Recently I wrote an article which argued why–from the perspective of someone who had never been back to Universal or Disney World–it makes sense that Universal appears to be in higher demand than Walt Disney World at the moment. It was mere speculation but based on objective comparisons.
On Monday, August 31, I took it upon myself to finally visit Universal Orlando Resort, so I could now write this article comparing the experiences of the two. And now, I can say without hesitation to those would-be Guests regaining the confidence to once again go have fun at a theme park, go to Walt Disney World.
This is not an attempt to backtrack on my previous comments. If anything, my experience at Universal confirmed my suspicions. Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure do offer an experience that is all but complete compared to the experience provided before the pandemic. And that is a bad sign.
Sure, if you want a sense of “normalcy,” that is one thing, but I felt as though I was bluntly reminded that “normalcy” is just packed crowds amid lackluster settings and employees. So, here are three ways I find the Walt Disney World Resort far superior to Universal Orlando Resort during the time of pandemic in immersive experiences, a sense of safety, and its employees.
Please keep in mind that this is based on my own personal views and experiences, and this does not reflect the views of the entire Inside the Magic team.
Even with the lack of Character Meet and Greets and Fireworks, the Walt Disney World Resort offers so much more than Universal Orlando Resort. Its four theme parks offer higher quality and a larger quantity of attractions in lands that are much more immersive.
Compared to Disney World’s expansive setup, Universal continues to appear like a mashup of high-quality rides but lackluster theming across two theme parks. And while Universal’s attractions are high-quality, my last visit reminded me that none of them boast the timelessness that Disney’s attractions do. Even Disney’s new rides like Flight of Passage or Rise of the Resistance boast a seemingly longer shelf life than Universal attractions.
The only exceptions are, in my opinion, the Hulk roller coaster, Jurassic Park water ride, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but even that falls short of Disney’s quality. Especially due to Universal’s team members, which I address later.
But Disney beats Universal not just in its active experience. Neither of Universal’s theme parks offers an atmosphere where one feels like its okay to simply sit and relax. At Disney, there are scores of spots across Magic Kingdom park, EPCOT, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where I am invited to just sit, relax, and people watch.
In fact, a friend of mine commented that his favorite Universal theme park was Volcano Bay because it is the only one that does not pressure its guests to continually going on ride after ride. There are places to sit, relax, and do nothing.
After all, you are at a RESORT. You should be free to relax and take it easy without feeling like you’re missing out on an authentic experience. There have been countless times where I have visited Disney parks several times and did not get on a single attraction and still got a complete experience. And at a time when health and safety concerns can get people into the parks but perhaps not on a ride, that distinction is more important than ever.
A Sense of Safety
Moving on to the sense of safety, when I spent the day at Universal, there was no sense that they were enforcing any social distancing. Sure, there were markers in the ride queues, and there were announcements made on the PA system every once and a while, but there was absolutely no enforcement of social distancing from the Team Members themselves and no sense of awareness from the other guests themselves.
There was also a noticeable laxness in the face coverings. At Walt Disney World, neck gaiters and open-chin triangle bandanas are not allowed in the parks as face coverings. At Universal, they are.
When it comes to the attractions themselves, I found that Team Members were on hand distributing hand sanitizer to guests right before they boarded the ride. I’m sure it was meant to appear as though they are taking one extra measure. But, in reality, it appeared more like a way to get out of stopping the rides in order to sanitize. While at Disney World, I actually took comfort in seeing the rides were down for 15 minutes, knowing that Cast Members were properly sanitizing the entire rides. I saw no such thing happen at Universal Orlando Resort.
I understand that a lot of our readers still have reservations about coming back to theme parks due to safety concerns surrounding the global pandemic. So I want to make it clear that I personally felt significantly safer inside a Walt Disney World theme park. Universal’s haphazard control over that aspect in its theme parks appeared to be on the same level, if not lower than, I found at Disney Springs.
Walt Disney World Cast Members
In the world of customer service, no theme park employees beat Walt Disney World Cast Members. They know they are the magic makers and wear it with pride.
That is not at all the case with Universal’s Team Members. Every employee I talked to at both Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure was energy draining. Especially at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
If Hogsmede and Diagon Alley were in a Disney Park, every Cast Member would have a British accent, a backstory, and address each person as if they were a muggle, witch, or wizard. Rather than answering my inquiry about a bar or shop with a blunt, apathetic “Nah, it’s closed,” I would get not a more sympathetic and creative answer that would add to the immersion of their themed land.
In my experience, I have experienced Disney Cast Members’ creativity. When I asked about why the hitchhiking ghosts did not appear on my last tour of the Haunted Mansion, the Cast Member told me that the ghosts were also social distancing. While wandering the gift shop in Pandora, I overheard a Cast Member talking to a Guest and refer to James Cameron’s Avatar as a documentary in order to explain something about the merchandise.
At Universal, the magic of Harry Potter stops as soon as the Team Members open their mouths. At Walt Disney World, the magic lives through its Cast Members from the Jungle Cruise Skippers and Princesses to the janitors. Even though mask-wearing and Meet and Greet closures cripple the illusion, Walt Disney World Cast Members do so much more to fill the gaps.
What is the Purpose of Your Visit?
At the end of the day, it still comes down to why you want to visit each theme park. If you just want a day where you can mindlessly go on thrilling attractions inspired by pop culture, I say Universal is the place for you. But if you want a true escape to a resort where you have access to even more high-quality attractions but don’t necessarily have to go on any rides and simply immerse yourself in the timeless magic, then I strongly suggest you choose the Walt Disney World Resort.
If Universal is truly enjoying better attendance numbers, they should enjoy the moment while they can. I believe as soon as Disney allows park hopping again, that apparent lead will be completely obliterated.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this review do not necessarily reflect those of Inside the Magic overall.