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.
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!Tweet
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