Are you considering Universal vs Disney World for your family vacation? Many people have asked me what's the difference and which one to choose for their family vacation.
Now, full disclosure, I am a HUGE Disney fan, so I tend to lean more toward the Mouse on these matters. But, we have enjoyed Universal Studios Orlando, and many people have a personal preference toward those theme parks.
We love visiting Orlando and have visited both resorts many times. We have several favorite Disney World snacks you can only get there and our favorite Disney park for toddlers when our kids were young.
And Universal Orlando has big roller coasters and thrilling rides. Many people like this theme park for teens (though I would argue Disney World offers a lot of great activities for teens and tweens.)
Choosing between a Disney World vacation or one at Universal Orlando really depends on your family's specific interests and the age of your kids.
This blog post will dive into the Universal Studios vs. Disney World debate to explain their differences and similarities, so you can decide which is best for your family. And it will also help with your Universal Orlando vacation or Disney vacation planning.
This post contains affiliate links which means I receive a commission at no cost to you should you make a purchase using this link. See my disclosures. Cover photo: Bon Voyage With Kids
Disney vs. Universal – Similarities
First, let's talk about the similarities between Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts.
1. Multiple Theme Parks
Both parks have so many things to do and several major theme parks to visit. Universal Orlando has two theme parks – Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. It also has a water park – Volcano Bay.
Walt Disney has four theme parks – EPCOT, Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Magic Kingdom, and Disney's Hollywood Studios. It also has two water amusement parks – Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
Both have one studio-themed park based on fan-favorite movies.
2. Both Parks Have Outdoor Shopping, Entertainment, and Dining Areas
When comparing Universal vs Disney World, if you're interested in shopping on your Walt Disney Resort or Universal vacation, both have an outdoor shopping and dining area.
Disney has Disney Springs, and Universal Orlando Resort has CityWalk. Either place is perfect for taking a shopping and lunch break from all the rides and attractions. But when you’re choosing between Disney World or Universal Orlando, the shopping districts are very different.
3. Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World Both Have Water Parks and Extra Activities
Both Universal Studios and Walt Disney World parks have fun water amusement parks, so you can cool off on hot Florida days. Universal Orlando's water amusement park has fun water slides, the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, and TeAwa the Fearless River.
If you're looking for something more relaxing, you can float on the Kopiko Wai Winding River or rent a cabana and chill on Waturi Beach.
Disney's Typhoon Lagoon is a tropical paradise environment after a storm and has the largest wave pool in North America. You can ride the Crush ‘n' Gush water coaster or ride Miss Adventure Falls if you're looking for a thrill.
Disney's Blizzard Beach is a relaxing water park that represents a melted ski resort. You can slide down free-fall water slides or float in the lazy river and sun on the beach. There's a water play area just for kids with small slides and a snow castle fountain.
Both parks also have things to do other than rides like mini-golf, movies, live shows, and golf.
At Universal Studios, you can attend special events like The Walking Dead and Mardi Gras that happen periodically throughout the year.
Walt Disney has family-friendly activities like the Magic Kingdom's Mickey's Philharmagic, EPCOT's Living the Land and Impressions de France, Hollywood Studios' Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and much more.
There's plenty to do in both parks besides the popular rides with movie theaters, Hogwarts Express, shopping, dining experiences, and more.
4. Universal Orlando and Disney World Both Have On-Site Resorts
When you’re looking at the differences between Universal Orlando Studios vs Disney World, theme parks have on-site resorts you can stay in to be close to the action and buy vacation packages.
Walt Disney World's Resorts include:
- Coronado Springs Resort
- All-Star Sports Resort
- Polynesian Village Resort
- Wilderness Lodge
- Port Orleans Resorts
- Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Caribbean Beach Resort
- Beach Club Resort and Villas
- Grand Floridian Resort
- Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Star Wars: Galactic Starcruise Resort (Opened in 2022!)
- Yacht Club Resort
- All-Start Music Resort
- All-Star Movies Resort
- Art of Animation Resort
- Old Key West Resort
- Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
- Fort Wilderness Resort
And several others.
Universal Orlando Studio's Resorts include:
- Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites & Dockside Inn and Suites
- Aventura Hotel
- Sapphire Falls Resort
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bat Hotel
5. Both Parks Have Movie-Themed Attractions and Rides
Both amusement parks have rides and attractions based on popular movies.
Universal Orlando has rides and attractions from the following movies:
- Jurassic Park – VelociCoaster
- Despicable Me – Minion Mayhem
- King Kong – Skull Island
- E.T. – E.T. Adventure Ride
- Transformers – Transformers the Ride – 3D
- The Simpsons – The Simpsons Ride
- The Mummy – Revenge of the Mummy
- Men in Black – Men in Black Alien Attack
- The Fast and the Furious – Fast & Furious – Supercharged
- The Bourne Identity – The Bourne Stuntacular
Disney World has rides and attractions from the following movies:
- Jungle Cruise – Jungle Cruise
- Pirates of the Caribbean – Pirates of the Caribbean
- Tower of Terror – The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
- The Haunted Mansion – Haunted Mansion
- Dinosaur – Dinosaur
- Tomorrow Land – Tomorrowland Speedway
- Country Bears – The Country Bear Jamboree
- Star Wars Galaxy's Edge (a whole area dedicated to the Star Wars franchise.)
6. Both Resorts are Family-Friendly but Make Awesome Adult-Only Vacations
The nice thing about Universal Orlando Studios Orlando and Disney World Resort are great family-friendly theme park vacations that all kids love. But what many people don't know is that they also make great vacations for just adults.
Universal Orlando Studios vs. Disney World Adult Vacations
There are so many fun things that adults will love at both theme parks.
For instance, at Walt Disney World, you can do things like:
- The EPCOT Festivals
- Meet friends at Disney Springs
- Watch enchanted events like fireworks displays
- Experience Star Wars at Galaxy's Edge
- Disney's Backstage Tours
- Special Events like the Flower & Garden Festival, Food & Wine Festival, and more
- Eat and drink your way through Disney World's different countries
- Head over to Disney's BoardWalk area for after hours entertainment
- Visit the theme parks after hours or have a late night dining reservation
At Universal Studios, you can do things like:
- Enjoy a night out at CityWalk
- Ride thrilling rides
- Sing karaoke
- Visit the Red Coconut Club for dancing and drinks
- Visit Voodoo Donuts
- Have fun in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and grab a beer at Hog's Head Pub
- Enjoy a Spa Day
7. Park Perks
Both parks offer special perks and express passes to rides.
Disney World has Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane Passes to help express yourself onto certain attractions. These are available on the My Disney Experience app.
When you stay on-site at a Walt Disney Resort, you get special perks to level up your vacation. Guests get to enter the park 30 minutes before the regular opening to the public, and they get extended evening hours on select attractions, dining, and shops.
You can also buy MagicBands at pre-arrival prices that give you early access to purchase lightning lane entry. There is also Disney Dining Plan for those staying on-site when they are available. They aren’t back as of yet, but could be returning though we personally never use them.
When you stay in a Universal Orlando Studios' on-site hotel or resort, you also get exclusive park perks. Premier hotel guests get free Universal Express Unlimited Ride Access, where you get to skip the lines. You also get early park admission and free merchandise delivery to your hotel.
Universal Orlando Studios also provides free transportation to the parks and CityWalk.
8. You Can Get Discount Tickets and Package Deals at Both Places
Both resorts give you the option of buying discount theme park tickets and package deals where you get awesome perks like the things mentioned above and discount tickets to the park.
Package deals are the way to go to save money on your theme park vacation. The more nights you stay, the more you save on theme park tickets.
9. Meet Fun Characters and Experience Top-Notch Entertainment at Both Places
Both Disney and Universal Studios amusement parks have amazing entertainment options, and you can meet your favorite characters.
At Universal Studios, you can meet characters like the Transformers, Shrek and Donkey, Dr. Seuss at Seuss Landing, and more.
Walt Disney has family-friendly activities like the Magic Kingdom's Mickey's Philharmagic, EPCOT's Living the Land and Impressions de France, Hollywood Studios' Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and much more.
And you can meet your favorite Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Chip ‘n ‘ Dale, Ariel, Belle, and many more.
So, choosing between a Universal or Disney World vacation also depends on the characters your family loves.
10. Both Parks Have Apps that Make Managing Your Vacation Easier
Managing your vacation has never been easier with park apps. Both Disney and Universal Studios make it easy to navigate your vacation.
The Official Universal Orlando Resort App lets you:
- Purchase and redeem park tickets
- See wait times
- Access park apps
- Order drinks and food
- Grab a ride time for select attractions
Disney calls their app the My Disney Experience App lets you:
- Create a family and friends list to let you share plans
- Link your tickets and reservations
- Create a personalized itinerary
- Save time at dining and popular attractions
- Order food and drinks, make dining reservations and check-in
- Join table-service waitlists
- Look up show times, park hours, and more
- Join virtual queues and more
- Both have apps to manage your vacation
Now let’s discuss the differences.
Universal Studios vs. Disney World – Differences
When you're choosing between Disney World or Universal, these are the biggest differences between each theme park.
1. The Parks Have Different Themes
One of the biggest differences between the parks is their themes.
Universal Orlando is owned by NBC's Universal Orlando Studios and is themed after movies and television shows. It has Scooby-Doo, Marvel Superheroes, the Minions, Spongebob, Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park, and more.
You can only find The Wizarding World of Harry Potter here. In fact, this fan favorite spreads across both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (I recommend starting on the Universal Studios side to follow Harry's footsteps through Diagon Alley.)
Disney is themed around Disney movies and brands like Star Wars. Think The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and all the Disney classics you grew up with. You can only find things like Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land here. Coming soon, Marvel attractions and a few other movie-themed attractions will be joining the line up.
2. The Different Theme Parks Accommodations, Rides, and More
When you're trying to figure out which is better, Disney or Universal, the parks are very different.
Walt Disney World consists of:
- Four Disney parks – The Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios
- Disney Springs shopping and dining district
- Two water parks – Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach
- Two mini-golf courses
- A camping site
- On-site Transportation
- Additional recreation like horseback riding, golf, and more
- 25 hotels and resorts
Universal Studios Florida has:
- Two Universal parks – Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios
- One water amusement park – Volcano Bay
- The CityWalk shopping and dining district
- One Mini-golf course
- On-site transportation
- Eight hotels and resorts
3. The Size of the Parks
Probably one of the biggest differences is the size of both amusement parks. Disney is much larger than Universal Orlando Studios and has many more rides, attractions, and restaurants, but you also can't really walk between the adventure and water parks.
A few are walkable, like Disney's Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. But it's not easy to walk between the other Disney parks like The Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.
With Universal Studios Orlando, you can easily walk between the two theme parks here.
4. The Castles
When deciding between Disney World or Universal Orlando, the castles in both parks are very different.
The most well-known castle at Disney World is Cinderella's Castle. The 189-foot-tall castle is located at the entrance to Magic Kingdom and is the setting for the iconic evening fireworks.
While you can't tour the castle on your Disney vacation, there is a high-end dining service here for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table. You'll also find the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique across from the table, where kids can get makeovers to become knights or princesses.
Hogwarts Castle is Universal Studio's castle, and it's the main building at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. It stands 150-feet tall. People will remember it's featured in the Harry Potter books.
People can actually tour this castle for a fully immersive experience which is a must for any Harry Potter fan. You'll find relics and the corridors of Hogwarts School here, like The Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Dumbledore's Office, Diagon Alley, and more.
One of the most popular rides in the park is also located here, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
One really cool thing is that you don't have to go to Florida to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; there are Harry Potter virtual tours you can take.
5. Interpark Transportation
When deciding whether to go to Universal Studios or Disney World, both places have Interpark Transportation. Universal Orlando Studios has a shuttle service that's free for guests that stay on-site.
Since there's more ground to cover at Walt Disney World, the inter-park Transportation is quite extensive with a sky liner, monorail, boat, and bus transportation system.
6. The Characters You Meet are Very Different
The characters you meet at both parks are very different, which is why you should visit both parks.
At the Disney World parks, you'll see all your favorite Disney characters, such as:
- Timon and Rafiki
- Donald Duck
- Daisy Duck
- Mickey and Minnie Mouse
- Winnie the Pooh
- Buzz Lightyear and Woody
And many more.
At Universal Studios, you'll see all your favorite Disney characters, such as:
- The Cat in the Hat
- The Minions
- The Simpsons
- Knight Bus Conductor
- Gringotts Goblin
- Optimus Prime
- Hashtag the Panda
- Patrick Star
- Shaggy and Scooby-Doo
- Doc Brown
- Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey
- Marilyn Monroe
And many more.
7. Thrill Rides
Both places have exhilarating thrill rides that will make you want to ride again and again.
Universal Studios has four fun roller coasters:
- Harry Potter and the Escape from the Gringotts
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
- Revenge of the Mummy
- Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse
Walt Disney World has seven roller coasters:
- Expedition Everest
- Seven Dwarf's Mine Train
- Rock ‘n' Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith
- Space Mountain
- Slinky Dog Dash
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
8. Audience Age
People of all ages love both amusement parks, but younger children often like to visit Disney World because of the famous Disney Movies. Kids can meet their favorite characters and ride the attractions related to them. That said, there are a lot of attractions for older ages and adults like Star Wars, Marvel, thrill rides, and thematic dining.
Universal Studios is great for pre-teens to adults because of the thrill rides, and people are fans of the movies represented here which lean toward an older crowd. There are some attractions for younger children like Suess Landing.
Of course, you'll likely have bags and gear with you in both parks. Walt Disney World lets you take bags on rides, while Universal has lockers near many of the rides where you can store your bags.
10. Ticket Prices
Walt Disney World Tickets range from $109.00 per day to $194 depending on if you pay the additional cost for Park Hopper Pass tickets for your Disney trip.
Universal Orlando Resort tickets range from $75.00 – $80.00 for a one-day ticket to Volcano Bay and $104.00 – $109.00 for a one-day ticket to Universal Studios. You can buy two-park tickets for the day ranging from $159.00 – $164.00.
One other notable difference is the cost of the express passes. Disney's Genie+ and Lightning Lane are significantly less expensive than Universal's Express Pass. But, certain hotels will add the Universal Studio's Express Pass as complimentary.
11. Disney World or Universal Orlando – Skip the Wait for Ride Lines Options
Both places have options that let you skip the wait for lines.
The Walt Disney World theme park has the Genie and Genie + options to enhance your Disney experience. The Genie is a free service that lets you create your perfect day inspired by your interests.
It suggests good times to go to attractions and experiences.
You can also purchase the individual lightning lane pass for attractions or combine it with the Genie + to choose from the next available spots on certain entertainment and attractions. It allows you to use the lightning lane entrance.
It lets you use this lane for two to three attractions per day. The Disney Genie + is available for $15.00 + tax each day. The Lightning Lane Pass prices vary depending on the ride.
Universal Studios has the Express Pass. There are three options, the Universal Express Pass, Universal Express Unlimited, and Volcano Bay Express.
The Universal Express Pass lets you skip the line. One time per ride is $79.99 and the Volcano Bay Express allows you to skip the virtual line once per participating ride.
You can purchase the Universal Express Unlimited and skip the lines an unlimited number of times at Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
We personally love the Express Passes and Disney Genie because they help us streamline our visit and waste less time waiting. But it is personal preference as to which is better.
In my experience, you can get on a lot more rides at Walt Disney World than you can at Universal. Even with the Express Pass, you still have a wait, whereas at Walt Disney World, even during Spring Break, you can get on a lot.
12. The Feelings of Nostalgia
Walt Disney World vacations often take adults back to their childhood with memories of Disney Movies and Mickey Mouse. Whether you’re taking your toddlers to Disney World or older teens, you're essentially passing the torch to the next generation.
Universal is more about experiencing rides related to your favorite television shows and movies.
13. Simplicity of Your Vacation
When you're choosing between Disney World or Universal Orlando, simplicity comes into play. Disney vacations are often complex and involve a lot of planning and organization, while a trip to Universal Studios is simpler. This has a lot to do with size as Disney World is a much larger place.
14. Shopping and Dining Districts
Both parks have unique shopping and dining districts. Walt Disney has Disney Springs with balloon rides, boat rentals, bowling, and more. Universal Studios has CityWalk with mini-golf and an entertainment complex.
Both places have fun clubs, shops, movie theaters, and fantastic restaurants, but the atmosphere and experiences are different.
15. Universal Studios vs. Disney World – Parking
There are a variety of parking options for guests at both locations. At Disney World, if you're staying in a Disney hotel overnight, self-parking ranges from $15 a night to $25 a night, depending on where you're staying.
There's also Valet Parking at $33 per night. Disney also has designated parking areas for people with disabilities.
If you're a Disney Vacation Club member, there is no charge for self-parking. Just use your points to stay at the DVC Deluxe Villa or at one of the resorts. If you're not using your points, you will be charged the standard rate.
Day guests get complimentary self-parking when they visit select shopping, dining, recreation, and entertainment experiences at resort hotels.
Guests not staying in Disney Resort hotels will find preferred parking lots close to park entrances or other lots. Preferred Parking costs $45.00 to $50.00, per day while regular parking lots cost $25.00 each day.
Universal Studio parking is similar. There are several types of parking options, General Parking, Preferred Parking, and Front Gate Parking. General Parking is $30.00 before 5 PM and $10.00 after 5 PM. Preferred Parking is $50.00 before 5 PM and $20.00 after 5 PM. Front gate parking is $60.00.
They also have Valet Parking which is $25.00 for the first two hours and $45.00 after that. There is also Valet Parking for people visiting CityWalk with validation from CityWalk Full-Service Restaurant. It's $10.00 for up to 2.5 hours, $15 from 2.5 to 3.5 hours, and $45.00 after 3.5 hours.
Is Universal cheaper than Disney?
In general, tickets to both Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort can be expensive. But you can save money on hotels for both.
The on-site hotels for Universal Orlando Resort also offer free shuttle rides to the parks with early entry into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You can get complimentary transportation and early theme park entry at Walt Disney World Resort.
In my experience, the tickets for Universal cost more than Walt Disney World. If you add the Express Pass onto your Universal tickets, the price literally doubles. Whereas with Walt Disney World, you pay much less for the Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane passes and you can get on a lot of attractions without them, whereas I haven't found this to be as successful at Universal.
Which is better, Disney or Universal?
Many people think that Universal Studios Florida has more thrill rides, and that Universal Islands of Adventure has Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – which some say is the best roller coaster in Florida.
Others say that Walt Disney World has more hotels, restaurants, and attractions than Universal. It really just depends on the age of your children and their interests. Older kids may love the exciting Universal rides and Walt Disney World, depending on if they are into Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Marvel. This will determine larger whether Universal vs Disney World is better for your family.
Is Universal Studios worth it if you don't like rides?
You'll still love Universal Studios Orlando even if you don't enjoy rides, like roller coasters. Attractions like the famous Studio Tour or City Walk or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and shopping are great things to do. You will still have to buy the stars park ticket even if you don't plan on riding anything.
Is Disney or Universal better for adults?
It really depends on your interests. There are lots of adults who love Disney – I am one of them! Both are really great for kids of all ages though I do think of Universal as an older kid/person park more than a toddler place. But Disney, on the other hand, has something for every age from babies to grandparents.
Is Disney or Universal more crowded?
When comparing Universal vs Disney World, the crowds at both amusement parks, both parks can get really crowded. It is all dependent on the time of year. In my experience though, even when it is crowded, you can still get on a lot of attractions at Disney World, whereas I find you can get on less at Universal at the same time of year. Some attractions at Universal have a three-hour wait, and I rarely have seen this at Disney World.
Both parks can be accessed by flying into Orlando international airport or driving, depending on your personal preference on travel. Both are about 30-45 minutes drive from the airport.
Final Thoughts on Universal Studios vs Disney World
As you can see, both theme parks are amazing for family vacations, but they each provide a different experience. If you're looking to make memories centered around childhood nostalgia and all things Disney, Disney World is your best option.
But if you want a vacation filled with thrilling rides that focus on your favorite movies and TV shows, Universal Studios may be the best option for you. If you want a more varied vacation that includes educational and immersive experiences, then Walt Disney World would be better for you. And you can always do both!
My family loves both amusement parks because there is so much to do, and honestly, you could probably go to each location several times and still not see everything, especially at Walt Disney World.
Whether you choose to visit Disney or Universal, either vacation will be an amazing experience for the whole family.
Which park sounds most interesting to you?