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How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando

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Do you know the difference between Disney World and Universal Studios? As someone who’s alternate zip code might as well be in Orlando Florida, I could talk about the difference between Disney World and Universal Studios in my sleep but can the average vacation planner?

Don’t worry – I’m breaking it down.

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This post was originally published in 2018 and has been edited/updated for 2021

The difference between Disney World and Universal Studios Explained

The two biggest entertainment entities in Florida are Universal Orlando Resort {more commonly referred to as Universal Studios Orlando or Universal Studios, Florida) and Walt Disney World.  Both have been developing new attractions and raising expectations within the last decade, so how do they compare? 

This comparison guide should serve as a snapshot of what to expect from the two destinations. Then you can decide where to have your next vacation.

I can also help you avoid disappointment. In talking to other frequent Orlando theme park travelers and hearing snippets of conversations from other vacations at the airports and resort hotels (fine, we can go ahead and call it eavesdropping) it always surprises me how many vacationers think The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (AKA Harry Potter World or Harry Potter Land) is at Disney World or that Universal Studios and other Orlando area attractions are walkable from Walt Disney World. 

To keep things in perspective, here is a look at a few points that illustrate the difference between Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. While I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “Disney versus Universal Studios” if you’re in the early stages of planning a vacation and need help deciding where to go, I hope this will help you out!

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando

The size difference between Disney World and Universal

Walt Disney World is much, much larger than Universal Orlando Resort. Disney occupies 30,000 acres – that’s roughly the size of San Francisco. In comparison, Universal occupies a mere 250 acres. 

Disney World has four theme parks, two water parks, a sports complex and golf courses. They also have an entertainment district, Disney Springs with lots of restaurants and shopping. 

Universal has two theme parks, one water park, Volcano Bay, and an entertainment district, Universal CityWalk.  

My family has been to both Disney World and Universal Studios. The size hasn’t honestly made that much difference to us. Universal definitely does not feel small and I felt like we did about the same amount of walking in each place.

You will need more days to explore Walt Disney World if you want to see everything because there is more to see.

Not all of the Disney property (remember that 30,000 acres) is developed and you’ll spend a lot of time in transit from the resort hotels to the parks and between the parks. With Universal, everything is in a more concentrated space.

If you have ever visited Disneyland California, Universal has the same type of setup. The spaces feel about the same size. Disney World is sprawling. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
Cow Fish Restaurant at City Walk serves steak, sushi and other goodies. Photo: Melinda Jae Photography

USE A VACATION PLANNER!

A Disney Vacation Planner can help you break it down, tell you about available specials and recommend what’s right for your family based on your needs and budget. 

I recommend Get Away Today for Walt Disney World and Disneyland California bookings. Get Away Today can also assist with Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not part of Disney

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios and Hogsmeade Village is at Islands of Adventure. You can take the Hogwarts Express between the two if you have a multi-park pass. 

With Disney acquiring so many entertainment enterprises (Marvel, Lucas Films, Fox) it is easy to get confused but Harry Potter is most definitely not at Disney…at least not at the present time!

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is beyond cool if you’re a Potterhead like me. Actually, it’s probably pretty darn cool for anyone. A fire breathing dragon atop a bank run by goblins…what’s not cool about that.

On almost every trip to Disney World I’ve ever taken, I’ve overheard or talked to someone who doesn’t realize that Harry Potter isn’t at Disney. The Wizarding World is VERY cool and I highly recommend but you won’t get in with a Walt Disney World ticket. 

You won’t see super heroes at Walt Disney World, either

Yes, even though Disney owns Marvel. Marvel characters and attractions make appearances at other Disney Parks around the world and on Disney cruises but not at Walt Disney World. 

In a nutshell, there is an agreement between Disney and Universal that governs the use of Marvel characters. Per that agreement, Disney may not use Marvel characters in the United States east of the Mississippi River. I’m sure there is more to it than that but the bottom line is, you will not see Marvel super heroes (or Marvel merchandise) at Disney. You definitely will at Universal. 

Thrill Rides

If you are a thrill ride person, the adrenaline junkie side of you might not be fully satisfied at Disney. I think Disney’s rides are spectacular and they have a way of making our favorite stories come to life that no other theme park can quite replicate. 

But.

If your goal for a theme park is to be flipped upside down and ride epic coasters that make your heart leap into your throat, Disney might fall short. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is beautiful. The movie Avatar is a little intense for my kids and they STILL loved everything about Pandora.

As a parent, one of the things I have always loved about Disney is that younger kids can ride most of the rides. Once your kids hit 48 inches, there is nothing in the park (at publication time) that they can’t ride. 

While Universal does have lots of attractions younger kids like, they also have a bigger list of thrills and rides that older kids will like. The Magic of Disney is definitely in the theming, immersion, details while Universal’s draw is riding rides that make you scream in delight…or scream in terror. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
Volcano Bay is Universal’s newest park. I have not yet been to Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach but I can say that Volcano Bay is the BEST water park I have ever been to, hands down. Photo: Universal Orlando Resort.

Character Sightings and Interactions

You’ll see different characters represented at Disney and Universal. At Disney World, you’ll see the characters you know and love from the Disney and Pixar movies you’ve grown up with, to include the Fab Five: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. You’ll also find Disney Junior characters and Star Wars characters at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 

Oh, and princesses. All the princesses. 

At Universal, you’ll find Marvel super heroes, Minions (plus Gru and the girls), Dora and Diego, Scooby Doo and friends, Transformers, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Hello Kitty, The Simpsons, Shrek and a few more. There’s not as much emphasis on character interactions at Universal, although they definitely are there. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
There’s no hug like a Stitch hug.

My kids went to both Disney World and Universal at a young age. They always treated the Disney characters as real – the guy in the Peter Pan costume was Peter Pan and the characters at Universal as people in costumes. I never told them to believe any certain way or that one thing was more or less real…that’s just the conclusion they came to on their own. Why they decided a guy in a Sponge Bob costume was a guy in a costume and then decided that Mickey Mouse was THE Mickey Mouse I’m not sure.

But…that kind of goes along with the difference in vibe between the two resorts. Universal is bright and fun and loud and sometimes scary and Walt Disney World manages to keep that element of magic and nostalgia. 

How far is Disney World from Universal?

Are you thinking about doing both Disney and Universal in the same trip? Disney World an Universal are about 12 miles apart. This will vary depending on where you’re starting from on the Disney property. Depending on traffic, it will take you 20-40 minutes of driving to get from one place to the other. 

There is no “Disney to Universal” shuttle. If you’re at Disney, Disney wants you to stay there and isn’t going to provide you a way to leave their resort to go spend your dollars somewhere else. Same is true in reverse.

You’ll need to drive, take a ride share, or hire a  private shuttle. In most cases, taking an Uber or Lyft is going to be the simplest and cheapest way to go unless you have a car.

You can do Disney and Universal on the same trip if you plan for it. You’ll need to decide if you are going to stay in one resort hotel or move hotels midway through your trip. Personally, I like being close to the parks and where the action is, so I would vote for moving resorts, although this choice will eat up some time you might rather spend doing something else. 

If you are staying at a Disney resort and going to Universal Studios (or vice versa) plan for some early mornings. You’ll need to make sure you’re lined up to get into the park 30-60 minutes before the park opens, especially right now when parks are still setting capacity limits. 

Resort Hotel and Dining – What’s different between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort

The short answer is this: there’s more stuff at Disney World.

Walt Disney World Resort Hotels and Dining 

Walt Disney World has over two dozen (and growing!) resort hotels. The resorts are tiered – value, moderate, and deluxe. Deluxe will be the most expensive choice but they’re also going to be closer to the parks and offer better amenities plus more dining and transportation options. The moderate and deluxe resorts will have sit down dining plus quick service (food court style dining.) The value resorts will offer quick service dining.

The Walt Disney World Resort hotels are very heavily themed. The value resorts will feature bright, larger-than-life characters and splashy decor (there will be absolutely no doubt where you are.) The moderate and deluxe resorts are more subtly themed but the resorts will have a central story/theme that carries throughout the resort. 

Guests who stay on property (AKA at a Disney hotel) receive the same level of amenities no matter what category of hotel they’re staying at. Currently, some of these on property benefits are suspended (like the FastPass+) or going away (like Disney’s Magical Express) but no matter what tier of resort hotel you choose, you’ll still get the same benefits. 

There are also multiple options for sit down dining in the four Disney parks, including character dining. Disney Springs offers more dining choices, both table service and quick service, at Disney Springs. You can find quick service dining as well as snacks – ice cream treats, churros, pretzels, baked goods, etc.) all throughout the resort. 

You need to make dining reservations in advance if you want sit-down dining (right now, the current policy is 60 days out…it used to be 180 days and I hope to see that return) but you will not lack for choices. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios gives younger kids a space in what has traditionally been a “thrill ride” park…and the theming is impeccable.

Universal Orlando Resort Hotels and Dining

Universal has eight resort hotels. They’re not officially tiered as Disney’s resort hotels are but you can get a feel for how they’ve got things set up by looking at their prices. They have a very budget friendly option in the Endless Summer resorts that is cheaper than Disney’s value tier. Their top priced resort, Loews Portofino Bay, is priced at the bottom end of the deluxe tier for Disney. 

The resorts are very nice and the amenities go up with the price but there’s no central theme that ties the resorts to the parks. If you’re on a budget and are enticed by the “starts at $88 per night” rates for the Endless Summer resorts, keep in mind, the top three most expensive resort hotels at Universal Orlando Resort include Express Passes. You can purchase the Express Pass separately (I absolutely recommend them and can’t imagine doing Universal without them) but you’ll definitely want to crunch your numbers to make sure you’re getting everything you want at the best price. 

There will be dining options at all of the hotels. The more you go up in price tier, the more options and the more higher-end experience you’ll have. As with Disney, the more expensive hotels are closer to the parks.

Since Universal is smaller, you won’t have as many dining choices as you will at Disney. There are not as many sit-down restaurants inside the parks, although you’ll find lots of counter service options and delicious snacks. You’ll find dining options at the hotels as well. You won’t find the strong theming with the dining tied to the parks. You also won’t find character dining. 

 

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Universal has its own version of Disney Springs in CityWalk. You’ll find shopping, dining, and entertainment…just not as many things as you’ll find at Disney Springs. Although the food is good at CityWalk, you will find more franchise style restaurants and less unique/upscale options than you would at Disney Springs. I really hate to compare the two and I’ve enjoyed every visit I’ve made to CityWalk but the experiences are very different. A true foodie would probably be happier at Disney Springs but there is definitely more to planning your vacation than what you’re going to eat. 

The bottom line – Disney World or Universal Studios?

I’m going to give you the very wishy washy answer of “it depends.” I don’t think it’s either or…but it’s complicated. My personal recommendation would be to keep Disney vacations and Universal vacations separate, unless you have 7-10 days to spend in Orlando.

But, I realize that isn’t realistic and that not everyone can take multiple vacations or long ones. We’ve never gone to Disney and to Universal on the same trip. I know how our family likes to do theme parks. We need a slow pace and resort hotel pool days balanced with party hard park days.

If you are a “gotta see it all” kind of vacationer and you don’t mind long days and being tired (tired but happy!) at the end of your trip, then a week spent dividing your time between both parks may work for you.

Talk with a travel planner to see what your best options are. It won’t cost you anything extra and you’ll be plugged in to the best deals.

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
For anyone who thinks “older kids won’t enjoy Disney.”

For me, I choose Disney for a longer vacation. With four parks, two water parks, the sports center, golf and everything there is to do at Disney Springs, you could stay for a week or even more and not run out of things to do. To see most of what’s in each of the four theme parks you will need a day per park…and yes, I said see most of. You’re never going to get it all in one day.

I am convinced I could spend a month at Disney World and not see everything. I haven’t put that to the test but I’d sure like to give it a whirl one day.

Universal makes a terrific two or three day vacation.  It is entirely possible to see and do most everything in the two parks in two days, although they will be long days. I’d recommend three days dedicated to the theme parks. One per day and then a third day to re-ride your favorites or get to what you couldn’t.  Volcano Bay deserves it’s own full day. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
I love this sign at the entrance of Islands of Adventure. Photo: Melinda Jae Photography

The thing that Disney has that Universal doesn’t have as much of is theming and the feeling of being immersed, with the exception of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is very immersive. The movie theme throughout Universal Studios Orlando is pretty stable but the theming in most of Islands of Adventure isn’t that strong. It’s still a great park with some state-of-the-art attractions and clever show elements. 

The Harry Potter theming in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Village are fantastic. Some say Universal skews older but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. My kids’ first visit to Universal was at six and they had a fantastic time (although you do need to scope out the height requirements in advance if you have younger kids in your group.)

I think older kids who want more intense, thrilling rides may prefer Universal but there’s broad appeal in both locations. Disney has its share of thrills, but they value the theme above the extreme.  It’s all down to what you like. I can definitely tell you anyone who says younger kids won’t enjoy Universal is wrong.

I prefer the ease of transportation at Universal Orlando Resort to the Disney transportation. We particularly love Lowes Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls. It’s possible to walk to the parks, although it is a bit of a trek. You can also take the water taxi, which is a really fun experience on its own.

That said, it might be a little unfair to compare that to Disney because you’re dealing with much less physical space at Universal. Most people are going to prefer a short walk and a short boat ride to a long wait for a bus but when you’re dealing with a greater distance, that’s what you’re going to get. 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
The water taxi is an awesome way to get around Universal Studios Orlando. Photo: Melinda Jae Photography

Exploring more of Orlando?

Save up to 50% on combined prices for admission to must-see attractions! Shop Now at CityPASS.com!

 

How Walt Disney World Compares to Universal Studios Orlando
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You might also like:

Read more about the newly-opened Toy Story Land HERE.

Read more about Disney’s Animal Kingdom – MY favorite park – HERE. 

Read more about Disney Character Dining HERE.

 


THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. I MAY EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES.

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2 Comments

  1. Walt Disney World will always have a special place in my heart! I’ve been visiting since I was 6 and have cracked up 15 visits so far. But Universal is definitely giving WDW a run for their money recently. With them building a new waterpark, new hotels and the rumoured new theme park(!) I think it will be a hard toss up between the two.

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