Universal Studios vs. Disney World: Which One is Better?

in Disney, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

A graphic comparing Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. The left side shows the entrance sign of Disney World, and the right side displays the Universal globe logo. Text "vs" is centered between them.

The Universal Studios vs. Disney World debate is forever ongoing.

Theme park enthusiasts vacationing in the Orlando Resort Area have so many options to consider. Even nearby Tampa has contending Busch Gardens to boast about. But it’s the consistently steady competition between Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort that continues to reign supreme.

Some folks are diehard Disney fans, while others are unanimously loyal to Universal. Then there are others—mainly first-timers—who haven’t yet made up their minds on which is the better pursuit. If the last scenario describes you, then you’re in luck because we at Inside the Magic have compiled this ultimate comparison guide.

A Disney couple side-by-side with a Universal couple

An Overview

Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort (sometimes referred to as “Universal Studios Orlando”) are easily the most renowned theme park destinations in Central Florida. Both comprise onsite hotels, sport some of the most innovative and impressive attractions in the world, operate multiple parks, and draw in millions of visitors annually. Disney World was first on the scene, opening in October 1971. Universal came about nearly two decades later, in June 1990.

Size Comparisons

Does bigger always mean better? That all depends on whether you perceive an enormous Resort destination as having more profuse offerings or just being more burdensome to navigate.

Disney World spans over 40 square miles in contrast to Universal Orlando Resort, which roughly covers two square miles. Although, let it be known that the latter is in the process of expanding, which will nearly double its current size specs. That’s still significantly smaller than Walt Disney World Resort in its entirety.

Disney World map next to Universal Orlando Resort map

Related: Just How Big IS Walt Disney World?

How Many Different Parks?

Walt Disney World Resort features four main theme parks. They are Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom Park. There are also two resident water parks onsite—Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.

Universal Orlando Resort has two distinct theme parks, which are Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure. The Resort also boasts an impressive water park—Universal’s Volcano Bay. Also, as previously mentioned, Universal is in the process of expanding with the establishment of a new theme park—Universal Epic Universe, which is slated to open by 2025.

Considerations for the duration of your vacation and how much you can reasonably accomplish during your time in Orlando may impact your decision on whether you initially decide to do Disney or Universal. Of course, there is no requirement for having to do all the aforementioned Parks at either Resort.

Related: How Does Each Disney Park Rank Against One Another?

Onsite Accommodations

Disney and Universal each have their very own onsite accommodations, all of which range in designations to suit various budgets. Disney World offers over 25 onsite accommodations and several honorary Good Neighbor Resorts. The current onsite offerings for Universal Orlando hotels stand at eight, with various other hotels near Universal Orlando additionally.

Guests at Disney and Universal accommodations experience a wide range of exclusive perks and amenities, including complimentary transportation to each one’s theme parks, water parks, and Resort Entertainment hubs (Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk). Disney and Universal Resorts all excel in outdoing the area competition by leaps and bounds.

Universal Resort next to Disney's Animal Kingdom room

Related: Is It Better to Stay at a Disney Value Resort?

Which Attractions Are Where?

It can be confusing for inexperienced first-time vacationers to the Orlando Resort Area to keep straight about which attractions and experiences are exclusive to Disney World and which are the products of Universal. This is especially true about those gray area matters, like how Marvel is now associated with the Walt Disney Company, yet Universal Islands of Adventure features Marvel Super Hero Island. Universal also has a few Simpsons-related attractions despite Disney’s having bought Fox. Other areas of confusion emerge regarding the fact that Hollywood Studios in Disney World sounds far more like a place in Universal, and the Jurassic Park attractions in Universal seem far more suited to DinoLand U.S.A. at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park.

So, our best advice for prospective vacationers is to thoroughly research beforehand which experiences to pursue and to learn which ones are where before ever purchasing any Disney or Universal tickets.

Marvel super heroes at Universal
Credit: Marvel/Universal

Tyke Likes and Family Thrills

Your decision may also essentially come down to the types of rides and attractions you’re seeking. For instance, Disney World tends to focus more on family-friendly attractions that can be enjoyed by variously aged members of any traveling party. By contrast, Universal boasts many more high-octane thrill rides that may not necessarily suit smaller Guests or those looking for calmer experiences. In fact, more rides at Universal have height restrictions than those at Disney World.

Universal Jurassic Park coaster compared to Disney's Slinky Dog Dash

Related: Which One’s Better? Disney’s TRON or Universal’s Hagrid?

In-Park Entertainment

Both Resorts present nighttime spectaculars, although Disney provides much more variation within its various Parks. Not to be outdone, Universal boasts some pretty top-rated sights, too, like Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle, for instance.

There are also multiple stage shows happening on the scene at each location, along with various parades and other fun. As a beloved and timeless tradition, Disney always has a daytime parade offering, while Universal doesn’t adhere to such a constant ritual. When there is a Universal parade, though, it comes as a more casual affair—far less congested than the crammed-in Disney scenes.

Characters

Character offerings at each location also differ. Disney has trademark-licensed Disney and Pixar Pals on the scene, while Universal has varying other entertaining personas from film and otherwise. Disney Character Meet and Greets can sometimes be lengthy with extensive lines, while Universal’s approach is more of a  low-key mingling on-the-street affair. Disney also provides many more Character Meal engagements throughout Parks and even at some onsite Resorts.

Chef Mickey's scene with Mickey hugging a small girl at breakfast
Credit: Disney

Seasonal Events

You can enjoy seasonal happenings at both locations at various times during the year. Holiday happenings, particularly around Halloween and Christmas, garner varying special celebrations. For the former, Disney is renowned for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties, while Universal offers Halloween Horror Nights. Both are after-hours ticketed extras. Universal’s pricing is admittedly cheaper, but Disney’s offering is far more family-friendly.

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party reigns on the Disney scene, along with special ongoing holiday happenings throughout EPCOT. Universal focuses on various Grinch-related happenings, including a special nighttime parade and Breakfast Meet and Greet. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter also gets in on the seasonal celebrations. Additionally, there’s a wonderful wintertime food festival to take note of at Universal.

EPCOT’s acclaimed festivals at Disney World are internationally renowned. Furthermore, there are now many seasonal happenings throughout the year, more times than not. The EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival is still the one that gets the highest recognition, though. But let it be known that Universal has a pretty hopping Mardi Gras food festival celebration onsite too, which occurs between February and mid-April.

Christmas Mickey next to the Grinch

Related: Disney Halloween Party Price Nearly Triples in Less Than a Decade 

Food for Thought

Food festivals aside, let’s discuss the dining options at both locations. Its grander size gives Disney an advantage in providing more options. That also means there’s more versatility regarding specific cuisine features. We also previously mentioned that Disney has more Character Dining options.

While Universal Resort can’t compete with the versatile dining at Disney, it does succeed in offering better pricing for what you do get. This is especially impactful for those who generally stick to quick-service dining. Because neither Resort is offering dining plans presently, you’ll be paying full price at both locations.

Disney may be better for those seeking versatility in cuisine and experience, but Universal is more all-around convenient in pricing and the ease at which you can dine at a given venue. While you’d do well to make advance dining reservations for places you’re hoping to score a spot at, it’s much more necessary to do so at Disney than it is at Universal.

Family enjoying unique Na'vi cuisine at Disney World
Credit: Disney/David Roark

Express Passes

Disney and Universal each offer express pass options for enjoying select attractions with little or no wait time. Disney presents an extra paid-for Genie+ service. Additionally, Guests may purchase individual Lightning Lanes for some attractions that aren’t included in the aforementioned Genie+ service. Universal features the Universal Express System but does an about-face move regarding the pricing for this paid extra, as it is shockingly higher than what Disney presents. Universal Express starts at $90 a person but increases on peak days to as much as $380! Current Genie+/Lightning Lane costs are nowhere near those prices. Let it be known, however, that Universal Express doesn’t require prearranging arrival times. With Disney, you have to make requested purchases as far in advance as possible (depending on if you are a Resort Guest or staying off-property). This may mean waking up early the day of, on your vacation, no less!

Tickets

You may purchase single-day tickets to Universal or Disney World or upgrade to one of several multi-day combos at either location. While all prices are subject to change, current single-day (adult) pricing for all four Disney Parks is as follows: $154 for Magic Kingdom Park, $139 for EPCOT, $149 for Hollywood Studios, and $134 for Animal Kingdom Park. Single-day ticket prices for Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure are both currently priced at $109 for adults and $104 for kids. That said, Universal Orlando tickets are generally cheaper than those at Disney Parks.

Add-ons that allow visiting more than one Park a day can be applied to both Disney and Universal tickets alike. At Disney World, this popular option is known as the Park Hopper pass, and it works by letting Guests visit as many of Disney’s four theme Parks in a single day as they want. Regular base tickets limit you to just one Park a day. Do note that Park Hopping only applies to Disney theme Parks. For those wishing to add water parks to the Park Hopping experience, there’s an additional Park Hopper Plus option.

Universal allows you to choose from two single-day multi-park ticket upgrades. One is the rightly named 2-Park-1-Day ticket, which covers both Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure, and the other is a 3-Park option that also includes Volcano Bay.

As a common trend, Disney’s current ticket and Park Hopping system is a bit more stressful and complicated, at least for the present time. That’s because Guests are still required to make advance Park Reservations in addition to purchasing Park tickets. This infringes on the freedom of former Park Hopping as, for the present time, anyone with Park Hopper cannot “hop” a second Park until after 2 p.m. Universal doesn’t require any Advance Park Reservations, which earns it higher marks in Guest satisfaction in that regard.

Universal Islands of Adventure
Credit: Universal

Annual Passes

Both Resorts offer varying Annual Passes based on price, preference, and other included perks. Disney World currently has only one option for out-of-state visitors, though—the Disney Incredi-Pass, which goes for $1,399. Other Annual Passes from Disney include Disney Sorcerer ($969) for Vacation Club Members or Florida State Residents, Disney Pirate Pass ($749), and Disney Pixie Dust ($399).

With some overlapping exceptions, Universal Passes tend to be cheaper, with its most expensive Premier Pass going for $904.99. Other Universal Passes include the Preferred Pass ($629.99), Power Pass ($474.99), and Seasonal Pass ($424.99).

Closing Thoughts

Walt Disney World may offer many more pursuits across the board, but those extras generally result in elevated expenses that may be its undoing. Universal Orlando Resort tends to be more low-key and doesn’t pack the same stressful need for preplanning. But again, it’s that balance of iconic experiences and the cost for said experiences that each prospective Guest must personally consider before making any final decisions. Your perfect choice isn’t necessarily ideal for someone else.

Spaceship Earth sphere in EPCOT and Universal's World Ball

Do you think Disney World or Universal Orlando is better? Let us know your thoughts.

in Disney, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

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