Universal Orlando and My Disney Family

Is your family a “Disney Family” like mine is? Having two little girls who love Disney Princesses, I always thought what better vacation is there for them than a trip to Walt Disney World? Well, as it turns out, Universal Orlando in Florida can give Disney a run for its money, even with families who love Disney Princesses.

For our last annual summer vacation, we decided to “try” two nights at Universal Orlando, just before our seven night Disney World vacation. We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is right on site at Universal.

Fewer steps for little legs

When staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, the entrance to Universal Studios Florida and CityWalk is just a short walk away. It’s certainly on par with the walk from Disney’s Contemporary Resort to the Magic Kingdom.

Further, the two parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, are extremely close to each other, separated by a really nice walk through CityWalk. And now that the Hogwarts Express train is there, you don’t even have to make that walk if you don’t want to.

As parents of children who can walk for miles until we get to that mile (i.e. boring…to them) loop in Epcot’s World Showcase, having everything be so close together can by quite refreshing for families with young children.

Universal Express 

When staying at one of the premium Universal hotels, like the Hard Rock Hotel, an unlimited Universal Express pass is included for everyone in the family. This pass lets you “skip” the line for many attractions. It is similar to Disney World’s FastPass+, but you don’t reserve it in advance. Just show up, scan your pass, and skip the line. Sure, sometimes there is a wait even with the Express pass, but it’s always much shorter wait than the regular line and it’s incredibly worth it, considering that the price of a room at the Hard Rock Hotel is comparable to a Disney Deluxe hotel room.

The unlimited nature of the Universal Express pass that comes with the room allows families to experience many attractions in a short amount of time. For our family, this meant that we didn’t feel rushed, and had plenty of time to wander around, take it easy, and even swim in the pool. Plus, we were able to ride Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls three times in a row!

Relevant Theming

Universal has something for everyone. Yes, there are some fairly intense thrill rides, the likes of which would never be seen at Disney (like Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit), but there were plenty of rides that even two little girls could enjoy. At Islands of Adventure, all of the attractions in Seuss Landing are often a big hit.

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While the Jurassic Park River Adventure had some scary elements, even my 5-year old declared it “fun” in the end, and we went on again and again. There is even a ride called Pteranodon Flyers that adults can only go on if they have a child with them.

Toon Lagoon also has a lot of unique attractions, including our family favorite:  Dudley-Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls.

At Universal Studios Florida, parents can relive their childhood by experiencing the E.T. Adventure with their children. I was about my kids’ age when the original movie came out, and this ride gave me a great excuse to watch this classic movie with them when we got home.

The highly themed Simpsons area and ride are colorful, funny and fun, and even if your kids have never heard of The Simpsons, chances are they will love it.

Butterbeer

These two words pretty much sum up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for my two princesses. They did ride the Flight of the Hippogriff half a dozen times, but really had no interest in the other Harry Potter rides and experiences. But, boy oh boy did they love their Butterbeer!

Time to Go to Universal!

While Disney World would seem to have cornered the market on families with Disney Princess fanatics, my experience suggests that Universal can offer something just as compelling for these children as well. In fact, Universal has become the most requested vacation destination in our house, and we’ll be adding on another day to the Universal portion of our next trip.

What do you think…could Universal have something for your Disney family?

  • We’ve added Universal Orlando to our vacation rotation. With the Volcano Bay opening this summer, I think it will become more and more of a vacation destination, not just an add on.

  • Jeff

    We tried Universal and it was OK, nothing great. Went went in Feb. 2016 and it seemed like the park was empty as we walk right on to things, no waiting. We are in no hurry to go back. We live near Cedar Point in Ohio and prefer that over Universal for rides.
    We went back to Disney in July 2016 and didn’t do Universal at all. Going back to Disney in July this summer with no Universal.

  • eagillinois

    We just went Friday for our first visit and loved it. We are HP fans and those areas are so well done. Gringott’s is amazing! We bought Fl Resident passes and will definitely be back, adding a day before each Disney trip. We did not have express pass. We arrived when they opened and went straight to the HP areas. We didn’t wait more than 20 minutes for any ride all day by just using their app and watching wait times. My 14 YO son was “chosen” in Olivander’s and even though he declined to let me buy him the wand, it was truly the best experience for him! We are already planning to go back next month for a day and then hit Disney Springs/Homecoming.

  • brian peters

    We are DVC members who stay on property at least once a year. But we are no longer blindly loyal to the Disney parks since they very rarely develop any new attractions. And I mean rarely.

    On the other hand, Universal allows us to to return often and always experience something new.

    Since we’ve last been to Universal they have built: 1) An entirely new Harry Potter land, 2) the new Kong attraction, 3) completely rebuilt Hulk, 4) the new Jimmy Fallon Ride 5) an entire water park. and are working on a Fast Furious attraction.

    Disney has Pandora, which it took over six years to make. I’m positive it’s going to be awesome, and on par with Diagon Alley at UO. But UO built their highly immersive land in less than half the time as Pandora, plus several other attractions.

    So, we split out park time now. This July, we have a three-day park hopper at UO with the Express feature and a ticket to Volcano Bay (their new water park) and a three-day park pass at WDW. No hopper needed since we’re only doing MK and AK this time.

    Maybe we’re unique in that regard, but based on marketshare reports of the two parks, I’m guessing not. Disney is consistently losing ground to UO. Last year WDW’s share went down by the same percentage that UO’s went up. Not hard to guess where those guests are going.

    Disney is learning a painful lesson about the importance of not taking your guests for granted. Unfortunately it will be another six to eight years to fully reverse the trend given Disney’s snail pace at ride development. This is a guess only, but I’m betting Star Wars literally will not open until not open until 2023, and possibly as late as 2025, if Pandora is any indication.

    How many new attractions (or new Orlando-based parks) will UO have introduced in that same timeframe?

    And how many more guests have migrated from WDW?

    • KingOfFoxes

      Star wars lands at both parks confirmed for a 2019 open, so I’d say yes they’ve learned their lesson somewhat on turn around time. Though granted a lot of new tech was/needed to be developed for Pandora: World of Avatar

      • brian peters

        You don’t honestly believe they will finish Star Wars land in less than three years from today, do you?

        That’s a scheduled opening date triggered by pressure from investors tired of losing marketshare to Universal and/or Iger having a temper tantrum.

        Consider the two years it took to build a parking lot; or the three years to develop a water and light show (we’re still waiting); and the six years to build Pandora.

        But only three years to build a 14-acre land based on their most profitable franchise?

        Maybe they’re planning on hiring Eisner to oversee construction since he was able to build an entire theme park from the ground up in half the time it took Iger to build Pandora alone.

        Otherwise don’t hold your breath.

        • KingOfFoxes

          And look what happened there. Iger had to fix up Eisner’s mess. Whilst you’re probably right about the knee jerk reaction of date announcements, you also have to consider the creative control that Jim Cameron probably had over Pandora also and delays involved there. Like I said a lot of new tech was developed for Pandora, not so much the case for SW land. I think that Disney have learned a lot from building Pandora and the failings of Rivers of light and the impact that had on consumer expectations.

          • brian peters

            Clean up Eisner’s mess?

            Iger ignored the park so long that it became dated to the point of being irrelevant. Then he was forced shutter a third of the park to bring it up to speed. That was the real mess. Eisner at least invest in attractions that made the park a big draw at one time.

            Hope you’re right that the intellectual property gummed up production at Pandora and that Star Wars will go quicker, but WDW’s track record is pretty poor lately.

          • KingOfFoxes

            I can see on another post you were referring to Hollywood Studios, where I was under the impression you were talking about DCA. That was a mess of Esiner’s that Iger quickly brought up to speed that would’ve been a priority over fixing HS as it was bleeding fast.

  • elvindeath

    Every few years we add Universal Studios on to the rotation, usually at the very beginning or very end of a trip. We always stay on property there, because in the summer months the Universal Express pass benefit makes your trip exponentially more enjoyable. Plus the deluxe Universal hotels are fantastic (we love Portafino Bay). The parks themselves are tremendously fun, and Harry Potter Diagon Alley is so much more immersive and cutting edge than anything Disney has done in the last two decades, fans of the Disney Parks should experience it just to see what they need to expect from Pandora and Star Wars land. The first time we went to Universal (to Harry Potter Hogsmeade Village), I hadn’t even read the books or seen the movies – I made sure to do both before we visited Diagon Alley in 2015. Universal probably isn’t the place to bring really young kids (under 5) – but everyone else will love it.

    • Cory

      I’d include Cars Land in California as something Disney has done recently that is as immersive at Diagon Alley.

  • Cory

    The new Universal Studios commercials showing a girl putting away a tiara and other kids saying they are ready to move on from little kid parks is a bold shot across the bow at Disney and trying to establish the narrative that Disney is just for young children.

  • discorules

    We love Universal and do 8 nights there (no Disney) every 3-4 years. Portofino Bay puts all Disney deluxes to shame.

  • Laurel Lane

    I enjoyed my stay at the Universal Parks but I don’t think they are better in many areas than Disney. I resented spending big bucks to stay at their hotel and then still had to pay for parking. You don’t at Disney. I didn’t like the fact that there weren’t many places to get any decent food after 7:00 p.m. which was a complete surprise to me as I went back to the park to have a delicious dinner and experience it at night. Diagon Alley may be very immersive but most other areas of the park are not. Their theming goes out the window when you have a large portion of a coaster over your head when you’re in ‘old New York’. This does not happen at Disney. Rides do not encroach on other attractions. I’m not saying I wouldn’t go back to Universal Studios; I enjoyed a lot of their attractions. But all things considered, they could take a lot of lessons from Disney.

    • Ryan

      They are not trying to be Disney. Not sure why people expect them to take lessons from Disney. I think the lesson they took is don’t keep increasing your ticket prices for Country Bear Jamboree, its a small world…i could go on and on. They are losing market share to Universal for their lack of keeping things updated. I think Disney is learning a lesson from Universal.

  • James Wright

    Universal has definitely upped their game recently. The Harry Potter areas are fantastic and is where we spent most of our time while at Universal. Long-term projects at Disney have opened the door for Universal, and many have taken notice. I feel, with the addition of Pandora-Avatar at Animal Kingdom, Disney will see a slight gain in market share but will continue to slowly lose that back until the Toy Story and Star Wars areas open at Hollywood Studios.

  • Mack C

    I love the appreciation for Dudley Do-Right’s Rip Saw Falls. It was my favorite ride when I was a kid, and I always make a point to go on it each trip.