Universal vs. Disney: What the two major theme park resorts could learn from each other

Universal vs. Disney: What the two major theme park resorts could learn from each other

Universal vs. Disney: What the two major theme park resorts could learn from each other

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I recently returned from a research trip to Orlando where I spent half of the time at Universal Orlando Resort and half of the time at Walt Disney World. It was a unique perspective that afforded me new insight into the differences between the two resorts. Both are excellent at what they try to accomplish, but it does seem like the two resorts could learn a few things from each other. Here, I will give an overview of some of the major differences, and which resort could take some pointers from the other.

 

Universal vs. Disney – queue bypass system

A topic of much confusion, Disney’s FastPass and Universal Express both allow guests to bypass queues. The major difference is that Disney’s version is free and Universal’s is either a mark-up or included with staying at an on-site hotel. An initial reaction might declare Disney’s version better, but a free system means anyone can use the system, which means more people are “virtually” standing in the queue, making standby times longer. Universal’s more exclusive system, while it is an extra cost, is a more efficient system and its effectiveness depends on the season.

Verdict: Draw

Would you pay more to get around crowds like these?
Would you pay more to get around crowds like these?

 

Universal vs. Disney – annual passes and discounts

Lately, I’ve been alternating annual passes. Last year, I had a Universal Orlando annual pass, and this year I have one for Walt Disney World. Both are great for their own reasons. Both allowed 365 days of admission and free parking, but the perks were different. When I had my Universal Orlando pass, I loved getting discounts on nearly every food item and merchandise purchase. I even got discounts at some food carts. When I switched to a Walt Disney World annual pass, that was a much different story. Surprisingly few dining and merchandise locations accept the annual pass for discounts. Disney’s saving grace is the discounts they give at hotel bookings. These discounts significantly reduce the regular price of Disney’s hotels.

Verdict: Draw

 

Universal vs. Disney – lockers & bag handling

A major difference I noticed while visiting Islands of Adventure was the locker system. For those unaware of Universal’s locker policy, most major attractions have lockers nearby. These lockers are free to use for the length of the standby wait time. So if a rider stows away a backpack, stands in the regular queue, and returns immediately after riding, locker usage is still free. The problem is that this is required at nearly every major attraction, and essentially means a rider with a backpack must queue for a locker before queuing for an attraction. A few times a day is not a hassle for most guests, but when guests dash from attraction to attraction, it can be cumbersome. Comparable major attractions like Disney’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster permit riders to slip the straps of the backpack between a rider’s legs, which allows guests to avoid searching for a locker.

Verdict: Disney wins

The lockers for Dragon Challenge at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
The lockers for Dragon Challenge at Universal's Islands of Adventure.

 

Universal vs. Disney – dining programs

Both resorts offer much different versions of a dining program. The Disney Dining Plan offers a set price for dining credits. For example, the Quick Service Dining Plan allows two quick-service meals and one snack. Universal’s Meal Deal has a set price as well, but guests can take unlimited trips through participating restaurants. The Meal Deal has significantly fewer participating restaurants (only three per park, though they are the more popular of the quick-service restaurants), but is priced so that it is possible to save money with the deal. With the Disney Dining Plan, not only is it nearly impossible to save money after paying regular price, but it is stressful to find participating restaurants and use every single dining credit.

Verdict: Universal wins

 

Universal vs. Disney – dining value

Quick-service restaurants at either resorts are very comparable. Most offer the same type of foods for similar prices, and the selection is greatly homogenized throughout the parks. Disney offers more full-service service restaurants beyond the turnstiles than Universal’s parks, but Universal’s table service restaurants are much more affordable, especially at dinner. Another benefit of Universal is that, if there are no appealing offerings inside the parks, CityWalk’s wonderful restaurants are a stone’s throw away. So even at Universal’s parks, many reasonably priced full-service restaurants are available on property, just not inside the parks. These restaurants are competitively priced and can be as affordable as their International Drive or other counterparts. While Disney offers more unique dining experiences, it’s much easier to eat at affordable prices while on Universal property.

Verdict: Universal wins

Pat O'Brian's at Universal CityWalk.
Pat O'Brian's at Universal CityWalk.

 

Universal vs. Disney – parking situation

Parking is significantly different at the two resorts. Both name their lot sections after popular characters to make location recollection easier, but that about the only similarity. Universal utilizes two massive parking garages to hold all of the vehicles, while Disney uses massive parking lots. Getting to the parks is also different. Guests at Universal ride escalators and moving sidewalks to get to the parks, while Disney’s parks have trams available. By its nature, Universal’s system requires more walking, yet Disney’s system depends on the efficiency of the tram service. Furthermore, the great majority of cars parked in Universal’s garages are shielded from the elements, primarily heat and rain. But the hike back to the garages after a day full of walking can be miserable.

Verdict: Draw

 

Universal vs. Disney – family-friendly attractions

Walt Disney, when building Disneyland, said he wanted to build a place where parents and children could have fun together. That philosophy, of course, was continued in the development of Walt Disney World. Because Walt Disney World had been open nearly twenty years by the time Universal Studios opened, Universal took a different approach over the years, by building thrilling blockbuster rides. While this is great for the teenage-to-young-adult demographic, young children and grandparents will be hard-pressed to find attractions that they will enjoy at Universal. It’s certainly not uncommon to see teenagers bored at Walt Disney World, but those teenagers are spending quality time with their families, which is likely what the parents intended all along.

Verdict: Disney wins

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Magic Kingdom.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Magic Kingdom.

 

Do you have questions, comments, or objections to my comparisons? Leave a comment below. Or, check out round 2.

 

[sws_author_bio user=”joshmercer” size=”105″ authorposts=”More OI posts by Josh” name_format=”About the author”] [/sws_author_bio]

Taylor Strickland Taylor Strickland is the Owner & Publisher at Orlando Informer, the internationally awarded independent resource for guests visiting Orlando. In this position, he leads the website's overall direction and day-to-day operations, working with a team of writers, editors, developers, and producers.

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marivi528
Guest
marivi528

Great article!  I would actually give the parking situation to Disney though – there have been many times where we were one of the last people to leave the parks, and the bus drivers have been super kind in driving us straight to the car.  🙂  I always feel like the walk back to the car after a long day at Universal is never-ending.  lol

Ashley Nichols
Guest
Ashley Nichols

Eh… I have to disagree with a lot of these. I know everything’s opinion based, so here are my thoughts! 1) The bag handling thing is kind of a moot point. A lot of ride manufacturing companies insist that there be no loose articles permitted on the rides, and Universal follows these measures for safety reasons. Disney has fewer rides that are as thrilling, and it also has different sets of rules for its rides because it tends to have more control in the creative process. Besides, Universal offers free lockers – I think that they win simply for that… Read more »

Ashley Nichols
Guest
Ashley Nichols

Amendment – Disney DOES have chains at Downtown Disney. Just a smaller number!

DiNap44
Guest
DiNap44

I agree with Ashley on all her points and would like to add one more:

The comparison between the bypass queue lines is way off, Universal wins hands down. The cost of the service is well worth the time you save not standing in line.

JT
Guest
JT

I have to say that the parking situation at Disney is actually one of the biggest drawbacks for me. At Universal the parking is centralized allowing for access to all of Universal’s attractions by foot. At Disney if I want to park hop I have to usually get back to my car and drive. I also don’t like how to get to MK you have to first either walk through the parking lot or take a tram, and then take ANOTHER form of transportation just to get to the park gates. So personally I much prefer Universal’s parking situation.

Cassy
Guest
Cassy

I also would have to give the food topic to Disney. Universal is pay one price for as much fast food as you can eat, while Disney let’s you choose what types of food you want. They also have a way bigger selection. You mentioned the stress of finding a restraunt in Disney that accepted the dining plan. I’m not sure how often you use the dining plan, but more of the Disney restraunts accept the plan than don’t. In regards to the bags, I totally agree that Disney is better. Free lockers are great, but if anything comes up… Read more »

MIchelle
Guest
MIchelle

I loved your article. I think as far as food goes it depends on how you spend your money. At disney we fed our family of four with one quick service meal (1/2 chicken, ribs, mashed potates, veggies) for about $13.00. Portions are large and it depends on how hungry you are. I think the advantage Universal has (we were at both parks this past July) is the refillable mugs and that anyone can get the meal deal not just people staying on property. That’s the downfall with the DDP, you have to be staying onsite to benefit. The 2… Read more »

joshmercer
Guest
joshmercer

I really appreciate all of your feedback. Since it’s mostly based on opinion, it’s difficult to conclude anything. Based in these comments alone, I’d say either resort could be preferable depending on one’s perspective. I still stand by what I said before, but I’d like to either rephrase what I’ve said or elaborate on what I’ve said. @Martvi528 I agree with a lot of what you say, but it depends on the person. Some people are fine with walking another half-mile after walking 8-10 miles, but some don’t want to stand in another line. And @JT brings up a great… Read more »

chuck
Guest
chuck

We love Disney but your points about the dining really ring true with us. We do not participate in any dining plans. We would never eat the amount of food that Disney allows and charges for in any of the versions of their plans. And we just don’t want to ingest the amount of fast food that Universal offers in their deal meals. Our issue with Disney is that the sitdown  meals have gotten expensive  to the point of being ridiculous. We ate at Mythos last week and on our previous visit. Disney has nothing that compares to this restaurant… Read more »

Jewels
Guest
Jewels

I agree 100% with JT on the parking at Universal. That is also one of the drawbacks about Disney for me. I wouldn’t keep me away from the parks, but it is always something I think about when visiting.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

What a great article!  I think you covered the comparisions very well.  I have found though that the Annual Passholder discount at the Universal Hotels is also very good, especilly during big events (ie. Halloween Horror Nights and Mardi Gras Nights).  You don’t have as wide of a selection as at Disney,  but there always seems to be rooms avaliable.  Keep the Great info coming!

Chandler
Guest
Chandler

Universal’s parking is actually very similar to that of the parking at Disneyland in California. Universal just replaces the tram with moving walkways. Their parking is set up the way it is because of space constraints. In fact, Universal Orlando as a whole is pretty similar to Disneyland as far as the setup of the resort goes.