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Universal Studios vs Disney World: The Ultimate Family Vacation Showdown

Universal Studios vs Disney World: The Ultimate Family Vacation Showdown

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Are you thinking about planning a trip to an Orlando theme park but aren’t sure which one? Let’s compare Universal Studios vs Disney World so you can pick the right one for your family!
This post comparing Universal Studios vs Disney World was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

My kids LOVE theme parks and we visit them as often as we can for our family vacations. Since we live in Seattle, it’s a trek to go to Florida (but we still do it).

The tricky thing about Orlando theme parks is that they are MASSIVE and often require several days to fully experience them. This means a lot of families need to choose just one to visit.

We just got back from a trip to Universal Studios Orlando and I thought it would be helpful to compare it to Walt Disney World since those are the two most popular theme parks in Orlando.

Universal Studios Overview

Universal Orlando Resort is a fantastic world of excitement for families. It’s made up of several amazing parts: Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay.

Each of these places offers something special for everyone. I’ll give you the highlights of each park below.

Universal Studios Florida

At Universal Studios Florida, your family can dive into the action of movies and TV shows. It’s like stepping right into your favorite stories. The streets are lined with attractions, shops, and shows that make you feel like a star.

Image of Marcie Cheung of Marcie in Mommyland and her boys wearing Hogwarts robes holding wands at Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida. Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography
Diagon Alley is mind-blowingly cool! Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

Here, one of the coolest spots is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. You can explore the magical shops, see a fire-breathing dragon, and even ride the Hogwarts Express. This is seriously cool even if you’re just a casual Harry Potter fan.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

Universal’s Islands of Adventure is where your family’s adventure spirit comes alive. It’s packed with thrilling roller coasters, like the Incredible Hulk Coaster (my son’s favorite roller coaster), and the amazing Spider-Man ride. Plus, there’s more Harry Potter magic waiting at Hogsmeade.

Volcano Bay

Don’t forget about Volcano Bay, a water theme park that’s perfect for a splashy day of fun. It has everything from relaxing lazy rivers to exciting water slides.

Universal CityWalk Orlando

And after a day of adventure, Universal CityWalk Orlando is the spot to relax. It has great places to eat and fun entertainment for the whole family. Universal Orlando Resort offers a mix of fun, thrills, and magical memories for your family trip!

Walt Disney World Overview

Walt Disney World is a magical place where families can experience the wonder of Disney characters and stories. Yes, I had to use the term magical because it really is the best way to describe it!

When you visit Disney World, you’re entering a world of enchantment with four unique theme parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. They also have two water parks.

Magic Kingdom

At Magic Kingdom, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. This park is home to the famous Cinderella Castle and classic rides like Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Family photo shoot in Dumbo, the flying elephant at Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World
Magic Kingdom has all the iconic Disney rides. Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

Plus, there are parades with your favorite Disney characters, making it perfect for kids and those who are young at heart.

EPCOT

EPCOT offers a blend of fun and learning, with a focus on technology, innovation, and world cultures. You can travel around the world in a single day at the World Showcase and enjoy rides like Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After.

Hollywood Studios

Disney’s Hollywood Studios takes you behind the scenes of the movie world. You can dive into the Star Wars universe or shrink down to the size of a toy in Toy Story Land.

Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Animal Kingdom combines the thrills of a theme park with the excitement of a zoo. You can go on a safari to see real animals and enjoy rides like Avatar Flight of Passage.

Disney Springs

And for shopping, dining, and entertainment, Disney Springs is the place to be. It’s the perfect ending to a fun-filled day at Disney World!

Each park at Walt Disney World offers its own special magic, from thrilling rides to encounters with beloved Disney characters.

Universal Studios vs Disney World Comparison Criteria

Hours of Operation

I have to kick off this comparison list with the thing that jumps out most to me: hours in the parks.

Universal Studios often has shorter hours than Disney World. Typically, Universal Studios is open at 9 a.m. and closes between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. They offer early entry if you stay at certain hotels. Of course, these hours can change depending on the time of year.

Image of two hotel keys at Universal Studios Orlando. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung of Marcie in Mommyland
Our hotel keys for Loews Sapphire Falls got us early entry into the parks. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

Walt Disney World is typically open from 8 a.m. and closes between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. They offer early entry if you stay at certain hotels. Of course, these hours can change depending on the time of year and which park you’re visiting.

So, if you’re trying to maximize your dollars, make sure you factor in how many hours you can be in the parks.

Personally, I like that Universal Studios is open a little bit later in the morning so we don’t feel pressured to wake up before dawn to rope drop. And we don’t feel the need to also stay up until midnight.

Attractions and Rides

Walt Disney World and Universal Studios both offer fantastic experiences, but they cater to different tastes and age groups, especially when comparing their attractions and rides.

At Walt Disney World, the theme parks are filled with a mix of magical, family-friendly rides and some thrilling roller coasters. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a great example of a ride that combines fun with a bit of thrill, suitable for a wide range of ages.

Big Thunder Mountain is one of my son’s favorite rides! Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

Disney’s rides often focus more on storytelling and immersive experiences, making them perfect for families with young children or those who prefer less intense attractions.

On the other hand, Universal Studios is known for its high-energy thrill rides and roller coasters. Universal parks, including Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, offer more intense experiences that appeal to thrill-seekers and older kids or teens.

Rides like The Incredible Hulk Coaster and the Jurassic Park River Adventure offer bigger thrills and faster speeds compared to most Disney rides. These rides are also a bit smoother and quieter than similar rides at Disney World.

My son rode the Hulk over and over again! Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

When comparing Universal to Walt Disney World, think about what your family enjoys. If you have younger children or love classic Disney characters and storytelling, Disney World might be more suitable.

However, if your family craves high-speed roller coasters and action-packed adventures, Universal Studios could be the better choice. Both parks offer a range of experiences, from educational to adventure-themed, ensuring there’s something for everyone.

Theming and Immersion

When comparing Disney World and Universal Studios, theming and immersion are key factors that set these parks apart. Both offer incredible experiences but in slightly different ways.

Disney World is famous for its magical theming (yes, it’s that word again). Each park, from Magic Kingdom to Epcot, transports you into different worlds.

Image of a dad and two boys at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Walt Disney World
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is massively cool! Photo credit: Darren Cheung

One of the most immersive experiences is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Here, you feel like you’ve stepped right into a Star Wars movie, with life-sized ships, droids, and even a chance to build your own lightsaber!

Universal Studios, on the other hand, offers its own unique immersive experiences, especially for fans of Harry Potter.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida is a standout. Walking through this area feels like you’ve been dropped into the pages of a Harry Potter book. You can visit Ollivanders to find your wand, sample Butterbeer, and even ride the Hogwarts Express.

Image of Marcie Cheung of Marcie in Mommyland and her son wearing Hogwarts robes and casting spells at Gregorovitch's wand shop at Universal Studios Orlando. Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography
Universal Studios is amazing for Harry Potter fans! Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

In comparing Disney World and Universal, it’s clear both prioritize immersive experiences, but they cater to different interests.

Disney offers a broader range of themes, ideal for classic Disney lovers and families with younger kids. Universal’s theming, particularly with Harry Potter, appeals to older kids, teens, and adults seeking thrilling adventures and familiar movie settings.

Both provide unforgettable experiences, making them top choices for family vacations.

Live Shows and Entertainment

When it comes to live shows and entertainment, both Walt Disney World and Universal Studios offer unique experiences that can make your theme park vacation truly memorable.

At Walt Disney World, the magic of Mickey Mouse and friends comes alive in a variety of spectacular shows. ‘Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage’ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a Broadway-style musical that delights fans of all ages. It’s seriously amazing!

Over in Animal Kingdom, ‘Donald’s Dino-Bash!’ and the ‘Festival of the Lion King’ provide lively, colorful performances full of Disney charm.

And no Disney visit is complete without experiencing the nighttime spectacle of ‘Fantasmic!’, a show combining water, fire, lights, and beloved Disney characters.

Universal Studios, while compared to Disney World, offers a more cinematic approach to its shows. ‘The Bourne Stuntacular’ at Universal Orlando showcases high-octane stunt performances that leave audiences on the edge of their seats.

We thought the Bourne Stuntacular was amazing! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

For a touch of humor, ‘Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show’ reveals the secrets behind movie special effects. Fans of blues music will enjoy ‘The Blues Brothers Show’, and Harry Potter enthusiasts shouldn’t miss ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ in Diagon Alley.

Both Disney and Universal excel in their live entertainment offerings. Disney’s shows often emphasize classic storytelling and character experiences, while Universal’s focus on cinematic thrills and behind-the-scenes looks offers a different type of excitement.

Depending on your family’s interests, either park can provide unforgettable show experiences.

Dining Experiences

When it comes to dining on a Disney vacation or at Universal Studios, families have a wide array of delicious choices that can add extra magic to their theme park experience. Both parks offer everything from quick-service eateries for those on-the-go moments to themed restaurants that immerse you in different worlds.

At Walt Disney World, dining is an adventure in itself. You can make dining reservations at various themed restaurants, like eating under the sea at ‘The Coral Reef’ or dining with princesses at ‘Cinderella’s Royal Table’.

Mickey Mouse is just one of the hosts of this Tusker House character breakfast at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom Park. This character meal also features Daisy, Donald, and Goofy and it's a buffet-style table service restaurant that is part of the Disney Dining Plan. #tuskerhouse #animalkingdom #waltdisneyworld #disneyworld #characterbreakfast | Tusker House Character Breakfast review featured by top Disney blogger, Marcie and the Mouse
It’s really hard to beat the amazing character dining experiences at Disney World. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

One of the highlights is character dining, where kids can eat alongside their favorite Disney characters – a memorable experience for young visitors.

Universal Studios also offers an impressive range of themed dining options that transport you into the worlds of your favorite movies and shows.

Image of Marcie Cheung with a Krusty Burger at Universal Studios Florida. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung
The food at Krusty Burger wasn’t half bad! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

From the Simpsons atmosphere of ‘Krusty Burger’ to the prehistoric setting of ‘The Burger Digs’, Universal brings its stories to life through food. While Universal doesn’t offer character dining in the same way Disney does, its themed eateries provide a unique and entertaining dining experience.

Both Universal Studios and Disney World cater to a wide range of tastes and dietary needs, ensuring that everyone in the family can find something they enjoy.

Whether it’s a quick snack or a sit-down meal, the dining experiences at these parks are an integral part of the fun.

Cost and Value

At Walt Disney World, tickets start at $109 for one park per day. If you want the flexibility to hop between multiple theme parks in a single day, the Park Hopper option is available for an additional cost.

For families looking to minimize waiting in lines, Disney offers Genie Plus, which also adds to the overall ticket price. These prices fluctuate depending on crowds but it can be worth it if you have limited time.

With four unique parks, including Magic Kingdom and Epcot, the variety of experiences can justify the cost for many families.

Over at Universal Orlando Resort, ticket prices begin at $119 for a single park per day. Like Disney, Universal offers a park hopper ticket, allowing visitors to explore both Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

For those looking to bypass regular lines, the Universal Express Pass can be a valuable add-on, though it increases the overall ticket price. It’s better to purchase this in advance to save a bit of money.

The high-octane thrills and experiences, like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, can offer a different kind of value, especially for families with older children or movie enthusiasts.

In both cases, annual passes are available for those planning multiple visits or extended stays. I know it might sound crazy, but sometimes it does make sense to get an annual pass even if you live out of state.

When assessing the overall value for money, consider the unique experiences each park offers and how much your kids will actually enjoy them.

Both Universal and Disney provide memorable experiences, but your choice will depend on the kind of adventures your family prefers and how much you’re willing to spend.

I always book my Orlando theme park tickets and packages through Get Away Today because they usually have the best deals and amazing customer service.

Accommodation Options

When comparing Universal Studios and Walt Disney World for your Orlando theme park vacation, one key factor is where to stay. Both have fantastic accommodation options, each with unique perks.

Staying at a Universal hotel offers benefits like early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Express Unlimited ride access, which lets you skip regular lines.

Image of the water taxi in front of Loews Sapphire Falls in Universal Studios Florida. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung
We loved the convenience of the water taxi at Loews Sapphire Falls. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

Universal’s hotels range from luxurious to budget-friendly, with options like Loews Sapphire Falls Hotel and Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. These hotels keep you close to the action and offer a seamless park experience.

Walt Disney World Resort, on the other hand, boasts a range of themed hotels that immerse you in the Disney magic. From the African safari-themed Animal Kingdom Lodge to the beachy vibes of the Caribbean Beach Resort, there’s a hotel for every taste.

Kidani Village at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida #kidanivillage #waltdisneyworld #disneyworld #animalkingdom
It was pretty insane to see giraffes when we stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Staying on-site at Disney World gives you benefits like extra Magic Hours, giving you more time in the parks, and complimentary transportation to and from the parks.

Whether you choose a Universal Hotel or Walt Disney World Resort, you’ll find that staying on-site can enhance your theme park experience, offering convenience and exclusive benefits that are a big plus for any family vacation.

So, when weighing Universal Studios vs Disney World, think about what kind of accommodation experience will make your trip even more magical.

Accessibility and Ease of Navigation

When choosing between Universal theme parks and Walt Disney World parks for a family vacation, it’s important to think about how easy it is to get around. Both theme park resorts do a great job at making sure families can navigate the parks easily.

At Universal, the parks are closer together, which means less walking. This can be a big plus for families with young kids or members who get tired easily.

Universal also offers an Attraction Accessibility Pass, which helps guests with disabilities (either cognitive or physical) enjoy the park by reducing wait times for attractions.

Walt Disney World, on the other hand, is massive. It’s made up of multiple parks and waterparks, which means more walking and time spent getting from one place to another.

Image of a boy sitting in the Disney World Skyliner
The Skyliner is a fun way to get to Disney parks. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

But, Disney World is well-equipped with transportation options like buses, monorails, skyliners, and boats to help you move between the parks and resorts.

They also offer the Disability Access Service (DAS) pass, which is designed to assist guests who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability.

Both Universal and Disney World are committed to making their parks accessible and enjoyable for all guests. They offer various services to assist families, ensuring a comfortable and memorable visit to their theme park resorts.

Universal vs Disney World Family Considerations

When comparing Universal Studios and Disney World for families, it’s key to consider the ages of your kids. Both theme parks have different perks that might suit your family better.

For families with small kids, Disney World is fantastic. They have lots of rides for little ones and child care centers in each park. Universal is great too, but its rides often cater more to older kids and teenagers.

Toy Story Land is the newest addition and a must-see attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios with kids.
Toy Story Land is a fun area at Disney World! Photo credit: PhotoPass Photographers

If you have teens, they might find the thrill rides at Universal more exciting. Plus, Universal has cool areas like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Both parks offer rider switch services, so if one child is too small for a ride, one parent can wait with them without missing out. Also, both have family rest areas, making it easier for families with kids of different ages to take breaks and regroup.

So, whether your family is full of tiny tots, teenagers, or a mix, both Universal and Disney World have you covered with facilities that make your trip easier and more enjoyable.

Seasonal Events and Crowds

When picking between Universal Studios and Disney World, consider their cool seasonal events! Both parks celebrate Halloween and Christmas, but in different ways.

At Disney World, they have Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and magical Christmas parades. Universal hosts Halloween Horror Nights with spooky mazes, great for older kids and adults. For Christmas, they have Grinch-themed events.

Image of Marcie Cheung and her son in front of a Christmas tree at Universal Studios Florida. Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography
We love Christmastime at Universal Studios. Photo credit: Sees the Day Photography

Crowds can be big during these times, so plan your visit wisely. To avoid crowds, try going on weekdays or during off-peak seasons. Early mornings or late evenings are usually less busy too.

Our family has visited both Universal Studios Orlando and Disney World during Christmas (separate trips) and we found Universal Studios to feel less crowded than Disney World during this time of year.

Remember, both parks are super fun during these special events, but each offers a unique experience. So, think about what your family would enjoy the most!

Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando FAQs

Which is better for small kids, Disney World or Universal Orlando?

Disney World is often better for small kids because it has more rides and shows designed for young children, like those in Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Universal has some kid-friendly areas too, but it’s more thrilling with bigger roller coasters.

Can teenagers enjoy Disney World, or is Universal better?

Teenagers can enjoy both, but Universal Orlando often has more appeal with its thrilling roller coasters and attractions like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Disney World also has great options for teens, especially at parks like Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

Is Universal Orlando more expensive than Disney World?

The ticket prices are pretty similar. Disney World starts at $109 for one park per day, while Universal starts at $119. But remember, adding extras like park hopper options or express passes can increase the price.

Which park has better dining options?

Both parks offer a wide range of dining options. Disney World is famous for its character dining experiences and themed restaurants. Universal has unique dining experiences too, especially in areas like Universal CityWalk.

What kind of accommodations can I find at each park?

Both Disney World and Universal Orlando have a variety of on-site hotels ranging from budget-friendly to luxury options. Staying on-site at either park can offer extra perks like early park entry.

Which park is easier to navigate?

Both parks are large, but Disney World is significantly bigger. Universal Orlando is easier to navigate due to its smaller size. Disney offers transportation like buses and monorails to help guests move around.

What kind of seasonal events do these parks have?

Both parks host special events for Halloween and Christmas. Disney’s events are more family-oriented, while Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are geared towards an older crowd.

Are there water parks at both locations?

Disney World has two water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Universal has one water park, Volcano Bay, which is known for its thrilling water rides.

Can I find child care facilities at the parks?

Yes, both Disney World and Universal offer services like Rider Switch and family rest areas. Disney World also has Baby Care Centers in each park.

When is the best time to visit to avoid crowds?

To avoid crowds, consider visiting during the off-peak season, typically when schools are in session. Early mornings and late evenings are also less crowded.

Disney World vs Universal Studios Orlando Wrap-Up

Both Florida theme parks are super fun and your family will have a blast! It really does depend on what your family wants to do.

Our family really loves Harry Potter so we were blown away by Universal Studios Orlando. The Harry Potter area is much larger and more immersive than at Universal Studios Hollywood.

And over at Disney World, it’s pretty cool to explore the world at Epcot or go on a jungle safari at Animal Kingdom. They have a lot of areas that are different than Disneyland.

Talk it over with your family and see which park is right for you!

Looking for more Florida theme park content? Check out How Many Days Do You Need at Universal Studios Orlando?, Universal Studios vs. Islands of Adventure: Which Orlando Park is Right for You?, 13 Must-Read Tips for Universal Studios Orlando First-Timers, 10 Best Day Trips from Disney World Worth Doing, and What to Do at Walt Disney World: Arrival Day Itinerary!

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