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    Universal Orlando Primer

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A Universal Orlando Primer

The Universal Orlando Resort's main campus is located on roughly 840 acres inside the city of Orlando, about 8 miles northeast of Walt Disney World (which is actually in Lake Buena Vista). The resort consists of two theme parks—Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure—along with the Volcano Bay water park, seven (soon to be eight) Loews-operated Universal hotels, and the CityWalk dining, nightlife, and shopping complex.

Universal Studios Florida (USF) opened in June 1990. It debuted a year after the similarly themed Disney–MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) but made almost four times the area of its facility accessible to visitors. USF’s original attractions focused on characters and situations from familiar Universal films, from Jaws and King Kong to Earthquake and E.T. Unfortunately, while the opening-day rides incorporated state-of-the-art technology and lived up to their billing in terms of creativity and uniqueness, several lacked the capacity or reliability to handle the number of guests who frequent major Florida tourist destinations.

With only one theme park, Universal played second fiddle to Disney’s juggernaut for almost a decade. Things began to change when Universal opened Islands of Adventure (IOA) in 1999. Adding a second park, along with the CityWalk nightlife complex and three on-site resort hotels, made Universal a legitimate two-day destination and provided Universal with enough critical mass to begin serious competition with Disney for tourists’ time and money.

IOA opened to good reviews and sizable crowds, and it did steady business for the first few years. Ongoing competition with Disney, however, and a lack of money to invest in new rides eventually caught up with IOA. Attendance dropped from a high of 6.3 million visitors in 2004 to a low of 4.6 million in 2009, less than half that of Animal Kingdom, Disney’s least-visited park in Orlando that year.

In the middle of this slide, Universal’s management made one bold bet: securing the rights in 2007 to build a Harry Potter–themed area within IOA. Harry, it was thought, was possibly the only fictional character extant capable of trumping Mickey Mouse, and Universal went all out to create a setting and attractions designed to be the envy of the industry.

The first phase of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as the new land was called, opened at IOA in 2010 and was an immediate hit. Its headliner attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, broke new ground in its ride system and immersive storytelling. Families raced to ride the attraction, and IOA’s attendance grew 28% in 2010 and another 28% in 2011.

Harry Potter single-handedly upended the power structure in Florida’s theme parks. Emboldened by its success, Universal’s new owner, Comcast—which acquired a majority stake in the NBCUniversal conglomerate in 2011 and purchased full ownership from General Electric in 2013—embarked on an unprecedented wave of expansions, rapidly adding new attractions and extensions, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley at USF and additional on-site hotels.

While Disney responded to the Potter phenomenon by slowly building Avatar and Star Wars attractions, Universal struck another blow in the summer of 2017 with the opening of Volcano Bay, its first highly themed on-site water park. Volcano Bay aims to revolutionize the water park experience through cutting-edge slides and advanced Virtual Line technology. Like USF and IOA, Volcano Bay is a state-ofthe- art park vying with Disney parks, whose attractions are decades older on average. Despite Walt Disney World deploying a wave of upgrades ahead of the resort’s 50th anniversary in 2021, Universal’s ever-accelerating expansion appeared undaunted, with a massive second campus under development a few miles to the south, until the coronavirus-caused economic downturn prompted Comcast to pump the brakes.

The gamble seemed to be paying off for Universal. Their newest park, Epic Universe, is scheduled to open in 2025, and Disney seems content to let it happen without opening new rides, shows, or attractions in response.

Disney and Universal officially downplay their fierce competition, pointing out that any new theme park or attraction makes Central Florida a more marketable destination. Behind closed doors, however, the two companies share a Pepsi-versus-Coke rivalry that keeps both working hard to gain a competitive edge. The good news is that all this translates into better and better attractions for you to enjoy.

Explaining the best plan for Islands of Adventure

What Our Readers Think About Universal Orlando

In many ways Universal Orlando will never achieve parity with Walt Disney World. It’s minuscule compared to the 27,000-odd acres of Walt Disney World and will still be significantly smaller even after Universal’s 750-acre expansion property is fully developed. And while guest service at Universal is generally exceptional by industry standards, there’s something special about the “Disney Way” that some visitors will inevitably prefer. But in the areas where it can compete with Disney—namely, in theme park design and attraction quality—Universal has pulled even, if not ahead.

Even hard-core Disney fans, such as this Moncton, Nebraska, reader, are beginning to pay attention:

I’m a huge fan of all things Disney, so it pains me a little to say that the highlight of our most recent trip was actually Universal Orlando. Not because Disney World isn’t spectacular—it always is— but because Universal’s themed Harry Potter experience is by far the most immersive I’ve ever had. Disney has to be a little nervous.

From a Scarborough, Maine, reader:

Going to Universal is much less stressful than going to Disney. Even though we could go to the parks early, at Universal we slept in and still walked on most rides.

A reader from Toronto, Canada, wrote:

Reluctantly, I agree the Disney magic is fading. Attention to detail has deteriorated, and bus transport is often (but not always) slow and problematic. Tired hotel rooms (at deluxe prices) are badly in need of refurbishment. It was a stark contrast to the seamless experience we had at Universal’s on-site moderate hotel.

A woman from Noblesville, Indiana, says:

This was the first non-Disney theme park that I felt could have been a Disney-owned theme park. It was clean and well themed, with fun rides and wonderful team members. I truly enjoyed Universal as much (and in some ways more) than my trips to Disney World.

More Adult

If there’s one distinguishing element that most separates Universal from Disney, it’s the distinctly adult attitude that informs the resort’s attractions and ambience. While Walt wanted a park that appealed equally to parents and their children, the majority of entertainment in today’s Walt Disney World focuses on themes and characters catering to little kids. (That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of adults who enjoy singing “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs, but the less said about that the better.) The same goes for most Disney rides, which emphasize visual charm over physical intensity; aside from the half dozen “mountains,” you could probably take a nap on any given WDW attraction.

Universal, on the other hand, sets its sights slightly higher demographically, with a much higher proportion of attractions aimed at tweens, teens, and young (or young-at-heart) adults. Many of Universal’s properties are based on PG-13 or R-rated movies; even its animated ambassadors, such as Shrek and Despicable Me’s Minions, are a bit edgier than Mickey and friends. Don’t try to fall asleep on Universal’s simulators and scream machines, which range in intensity from pleasantly discombobulating to, “Dear Lord, what have I done?”

This parent from the Dallas area agrees:

Universal is PG-13 regarding its rides, while Disney is PG. Universal’s rides are amazing, while Disney’s seem dated. We might not have noticed if we had visited Disney first. The thrill rides were the most important experience for my teens, who tremendously enjoyed their time on their own at Universal.

Universal offers the CityWalk nightclub venue, just outside the park gates, for those with the energy to make a night of it; WDW’s closest equivalent, the sprawling Disney Springs complex, is far more sedate. And observant audience members will also notice that the scripts at Universal have a subversively snarky, postmodern spin that flies over youngsters’ heads but serves as a welcome antidote to pixie-dusted perfection. After all, as the host in Universal Orlando’s Horror Make- Up Show jokes, “This isn’t Disney. We don’t have to be nice to you!”

All this isn’t to imply that there’s nothing for wee tykes to enjoy at Universal; on the contrary, the playgrounds in IOA’s Seuss Landing and Jurassic Park are as good as any at WDW, and Universal’s childswap policy is arguably more user-friendly than Disney’s. But rather than spending the day focused on fulfilling their offspring’s fantasies, parents at Universal get to realize some of their own along the way.

More Advanced

Universal has been technologically ascendant for several years, introducing revolutionary motion systems and special effects in both rides and theater performances. As a dad from Mount Desert Island, Maine, wrote us:

Our family toured both Disney and Universal, beginning our stay at Disney. The difference in ride quality and technology was striking. It would’ve been difficult to go the other way (Universal to Disney), as the rides at Disney seemed dated and carnival-like by comparison.

A father from Conway, Arkansas, agrees, adding:

Magic Kingdom and Epcot are full of old technology and uninteresting rides. New attractions are badly needed, especially to keep up with Universal.

While Disney relies conservatively on a combination of highly detailed themed areas, beloved characters, and inspiration from classic animated features (that many young people under age 16 have never seen), Universal takes more technological swings for the fences.

Granted, Disney parks do have their share of high-tech attractions—particularly Pandora’s Flight of Passage, which outdoes Universal simulators in sheer gee-whiz factor—and not all Universal attractions approach the creative genius of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or Escape from Gringotts. But while guests at both Disney and Universal report high levels of satisfaction, it’s the nextgen technology manifested in Universal’s headliners that delivers true “Wow!” moments. Plus, Port of Entry and Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure—along with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, encompassing both Hogsmeade at IOA and Diagon Alley at USF—clearly demonstrate that Universal can create exquisitely detailed and totally immersive themed areas.

More Current

Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future may be parked at USF, but Orlando’s real time machine is found at Walt Disney World’s theme parks. WDW’s recent top attractions are nearly all inspired by intellectual properties that date from the 1930s (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) through the 1990s (Toy Story Land)—with the exception of Frozen and Avatar, both of which have cooled in the pop-culture consciousness—and much of its older inventory is even more old-fashioned. Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ new Star Wars expansion is set during the sequel films, but its most recognizable icons (like Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon) date to the 1970s. Epcot is finally sweeping away its detritus of dated celebrities for a future of Pixar and Marvel intellectual properties, but the park is still a work in progress at press time.

Universal, on the other hand, has been relentlessly aggressive about constantly updating its lineup with currently relevant characters. The best example of this is its Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the first phase of which debuted while the record-breaking film franchise was still in theaters. Potter mania has seen a revival thanks to the Fantastic Beasts film series and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, while Marvel’s superheroes, Despicable Me’s Minions, and Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs remain hot box office commodities.

The downside to Universal’s obsession with staying on the cultural cutting edge is a sense of impermanence that prevents the resort from retaining its rich history. Disney’s blessing of size allows it to preserve the type of long-in-the-tooth attractions that space-squeezed Universal often sacrifices for the next generation. As a result, repeat visitors to WDW develop a sense of nostalgia over a lifetime of revisiting beloved rides, whereas those returning to Universal after a long absence are more likely to be befuddled; for a fun (and dangerous) drinking game, stand outside Diagon Alley and take a sip every time someone asks, “Where’s Jaws?”

But Universal’s weaker sense of tradition is offset by the thrill of the new; while the Magic Kingdom went more than a quarter century without a brand-new E-ticket, Universal Orlando opened a major new attraction nearly every year for the past decade, and despite the pandemic, some promising projects are still on the horizon.

More Compact

While the lack of available elbowroom hurts Universal in some ways, it’s a huge advantage in others. Anyone who has stayed on-site at WDW (especially in a hotel not serviced by the monorail) can testify how arduous navigating Mickey’s vast transportation system can be. Taking the Disney bus to Animal Kingdom sometimes seems to take longer than an actual African safari, and if you want to transfer from Disney Springs to a theme park, you’d better pack a lunch.

At Universal, on the other hand, you can go your whole vacation without ever taking a ride (other than the amusement kind) because everything is within easy walking distance. Even the most remote hotel room is only a 20- or 25-minute walk from the park gates, which are themselves separated by only a few hundred yards, making park-hopping at Universal a no-brainer. If your feet do get tired, a fleet of water taxis, pedicabs, and colorful buses are available to transport you, usually with much less waiting than their WDW equivalents. As one reader put it:

What we appreciated about USF and IOA more than Disney is how compact the entire area is. It was incredibly easy to park in one of the large garages and walk to the theme parks. And they are so close together that you can easily walk from one park to another.

In fact, if Universal Orlando closely compares to any Disney resort, it is not Walt Disney World but Disneyland in California. Both properties boast two first-rate theme parks in close proximity to each other, with an adjoining entertainment complex and nearby hotels for easy pedestrian access. If you’ve ever enjoyed the Disneyland Resort’s intimacy, in contrast to Disney World’s overwhelming scale, you’ll feel right at home at Universal Orlando.

More Manageable

Universal’s smaller scale also has both logistical and psychological benefits. Walt Disney World is so vast that there is no way to do it all, even if you were to stay for weeks. For some travelers, that overabundance of options creates anxiety and a fear of missing out or not getting your money’s worth. Universal has plenty to occupy your attention—you could stay for a week without getting bored—but the list of choices is much more manageable.

More important, once you choose what you want to do at Universal, you can usually just go ahead and do it without jumping through the hoops now found at Disney World. Despite Disney’s investment of well over a billion dollars, many guests find WDW’s MyMagic+ vacation-planning service—and the FastPass+ attraction reservations system—to be a royal hassle. Universal’s Express line-cutting service, which is included free with every room at the top three on-site hotels, can be used at any time without prior arrangement, so you don’t have to decide what time you want to ride Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls two months from now.

Universal Express was a big hit with this Texas family:

Universal resort’s inclusion of the Express Pass [is] genius. My girls couldn’t stop raving about the pass. They had gotten spoiled going to any ride and using the Express Pass with less than 10 minutes of wait time. Disney’s FastPass had mixed results with us.

Likewise, WDW may have many more table-service restaurants inside and outside its parks, but good luck getting a seat in a popular eatery without booking your table months in advance; at Universal, walk-ups are often accommodated, or you can simply make a reservation with your smartphone a few days (or even hours) before you want to eat.

Last updated on August 27, 2023