Should I go to Disney World or Universal Orlando?

July 11, 2018, 6:38 PM · Only money and time are keeping you from visiting both Walt Disney World and Universal Studios on your next visit to Orlando. But if you don't have an unlimited supply or that money and time (and who does?), which vacation destination should you chose?

I've been to both more times that I can count and am happy to assure you that both are fine places to spend a vacation. So it comes down to personal preference whether Disney or Universal is the right choice for you and your family. Based on my experience, here are some questions to consider in deciding between the two resorts.

How much time are you looking to spend?

Walt Disney World includes four theme parks and two water parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios, plus Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), while Universal Orlando is half the size — with two theme parks and one water park (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, plus Volcano Bay). Actually, Universal is even smaller physically than Disney World, with its parks located within walking distance of each other while Disney is spread out over about 40 square miles.

You can do pack an entire Universal Orlando vacation into as little as three days, while Disney World is going to take at least five to six days for first-time visitors. Four days at Universal is more comfortable, but you probably will find yourself stretching for things to do after five days. At Disney, you can fill a seven-day vacation easily. Both parks discount their daily ticket prices the more days you stay, so they using their pricing strategy to encourage those longer stays.

If there's something other than Disney or Universal you really want to fit into a one-week Orlando-area vacation (Kennedy Space Center? SeaWorld? Golf?), a Universal vacation will allow you that extra time without having to miss anything in the parks. Carving a day or two out of a week at Disney likely means you will have to compromise on what you do there, however.

(I've included some of my video highlights from the two resorts throughout this post for your consideration, as well.)

Which entertainment franchises are your family's favorites?

Disney and Universal are all theme-driven parks, meaning that their rides and shows are about their characters and settings more than physical thrills. These aren't destinations for roller coaster junkies. So which movies and TV shows you like should factor strongly in your decision whether to visit Disney or Universal, because that dictates which characters and franchises you will be spending time with during your trip.

At Disney, the top franchises are:

At Universal, the top franchises are:

That's right, Marvel is split between the two resorts, with most of the popular characters (including Spider-Man and the Hulk) at Universal, though Disney is building a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster at Epcot.

How patient are you?

The Walt Disney World theme and water parks collectively welcomed nearly 60 million daily visitors in 2017, while Universal Orlando's parks drew more than 20 million daily visitors last year. That's a lot of people, and that means long lines for pretty much everything. But many visitors have found ways to minimize the time they spend in line, and how you are willing to manage that should affect which resort you select.

At Universal Orlando, if you book a stay at its top-line Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, or Portofino Bay hotels, you get a free Universal Express Unlimited front-of-line pass to almost every attraction in its two theme parks for up to five people staying in your room, from your check-in day to your check-out day.

If you are not staying at one of those three hotels, you can buy a Universal Express pass for $70 to $170 per day, depending upon when you visit and whether you are buying pass than lets you skip each line once or an unlimited number of times. That means the "free" Universal Express Unlimited passes you get by staying at one of the three participating hotels can be worth up to $850 — often more than the cost of the room itself!

At Disney, you don't have to pay for front-of-line access to popular rides and shows... well, at least not with money. Instead, you pay in some time and effort as you learn how to navigate the resort's Fastpass+ advance reservation system. People who have bought tickets and reserved a room in an on-site Disney hotel can use Disney's website to make Fastpass reservations for selected rides and shows up to 60 days in advance of the first day of their scheduled stay at the resort. People with tickets but without on-site hotel reservations can book their Fastpass reservations up to 30 days in advance of their visit.

You can book three Fastpasses per day of your visit. People staying in a Disney hotel can book all of their days once the 60-day window opens for the first day. That gives people staying on-site with Disney a big advantage in getting access to popular attractions. Once you have used your three Fastpasses on any given day, you can book other Fastpasses, one at a time, for the remainder of that day, using Disney Word's official "My Disney Experience" mobile app.

Without a Universal Express or Disney Fastpass, you are left to wait in the standby queues, which can be just a few moments or hours long, depending upon the attraction and time of year you visit.

Transportation inside the resort takes less time at the smaller Universal Orlando Resort. There's one parking complex for day guests at Universal, from which you can walk, take a water taxi or a shuttle bus to all other destinations at the resort. (Each hotel has its own parking lot just for its guests, as well.) But at Disney, each of the four theme and two water parks has its own parking lot and they're all miles from each other. Disney provides free buses to get from point to point at its resort, as well as boats and monorails for some destinations. (A gondola system also is under construction.) There's also a pay-per-use branded Lyft service called "Minnie Vans," which can be useful if you don't have time to wait for the next bus.

Disney also offers a free bus service to and from the Orlando International Airport (called "Disney's Magical Express") for its on-site hotel guests, but it can take more than two hours to make that trip, so don't count on it if you're in a hurry.

What's your budget?

Okay, this is a trick question, because both resorts offer a wide variety of price points, designed to appeal to a wide range of budgets. From personal experience, you can get a better on-site experience on a lower budget at Universal than you can at Disney, by staying at Universal's Cabana Beach Resort. But that 60-day Fastpass+ window for free, reserved ride times at Disney keeps a lot of budget-loving fans staying with the Mouse, instead.

You can find even cheaper hotel rooms off-site from Disney or Universal, though you should be thorough in researching those options as some of the really lower-priced rooms can be of dicey quality and located quite a way from either resort.

Disney offers a time-share option called the Disney Vacation Club, and people who do the research to maximize value from that program often find ways to book expensive on-site rooms at much less than their going rate, even if they aren't members of the program and are just "renting" points from people who are. I would not recommend that a first-time Disney visitor head down that somewhat complicated path, but do remember the Disney Vacation Club option if you visit Disney and fall in love with the place.

Disney also packages Walt Disney World vacations with Disney Cruise Line itineraries in the Caribbean, so if you are cruise fans, that might push you toward Disney in lieu of Universal on an Orlando vacation.

In conclusion....

Picking one resort over another doesn't make you a better person, or a better parent, than if you'd chosen the other. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. As I said at the beginning, both are fine resorts that can offer excellent value for a vacation. Neither resort is more appropriate for any particular age group over another, either. There's plenty to do at both resorts for people of all ages.

If you need more factors to consider, Disney offers several runDisney long-distance running weekends during the year, as well as family-friendly late-night Halloween and Christmas parties at the Magic Kingdom park during those seasons. (The Halloween event has unlimited, all-ages trick-or-treating!) Disney's Epcot runs a variety of food and wine festivals pretty much continuously through the school year. Universal offers a wildly popular Halloween Horror Nights event (for ages 13 and older) in the fall, as well as a Harry Potter con weekend in late January. If those appeal, they might sway your choice.

If you are feeling pulled toward one resort over the other after reading this, well, there's your choice! If not, flip a coin... or wait to see what other readers have to say in the comments.

Whichever you choose, we hope you have a wonderful Orlando theme park vacation!

Replies (21)

July 11, 2018 at 7:16 PM

Universal all the way! Annual passes cheaper than Disney 7 day tickets, Deluxe hotel room with express passes cheaper or same as Disney Value Resort. More relaxed, less planning, easy to do mid-day breaks at the pool, better adult rides, more free time and Best of all, a LOT less crowded!
Also, HHN Rules!

July 11, 2018 at 7:22 PM

This is such a great breakdown of this for folks, thanks Robert!

I would like to add, though, that I don't agree with the idea that both places are necessarily age-appropriate for all. If you have young children, under the age of 8 or so (and especially under 42"), you're not going to find much to do at Universal. Most of their major attractions have a high thrill factor, a height requirement, or both, and their options for young children are still severely lacking. Likewise, if you're bringing teenagers, many will be bored with the more kid-friendly options at Walt Disney World. I'd say Disney is probably closer to "all ages" than Universal, and obviously this won't apply to every family, but as the husband of a teacher in Orlando there aren't many kids I know who spend time at Universal.

July 11, 2018 at 8:36 PM

No contest! Walt Disney World provides the ultimate best experience in Orlando hands down. Universal is just an extra tacked on visit if you get the chance or after you’ve been to Disney a million times and might want to try something a bit different.

July 11, 2018 at 9:17 PM

I think the all ages idea at Universal is pretty accurate, especially if your child likes rides. My four year old son was 42 inches the first time we went and he rode almost everything except the major coasters and Forbidden Journey. He even loved Kong and Gringotts. My two year old also had a blast, especially in Camp Jurassic.

July 11, 2018 at 11:37 PM

Of the top of my head, things for kids under 8 at Universal include: Seuss Landing and Camp Jurassic at IOA, plus the KidZone and Minion Mayhem at USF. There's some great kid play areas at Volcano Bay, too.

And for teens at Disney, there's Pandora, Rock n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Mission: Space... and just letting them roam free from the parents for once.

Of course, YMMV, and every kid is different, so go with what excites them. Opening up the planning to the entire family is a great way to get everyone bought in and excited about the trip!

July 12, 2018 at 10:12 AM

I'd generally agree Robert, but if I've got a 3-YO and just a week in Orlando, I'm probably going to lean towards WDW for the simple fact that there's a lot more for us to do as a family there while a larger percentage of the rides at UO will split us up. To say UO is not accommodating to families with small children is false, but it's an absolute fact that most families with small children will likely find more stuff to do together at WDW than they will at UO.

On the converse, you're likely to find more attractions to enjoy together for a family with teenagers and pre-teens at UO than you will at WDW. That will probably change next year when Galaxy's Edge opens, but UO has a decided advantage in the high-thrill market over WDW.

Again, different families may approach the parks differently, but if we're making generalizations, which is what this piece is attempting to do, then I think it's fair to make these assessments regarding family demographics and the two resorts.

July 12, 2018 at 11:34 AM

It really comes down to preference. Personally, I love both but lean toward Disney more for a lot more to do and that Disney aura Universal can't quite touch. I do enjoy IOA's amazing rides and the Harry Potter world but Disney just has a lot more in various ways including the water parks and Disney Springs. I managed to fit both in during a trip in 2012 and enjoyed it yet I guess I'm just more of a Disney guy. Again, it just comes down to how each visitor feels and adds to the thrills of Orlando.

July 12, 2018 at 11:59 AM

I realize that there are huge fans of Disney and of Universal, but within our group of friends, there is almost no one who is interest in going to Disney. We are generally mid-40s with kids from 10-15. Most of us can afford to vacation however we choose.

It is not like everyone is running to Universal either. However, when Disney comes into the conversation most people say too crowded and overly expensive vs. Universal. Our friends and I do like the closeness of Universal hotels and parks, no car or transportation is needed. We also like the express pass we get when we stay at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Personally, it has been 5 or 6 years since Disney and 2 years since Universal. We are going to be in Orlando for a week this year and are going to NEITHER.

July 12, 2018 at 1:56 PM

Outstanding summary of the two options.

July 12, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Some people really love all the advance planning of a Disney trip: the making of spreadsheets, the waking up at 5:00 to make dining reservations months ahead of time, the constantly checking for Fast Passes, etc.. I personally remember the Disney before reservations and Fast Passes as a much more pleasant experience. If you wanted to eat someplace, you waited in line. You could do anything--reasonably--as long as you were ready to wait the wait. It meant a lot less stress. In many ways, I prefer the old Disney of my childhood (but I think everybody does in their own way.)

With that in mind, I find that going to Universal with Express Pass in this day and age is blissful--I am never beholden to an ironclad schedule of dining or ride times. I can do whatever I want whenever I want, relax, and surrender to the vacation vibe.

July 12, 2018 at 4:21 PM

If you're really into Watching screens on seats that bounce up and down whilst being sprayed with puffs of air and occasionally water then Universal all the way!

July 12, 2018 at 7:12 PM

Flight of Passage is at Universal?

July 12, 2018 at 9:39 PM

At Universal Studios Orlando Rip, Ride, Rockit can be classed as NON-family thrill.

At Islands of Adventure Hulk can be classified as NON-family thrill.

Did I miss a Universal Orlando Resort NON-family thrill???

Comcast’s mandate to reposition the parks as FAMILY-FRIENDLY vs THRILL is in full swing!

July 13, 2018 at 7:22 AM

LOL, Robert!

July 13, 2018 at 11:38 AM

Great summary, but a bit low on cost. It is easy to do all the Universal parks and rides multiple times, with the hotel express pass and 2 nights /3 full days stay. Disney, just by sheer size, takes much longer to see it all and cost much more. In addition the advanced 3 rides per day still leaves you waiting hours to ride again, or the other rides there. And if you want to eat at the better restaurants in the parks, you better make reservations 6 months ahead. At least that's my experience. Love them both, but prefer Universal as I have worn out Disney and don't seem able to get tired of Universal.

July 13, 2018 at 3:17 PM

Lets all agree screens are way overused in Orlando as a whole. But Universal is the worst with it imo.

July 15, 2018 at 9:35 AM

Great analysis, Robert. However, while it is true that there is more to see at Disney, 2 of the parks (DHS and Epcot) feel mostly like filler to me right now. Yes, it takes 2 more days to see them, but do you really need to?

I realize this will all change soon, but for this summer and next, I think that definitely needs to be addressed.

Also I think CityWalk is a big plus for Uni. I know Disney has Disney Springs, but I'm not going to hop in my car to drive to the mall while I'm on vacation. Again, makes the Disney vacation longer, but that doesn't make it better. I'd take 3 days of easily walkable over 5 days of buses and cars anytime.

July 15, 2018 at 1:53 PM

For me it’s about how often you’ve been previously. If never, both are fantastic but Universal will blow you away with their state of the art rides. If you’ve been previously, Disney’s variety offers far superior reridability. We found Universal best in 2015 and Disney far better when we returned 2 years later due to this.

July 15, 2018 at 7:31 PM

As a childless adult, I say universal all day. Disney is boring and full of screaming kids and franchises I stopped caring about in high school(I’m considering seeing the Avatar area in the next few years but otherwise I’m not interested). The thrill rides are better and I’m not going to entertain a tantruming child so it doesn’t matter that there isn’t much to appeal to that demographic. I don’t understand the people complaining about screens, the rides are immersive and interesting to people who like those franchises, the same way sitting in a clamshell watching animatronics tell the story of a movie you saw in 1989 interests some people.

July 17, 2018 at 3:51 PM

One thing I didn't see mentioned; if you're at all prone to motion sickness, then Disney hands down. I would like to love Universal and it has a lot going for it but too many of the rides are just puke machines.

July 18, 2018 at 3:42 AM

I used to go to both Disney and Universal. But then Disney stopped building rides, taking experiences away and raising prices. After that the threw away spontaneity from the menu.
At the same time Universal started improve in customer service, cleanness and adding a ton of rides and experiences. So I stopped visiting the mouse and only go to Universal until Disney builds something I care for and put's the vacation back in vacation.

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