Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have been in a competitive war for tourist dollars for a long time now, but its really just in the past 7 years or so that the skirmishes have become more frequent and less decisive. For a long time, Disney was the clear winner and it seemed that Universal was not only losing the battles when it came to new attractions, new resorts etc, but it was on the brink of losing the war. Then came...Harry Potter.
Now, almost 8 years after the debut of Hogsmeade and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando is thriving and expanding and frankly, winning some of the Disney vs Universal battles now. The war is long from over and may never end and we honestly hope it doesn't end because every battle between these two theme park powerhouses brings something new and exciting for us...the tourists.
So now, as travel professionals, we have two viable options for our clients when they want to get away to sunny Florida and have a family-friendly vacation where life can be escaped from even if its only for 4 to 5 days. Do we send them to WDW? Or do we send them to Universal Orlando? The decision is not nearly as cut and dry as some used to think. Both options now bring very unique and wonderful experiences for our clientele.
So lets touch on a some of the big differences, shall we?
The size difference, when it comes to real estate footprint, is obvious. Most know the story of how Walt and his team secretly snatched up acre after acre of Florida swamp land for pennies on the dollar until the news broke that it was indeed Walt Disney behind the purchases. Those acres and acres are still fairly untapped which means Disney has a LOT of land still to expand upon. That used to be a big plus for Disney and a minus for Universal since Universal Orlando's real estate footprint seemed more land locked by businesses, roads and highways that seemed to box Universal in and not allow for much in the way of expansion (i.e. new parks, resorts etc).
Well stop and think for a minute...when was the last new resort built at WDW? The Art of Animation opened officially in 2012 so its been at least 6 years. But Universal Orlando, on the other hand, has opened 2 brand new resorts (Cabana Bay Resort & Sapphire Falls) in the past 4 years and has another one under construction (Aventura Hotel) and ready to open later this year. (Edited Aug 6, 2019. Now Universal has opened yet another resort giving guests a total of 7 on-site resorts. Disney has just opened a new section of their Coronado Springs Resort called Grand Destino).
So why is WDW not taking advantage of all of their untapped acreage and building new resorts like their competitor up the highway? In this writer's opinion, it is because they already know that some of their resorts see less tourist dollars than others because of them being further from the Magic Kingdom. Expanding further away from their theme parks is not what visitors want when they pay the price to stay onsite. Again, my opinion, but I think this is why WDW is now investing in a new overhead tram system that will connect some of their resorts to two of their parks. Our Disney clients are all about "time in the parks" and long lines for Disney Transportation buses and longer commutes on those buses means either less time in parks or less sleep while on vacation.
So Universal Orlando has seen opportunity for expansion by buying up some of the footprint around their parks and its paying off. Their "value"and "moderate" resorts still only have a 10 min bus ride to the 2 main parks which translates into more park time and possibly more much-needed rest.
The size difference translates into the number of days someone really needs allocate to their WDW or Universal vacation. Its really difficult to see and do what someone wants to see and do at WDW in 4 days or less. We always consult with our clients to help them see that 5-7 days is more ideal. But more days and nights naturally equates to more dollars that need to be budgeted. And 5-7 days does not necessarily mean there will be a lot of time again for that coveted R&R while on a WDW vacation. That really depends on time of year etc.
Compare that to the size of Universal Orlando. Now they have 3 parks to visit; Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and Volcano Bay (water themed park). To compare, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios would just about fit within the footprint of Disney's Epcot. This means a 4 day vacation at Universal Orlando is very doable. The 2 parks being side by side and now connected via "Hogwarts Express" (requires a park to park ticket), allows visitors the ability to visit 2 parks easily in one day. So even if you spent 2 days in those 2 parks, 1 day at Volcano Bay, it would allow for one full day of some pool-side lounging at any of their onsite resorts.
These are differences that need to be understood when looking at the two options...right? You can't just dismiss Universal Orlando because its smaller.
So other than the size, what are some other differences we should make note of? I know I know...theming is for sure a huge difference, but it is what it is. And when I am talking theming I mean theming in the way of characters and storylines. You won't see Mickey at Islands of Adventure and you won't see Harry over at Hollywood Studios. I think you all get that type of difference. But things that I think need to be pointed out and understood are those maybe vacation-impacting nuances that are less thought about or even overlooked.
Attraction Wait Times
How about...attraction wait times? Disney has had its "Fast Pass" system now for several years. But in the past few years they revised it and came up with "Fast Pass Plus." FP+ is simply a reservation in a shorter line for any attraction that is a part of the fast pass system. You now can go online 45-60 days in advance (depending on if you are a Disney resort guest or not) of your Disney vacation and pick 3 attractions per day in one of the 4 main WDW theme parks. That is FP+ in a nutshell. This whole system is designed to allow guests a chance to ride some of the more popular attractions while only waiting 15-20 mins in the queue line compared to 60-90 mins (or more) if you were to just walk up and get in the standby queue line. This is a great system if you can actually get up early enough on the 45th or 60th day before your vacation to try to beat the thousands of other guests who are hovering over their keyboard for that exact moment that the clock hits the time that their fast passes become available. What this revamped fast pass system has also done is make for longer lines at attractions that you used to be able to walk up and get on with virtually no wait times (i.e. Living with the Land, Seas with Nemo and Friends, Its a Small World etc). Now, because you can only select one premium attraction in certain parks, it is forcing guests to choose 2 other fast passes for attractions that you would have never needed fast passes for before. That is creating longer queue lines now for those rides. This equates to more planning in advance needed if you are considering a WDW vacation. You really have to have a plan of where you are going each day and what rides you will be using fast passes for. If not, you can get to the parks and be forced to get in very long queue lines and, because of time, visit only a select amount of attractions for a given day. Make sense?
Now...lets compare that to Universal's "Unlimited Express Pass" system. When you stay at one of Universal Orlando's 3 "deluxe" properties (Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel or Royal Pacific Hotel), you get their unlimited express pass for free. If you choose to stay at one of their other "value" or "moderate" level properties, it can be purchased as an add on to your ticket. When you get the UNLIMITED express pass, you literally can get on and off of attractions as many times as you want via their much shorter queue lines, assuming the attraction is a part of their express pass system which most now are. You do NOT need to make arrangements or "reservations" in advance of your vacation. You can walk up to the attraction, head for the express pass lane, let them scan your room key and off you go and in about 15 mins or less, you will be on the attraction. Its that simple. No need for advance planning over a month in advance. That, to me, is a big score on the Universal Orlando side of the battle ledger. For those of you who have experienced those two differences first hand, do you agree?
Now before you comment and get all out of whack because I used "deluxe, moderate and value" to describe Universal onsite resorts, I know Universal has their own nomenclature to describe their resort categories. I am trying to keep this simple and as close to apples to apples as I can. Universal has 3 main categories of resorts just like Disney, but they prefer to use different names. So lets just keep this as simplistic as possible and let's use the Disney categories for comparison purposes. Okie dokie?
What about...dining? Get ready for some bigger differences now. Disney has always prided itself on having above normal to exceptional theme park dining options and, for the most part, they really do. But again, planning is a must if you ever plan on eating in any of their table service (sit down and be waited on) dining venues. Some of their restaurants will require that you are visiting Disney's online dining reservation system at the 6 month mark before your trip if you want to have a hope of getting into those venues (i.e Ohana, Be Our Guest, Chef Mickey etc). This, tied together with FP+, means your park schedule is going to be fairly rigid and set by the time you step foot on Disney property. For some of our clients, they love this whole dining reservation process and they plan their whole WDW experience around their dining choices. For others, this causes a lot of stress and is not that appealing when they are supposed to be vacating schedules and to-do lists etc.
Now again...lets compare this to dining at Universal. Let's face it. Universal Orlando has never been about dining in the parks. That is not why Universal fans flock to Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. That does not mean that Universal does not have some great in-park dining. In fact, they have one of the best in-park restaurants you will ever eat at called Mythos. And now they have introduced two quick service venues in both Harry Potter themed areas that are good and unique. This does not mean again that Universal does not have some incredible dining choices, its just that a Universal Orlando vacation does not have to revolve around an eating schedule, especially while in their parks. Where Universal really does compete with Disney when it comes to sit-down dining is in their 3 higher end onsite properties where you can find such great options as The Palm in The Hard Rock or Bice at Portofino Bay. City Walk (Universal's version of Disney Springs) also has some delish options such as a great Mexican, Italian and even stellar sushi choice. But here is what some guests are going to love about Universal Dining; no reservations are actually required to eat at most of their restaurants. You can walk up and get on a wait list just like you do when you are home and, if you are a guest at the 3 Universal "deluxe" onsite resorts I have already mentioned, you can walk up, show the host your room key and get bumped up on the list.
The differences in dining, size and queue lines means you can either let your vacation simply just happen or you will need to plan out every moment from the time you wake up until the time you go back to bed. Those facts and differences are what really separates the two Orlando theme park icons. A WDW vacation absolutely requires advance planning and scheduling, and as I mentioned, some of our clients literally love that. Universal Orlando, on the other hand, is place you can visit with little to no advance planning and for other clients of ours, that is their idea of a great vacation.
These differences we just pointed out are not that understood by the general public. So many people out there (and probably some reading this blog) think that Disney actually owns Universal. Others think Universal is just a quick add on to their Disney trip and a one day visit while in Florida and that cannot be further from the truth.
We love Walt Disney World, don't think differently because of this post. But we also love Universal Orlando and we now plan full trips to both Orlando destinations and have clients who now love both. They are just two completely different types of vacations even when you take the theming differences out of the mix. So when reading this...let's assume you love Mickey and all his pals but you also love Harry Potter and all of his classmates. If you love those equally, the differences pointed out here are those that again create an entirely different vacation experience all the way from the beginning of the planning phase to the days that you are actually in their respective parks and resorts.
Do you agree with these differences? If not, tell us where you think we are off base in the comment section below. If you think we are hitting the mark, tell us that as well.