If you’re planning a trip to Central Florida, you’re likely considering visiting one (or both!) of these popular theme parks.
But if you can only visit one, which one should you choose? Which park packs a bigger bang for the buck? Can you really put a price tag on memories? You only have so many vacation dollars and vacation hours, so which park should you prioritize? Let’s dive in and unpack this controversial debate of Disney World vs. Universal Studios.
Let’s break down the commonalities that we can use to try to wrestle these two monolithic vacation giants down for a side-by-side comparison.
- Theme Parks
- Park Strategies
Both destinations have multiple theme parks, several hotels, a shopping and dining district, water parks, and their own versions of guest “perks.” Both focus their theme around entertainment intellectual properties, which are represented in their rides, shows, and overall atmosphere. Both have castles, thrill rides, and special holiday-themed events.
So, now let’s get into the nitty gritty and start making the comparisons.
Magic Kingdom: The iconic park that most people think of when they hear the term “Disney World”. It has Cinderella Castle, Space Mountain, 7 Dwarfs Mine Train, and lots more in six themed lands. “The Most Magical Place on Earth” opened on October 1, 1971.
EPCOT: EPCOT is home to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Frozen Ever After, and the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. It also has World Showcase, the best place at Walt Disney World for unique food and drink options.
Hollywood Studios: Hollywood Studios is an ode to Hollywood that is all about immersing guests in the movies they love, and it offers a slew of attractions and experiences for everyone in the family. It contains some of Walt Disney World’s best rides, like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Tower of Terror, and Slinky Dog Dash.
Animal Kingdom: Disney’s Animal Kingdom is Walt Disney World’s youngest park. Home to Avatar: Flight of Passage, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris, the park is a celebration of the Earth’s animals with a focus on adventure. It is a hybrid of gorgeous theme park and very elaborate zoo.
Blizzard Beach: This is the largest water park at Walt Disney World Resort. It applies an outrageous ski resort theme to an awesome water adventure park. It’s action-oriented, with an emphasis on slides and thrills. It features over 17 slides, a wave pool, an area for pre-teens, and an area especially for little tikes. The water is heated to 80 degrees at Blizzard Beach.
Typhoon Lagoon: Typhoon Lagoon is Disney’s oldest water park, open since 1989. Themed after a tropical paradise that survived a typhoon, guests at Typhoon Lagoon will find surfboards, fishing gear, and even a shipwreck in their travels around the park. It features one of the largest wave pools in the world — so big you can even learn to surf on it.
Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks and a third under construction: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and, coming soon, Epic Universe. It is also home to an immersive water park, Volcano Bay.
Universal Studios: Universal Studios really started out with the inspiration to show guests the magic behind making movies and TV shows. You’ll find rides like Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the nostalgic E.T. Adventure, and Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley — the spot for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
Islands of Adventure: This theme park embraces the journey of adventure, and guests get to explore exciting lands inspired by Marvel comics, Jurassic Park, and enter the imaginative world of comic strips yore and Dr. Seuss. Home to rides like: The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade, and the new VelociCoaster.
Epic Universe: Epic Universe is the new theme park being built by Universal Orlando Resort. It has been indicated that attractions at the park would be based on “some of the Illumination and DreamWorks content but especially Nintendo.” Illumination worked on films like Despicable Me, and DreamWorks is behind properties like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. It has been reported that there could possibly be a hotel inside the theme park.
Volcano Bay: Volcano Bay has a total of 17 attractions, including a lazy river and a rapids river. Volcano Bay goes ALL in on theming, and rather than feeling like you’re in a water park, you feel like you’re in a theme park.
So now that you know a bit more about each one, is Universal your pick? Or Disney? Disney definitely wins when it comes to bigger theme parks, more rides, and just more. But if you don’t have a week-plus to spend in Orlando or you have older kids that are connected to more current pop culture and thrills, then Universal might win.
Your main purpose may sway your choice, as well. If your goal is to be chosen by a wand at Ollivander’s, escape from Gringotts, and “outrun” a speeding Velociraptor, then you can ONLY do that at Universal.
If you need a family photo in front of Cinderella Castle, a hug from Mickey Mouse, and to pilot the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy through the Star Wars universe, then Disney World’s the only place for you.
Both parks have rides, shows, and experiences that appeal to all ages. In general, Disney World tends to be more “family-friendly” with more attractions with lower or no height requirements, so even babies can join in the experience. Universal has been a long-time winner for the tween and teens with some more thrilling thrill rides.
Both parks have taken measures to target the market they’re missing by adding more attractions. Disney recently opened Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and will soon open Tron: Lightcycle to add to their thrill category. And Universal has fun for tykes, too, with the recently added DreamWorks Destination stage show and even the Hogwarts Express train ride.
For thrills, the edge still goes to Universal. And we’ll have to see how Epic Universe impacts this comparison as it may have more to appeal to the little tykes.
- Space Mountain – 44 in (113 cm) minimum
- Splash Mountain – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – 38 in (97 cm) minimum
- The Barnstormer – 35 in (89 cm) minimum
- Tomorrowland Speedway – 32 in (81 cm) to ride; 54 inches (137 cm) to drive alone
- Tron Lightcycle Run – anticipated 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind – 42 in (107 cm) minimum
- Mission: SPACE – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Soarin’ Around the World – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Test Track – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Star Tours: The Adventures Continue – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run – 38 in (97 cm) minimum
- Slinky Dog Dash – 38 in (97 cm) minimum
- Alien Swirling Saucers – 32 in (81 cm) minimum
- Avatar Flight of Passage – 44 in (113 cm) minimum
- Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain – 44 in (113 cm) minimum
- DINOSAUR – 40 in (102 cm) minimum
- Kali River Rapids – 38 in (97 cm) minimum
- Chair Lift – 32 in (82 cm) minimum
- Downhill Double Dipper – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Slush Gusher – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Summit Plummet – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Tike’s Peak – 48 in (122 cm) or maximum
- Bay Slides – 60 in (152 cm) maximum
- Crush ‘n’ Gusher – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
- Humunga Kowabunga – 48 in (122 cm) minimum
To avoid FOMO (fear of missing out) disappointment for kiddos, you can consider waiting until they measure about 50 inches or taller for them to have the option to ride all of the Disney World attractions. But there’s still plenty to do for the vertically challenged in your family.
Note that for Universal, some attractions require children to be accompanied by an adult to ride, so make sure to check each attraction for further safety requirements.
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem™ – 40 in (102cm) minimum
- E.T. Adventure™ – 34 in (87cm) minimum
- Fast & Furious – Supercharged™ – 40 in (102cm) minimum
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum.
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit™* – 51 in (130cm) minimum
- MEN IN BLACK™ Alien Attack™- 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon™ – 40 in (102cm)minimum
- Revenge of the Mummy™*- 48 in (122cm) minimum
- The Simpsons Ride™- 40 in (102cm).minimum
- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D – 40 in (102cmminimum
- Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster™ – 36 in (92cm) minimum
Universal Islands of Adventure
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man® – 40 in (102cm) minimum
- Cat in the Hat™- 36 in (92cm) minimum
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall® – 52 in (133cm) minimum
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls® – 44 in (112cm) minimum
- Flight of the Hippogriff™ – 36 in (92cm) minimum
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- Jurassic Park River Adventure™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Jurassic World VelociCoaster* – 51 in (130cm) minimum
- The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!™ – 36 in (92cm) minimum
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster® – 54 in (138cm) minimum
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges® – 42″ (107cm) minimum
- Pteranodon Flyers™ – children between 36 in–56 in (92cm-143cm) tall with an accompanying guest over 56 in (143cm) tall.
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong™ – 36 in (92cm) minimum
Universal’s Volcano Bay
- Honu of Honu ika Moana™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- ika Moana of Honu ika Moana™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Kala and Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- Ko’okiri Body Plunge™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- Krakatau™ Aqua Coaster – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Ohyah and Ohno Drop Slides™ – 48 in (122cm) minimum
- Punga Racers™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- Puka Uli Lagoon – Children under 48” (122cm) must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life vest.
- The Reef – Children under 48” (122cm) must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest.
- Runamukka Reef™ – 54 in (137cm) maximum
- Taniwha Tubes™ – 42 in (107cm) minimum
- TeAwa The Fearless River™ – 42 in (107cm). Children between 42″–48″ (107cm-122cm) must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest and enter the river with a supervising companion.
- Tot Tiki Reef™ – 48 in (122cm) maximum
- Waturi Beach™ – Children under 48” (122cm) must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest.
If you want to be prepared for your entire party to enjoy all of the Universal attractions, make sure your kiddos measure up to about 54 inches. Further proof that Universal is more thrill-inclined.
Walt Disney World boasts more than 25 resort hotels. These also have varying categories, with the most expensive being Disney Vacation Club Villas down to what they call their Value Resorts.
- Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s All-Star Resorts, with the Movies, Music, and Sports sections
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge & Villas with Jambo House and Kidani Village
- Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
- Disney’s Beach Club Resort & Villas
- Disney’s BoardWalk Inn & Villas
- Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort which is also home to Bay Lake Tower
- Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and Gran Destino Tower
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, also the home of the Villas at Grand Floridian
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which also has the Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
- Disney’s Pop Century Resort
- Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, home of the French Quarter and Port Orleans Resort Riverside
- Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, which is also the location for Boulder Ridge Villas and the Copper Creek Villas & Cabins
- Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
- Disney’s Riviera Resort
- Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser
- The Cabins & Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort
Disney resort guests also have some special exclusive perks, like being able to enter each theme park 30 minutes early (and even stay up to 2 hours late at select parks for “Deluxe” resort guests), early access to dining reservations, free transportation around Disney property, and early access to Disney’s Genie+ and Lightning Lane services (more on that in a bit).
Universal Studios has seven hotels. Their most expensive or “Premier” resorts are: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. The next tier down from Premier is the “Preferred” level hotel which only has one, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. There are two resorts in the “Prime Value” category, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Aventure Hotel. And finally, the least expensive resort is Universal’s Endless Summer Resort.
All of the Universal resort hotels provide guests an extra hour in the theme parks in the mornings as well as complimentary transportation around the resort property.
It’s easy to throw out words like “Deluxe” and “Premier,” but what does that mean when it comes to dollars and cents? Let’s break it down.
To keep it apple-to-apples, we’ll look at just a one-night stay on a Wednesday night in February 2023. For a Disney resort, that one night will start at $207 (at Disney’s All-Star Music) and go up to $1,819 (at Boulder Ridge Villas). That’s one night. Not including tax, parking, those resort fees, or park tickets.
That same night at Universal will cost you between $209 (at Endless Summer Resort) to $747 (at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel). Again, that excludes tax, parking, resort fees, and park tickets.
Both Disney and Universal start in around the same neighborhood, so you’ll need to dig deeper into what you’re looking for in a resort, important perks, and of course, which destination you plan to spend most of your time in. If you want to get lost in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, paying a few bucks less a night a Disney won’t really save you money in the long run if you have to get yourself over to Universal every other day.
Both Disney World and Universal Studios require park tickets. And if you want to visit more than one of their parks in one day, you’ll need the ticket option that will allow you to do that. And both resorts adopt the philosophy that the more tickets you buy, the less it will cost you in each park. When you buy a one-day one-park ticket, the price might elevate. However, prices will vary on the season and the day you choose to go to the parks.
At Disney World, one-day one-park tickets start at $109 and go up to $174-per day if you add on that “Park Hopper” option to be able to visit multiple Disney parks on the same day. Universal also starts out at $109 for a one-day one-park ticket, and goes up to $164 when you add on “Park-to-Park” options (which you WILL need if you plan to ride the Hogwarts Express and visit both Diagon Alley & Hogsmeade).
Again, the more days you buy, the less you pay per day. And though you save $10 at Universal for the “Park-to-Park” access, you also only get to access two parks, whereas, at Disney, that extra cash also gets you access to four parks.
Neither Disney nor Universal include their water parks in the “Hopper” or “Park-to-Park” options; water parks will cost you a bit extra.
Park Touring Strategies
Ok, what does this mean? Well, each theme park has its nuances. For Disney, you’ll need to be knowledgeable about Park Pass Reservations. What are they, why do you need them, and when should you get them? Essentially, your ticket gets you access to the parks, but you need a reservation to actually enter the park. So, in addition, to buying your park tickets, you’ll have to go online and make park reservations for your whole family for each park and each day.
Universal Studios doesn’t require a Park Pass or its own version. You can enter the park with your park ticket, no reservations required.
And if you have the “Hopper” added to your ticket, plan out that properly, too. Disney only allows park hopping after 2pm and after you’ve already used your park reservations for the day. At Universal, there are no “park-to-park” restrictions — you can bounce between the two parks as often and as early as you like.
Both parks offer an option to “skip the line.” At Disney World, it’s Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, at Universal, it’s the Universal Express Pass. Universal Express Pass is more expensive, but less complicated to understand and use. It is also included as a “perk” with stays at Universal’s hotel. Disney’s Genie+ and Lightning Lanes are cheaper and offer a bit more flexibility, but you really have to do your research to make the most of it.
Disney World has developed a reputation for dining. It has Instagramable snacks, restaurants with award-winning chefs, iconic treats, and even an exclusive five-diamond restaurant. There are more than 200 restaurants on property, from kiosks around the parks and resorts selling those classic Mickey-shaped ice cream bars to multi-course international cuisine. There’s even a cultural trend for eating or drinking “around the world” as guests visit the country pavilions in EPCOT’s World Showcase and try snacks or drinks from each nation.
Universal’s snacks and restaurants haven’t quite broken through Disney’s domination in this category, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep on its options. The food quality is pretty consistent, and it’s developing its own iconic treats like the Harry Potter-themed Butterbeer, which you can only get here.
Both destinations have their shopping and dining districts. Disney Springs in Disney World and City Walk at Universal. So no matter where you end up, you’ll have plenty of options.
So, we’ve completed our side-by-side comparison and looked at Theme Parks, Rides, Hotels, Tickets, Park Strategies, and Dining. Based on sheer volume and variety, Disney World tends to tip the scales. But if your family is more into thrills and Harry Potter, Universal is still your destination.
Keep in mind that things are constantly changing! We’ll soon see more about Universal’s Epic Universe, and Disney has plans for a DinoLand U.S.A. retheme in Animal Kingdom, Tron Lightcycle Run opening, and other potential Magic Kingdom expansions.
We’ll keep you updated on everything at Disney World AND Universal Orlando, so stay tuned for more!
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What do you think? Which water park would you choose? Let us know in the comments!