Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida are both exceptional theme parks with a variety of rides, over-the-top decorative elements, good food, and fun character experiences. I definitely think that both parks are worth visiting. If you have the time and budget to visit multiple theme parks during your Florida vacation, then stop reading this comparison and buy tickets to both Universal Studios and Disney World right now.
If you know that you won’t be able to enjoy both Universal Orlando Resort and Disney World Resort on your trip, then there are some things to consider when deciding which location is a better fit for you.
The very first thing you should consider when deciding which major Florida theme park to visit is what you enjoy most. It seems simple, but I have had multiple friends listen to my entire spiel before admitting something like they’re indifferent about most Disney movies and LOVE Harry Potter. It’s a no-brainer that Universal Studios would be better for them then!
Pop Culture Interests
I am a huge fan of Harry Potter and I love Disney and Pixar films. For me, both parks offer a memorable experience because I love too many things. That is not the case for everyone. For some it will be easy to decide which park is a better fit.
Walt Disney World Resort
Disney World is made up of four theme parks and two water parks. Magic Kingdom Park, Disney Hollywood Studios, EPCOT, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are each theme parks under the Walt Disney World umbrella. There are also two water parks, Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, with separate admission options. Additionally, Disney has a non-ticketed shopping and restaurant area called Disney Springs.
Each of the Disney World theme parks offers rides for all ages, a variety of food options, character meet and greets, and themes from different Disney movies. Each park also has multiple smaller “lands” that appeal to different people as well. Some notable areas that tend to be visitor favorites are Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom, the World Showcase in EPCOT, and Pandora-The World of Avatar in Animal Kingdom.
Take a look at what is offered at Disney World to see if something appeals to you.
Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks, Universal Studios and Island of Adventure, and one water park, Volcano Bay. It is considerably smaller than Walt Disney World but still manages to fit a lot into a smaller area. Like Disney Springs, Universal Studios also has a free outdoor shopping and restaurant area, Universal CityWalk, before the entrance of the theme parks.
Universal Orlando is also comprised of multiple themed areas. My favorite is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal Studios is home to Diagon Alley and Island of Adventure is where Hogsmead resides. If you choose to buy a two-park per-day ticket you can also ride the Hogwart’s Express between the two theme parks. Everything about these two Harry Potter areas is enchanting; the building details, music, food options, and interactive wand experiences were exceptional.
If you are a theme park enthusiast in general you will find both amusement parks to be thoroughly enjoyable. If you tend to be pickier you will want to look at each park and see which one has more theming that matches your interests. It is worth noting that both Disney World and Universal Studios have Marvel-themed areas and rides. Beyond that similarity, the character or movie themes are entirely different.
While the food and atmosphere of a theme park are important to the overall experience, most people go to theme parks for the rides. Universal Studios and Walt Disney World both have a variety of rides that span all age ranges and thrill levels.
Every park at Universal Studios and Disney World has rides that young kids can enjoy. Both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World also have lands in their parks that are based around characters and themes that young kids are drawn to as well.
With the exception of Hollywood Studios, every Walt Disney World park has more rides for people of any height than rides with height restrictions. This is nice for families with young kids who want to spend as much of their theme park vacation together as possible. There are some rides that have a lower height requirement of 35-38 inches, but the majority of Disney rides with a minimum height are around the 40-inch mark.
Of the 31 rides between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, only five have no height restrictions. A handful more allow guests over 36 inches, while many rides require riders to be at least 42 inches in height. Overall Universal Studios has far fewer toddler-friendly rides that the entire family can ride together.
The height requirements for theme park rides can be hard to work around, but it is counteracted by free admission for young children. Disney World and Universal Studios both waive park ticket fees for children until their third birthday.
Both parks also offer switch programs to minimize wait times. Families with one or more children who don’t meet the height requirement only have to wait in line one time. One or more people from your group wait in line like normal and ride the ride. When they are done the person who waited with the young child gets to skip the line and enjoy the ride. This is beneficial for groups who have individuals who want to enjoy the thrill rides and who also have family members who are too short to safely ride.
Based purely on ride availability, Disney World is more family-friendly. You can spend all day only riding rides with no minimum required height and still not get on every possible ride when you are at Disney World. Universal Studios has such a small offering for toddlers that you could ride all they have to offer and still have half a day left in the parks.
Teen or Adult
Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World Resort both multiple have rides that pre-teens, teenagers, and adults enjoy. Roller coasters, rides with large drops, and fast-moving rides do not disappoint at either park.
Universal Studios markets itself as a thrill-ride theme park. There is a reason that they offer fewer rides for toddlers and young children; it isn’t their target market. Many of the rides are themed and built with older riders in mind.
Universal Orlando has a lot of rides that rely on 3D visuals as you ride in a car through an experience. The rides are usually based on a story and are immersive. It is a neat experience, but one that is a little overdone. There are multiple rides that are enjoyable, but similar to others in the park with just a different movie theme. The two times I have been to Universal Studios I have found myself impressed with the first few rides I ride like this and then a little more bored with each I ride throughout the day.
There are exciting roller coasters and water rides to balance the 3D rides though. I would recommend trying to alternate between multiple types of rides to keep your day less monotonous. There are plenty of fast, daring rides to get your adrenaline pumping.
Some of the rides that feel similar are still exciting though because of the storyline. In addition to Harry Potter and Marvel, other popular franchises such as The Fast and the Furious, Transformers, and The Mummy are featured in combo 3D screen and moving car rides.
All in all, Universal Orlando has enough rides geared toward adults and older adolescents to make the day fun and worthwhile.
While Disney World has more rides that young children can enjoy, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have thrill rides for taller or older guests. All four Disney World parks have thrill rides that adventurous riders will enjoy. Many of the thrill rides in Disney World are also themed with popular movie themes that will feel relevant or nostalgic to older riders.
Disney World has added a handful of new rides in the last 10 years. Off the top of my head, only one is for all ages and one has a shorter height requirement. The others have been created with older riders in mine. The addition of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, Marvel rides, and the soon-to-open Tron roller coaster have all indicated a move on Disney’s part to expand their thrill ride repertoire.
If you are traveling with guests who are all above 50 inches then either Disney World or Universal Studios is worth your time.
Some of the best food I have ever eaten has been at Disney World. Across all four Disney parks, there are numberless good treats and meals. They have everything from standard chicken strips to Michelin Star restaurants. There are dishes from around the world and new things to try in every park.
Universal has some exceptional dishes, delectable treats, and a few good sit-down restaurants, but there are far fewer high-quality eating options. In a food stand-off between Universal Orlando and Disney World, Universal does not stand a chance.
If you are someone who likes to pack a backpack full of snacks and lunches, then the food will not play a roll in your decision. If food is a major part of your vacation experience, you will find Disney World to be a better choice.
Atmosphere and Experiences
So much of what makes a theme park trip enjoyable happens off the rides. The atmosphere and other experiences add value and can sometimes be the best part of your Disney World or Universal vacation.
When you have been walking around all day a break for a show is a welcome reprieve. Universal Orlando and Disney World put on entertaining shows that are enjoyable even if your feet aren’t tired. Both parks do such a good job that here again your personal preferences will play a larger roll in what you enjoy that anything.
Disney World has paid character breakfast meet and greets as well as free character experiences throughout the parks. They do a good job of posting meeting times for in demand characters so you can plan your day around meeting your child’s or your favorite.
Universal Studios has character appearances, but they are less intimate. Disney wins in the character experience category.
Holiday Themes and Events
Nothing is like a Disney World Christmas. No detail is missed and no expense is spared. The same is true of Halloween, I just am more of a Christmas person than a Halloween one. The after hours parties Disney puts on for an additional fee at holiday times are incredibly fun and typically have smaller crowds than normal daytime hours. Disney parks also create holiday specific menu items that are often to die for.
Universal Studios also decorates and has after hours events for the holidays. Their decorations are detailed and heighten the visitor’s experience. Their Halloween decor strays more toward scary than cute making it a great destination for people who are into the spookier side of the holiday. Universal Orlando’s Frightmares nights are a must see for Halloween enthusiasts.
I am partial to the nostalgic holiday decorations and events that Disney World puts on, but for those who want an edgier Holiday experience, Universal Studios is for them.
The costs of a theme park vacation quickly add up. It isn’t just ticket prices that are important to consider. Lodging, food, and trip extras will all end up being more than the cost of theme park tickets. Depending on your plans, you might find one park more economical than the other.
The current age 10+ single-day park hopper pass for Disney World starts at $199 and goes up during busier times of the year. A Universal Studios two parks per day adult ticket is comparable at an advertised low of $164, though almost every day on their calendar is in the low $200’s.
Universal Studios has Disney World beat with their multi-day ticket discount though. You have to stay longer than four days at Disney World to see a noticeable drop-off in the per-day price. Universal Studios has had a long-running deal where you buy a two-day ticket and get two extra days added on for free. A four-day ticket to Universal Orlando ends up costing at least $50 less per day than the same ticket at Disney World.
Universal Studios is smaller and as such the return on your investment is less on a longer trip. Disney World can charge more per day because there is much more to do and therefore the demand is higher for a longer stay. While it is true that the ticket costs for a multi-day trip are less for Universal Studios, it doesn’t necessarily mean that multiple days will be well spent at Universal Studios.
Where Universal Orland saves guests in ticket costs in comparison to Disney World, it has a much stepper cost for time saving line cutting passes. Disney World charges $20 a day for Genie+, their version of a line skipping service. Universal Studios charges upwards of $200 for a one day Universal express pass. Universal Orland does offer more opportunities to skip to the front of the line than Disney does, but it is still a shockingly large gap in cost.
Disney World will typically cost more in ticket prices because their prices are slightly higher and guests will need more days to see everything. Universal Studios has lower ticket costs and can be done in fewer days so a ticket that is valid for less days will be enough to get the full experience. If you want the lowest base ticket costs then Universal Studios is the park you will want to visit.
If you are going to Disney World or Universal Orlando you have the option of staying in an on-property hotel. Both parks offer incentives for staying in their hotels. Disney and Universal have early park admission and/or late park hours that are only for guests staying in their hotels. You can get a great jumpstart on the day with shorter lines when you choose a hotel stay at either of these two theme park resorts.
Remember the extremely high express pass cost at Universal Studios? If you stay at one of their higher tier Universal hotels, such as Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, then you are given a free express pass with your purchased ticket. This incentive is huge and makes it worthwhile to look into staying in a more expensive room than you might normally.
Disney World has more on-property hotel options than Universal Orlando, and a wider cost gap. There are 3 star hotels that are typically around $200 a night and luxury multi-bedroom suites that are easily more than $1,000 a night during busy travel times. The financial benefits of staying at a Disney hotel are not as tangible the ones experienced at a Universal hotel. There is not a free Genie+ in any Disney hotel, but all hotels are much closer to the parks and that saves quite a bit of time. Parking is far away, especially at Magic Kingdom. You won’t see a free commodity when you stay on-property at Disney World, but you will save precious time.
When looking at comparable rooms between Universal Studios and Disney World, Disney hotels cost more per night. Airbnb and off-property hotel rates are comparable though so hotel savings will not factor in if you don’t plan on staying at the theme park.
When you bundle a hotel room with tickets at a Universal hotel, you save money. This isn’t the case at Disney World. You have the option of purchasing your tickets with your hotel reservation, but when you take the time to price it out it costs the same as if you would have booked it separately.
Similar to the steep discount on tickets if you stay longer than two days at Universal Orlando Resort, there is a decent discount on your hotel stay and your park tickets if you book both together and stay longer four nights or longer.
I firmly believe that you need at least four days to do Disney World well. If you have never been and don’t intend on going again in your life then you could easily spend six or more days at Disney World experiencing all there is to experience. Universal Studios on the other hand is much smaller and can feasibly be done in one long day if you buy the Universal express pass to jump to the front of the line or go during a less busy time of the year.
If you only have a few days then Universal Studios is a good idea because you will be able to thoroughly see and experience all that is offered. It would be difficult to get the most out of Disney World in only a few days. If you have a longer vacation planned and are only planning on visiting one of the theme park resorts, then Universal Studios could get boring after a few days, whereas Disney World will not.
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are similar in a lot of ways; they both have rides and activities that appeal to all ages, have benefits for longer visits or on-property hotel stays, and they have exciting, culturally relevant parks that are enjoyable to explore. They are just different enough in atmosphere and offerings that most people will be able to decide which theme park is best for them.
My personal preference is for Disney World Resort. I love Universal Studios and am glad that I have been able to visit it, but if push came to shove and I could only visit one, it would be Disney World. I enjoy the atmosphere, the food, and the ride variety more at the Disney World parks than the Universal parks.