Hey! Kendra here. This is my first blog post on my re-designed website, so that's pretty exciting! As a student for the past many years and a teacher starting next month, I'm trying to use this summer to accomplish some travel-related tasks before I get too busy again. So I made great sacrifices and took on an incredibly trying work trip... I went to Universal Orlando for three days last week. I know, really selfless of me.
A little backstory for those of you who don't know me... I had been to Walt Disney World 20 times before I turned 20, and that was living in the Midwest my entire life. Now, I live in Central Florida and can see Magic Kingdom's fireworks from my apartment... so I am at WDW usually about once per week. I know it like the back of my hand, and it was a huge factor in my moving to Florida. I truly feel like it's a part of who I am.
So with that said... I had never been to Universal. Not during one of my 20+ trips before I lived here, and not at any point over the past 2.5 years here in Florida. I have booked trips to Universal for a variety of people, I have been through their travel agent training, I have driven by it a million times... but I had never been inside. So when I "earned" a complimentary ticket for three days, I decided I'd make it happen this summer.
Of course, whether or not it was intentional, I compared just about every aspect to Disney. I covered a variety of topics in the notes I took over the three days, and if I wrote every thought I had to share, it would take forever. So I'm going to just do an overview of the trip. Later, I will write a variety of posts about each of what I consider to be the main points of comparison: logistics, locker system,, Fast/Express Pass systems, food, accessibility, kid-friendliness, planning, and theming/environment overall.
So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on Universal Orlando Resort!
First things first, it is not better than Disney. It is fun and enjoyable and all that good stuff, but it is not Disney. I went in knowing I wouldn't like it more, so I was not shocked or disappointed. But if you're a Disney lover, just... know that it's not Disney. Just had to get that out of the way.
If you don't know anything about Universal Orlando, there are two theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. They have a new waterpark, called Volcano Bay. They have a downtown/nightlife area called CityWalk. They also have a number of on-site resort hotels, ranging from Value to Premier. It's located just a few miles away from Disney, right off the beautiful road that is I-4. (My Orlando friends know that I mean that incredibly sarcastically.) I will tell you that I went into this experience with minimal background knowledge. I have done the training and talked to my clients, but I didn't do any personal, additional research... so it was all a surprise to me.
One of the biggest differences is that WDW is 47 square miles and Universal...isn't. They don't have the luxury of space that Disney has, and it limits what they can do. It is similar to Disneyland, in that if they want to build something new, something old must be torn down. So instead of parking lots bigger than my hometown, Universal had to find an alternative way to store the thousands of cars that drive to their parks every day. So, logically, they have resorted to parking garages. So that's the first major difference. The parking garages are for both theme parks and for CityWalk, so they all lead to a central hub where everyone goes through security (no matter where you're headed...not a bad idea in my opinion). From there, the walkway takes you to the center of CityWalk. If you want to go to Universal Studios, you take a right. To head to Islands of Adventure, you take a left. If you've ever been to Disneyland Paris, the layout is very similar. (Oh, and if you take a right, you'll pass Voodoo Doughnuts on the way... Definitely stop and try some. You're welcome.)
To get into the theme parks, you need tickets. Duh. If you want to go to one park (per day), you just get a standard 1-Park ticket. If you want to go to both in the same day, you can get a Park-to-Park pass. Same concept as Disney's Park Hopper. There's also a 3-Park ticket option if you want to go to Volcano Bay during your stay. (I didn't go to Volcano Bay, just for clarification.) Also... the theme park tickets are actual tickets and they're made of paper, like the old WDW tickets from 10 years ago. So you have to keep track of them and you want to avoid getting them wet. (They have bands for the waterpark.)
One of the most significant differences between Disney and Universal is how they manage their "short-to-no line" concept. They both have options where people can get into shorter lines: FastPass+ and Express Pass, respectively. But that's basically where the similarities end. While FastPass+ is limited to 3 rides per day (in general), is complementary, and gives you a time slot, Express Pass is a paid feature that allows you to ride every participating attraction with minimal wait times at least once anytime throughout the day. You can even get Express Pass Unlimited (for more money, of course) and ride all the applicable rides as many times as you want using the shorter line. I loved Disney's old system and I like Universal's current system. Disney is currently as some sort of weird in-between with FastPass+ and I have a feeling it'll get wiped out and taken over by a paid system sometime after the 50th Anniversary in 2021.
I thought the food options were decent. Smaller parks make for fewer options, but there were some healthy options scattered around, but not as many as Disney has implemented in recent years. I didn't do any sit-down meals, so I can't give much input on that. I think the food is a little bit pricier at Universal than at Disney, but they're in the same (overpriced) ballpark. I did notice that a lot of the food stations are repetitive... lots of slushies, lots of hot dogs, lots of churros. But, quite frankly, Disney has a lot of that sort of thing too. One leg up that Universal has, though, is their refillable cup system in the park. You can pay $8.99 + tax and get unlimited fountain drinks all day (only during the day of purchase) as well as Icees. (And the fountain drinks are from Coca Cola Freestyle machines, so you can mix it up and add flavors! Fancy...)
I noticed that it's not as little kid-focused as Disney. Each park has 1 or 2 designated kid areas (Seuss Landing is pretty cool!), but overall, it's not an ideal destination for preschool "friends." (Can you hear my teacher voice coming out?) Just like Disney, kids under 3 are free. Without a doubt, Disney wins the kid appeal. I can't imagine filling a whole day there with little ones, even between both parks. And, not surprisingly, there weren't as many little kids there. It's just not the same target demographic.
Let me tell you that I grew up going to Cedar Point, which is often rated the best theme park for roller coasters in North America. I had heard that Universal had great coasters, so I went in with high expectations. Their coasters ARE good...but, there are only a few of them! There is only one ride at each park that goes upside down. They're fantastic rides...I did them both 2-3 times. But it's not like there are coasters all around. (The new Hagrid ride is phenomenal and I'll do a whole section on that in the Harry Potter post!) What Universal DOES have that Disney (and Cedar Point) are lacking is "digital" rides. (Disney people...think Star Tours on steroids...) Lots of rides where you are wearing 3D glasses, while moving, turning, and actual things popping out at you. It's not what I was expecting at all, but it was very interesting. I don't think it's quite as thrilling or fun as an "actual" coaster, but it was a cool experience. Two of the Harry Potter rides are like that, as well as Spider-Man, Kong, The Simpsons Ride, and the Mummy...and probably others. It's seriously dangerous if you have motion sickness though!
A few final notes...
This is, like, 10% of all the things I want to share, so keep your eyes out for more posts about Universal! I really did have a blast overall, and I will definitely recommend it more confidently to a number of my clients. Feel free to let me know in the comments whether you agree with my comparison, or what I am missing... I'd love some feedback!