As a hardcore Disney fan, my family has become well versed in the magical experience of a Disney vacation. After listening to the Universal podcast, we decided to try something different this year and venture over to Universal Orlando for our spring break trip. Without pitting the two destinations against one another in a direct comparison, it is sufficient to say that Universal offers a completely different kind of experience than Walt Disney World. In this series of articles, we will take a close look at how these popular vacation destinations differ from one another and how they each offer their own unique magical experience.
The Booking Process
The first thing you will notice when looking into a Universal vacation is that pricing research can be very confusing. Only recently has Universal added an online booking engine similar to what Disney has available on their website. Even with the improvements, though, determining which of the current vacation packages works best for you and your family is not always easy. The package we ended up booking was not even listed on their main site. This is why we always suggest, for Disney or Universal, that you take advantage of a travel agent with specialized destination training. Their experience and knowledge will cost you nothing, and they will ensure you are getting the best possible package for your family. The best option for our family turned out to be a Florida Resident Annual Pass Acquisition Package. Apparently, Georgia residents qualify for this package and a 15-month annual pass was actually a better deal for us than a 4-day, park-to-park ticket.
Building The Excitement
The next big difference happens after your initial booking is complete. Leading up to a Disney World vacation, there are a number of important things that happen. Shortly after booking, you receive a welcome booklet personalized to your family’s trip. You get regular updates as you approach your eligible dates for advanced dining and FastPass+ reservations. You get to customize your Magic Bands. Your excitement builds as your MagicBands arrive in the mail. You receive your final documents and Mickey luggage tags. The experience is different at Universal. With a Universal Parks and Resorts vacation package, you receive an e-mail confirmation with your reservation number and any pertinent information after completing your booking. That is the final notification of any kind we received from Universal Parks and Resorts prior to our trip. You will receive occasional reminders and planning suggestions from your travel agent but not from Universal. This may seem less magical for the Disney fan. With a Universal vacation, however, there are no FastPass+ reservations to be made. There are no MagicBands to be used. Dining reservations aren’t a necessity, and all tickets and documentation you will need will be waiting on you when you check in at your hotel or at the main ticket center in front of the parks. The trip requires a lot less pre-travel planning and organization than a Disney vacation package. And for some people, that can be an even more magical thing.
Where’s My Key-To-The-World?
The next big difference in a Universal vacation is that there is no all-encompassing MagicBand to control everything on your trip. Quite the opposite, when you arrive at your hotel to check in, you will be issued a standard, card-style hotel room key. Everyone in your party gets one, and they come in a range of cool themes. If you are staying at one of the Loews deluxe resorts (Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, or The Hard Rock Hotel), you can take your room key to the kiosk in the lobby and retrieve your Unlimited Express Pass for the length of your stay. This is a simple business card-sized paper ticket. You then proceed to the ticket counter or front gate locations to get your park tickets. Yet another simple paper ticket. Even the extended annual passes are just a paper ticket. If you decide to try the Universal Dining Plan (which we don’t necessarily recommend), you will get still another paper ticket. You will need to carry all of these tickets with you while visiting the parks. Your room key is required for early park admission. Your park tickets are required for entry and re-entry as well as when boarding the Hogwarts Express as you are changing parks. Your express pass will need to be shown at every eligible ride at least once, and if you have the Dining Plan, you will need to have that ticket on hand as well. It becomes a lot to keep up with.
The team member at the front gate will try and convince you to purchase a lanyard and card holder for everyone in your group to keep up with their tickets and cards. DO NOT purchase these here! Despite what the team member may tell you, the lanyards inside the park can be cheaper than the ones available at the front gate. And rather than getting the standard Universal-themed lanyard, you can choose from the many themes on hand at the shops throughout the parks. I would much rather pay $9 for a Wizarding World of Harry Potter lanyard than the $11 they wanted me to pay for the Universal Mardi Gras-themed lanyard at the front gate.
Know What To Stow Before You Go.
The other logistical difference on a Universal visit are the ride lockers. At Walt Disney World, almost all of the rides allow guests to carry on small bags and accessories. Very few rides require you to leave your belongings behind and gather them again after the experience. Universal has more strictly enforced guidelines on this. Many rides have free lockers available just outside the line queue. A few of them such as the Dragon Challenge and Rip Ride Rockit restrict guests from even carrying loose items in their pockets. Even cell phones are required to be stowed in the free lockers prior to riding. The locker system is pretty straight forward, and after your first couple of times using them, it becomes an easy process. Keep this in mind when deciding what to carry into the parks. Larger backpacks may not fit in the lockers. If you purchase a wand from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, be aware that a few of the longer wands may not easily fit in the lockers while in their boxes. It took some careful maneuvering to get the locker door to close with our wands inside.
The general booking and logistics of a Universal Parks and Resorts vacation may not be as magical as a typical Disney vacation. That all changes when you start experiencing the parks and resorts and find the little bits of magic that make Universal shine. In the next chapter of A Different Kind of Magic, we will take a closer look at the Universal Express Pass. We will go over the different versions of the pass, how they differ from the Disney FastPass+ system, and why they are an important part of your Universal experience.