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Walt Disney World and Universal Studios

Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando - What's the Difference?

Difference Between Disney World and Universal Studios

I've been involved in hundreds of conversations revolving around the Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort.  It's amazing how many different perspectives and misconceptions there are of both parks.  Some are right on, but some make me wonder when the last time they set foot in either park or have even been to the parks all together.  The best conversations are when Disney fans face off with Universal fans.  It becomes challenging deciding where to go when many of the conversations are leaning more towards one park over the other.

Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort are both great parks.  I've always taken the approach of talking about each park in terms of what I know about the person asking the questions.  By taking this approach, I've been able to come up with some great suggestions that favor both parks while debunking misconceptions they've heard in the past.  

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to talk about both parks in a general sense without diving into the fine details of each park.  There will be plenty of chances in future articles to take a much closer look at what each park has to offer.  For now, let's keep this simple and try to help you narrow down which park might be right for you. 

Disney is for kids and Universal is for adults.  A Common Misconception about Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.

I'd be very surprised if at some point in your life you haven't been told that Walt Disney World is for parents with young children and Universal Resort is for teenagers to adults.  Both parks even target specific age ranges in their advertising, so one could even assume that this is true.  Disney TV ads will typically show families with kids under the age of 10 with princesses and characters and short glimpses of the rides themselves.  Universal TV ads take the opposite approach by mainly focusing on their thrill rides with some characters sprinkled in.  By looking at each parks advertising focus, I can see how someone could make age appropriate assumptions without really looking closely at each park. 

I'll have to admit these two statements have been generally true for decades, but both the Walt Disney Company and Universal are constantly adapting to the what their customer base wants.  

Walt Disney World Resort is constantly evolving and changing with the needs of their guests.  While speaking about Disneyland in California, Walt Disney himself even said:

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

― Walt Disney   

The Walt Disney Resort continues to add thrill rides which break away from their traditional slow moving rides seen in the 1970s. They still continue to develop rides for all ages, but there's been a new focus on rides for the thrill seekers who typically visit Universal Studios for those types of rides.  You'll now find edge of your seat rides like Expedition Everest, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ™.  They're also introducing new rides such as Tron Lightcycle Power Run and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.

Universal Resort has always dominated in the number of thrill rides like the Incredible Hulk Rollercoaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket ™, and Jurassic World Velocicoaster to name a few.  You'll still find some some attractions for younger children, but they're a far cry from taking a ride on Disney's It's a Small World.  I honestly don't ever see Universal dedicating large sections of their parks to less intense slow moving rides for child under 5 years old, but only Universal knows how far they'll go to gain market share. 

What Type of Thrill Seeker Are You and Your Family?

Knowing what type of thrill seeker you are and the types of rides you can handle is one of the top considerations when trying to get the most out of your theme park experience.

Let's see where you and your family fit it.

I can handle any ride no matter how intense.  You're going to have fun at either Walt Disney World or Universal Resort.  It really comes down to your preference in rides.  If you like going on back-to-back intense rides and you'd fall asleep on a boat ride, then stick with Universal.  If you like a mixture of intense along with slow rides, then Disney is your pick.  

I can handle a few rides, but I need breaks between going on intense rides.  In this case, Disney World might be a better option for you if you want to maximize your vacation experience.  You can go on Space Mountain in the morning and ride It's a Small World before getting ready for the next intense ride.  The problem I've found at Universal is most every ride is intense and there are very few slow paced rides that give you a break.  If you're looking to ride rides all day, then Disney would be your better choice here.

I'm not into the intense rides and/or have motion sickness.  Disney World is your park in this case.  It's tough to justify spending money at a park like Universal when you can't enjoy the majority of their attractions.  Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to see, but you're probably going to have a better time over at Disney World.

You Want to Feel Immersed in the Theme Park.

Harry Potter and Toy Story Land

If you want to feel like your in another world, then Walt Disney World has this hands down.  From the inception of Disneyland in California, all Disney Parks are designed to make you feel immersed in the experience.  All of the rides, restaurants, restrooms, and exterior areas have the same theme to their respective areas.  Even all four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) have entire themes to their respective parks.  Disney has even doubled down in recent years by adding more immersed areas within their theme parks.  They include Toy Story Land (Hollywood Studios), Pandora - The World of Avatar (Animal Kingdom), and Star Wars Galaxy's Edge (Hollywood Studios). 

Universal falls short on this as it seems they just build a new ride or restaurant where ever they have room.  The exception to this in recent years was the introduction of Jurassic World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter ™.  I hope Universal continues to develop immersive lands as they've become very popular amongst guests. 

Don't Forget About What Your Kids Really Want to See and Do.

The best family vacation is when you can experience everything together, because no one wants to wait outside an attraction while others go on it.  It's always important to make sure you plan your family vacation as a family.

Knowing what your kids want to see and do on vacation was really highlighted during the height of the pandemic in 2021.  Universal was opening up at a much faster rate than Disney World and people were starting to take notice.  Young children love going to Disney World with the main goal of dressing up as their favorite character and meeting them in person.  The problem was all the character greetings were closed and kids could only see their favorite characters from afar or not at all.  Going on rides is great, but some kids would be totally happy with seeing characters all day and going home.  

On the other hand, Universal does have it's characters, but you don't see the same desire to meet those characters as you do at Disney World.  Universal is able satisfy the needs of it's ride focused customer base who don't consider missing out on meeting a Minion a vacation disaster.

Should I Stay On Grounds (Outside of the Park)?

Deciding where to stay is one of the other major decisions you'll have to make.  Staying off grounds will always get you much bigger hotel rooms than staying inside the park for around the same price.  For those considering paying the higher price tag, there are major differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Studio.

Walt Disney World has the largest selection of hotels for any budget.  They're all owned by Disney, except the Swan and Dolphin outside of Epcot Center as well as hotels located in the Disney Springs area.  This is huge for someone looking for a consistent stress free guest experience while at Walt Disney World.  Also, bus transportation is complementary through out all Walt Disney Resorts and Theme Parks.  Disney does a great job at having everything you need inside their entire resort, so you'll be less tempted to go off grounds.

Universal Orlando Resort has only a few hotels which are owned by Lowes Hotels and not Universal.  You can definitely tell you're talking to two different companies as there doesn't seem to be the consistent experience that Disney offers.  Don't get me wrong, both Universal and Lowes Hotels strive to make sure you have a great vacation.  Disney has spoiled me with one point of contact that has control over the whole vacation experience from the theme parks to the hotels and everything in between.

How Easy Are Their Websites For Booking Your Vacation (Theme Park Tickets and Hotel)?

The Walt Disney World Resort has the process of booking your vacation hands down.  Each step is easy to understand and doesn't leave you confused on the options.  Pick your dates, pick your hotel, pick your ticket options, and check out.  They have very few screens and key strokes to get you through the booking process.  It's that easy.

Universal Orlando Resort is one of the most confusing vacation booking sites I've ever seen.  You first have to choice one of their bundled vacation packages until you can select your travel dates.  It even gets more confusing after that where it's much easier to make the reservation over the phone.  Universal should've gone along with every other major travel site on the internet by having guests select their travel dates first and then show what packages are available.  I'm not sure why Universal would create a booking process that is unfamiliar to guests.  

How Long Should I Book My Vacation?

Walt Disney World Resort has four Theme Parks, Two Water Parks, and Disney Springs.  I've stayed at Disney for tens days and that seems to be the sweet spot for my family.  That was enough time to do everything I wanted while relaxing at the onsite hotel.  Typical families go for 1 week.  You'll see most families fly in on Sunday and leave on Saturday morning. 

Universal Orlando Resort has two Theme Parks, one Water Park, and Universal City Walk.  I've found that dedicating three days is plenty of time to see everything.  There is just not enough to do at Universal to stay there for an entire week.

Final Thoughts:

I'll admit the above article may come across as leaning more in Disney's favor, but you have to realize Disney is hyper-focused on the customer experience and it shows in everything they do.  Universal shouldn't be overlooked as a great vacation destination, but it's geared towards a different demographic with specific ride tastes.  The edge of your seat thrill ride enthusiast will have limited ride options over at Walt Disney World where as Universal Orlando Resort might be a better choice.  If a good balance between thrill rides and slow moving rides is more your speed, then you should look into going to Walt Disney World.

It's important to also keep in mind that both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are constantly evolving.  You'll want to check each park's website to see what's new before making your final decision.

I hope this guide moves you one step closer to deciding which theme park would be better suited for you and your family.  

Updated: February 9, 2022

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