cowfish.

Also I'd argue that springs needs to be the better destination here as it is so far removed from the theme parks unlike Citywalk.

June 7, 2016 at 8:46 AM · Don't forget about parking cost - unless you are an APH to Universal, you have to pay to park... I think even after 6 it has a price now too but I might be wrong.
June 7, 2016 at 9:21 AM · Who's winning? Not your wallet. It looks expensive. Good for window shopping and not much else. Most of these retailers are likely at other malls and outlet centers. You can find knockoffs or private label brands at Walmart or Target. Locals might like the evening entertainment.
June 7, 2016 at 10:11 AM · Folks, please stop calling it an outlet mall unless you can document that the offerings inside the stores at DS are identical to the stuff you would find at an outlet center.
June 7, 2016 at 10:59 AM · Why identical? Similar is close enough. Do you know that outlet centers have many high end retailers?
June 7, 2016 at 11:05 AM · Having been to both over many years and seeing both change many times I think they both have there good points and bad, for me city walk is a little hard to get to find out what shop is where there is so many ups and downs to different areas that makes it feel a little disjointed but come nighttime and the party atomospher starts your just can not beat citywalk, Disney springs has evolved massively over time and it has gone away from the days when you could buy a cheap burger at McDonald's, yes back in the day for those who do not know Disney springs had a McDonald's, now it's more like a upmarket place to eat, drink and shop which is great as a special treat but runs into being very expensive if you eat there every night of your vacation, the shops I find easier to find and get around but I do not like the choices so much it's mainly high cost shopping and for me when I go on vacation I like a bargain and I do not think Disney springs will offer this type of shopping experince, it may become more attractive to locals but only time will tell.
June 7, 2016 at 12:52 PM · Disney Springs workers should be issued masks because prices are so high they could be considered robbery.
June 7, 2016 at 12:53 PM · Wow, JK, that was one long sentence!
June 7, 2016 at 1:39 PM · The problem with the evolution of Disney Springs is that it has gone away from the entertainment concept Imagineers initially envisioned. It has essentially become a glorified outlet mall with the Cirque theater, movie theater, and themed dining.

Why guests visiting WDW need to buy Under Armour or furniture at Anthropogie is beyond me. Certainly having retailers on property to alleviate the need for guests to drive off site for some resort luxuries is something DS should try to do, but what has resulted is still a huge mess of a complex. DS is supposed to be an extension of the WDW resort, where guests should be given a themed shopping experience unlike what they can get at home. Aside from the some of the higher end restaurants and Cirque, Disney Springs is really just a glorified outlet mall now. Of the half dozen outlets within an hour drive of where I live near Washington, DC, I can go to virtually every retailer housed in DS aside from World of Disney and Once Upon a Toy.

This renovation really should have focused on creating an entertainment outlet with some unique shopping experiences, instead of a generic shopping destination with some themed dining.

June 7, 2016 at 4:26 PM · I 100% agree with Mr. Meyer.
June 7, 2016 at 6:38 PM · I don't know why a Disney vacationer would want to shop at Kate Spade or Under Armour. They have those at home - or online.

What I'd have preferred is that Disney Springs become a food destination. Just restaurants, with many offering live entertainment/music. Heck, they could offer cooking classes, and wine, beer, and coffee tasting.

Delicious Disney would have been the direction I'd take it.

June 7, 2016 at 6:58 PM · disclaimer: I have not visited Disney Springs yet. When I go on vacation, shopping is not really high on my list of things to do. I want to be entertained & see things I can't see at my local mall/shopping center. Admittedly I really liked pleasure island, although I can understand wanting to update things. I suspect Disney Springs will provide more profit. The only thing I want to see at DS is Jock Lindsey's bar, but then I'm an Indiana Jones fanatic.
June 7, 2016 at 7:57 PM · Went to DS twice in the past week while on vacation. Parking is so much easier now. Atmosphere is great. Felt like a fun place to spend time. Saw some very good live entertainers each night. Biggest concern is the price of restaurants. $50+ for a steak at STK. $15+ for a burger at most places. $22 for spaghetti at the Italian restaurant. Just my wife and I, but wondering how most families can handle spending $100 to $250 for one meal.
June 7, 2016 at 8:30 PM · As someone from New Jersey who looks to spend time at WDW to get away from the real world, the new addition brought me...right back to New Jersey. Aside from the restaurants, the whole shopping center IS a mall, no different from the tons we have in Jersey. And IMO has no Disney touch whatsoever. The best thing about it is the restaurants (esp the Boathouse) and the fact that it brings some of the crowds away from the Marketplace where true Disney still resides. Btw: when we were there a few weeks ago, the mall area was a ghost town.
June 8, 2016 at 3:11 AM · One stark difference between the two venues is Disney is moving a lot more to third parties in Springs while Universal is moving away from that, creating more in house experiences over at Citywalk. They are going two different directions.

Disney Springs IS a high end outlet mall with a few extras going after the high end crowd and international tourists who may not know better, which seems oddly out of place for Disney sustainability. It'll be interesting to see how long a lot of the tenants actually last.

June 8, 2016 at 4:18 AM · Well, the Boathouse is owned by a Chicago Company. Why should I go there?

I think what many are missing is that not everybody comes from the New York, New Jersey, or even Chicago. Many places do not have giant shopping districts/malls/etc. Disney is trying to keep the conventioneers from going down the road. Its as simple as that.

With that being said, I have been proven wrong. Disney Springs hit it out of the park! I thought this was going to be a lame attempt at Disney, but the thing turned out WAY better than I could have imagined.

June 8, 2016 at 8:56 AM · I'm jealous of the people who call Disney Springs just a glorified outlet mall. Because clearly whatever towns they live in must have some pretty sweet malls. All of the malls here in Tampa are just a sprawl of really small retail stores and restaurants, and maybe a movie theater and maybe one or two little play sets to keep the kids from whining. They wish they could be as impressive as Disney Springs!
June 10, 2016 at 5:52 AM · I have to agree completely with Russell Meyer
Shopping in and around Orlando is plentiful, big brands are well represented at pretty much every mall and outlet strip.

Disney are making things more generic. I remember the Villains store at MGM (before it became DHS) had exclusive merch that was not available in other stores. That is where I spend the treat money.

To my family that travels from the UK, Disney was all about wonder, the theming the spectacular rides and attractions. The loss of Disney Quest is a big shame, it is so rare to see many arcade machines in one place these days, not to mention the excellent unique games.

Universal does seem to be doing what Disney did before they changed from Magic & Money to just Money.

June 10, 2016 at 10:31 AM · The problem I have with Disney Springs vs. City Walk is the same problem that I have with Anaheim's Downtown Disney vs. Hollywood's City Walk - City Walk has better theming and a more exciting, hipper vibe. Disney Springs looks like a nice generic mall, but no big Disney theming. You could almost call it Disney's Florida Adventure.

When Disney was trying to come up with the idea for the second California park, Eisner asked, "What do people do when they leave Disneyland?" And they answered, "They want to see the rest of California". And everybody looked at each other and wondered, "Could it be that simple?" Well, it wasn't that simple, because the real California is 10x better than a fake California.

"What do people do when they leave Disney World?" They go shopping, so they built Disney Marketplace. They go to Church Street Station, so they built Pleasure Island. They go to City Walk, so they built Disney Springs. Instead of always reacting to the marketplace, Disney should have built something all it's own.

Disney Springs pays tribute to the old Florida, and maybe they can get away with that theme because there are so many diverse attractions in Disney World, but it's still a bit boring to me.

June 10, 2016 at 6:45 PM · As someone who just got back from visiting there twice I can understand why Disney did these upgrades to DTD but I can't understand "why" they would do them.

The average tourist already has a budget stretched to the brink and these shops prices are really out of line with what I could imagine the average family would like to pay. I know some people will rush to brag that they could afford it and that's cool that you have 50 plus dollars to drop per person per meal and the body and budget to fit in the size zero items they stock and their boutique stores but I don't think it fits and unless alot of locals make the trek there I see alot of these stores being vacant sooner than later.

That being said I agree with the op, it is a beautiful shopping center and great for killing an afternoon and if you are on the dining plan sure go crazy and use some credits here because the food is really good and I whole heartedly recommend checking it out if you vacation at Disney or live in the area for a date night.

June 11, 2016 at 12:43 PM · Disney is smart in offering more upscale restaurants and shops. Universal caters more to the shrinking middle class and, when it isn't a side trip from a day at a Disney park, Universal offers more affordable eating plans, bargains, and the like. The problem? This market is shrinking and fickle.

Universal does well by marketing itself (and pricing their theme park tickets) as an equal alternative to Disney, but in the long run may suffer from an overall smaller profit margin and less brand loyalty. Upscale shoppers tend to stick with upscale brands wherever they are and aren't as concerned with discounts. You won't go for a Prius when you are used to a Mercedes. Convention visitors are also more likely to follow this trend when they hear that STK (a brand they are familiar with) is at Disney Springs as opposed to going blind with a brand they have never heard of at Citywalk (i.e. Troublesome Tooth Factory at CW).

Targeting the upscale market also shows that Disney isn't concerned as much with locals (Orlando's average household income is lower than the US median household income) and are more concerned with international visitors and visitors within a higher income bracket as stated above. It's happening in major cities all over the U.S. Disney has rightly aligned itself with other upscale brands as they are the upscale choice in the theme park market.

It can also be said that the upscale market brings in a certain type of demographic that can be less troublesome than what Disney encountered in their Pleasure Island days-- which was a major factor in Disney's decision to overhaul the island. It's an unfortunate reality, but it's true. This is where Universal could suffer in the long run as they continue to test the upscale theme park market.

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