Disney World vs. Universal Studios: Which Theme Park is Best?

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disney world vs universal studios - Universal sign at night.
Photo credit: Carrie McLaren

When it comes to planning a vacation to Central Florida, many first time visitors start their vacation planning by asking: Walt Disney World vs Universal Orlando Resort, which is best? The quick and easy answer is: it depends.

Here we take a hard look at the similarities and differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort so you can decide which parks is best for your next theme park vacation.

The entrance to Universal Studios Florida.

What are the Similarities Between WDW and Universal?

The fact that the family-friendly Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort are both in Orlando, Florida, is just the first thing they have in common.

The two theme parks have quite a few similarities. Some that may even surprise you!

Hand holding a glass of Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventures at Universal Studios in Florida.

Food Options are Endless

There’s no reason to get hangry at Universal Orlando Resort or Walt Disney World. If you can think of it, you can bet it is on the menu at one of the theme parks.

While burgers, chicken fingers and French fries are ubiquitous, both parks also offer unique dishes such as turkey legs, barbecue, even sushi.

Both parks have a variety of quick-service restaurants, where you can order at the counter, then find a table to eat with your group.

For a more relaxed dining experience, both theme parks have casual dining options with reservations, servers and a more refined menu.

Signature dining experiences exist in each of the parks with sophisticated menus and dress codes — and the hefty price tag that comes with fine dining.

Both theme parks host festivals throughout the year with food menus themed to the events. Disney’s popular EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival each fall shows off an international menu, while Mardi Gras season at Universal Orlando brings themed kiosks with Cajun delicacies and desserts.

Family posing with Mickey Mouse at Disney World

Ticket Options for All Budgets

When it comes to buying tickets for both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, the main similarity is that there is no “cheap” option. Both theme parks allow you to buy a “park hopper” ticket that entitles you to visit more than one park in a day.

Annual passes are available at both parks; the more affordable annual passes have blackout dates and fewer amenities. For Florida residents, annual passes are available with a payment plan option that allows buyrs to pay monthly. Also for Florida residents, both parks typically offer seasonal promotions with ticket offers.

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SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re considering an annual pass, you’ll want to read this thorough look at the pros and cons of a Disney annual pass.

Disney’s Pop Century Resort.

Variety of Accommodations

Both Universal and WDW offer a variety of hotel options, from budget to luxury. In general, the budget or “value” hotels will be basic hotels located farther away from the theme parks and the luxury resorts will have more perks and be closer to the action.

All of the on-property resorts have pools, a must-have amenity for cooling off and having fun after a long day at the parks.

At Universal, the higher-priced Hard Rock Universal hotel, is just a short walk or ferry ride away from the parks, the rooms are luxe, the pool is massive and the swanky Mandara Spa is on site. Plus, staying there gets your whole family Universal Express Passes for the parks (more on that in a minute).

The more affordable retro-beach-themed Endless Summer Resorts are located two miles from Universal Orlando with bus transportation to the parks.

At Disney, the luxurious Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is a short walk or ferry ride away from Magic Kingdom Park, there are numerous pools and a spa on site. Budget (or “value”) hotels include Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort, All-Star Movies Resort and All-Star Music Resort, where rooms are smaller and transportation to the Disney parks is by bus.

Need a deeper dive into Disney hotel and Universal hotel options? We can help! Here’s our list of all of the Disney resort hotel options and the off-property Disney hotels closest to the amusement parks. And here is our list of the best resorts close to Universal.

Mother and daughter taking a selfie in front of the the iconic EPCOT Spaceship Earth sphere at Disney World

What are the Major Differences Between WDW and Universal?

Now, let’s look at some of the differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.

Line-Jumping Ride Passes

Interested in skipping the standby line for rides? It is going to cost you!

Walt Disney World Resort sells line-skipping access known as Genie+. (It replaced the former Fastpass system.) Buying the Genie+ entitles you to use the My Disney Experience app to schedule the time you want to go on certain rides or meet Disney characters.

The price of Genie+ varies depending on peak seasons and days of the week. This system has it critics. There’s a limit on the number of activities you can schedule each day and not all rides and experiences are included — those require yet another fee.

Universal Orlando offers two line-skipping options known as the Express Pass:

  • Universal Express, which allows you to skip the line once per attraction
  • Universal Express Unlimited, which allows you to skip the standby line an unlimited amount of times.

Guests can gain access to the Express Lanes in three different ways:

  • Purchase the Express Pass add-on at ticket kiosks located near the front of the park when you arrive at the park each day. (We recommend this option unless you are visiting Universal during the busiest times, such as school holidays. Here’s the full report on why you should almost never buy a Universal Express Pass before you arrive at the park.)
  • Buy the Express Lane add-on when you buy your park tickets.
  • Stay at a Universal Orlando Premier resort — the Loews Royal Pacific, Loew’s Portofino Bay Resort, Royal Pacific Resort or the Hard Rock Hotel . We highly recommend this option, especially if you’re traveling with kids. The price of a Universal Express Unlimited Pass can add up quickly. But with this major perk, you get the unlimited pass from check-in day to check-out day. That means you could stay one night in a Premier class hotel and get two days of Express Lane access for your entire family. It pays to crunch the numbers; the pricier room might be a better deal!
Entrance to the Ratatouille ride at EPCOT

Theme Park Ticket Prices

While no theme park ticket is cheap, ticket prices can vary between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.

At Disney, you pay more for a park ticket during the peak seasons of summertime and winter holidays and on weekends. Looking for the cheapest Disney World ticket? Visit during off-peak times, such as a weekday in early November. It can save you money and allow you to do more at the parks thanks to smaller crowds.

Universal Orlando Resort park tickets cost the same, no matter when you visit.

The way to save a little on per-day ticket costs at both Disney and Universal is to buy multiple-day tickets, with park hopping and admission to the water parks — Volcano Bay at Universal and Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon at Disney.  

SheBuysTravel Tip: Whatever park ticket you choose, buy your tickets in advance to avoid long lines at the park’s ticket windows upon arrival. Buying tickets in advance allows you to go straight to the turnstiles at the entrance to the parks, giving you more time having fun in the parks!

 the Rip, Ride, RockIt Roller Coaster at Universal Studios Orlando

Where Can I Buy Discount Theme Park Tickets?

Searching online for discount theme park tickets can feel overwhelming. It’s important to make sure you’re buying from a reputable website. Our SheBuysTravel team recommends Get Away Today for discount theme park tickets and Universal and Disney World vacation packages.

If you ever find park tickets cheaper, Get Away Today won’t just match the price, the company will beat it! Great customer service is another reason why we recommend Get Away Today. From buying your tickets to planning your vacation, the company helps you every step of the way.

Mom, Dad and two daughters at Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Orlando.

Park to Park Convenience

When it comes to park hopping — visiting more than one theme park in a day — Universal makes it easier since it has only two theme parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, located within easy walking distance of one another. At Disney World, the four theme parks are spread over 40 square miles. That can mean spending many precious minutes traveling between parks.

Riders on Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure at Unviersal Studios Florida.

WDW vs. Universal: The Rides

From kiddie rides to the thrilling coasters, both parks have an assortment of ride options, some with height requirements and some available for anyone to ride.

Some of the rides are even comparable in style. At Walt Disney World, the classic Dumbo ride takes riders in a circle, allowing them to control the height of their elephant. At Universal Orlando, the ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish’ ride is similar in design, except riders sit in fish as they circle around flying high and low as they go.

The more thrilling rides at Universal Orlando include the roller coasters Jurassic World VelociCoaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the Incredible Hulk Coaster, while Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts combines technology with a roller coaster.

At Walt Disney World, the more thrilling rides include Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at EPCOT, the Rock n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Expedition Everest and Avatar’s Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom.

Two girls pose with Hello Kitty at Universal Orlando Resort.

WDW vs. Universal: The Characters

At Walt Disney World, you can find characters throughout the park with a schedule of meet and greets found in the My Disney Experience mobile app. Many of them have established spots specifically for autographs and photo opportunities.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars characters, Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz and an assortment of Disney princesses — there is no shortage of Disney characters. Because there are established locations to meet the characters, wait times can be quite long.

At Universal Orlando Resort, characters can typically be found roaming around the parks with no set place for photo opportunities. There is no character listing in the Universal Orlando mobile app, which makes the meet and greets feel like a more spontaneous experience. Bonus points: That also means the lines and wait times for a photo opp tend to be shorter.

Universal characters include Spider-Man and other Marvel superheroes, the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, Popeye, the Simpsons Family of characters, Minions, Beetlejuice and Dora the Explorer.

Former travel media relations professional turned freelance travel writer, third-party content creator and owner of CarrieOnTravel.com. Active member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Writer for hire. CarrieMcLaren.com Published works include Carnival Cruise Line, PORTHOLE Cruise Magazine, the Virgin Atlantic Airlines blog, Florida Times-Union, USA TODAY Travel, AJC.com, Orbitz.com, WHERE Magazine, First Coast Magazine, VISIT FLORIDA magazine, VISITFLORIDA.com, Parenting.com and other publications. Significant background in writing, representing brands and social media, travel PR and creating content surrounding destinations. Experience in creating web content and visitor guide copy targeting both leisure and business travelers.
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