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Walt Disney World or Universal Studios

Which Park Is Right for You?

Planning a vacation to Orlando, Florida can be an exciting task, but it can also be overwhelming. The city offers various entertainment options to choose from, making it difficult to know which attractions to dedicate your time to. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have long been the two primary destinations for visitors from all over the world.  Although similar in many ways, there are various differences between the two themed resorts. From the types of rides and shows to the nightlife and resort-stay perks, the right choice depends solely on what you and your family are looking for.

Here we take a look the differences of each resort area so you can choose the right place for your Orlando visit. Will it be Disney or Universal? Read on to find out…

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The Parks

Walt Disney World

  • Four major theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios
  • Two water parks – Typhoon Lagoon & Blizzard Beach

Universal Studios

  • Two major theme parks – Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure
  • Volcano Bay water park

Walt Disney World is divided into four major theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios . Magic Kingdom is the most popular of the parks, featuring Mickey Mouse and the iconic Cinderella castle. Disney World also contains two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. These are open year round and welcome any guest wanting to cool off in the various wave pools and water slides.

Universal Studio, on the other hand, consists of two major theme parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The parks are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which is part of the renowned Harry Potter experience that opened in 2014. Universal opened its own state of the art water park, Volcano Bay, in 2017.

The Rides

Walt Disney World

  • Most rides are geared towards small children
  • Height requirements average at 35’ and above
  • Popular ride themes include Mickey & Friends and Frozen
  • Fastpass+ is included and allows front of the line access for three rides, by availability.

See all Walt Disney World Rides

Universal Studios

  • Rides are geared towards teens & adults
  • Various roller coasters and thrill rides
  • Height requirements average at 42’ and above
  • Popular ride themes include Jurassic Park and Marvel Superheroes
  • Harry Potter land includes Hogwarts, Hogsmede, Gringotts and Diagon Alley
  • Express Pass allows from of the line access for almost all rides, for an extra cost.

See all Universal Studios Rides

Walt Disney World: One notable difference between the two destinations is the variety of rides available at each resort. Walt Disney World caters to families with younger children, with the average height requirement for attractions being around 35 inches. Rides such as the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Peter Pan’s Flight are perfect for kids who aren’t quite ready for the more thrilling rides like Splash Mountain and Space Mountain. Animal Kingdom offers safari treks and animal meet-and-greets the entire family can enjoy.

Universal Studio: For families with older children and teens, Universal Orlando might be a more appropriate choice. Both Island of Adventure and Universal Studios offer a variety of thrill rides, from roller coasters and 3-D simulators to free falls and water rides. Universal’s extremely popular Harry Potter experiences include Hogwarts Castle, Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The height requirement for most rides at Universal is around 42 inches. There are, however, plenty of accessible options for shorter guests including Cat in the Hat and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.

Waiting Times

Walt Disney World

  • Disney’s FastPass+ allows everyone to select 3 rides, attractions and character greetings to enjoy with no waiting times.
  • It’s free.
  • It can be difficult to book the most popular rides.

Universal Studios

  • Universal has Express Pass (starting from an additional $39.99) and Express Pass Unlimited (from $54.99)
  • Express Pass can be used one time per ride only whereas Express Pass Unlimited offers unlimited entry to most rides.
  • Harry Potter and Minion Mayhem are NOT included in Express Pass offer

Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are large, well-known theme parks that attract a large amount of visitors. This can sometimes mean extended wait times for you and your family.

Fortunately, both resorts offer the chance to skip the long lines. Disney’s version, the free-to-use Fastpass+, allows guests to select up to 3 attractions to experience without having to wait. While ‘free’ might sound nice, its accessibility often means the most popular attractions aren’t available for selection. 

At Universal Orlando, an Express Pass can be purchased as an add-on to your ticket package. At tiered pricing levels, Universal offers both the Express Pass and the Express Pass Unlimited. This Express Pass service gives front-of-the-line access to most attractions, excluding a few of the more popular ones like the two major Harry Potter attractions and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. The Express Pass ticket allows you to utilize this bypass perk just once per attraction while Express Pass Unlimited allows infinite uses per attractions.

Live Shows

Walt Disney World

  • Various live shows including Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Frozen Sign Along, Indiana Jones, etc.
  • Various parades throughout the day
  • Magic Kingdom’s ‘Wishes’ fireworks show at 21:00 every night.

See evening events in Disney World

Universal Studios

  • Live shows include Sinbad’s Stunt Show and Terminator 3-D.
  • Universal Orlando’s ‘Cinematic Spectacular’ fireworks show at 21:00 every night.

See evening events in Universal Studio

Live shows are another important aspect to consider of each resort. Walt Disney World has been featuring and expanding their shows since they opened in October 1971. Today, they feature everything from live shows and 3-D shows to parade shows and the famous ‘Wishes’ nightly fireworks show.

Some of the best live shows include Finding Nemo, The Lion King and Indiana Jones. These take place on large stages and incorporate colorful, intricate costumes. A favorite 3-D show is Mickey’s PhilharMagic Concert. Many Disney characters come together in this orchestral performance to sing songs from classic Disney films. Possibly the most recognized and anticipated live events at Disney are the parades. These occur periodically throughout the day and incorporate music, dancing, acrobatics and impressive, colorful parade floats.

Universal also features a few notable shows. These include The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show and Terminator 2 3-D. ‘Cinematic Spectacular’, Universal Orlando’s own fireworks show, takes place every night at 21:00.

Resort Stay Perks (Which is Best?)

Walt Disney World

  • Eight on-site resorts
  • Fastpass+ available 30 days before general public
  • Extra Magic Hours: extended park hours for hotel guests in one park per day
  • Free parking

See the hotels in Disney World

Universal Studios

  • Five on-site resorts
  • One hour early admission to all parks (all hotels)
  • Unlimited front-of-the-line access for park rides (applicable to Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay Hotel only)
  • Availability to charge purchases to room

See the hotels in Universal Studio

For guests vacationing in Orlando and looking for a place to stay, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios both house on-site resorts. Disney’s eight resorts and Universal’s four on-site resorts offer free transportation and extended park hours, among other perks.

Disney’s Extra Magic Hours program allows resort guests an extra hour in one of the parks per day, as well as open availability to Fastpass+ 30 days prior to the general public. Universal allows its own resort guests one hour of early admission to Harry Potter, and free Unlimited Express passes. The mark-up for an on-site resort is about $50-$100 more than a similar resort off property, but the perks and convenience make for a compelling draw.

Nightlife

The Verdict

The choice between Walt Disney World and Universal Studios is a challenging one. Both are outstanding themed resorts offering more than just a day of entertainment. At essentially the same cost, the value of each theme park depends a lot on what your family is looking for. A single-day ticket for one Disney park starts at $102 while a single-day ticket for one Universal park starts at $105. Both offer various price packages depending on how many days you are staying, and how many parks you want to visit. It is usually a good idea to dedicate at least one day per park.

If you can only choose one and you’re looking for enthralling shows and a magical experience, Walt Disney World is the way to go. If thrilling rides and non-stop action are more your thing, Universal Orlando is the perfect choice.

One thing is for sure: both resorts have something to offer for everyone in the family, and if you simply can’t pick one then you’ll be glad to know that they are only 15 minutes apart.

Walt Disney World

  • Disney Springs – restaurants, movie theater, bowling, arcade
  • Cirque du Soileil

Universal Studios

  • CityWalk – restaurants, bars, clubs, karaoke
  • Blue Man Group

In addition to rides, shows and resorts, Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World each offer lively nightlife options. Formerly known as Downtown Disney, Disney Springs is designed for entertaining family outings. Located 5 minutes from the Magic Kingdom entrance, it features a variety of restaurants, a movie theater, a bowling alley and even an interactive arcade. Disney Springs is perfect for families dining with young children, or looking to do a little bit of shopping after spending a day at the park. The famous Cirque du Soleil is also located at Disney Springs. Universal Orlando’s CityWalk provides a nightlife scene aimed at older teens and adults. It features many restaurants, bars, clubs, and a movie theater. Rising Star, CityWalk’s own karaoke bar, gives you the chance to sing in front of an audience with a full band – making you a superstar for the night! The iconic Blue Man Group show is located at CityWalk as well.

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