When Universal scored the rights to the Harry Potter intellectual property for building a themed land at their parks, Disney shrugged. “A rising tide lifts all ships” was their take on it, meaning that drawing more people to central Florida would only serve to bring more people in who had never been to Disney World, and maybe some of those who came for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter might be curious enough (and have enough disposable income) to drop a few hundred or thousand more to see what all the fuss was about.
They knew, see, that it isn’t necessarily an either/or proposition. And I proved them right last fall when we took what I had always labeled my Disney Dream Vacation. We spent an entire week at Disney (seven nights, with five in the parks and what turned out to be a much-needed free day in the middle) then four more days at Universal Studios (three in the parks). During this stretch we visited Disney’s four theme parks and both of Universal Studios’s parks, as well as their new water park, Volcano Bay.
Well, it turns out my dream trip burned me out, and I’ve only managed to squeeze out one blog complaining about the (in hindsight) ridiculous idea that Disney’s Extra Magic Hours is a selling point, inviting tens of thousands of people to one park right when it opens. You can see that here. To make matters worse, my seven-year old iMac bit the dust, and all my pictures are on a disembodied hard drive in a format my Windows laptop won’t read, so if you’re here for the pics, you can stop now. There ain’t none.
But it was mostly the heat and the crowds that did me in. My wife and I celebrated our one-year anniversary at Disney way back in September, 2001 (yes, we were there when they shut the parks down on 9/11) and the weather and crowds were perfect. Not this time. Highs around 90 every day, and the parks packed to the gills. Which brings me to my first category for comparison:
Winner: Universal Studios
While I’m sure that the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal attracted an insane amount of Potterheads, we’re years into the Harry Potter attractions, and Universal is the clear winner here. We spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday there, and while the wait times were noticeably higher on the weekend, they were nothing compared to Disney even on the weekdays during our stay. Except for Diagon Alley. I can be a bit of a bull at 6’4 and 240 lbs, so it was all I could do to keep from charging forward and smashing my way through the lingering crowds of nerds just standing in awe or trying to get selfies with the dragon when it breathed fire. Diagon Alley is a beautifully themed area, and I would have enjoyed it, except that it seemed 90% of all the people in the park were crowded into that one little space, and it yanked me out of the only relaxation I’d felt the entire trip and transported me right back to Fantasy Land in Magic Kingdom, trying to squeeze through the crowds of strollers and “disabled” people astride scooters jamming the narrow path between Peter Pan and Small World.
I do recommend a weekday trip, however. We spent the first part of the day Friday at Universal’s new water park, Volcano Bay, and as far as not worrying about crowds or lines or getting aggravated about something, not to mention getting relief from the heat, this was far and away the most relaxing day of the whole trip. The park started filling up after lunch, but by then we’d been on every slide we wanted to try, most of them twice, and even took two spins on the Krakatau water coaster, which was my first ever water coaster, and a fantastic new experience. It uses magnets to go uphill, so when you think it’s about to slow down like a regular roller coast, it actually speeds up!
Which brings me to my next comparison:
Disney World boasts two water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Both of them are solid water parks, and Typhoon Lagoon’s lazy river would probably put it at the top of my wife’s list, so Disney comes in strong in this department. However, neither of those parks has changed much at all since I was on the College Program in 1997, while Universal’s is brand new and shiny. And while new isn’t enough for it to defeat Disney having two water parks, the excellent Krakatau water coaster is enough by itself to bring it up to a tie.
Confession: I’ve only stayed in the one Universal Hotel that we stayed in this time, Loew’s Royal Pacific. But after exploring the others online, Disney remains the clear winner. The rooms were nice, but not luxurious, and we truly enjoyed our stay there, both due to the easy access to the parks (buses and water taxis are available, and it takes no more than five minutes to get to the parks, while walking might take ten) and the low crowds. If we were going by park access alone, Universal would win, hands down. The bus ride from our Disney resort, Animal Kingdom Lodge, to Magic Kingdom could take 30-45 minutes. And the lodge is massive. It took almost as long to walk from our room to the bus stop at AK Lodge as it took to walk to the park at Universal.
But there’s just something magical about staying at a Disney resort, especially AK Lodge, with a view of the animals grazing on the Savannah. You could spend hours just exploring resorts such as that one, or the superb Wilderness Lodge, or even the Value resorts with their giant themed knickknacks, while it took all of five minutes to explore Royal Pacific. And what my be its best feature, a Polynesian-themed courtyard, is a smoking area, making it pretty much uninhabitable by those of us who don’t smoke. And the variety of themes and pricing available at Disney resorts is unbeatable. Speaking of which:
This one is a no-brainer. With the exception of the two Harry Potter lands, Universal has nowhere near the ability to transport you out of time and space that Disney does. Diagon Alley, as richly themed and transportive as it is, only apparently served to inspire Disney to outdo itself, and they came back with Pandora: World of Avatar, which is the single most immersive themed land in theme park history. And my understanding is that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening in August (the California land is already open), will outdo even that. While much of Universal feels little better than a Six Flags themed land, Disney usually goes the extra mile to make sure the visitors can forget about the rest of the world and just be there.
But it’s close. With Flight of Passage in Pandora, Disney takes the crown for single best theme park ride I’ve ever ridden. However, in the Hogsmeade side of Harry Potter world, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey might be the second best. Universal is also ahead of Disney when it comes to more grown-up rollers coasters. Where Disney just has the Rock’n’Roller Coaster in what I would call the “adult coaster” category (and I guess some argument be made for Expedition Everest), Universal has The Incredible Hulk coaster and Rip Ride Rockit, which I have to say is my new favorite coaster in the Orlando area, as well as The Mummy and Escape from Gringott’s, which combine elements of roller coasters and theatrical elements for some pretty fun rides. Add the new Hagrid coaster coming this month, and Universal has clear coaster dominance.
But where Disney gets the edge is the second-tier rides. Universal relies too heavily on motion rides, most of which are poorly executed. Some of them are kind of fun, like The Simpsons ride, but some are absolute garbage, like Jimmy Kimmel’s Race Through New York. Thank goodness Disney never adopted the “sit in a big theater and make it kind-of move around” approach. Universal has gotten better about this since my last visit in 1997, but even the rides it has incorporated since, like the Transformers and Fast and Furious rides, are just noisy, nonsensical action movies condensed into a short, aggravating experience. I would rather be sentenced to a five-hour spin on the tea cups than ride that stupid Fast and Furious ride again.
Outside the Parks:
But again, it’s close. Disney has Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney, and before that Disney Village (and the old Pleasure Island). It’s a massive shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, with something for every member of the family.
On the other side, you’ve got Universal CityWalk, also a massive shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, though I think it’s fair to say that there is much less focus on the shopping aspect of it than at Disney Springs. The vibe here is more “forget the family,” with more night clubs and live music. This might make it the winner if I was traveling without the kids, but the odds of the wife and I escaping to Orlando alone before the kids go off to college are slim.
In summary, the truth really comes down to which kind of experience you want. Universal offers some fun rides and you can get it done in a much shorter amount of time. Disney World is a commitment, but the overall experience is deeper, richer and far more immersive. I would say if you have four or more full days to spend exploring the parks, do Disney. If you have three or fewer days, hit up Universal. Either way, you’re going to have a good time.