Battle of the Theme Parks: Disney vs. Universal

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Home to some of the most impressive theme parks in the world, Orlando, Florida’s attractions draw in millions of tourists every year. But the two headliners are, without a doubt, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando, due to their record-breaking rides, costumed-characters and special-effect filled shows.

If you’re dying to visit both but don’t have the time or funds to visit more than one, you have a tough decision to make. If you’re the opposite and would rather skip the crowds but feel like you should probably see what all the hype is about at least once in your lifetime, one is enough.

No matter which category you fall into, the question is, which park is the one? Take a look at this comparison of the two theme park giants, and know that you can’t go wrong with either choice.

The Deal

Saving time and money is important when it comes to planning a vacation, so ideally the park you choose is located near other parks of interest and offers discounted packages that include multiple attractions.

Universal Studios
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are side-by-side, connected by Universal CityWalk, a strip of entertainment options including stores and restaurants. While Islands of Adventure is technically part of Universal, admission to each park is separate. There are a variety of ticket packages available on Universal’s website that get you savings if you bundle parks together or book multiple days. For instance, a one-day park admission is $147 for adults, but if you book tickets for two days, the total price is $194.99, less than $98 per day.

It’s worth noting that both Universal parks have parts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter within them. Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios and the town of Hogsmeade is set up in Islands of Adventure. Both are among the biggest new attractions in the area, as everyone is rushing to hop on the Hogwarts Express.

Walt Disney World
Disney has four main parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. Each has their own theme. Magic Kingdom is home to all the Disney classics, catering to children or the young at heart. Epcot boasts the world showcase, where older crowds gather to drink around the world. Hollywood Studios, formerly known as MGM Studios, is all about movies and rivals Universal Studios in terms of cinematic tributes. Animal Kingdom has a live African safari available as well a Lion King production. If you add the park hopper option to your ticket, you will be able to peruse any of the four parks during your stay for an additional $40. Tickets start at $99 per day per park, and drop to as low as $55 per day for those who book five or more days.

The Accommodations

Need a place to crash after all that park hopping excitement? Keep the fun going by staying on-site.

Universal Studios
Universal has four hotels on-site, three in the deluxe price range and one categorized as moderate. While Universal may not offer as many budget-friendly hotels, there is one undeniable bonus to staying in a Universal property—every guest gets a complimentary Universal Express Pass included with their stay, which allows you to skip the lines at the park.

Walt Disney World
Disney offers over 25 Disney Resort hotel locations on Walt Disney World property, which spans over 27,000 acres and includes theme parks, hotels and downtown Disney. The benefits of staying on Disney property include free transportation to and from the parks, as well as in between them. Disney has an elaborate transportation system built into their complex, which allows you to commute by ferry, bus or monorail. Another great benefit? Extended park hours that allow you to get in early and beat the crowds.

The Lines

Speaking of express passes, there’s no better way to make use of your time at either park than by planning in advance and bypassing as many lines as possible.

Universal Studios
As mentioned, Universal has an Express Pass, which means that for an additional $35, you can skip all the lines in the park. Depending on the season, this option could be well worth the splurge.

Walt Disney World
Disney does not offer the same type of deal. Instead, they have a Fast Pass system, which allows you to pick three ride lines to skip, and you have to arrive at that ride during a set time to gain access. The most popular rides book fast, however, so plan ahead.
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Photo by Kamira/Shutterstock

The Riveting Rides

Who doesn’t love roller coasters? Thankfully, both Disney and Universal have their share of thrilling tracks.

Universal Studios
First, it should be noted that Islands of Adventure is regarded by many as a coaster park. One especially popular coaster is the Dragon Challenge attraction, which features two dueling tracks that come thrillingly close to one another. There’s also Jurassic Park and Dudley Do-Right, two water coasters with a big splash and priceless photo moment at the end. Last but not least, the Incredible Hulk coaster shoots you out from zero to 40 mph in two seconds flat.

At Universal Studios, indoor coaster Revenge of the Mummy goes forward and backward, and even boasts a burning ceiling (don’t worry, the flames are contained). This roof is literally on fire.

Walt Disney World
In Mickey Mouse’s backyard, you’ll find the iconic Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. If you really want to tackle the biggest peak at Disney though, you need to head over to Animal Kingdom for Expedition Everest. Finally, at Hollywood Studios, join Steven Tyler on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, an indoor ride that takes off at 60 mph and has a great soundtrack to boot.

The Relaxing Rides

OK, they aren’t exactly relaxing, but If coasters aren’t your thing, don’t worry—there are plenty of rides available at both parks to keep all audiences entertained.

Universal Studios
One of the most innovative rides at Universal Studios Orlando is the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. The first of its type, this ride pair motion based vehicles with 3-D film and live action. Found at Islands of Adventure, it’s an interactive experience that lets you fight crime with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Men in Black: Alien Attack gives you access to the MIB headquarters while waiting in the line, and then takes you on a secret mission throughout New York City to eradicate the streets of menacing aliens—you even get to shoot a laser gun as you try to outscore your partner.

Lastly, while still relatively new as an attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has quickly become a classic. You get to go through Hogwarts and take part in a quidditch match. It’s every Harry Potter fan’s dream.

Walt Disney World
Magic Kingdom is known for iconic rides like It’s a Small World, but the real star of this park is Mickey’s Philharmagic, a 3-D movie concert starring your favorite Disney characters that plays to all the senses. While you’re watching the characters from Beauty and the Beast prepare your feast, you’ll actually smell the pies they’re making.

If you want a little more danger, head over to the infamous Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Guaranteed to never be the same ride twice, Disney programmers have designed it so you can never predict the falls, making this ride as terrifying for seasoned riders as it is for newbies.

You can spot a good ride by the length of its line. Averaging a wait of no less than two hours at any point in time, Soarin’ at Epcot simulates hang-gliding over landscapes of California and incorporates scents and wind. Don’t be surprised if you feel the urge to belt out “I’m Flying!” from Disney classic Peter Pan mid-ride. It’s Disney magic at its best.

The Shows

If you need a break from the rides, sit and catch your breath while enjoying a show.

Universal Studios
Recently, Universal launched a new nighttime show called Universal Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories which showcases what Universal Studios does best—movies. Viewers sit underneath the stars and watch classic film clips, coupled with pyrotechnics and fountain shows. If you want a little more action, Universal also offers Terminator 2: 3-D Show, which brings the action you’ve see onscreen to life. There’s even a real life terminator who extends his hand to the audience, beckoning them to follow him if they want to live. No joke.

Walt Disney World
There is no shortage of shows at Walt Disney World, including nightly fireworks at all the parks, multiple stage productions, and even small performances in the streets throughout the day.

Fantasmic is a boat parade complete with pyrotechnics, fireworks and waterworks. The boats fill up every night, so get there early. If you’re traveling with children, check out Finding Nemo – The Musical at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which features puppets instead of costumes.

Let’s not forget one of the longest running shows at Hollywood Studios—the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. The show has been introducing new generations to Indiana Jones’ adventures for years, and, yes, they still take volunteers from the audience.

Jen Ruiz is a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer and blogger .

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