When it comes to planning an epic theme park vacation, perhaps you’re trying to decide between going to Disney World vs. Universal Studios.
After all, as two of the most iconic and talked about theme parks in the United States, both destinations provide for an incredible, action-packed family vacation experience!
In this article, we’ll compare Universal Studios vs. Disney World by looking at 9 major differences, as well as by summing up their general similarities.
Having been to both Disney and Universal, we’ve got a handle on all of the things you need to know to decide which is the better choice for you and the type of vacation that you’re looking for.
*Updated for 2022.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means that we may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. For more info, see disclosure.
Disney World vs. Universal Studios
Though many people debate, “Which is better, Disney or Universal?” that answer comes down to personal opinion.
Some even like to compare which theme park is more nostalgic or is better for families.
These answers tend to vary based on your family’s individual ages, interests, and whether your expectations were met when having visited there.
In our experience having been to both parks, however, there are 9 undebatable differences when comparing Disney World vs. Universal Studios, Orlando that we think are worth mentioning.
Though we are huge fans of both Orlando theme parks, perhaps these differences between Universal and Disney will help you decide which is best for you and your family.
1. The Castles
As a symbol of grandeur at each of the theme parks, both Disney and Universal feature an iconic castle that serves as a backdrop for family photo ops and fun.
Disney’s 189 foot-tall iconic landmark, Cinderella’s Castle, is located at the entrance to Magic Kingdom.
Though the general public cannot tour the castle itself, Cinderella’s Royal Table is located inside of the castle and offers a high-end dining experience for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Located across from Cinderella’s Royal Table is the hugely popular Bibbidi Bobbiddi Boutique (ongoing closure related to the pandemic).
Here, children ages 3-12 can undergo a makeover to become a princess or a knight.
Likewise, the highly secretive Cinderella Castle Suite offers lavish overnight accommodations inside of Cinderella’s Castle.
Unfortunately, The Cinderella Castle Suite cannot be booked, instead, it’s by invite only or via winning an occasional contest offered by Disney.
(Kevin Jonas, Mariah Carey, Tom Cruise, and other celebrities have apparently stayed in this exclusive suite.)
Universal’s 150-foot tall landmark, on the other hand, is Hogwarts Castle, located at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park.
Hogwarts castle is the main building of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft as featured in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter book and movie series.
Unlike Cinderella’s Castle, visitors can actually enter the castle gates and go inside Hogwarts Castle for a fully immersive experience.
Here, there are Harry Potter relics and corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that include locations such as Dumbledore’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor common room.
The castle is also home to one of the most popular rides at Islands of Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
This amazing 4D motion-simulator ride takes place on an enchanted bench. (That sits atop a highly technological robotic arm!)
2. The Theming
Disney and Universal are all theme-driven parks, meaning that their rides and shows are more about the characters and settings rather than physical thrills.
It is in the overall theming of the individual parks where you will find the biggest differences.
For instance, it goes without saying that Disney World features theming based on the nostalgic Walt Disney World franchise. It strives for a laid-back vibe that appeals to everyone.
Universal Studios, however, features theming based on the entertainment industry, in particular movies and television.
The vibe here is edgier with more high-tech and thrilling rides.
At Disney, you can expect to see rides and shows based on the following:
- Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald & Daisy Duck
- Star Wars
- Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles)
- Disney animation (Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King)
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- James Cameron’s Avatar (Pandora – The World of Avatar)
- Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
The best rides at Universal Orlando include these themes:
- The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Marvel’s Avengers
- Jurassic Park
- Fast & Furious
- The Incredible Hulk
- Despicable Me, including the Minions
- The Simpsons
- Dr. Seuss
3. Their Size
Disney World in Orlando is home to 4 major theme parks and covers 43 square miles of land.
As the same size as the city of San Francisco, quite simple Disney World is HUGE!
Disney World is comprised of:
- Magic Kingdom
- Animal Kingdom
- Hollywood Studios
- 2 major waterparks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon)
- Multiple Disney hotels
- Disney Springs shopping and dining neighborhood
Universal Orlando Resort is substantially smaller and consists of 3 major theme parks spread over 840 acres of land.
Transportation around the resort takes much less time due to its compactness.
Universal is home to:
- Universal Studios
- Islands of Adventure
- Volcano Bay (water theme park)
- Multiple Universal hotels
- Universal CityWalk nighttime entertainment complex
Their size can be compared by viewing the following map (park sizes highlighted in pink).
Disney World’s larger size means that there is more to do, but there is also more ground to cover.
You need at least 4 – 5 days in your Orlando itinerary to get even close to a full experience, and it requires A LOT of walking.
Universal Orlando, however, is smaller which means there’s less to do, but it’s easier to maneuver around.
A minimum of 2 – 3 days is needed for a complete visit.
4. The Thrill-Factor
Some people will say that Disney World is for families with young kids and that Universal Orlando is better suited for families with older children and teens.
We happen to feel there is some truth to this in that now that our kids are older, they prefer Universal Studios vs. Disney World.
The only actual evidence to support this is that an average of 11 rides per park at Universal has height requirements, whereas an average of 5 rides per park has height requirements at Disney.
(Height requirements are necessary for thrill rides that require harnasses and typically involve height and force.)
Because of this, one of our top tips for visiting Universal is to study the height requirements for your favorite rides ahead of time.
In addition, prepare your smaller children for the rides that they are, and are not going to be tall enough to ride to avoid meltdowns once there.
While there are still plenty of attractions that kids can do at Universal, these attractions are not Universal’s strong suit, whereas many of Disney World’s classics are perfectly suited rides for children and toddlers.
5. Skip the Regular Line Options
(As one of the many Disney changes related to the pandemic, Disney’s FastPass reservation system is gone. Universal continues to offer their Express Pass option, however.)
One of the biggest differences between Disney World vs. Universal Studios is their ‘skip the regular line’ option.
Disney is notoriously known for incredibly long wait times for its headliner attractions.
The previous system of allowing guests to choose 3 rides of which to skip the regular line (know as FastPass), has been gone since the beginning of the pandemic, and will not return.
Instead, FastPass has been replaced by Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane Passes.
Disney Genie+, is a ticket add-on purchased through the My Disney Experience app that includes Lightning Lane access to more than 40 attractions.
For $15 per person per day at Walt Disney World guests gain Lightning Lane access to rides including Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion and Jungle Cruise at Magic Kingdom; Mission Space, Spaceship Earth and Test Track at Epcot; Slinky Dog Dash, Rock n’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and Dinosaur, Kilimanjaro Safaris and Na’vi River Journey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
In addition, Disney is now offering the purchase of individual Lightning Lane Passes for top-tier attractions not included in Genie+.
The list includes Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Frozen Ever After at Epcot, Rise of the Resistance, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Hollywood Studios, and Avatar Flight of Passage and Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom.
Attraction prices range from $7-$15 per ride; prices and ride offerings vary by the day.
Universal’s ‘skip the regular line’ system is called Express Pass.
Universal Express Pass is also a ticket add-on, meaning that it’s an additional cost to standard park tickets (prices vary by date and expected crowd levels).
The add-on can be purchased ahead of time, once you’re in the park, or comes free when you stay at a Universal Premier Resort.
The purchase of an Express Pass allows you to use the Express Pass line at most of the attractions at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
The number of Express Passes available on a given date is limited, however, so it is recommended to purchase them ahead of time.
Additional planning tip: The verdict is out! Read exactly why we think that Universal Express Pass is worth it when considering the additional cost vs. saving precious time spent standing in lines.
6. The Locker System
Another huge difference between Disney World and Universal Studios is their policy for taking personal belongings onto rides.
Every ride at Disney offers the ability to stow your personal belongings and Disney park bags at your feet while riding a ride.
This is a huge bonus when wanting to bring in backpacks stocked with water bottles, lunch, and other Disney touring essentials in that you don’t have to pay to store them while going on rides.
Most rides at Universal, however, do not allow personal belongings (including backpacks) to be brought onto the rides. In fact, understanding the locker system at Universal Orlando is key to avoiding frustration and confusion when touring there.
Along with paid lockers at the front of the park, each ride has either free or paid lockers based on the size of your backpack or bag.
In other words, if you’re looking to save money, only bring in a backpack or fanny pack that fits into the complimentary lockers.
Here’s exactly what we pack in our Universal Studios day bag that is just enough, but not too much.
7. The Entertainment District
Both Disney World and Universal Orlando have awesome shopping, dining, and entertainment districts that feature some of the best things to do in Orlando.
The difference is in their proximity to the parks, and on what they offer.
Disney’s entertainment district is called Disney Springs. Disney Springs is located 2.5 – 6 miles from each of the Disney parks.
This equals a 10 to 20-minute drive depending on where you’re driving from.
The best things to do at Disney Springs involve browsing their specialty shops, dining at restaurants, and riding in the world’s largest tethered helium balloon (and many more fun attractions!).
Universal CityWalk is the name of Universal Resort’s dining and shopping district.
You actually have to walk through CityWalk in order to enter both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, meaning that the shops and restaurants there are much more accessible than Disney Springs.
Universal CityWalk lives up to its nickname as “the epicenter of awesome” as there are literally so many fun things to do at CityWalk.
Likewise, there are more restaurants here than you would ever be able to experience in one visit!
Check out our list of the top 7 best restaurants in Universal Citywalk, as well as what we ordered at each place when we were there!
Additional planning tip: In my opinion, Disney focuses more on their dining experiences inside of the park, whereas, the best restaurants and dining experiences at Universal are located in CityWalk.
8. The Parking
At Disney World, each of the four theme and two water parks has its own outdoor parking lot. The parking lots are huge, and they all have separate entrances.
Trams cycle through the parking lots offering rides to the park entrances, otherwise, it is a 5-15 minute walk from the parking lot to the park.
Cost: Regular parking is $25/day (parking is good for all day and you can go to other parks).
At Universal, there’s one gigantic covered parking complex for day guests visiting Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and/or Volcano Bay.
Once parked, escalators and moving walkways bring you into the transportation hub.
Here, you will find security checkpoints, restrooms, vending machines, and souvenirs.
From the Universal transportation hub, it is a 15-minute walk to get to any of the theme park entrances.
Cost: Regular parking is $26/day.
9. The Customer Service
Both Disney World and Universal Studios focus on providing a seamlessly top-notch guest experience.
They operate very similarly when it comes to high standards of customer service and professional staff members.
You will definitely notice a difference in the way that the opposing staff members make you ‘feel’ however, as each park has a different approach to its corporate culture and marketing approach.
Disney employees that work at Disney Parks or Disney Stores are called Cast Members.
Cast Members are trained to be as positive and as nice as possible, as well as to bring Disney to life for their guests.
Most cast members have lanyards for trading Disney pins with guests, as well as are encouraged to be interactive with guests in order to promote feelings of nostalgia.
They can be identified by costumes mimicking the rides, vests with bowties, or brightly colored polo shirts.
Universal employees are called Team Members. They too are trained to provide an enjoyable and memorable entertainment experience for their guests.
It often seems that Universal Team Members are hipper and edgier as well as have a more hands-off approach to the guests in order to mimic the action-packed atmosphere here.
They don’t necessarily have the same warm-fuzzy feeling as Disney Cast Members, but it fits with the ambiance of the park.
Universal Team Members can be identified in colored polo shirts, costumes matching the ride’s theme, and staff name badges.
Disney World vs. Universal Studios: Similarities
- Each has multiple theme parks.
- They have similar ticketing options (multi-day, park-to-park).
- Their cost is comparable. Both Disney and Universal offer a wide variety of price points, designed to appeal to a wide range of budgets. A complete breakdown of our Disney World costs can be found here!
- They each have waterparks associated with them.
- There are nighttime shows and holiday celebrations at both.
- Both have on-site accommodations ranging from budget to luxury that include exclusive perks.
- They each have vacation packages and dining plan options available
- Both have convenient transportation systems for hotel guests.
- Both have ‘something for everyone’.
Which Should I Choose, Disney or Universal?
Disney World…calling all Mickey and Star Wars fans?
Universal Orlando…calling all comic and Harry Potter fans?
I firmly believe that neither Disney World nor Universal is better than the other.
You literally cannot go wrong in choosing either – they are both awesome!
I will say, however, that I like the overall atmosphere better at Disney, but the overall ride experiences are better at Universal.
Deciding between Disney or Universal really comes down to the factors that you’re looking for and comparing, and on what appeals to you and your family.
My suggestion would be to do both parks on different occasions if you have the time and the funds.
Make your Disney World vacation all about Disney since it takes longer to see all of the parks.
Combine your Universal vacation with some days at the beach, or go there for a long weekend since it takes fewer days to do all of Universal.
For a point of reference, our 3 boys were ages 8, 10, and 12 when we visited Disney World in Orlando.
They were ages 10, 12, and 14 when were went to Universal Orlando for the first time.
These ages worked for us, and we wouldn’t change a thing as we felt they were at the perfect ages for both.
We appreciated having visited Disney first when the kids were a bit younger and then visiting Universal when they were older and tall enough to go on all of the rides.
Do you have a preference between Disney World vs. Universal Studios? I’d love to hear your take!Jen
If you liked reading about Disney World vs. Universal Studios, click here to get our free touring plans:
Universal Orlando Touring Plans:
- Universal Studios Touring Plan: 1-Day Itinerary
- Islands of Adventure Touring Plan: Complete 1-Day Itinerary
Disney World Touring Plans:
- 1-Day Magic Kingdom Itinerary: A Perfect Day At Disney
- 1-Day At Animal Kingdom Itinerary: The Perfect Family Touring Plan
- One Day Itinerary for Epcot: Family Touring Plan
*Before leaving, be sure to check our Travel Resources Page to find exclusive travel discounts and to book hotels, rental cars, and guided tours.*