Under-rated Orlando: Universal
There may be no easier way to start a fight than to bring up Universal Orlando in a crowd of Disney World fans. Ever since Universal set up shop in Disney’s backyard, fans of the central Florida theme parks have been debating which is the better resort. I’m going to side-step that third rail by stating up front that both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are terrific vacation destinations. I’m not here to argue that one is better than the other. But I will make a case that Universal is under-rated.
If you have ever had the experience of talking to one of those Universal advocates who insists that Disney World has been on the decline since the start of the millennium (if not even further back) while Universal has been experiencing a period of creative and commercial growth, you might object to the notion that the resort is under-rated. Some fans do get carried away when comparing Universal to Disney. But my feeling is that these die-hard Universal fans are still in the minority. In my experience, it is far more common for me to talk to a Disney fan who questions why I would ever want to step foot outside the warm confines of Disney property.
I am frequently approached by coworkers who know that I know my way around a Disney theme park. When making small talk in the break room, I am often asked about my vacation plans. This year, we’re planning an extended stay at Universal. The reaction I get when I provide this answer ranges from “Why would you want to do that?” to being called a “traitor”. Often, these are accompanied by a facial expression similar to the type one makes when smelling something unpleasant. A coworker explained to me that after a couple of rides, she and her family were ready to go home. Others tell me they have no interest in going to a place that is “not Disney”.
On a personal level, we have chosen to visit Universal because Disney World has gotten a bit stale for us. That’s not to take anything away from Disney. Disney World is truly in a class of its own. Universal may be similar in that it is a destination resort built around theme parks. But in terms of scale, there is simply no comparison. Disney World is roughly twice the size of the island of Manhattan whereas you can easily walk from one end of Universal to the other. Over the course of several decades, Disney World has amassed a collection of varied attractions which is second to none. Universal has had less time to build up their roster of attractions.
But Disney World’s greatness does not in any way diminish its “competition”. In fact many of Universal’s perceived shortcomings are actually secret strengths. For example, getting from point A to point B at Disney World can be a chore involving multiple modes of transportation. At Universal, most everything is within a 15 minute walk. While some guests see Disney’s size as an advantage, others appreciate the relative convenience that comes with Universal’s compact size. Which is better will depend on your personal preferences and vacation style.
As I said before, I want to side-step the whole Disney vs. Universal to the extent that is possible. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on answering some of the common criticisms I hear about Universal Orlando.
- Lack of Magic – Presumably, people who claim Universal lacks “magic” haven’t been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When Disney fans talk about “magic” they are referring to that nebulous concept of “Disney Magic”. “Disney Magic” is hard to define. If it is a reference to the quality that separates Disney World from regional amusement parks like Six Flags, I would argue that Universal has plenty of magic. But I think more often than not, Disney fans are referencing the Disney brand. Universal may not have Mickey Mouse, but they do have an impressive line-up of world-class attractions that rival anything you will find in Orlando.
- Not Timeless – Like a lot of criticisms of Universal, there’s some truth in this. Movies like Men in Black, Terminator 2 or The Mummy aren’t as relevant as they once were. Disney has attractions themed to older movies. But few would argue that Snow White isn’t more relevant today than An American Tale, Barney or even E.T. Universal has replaced some moldy oldies like Twister, but they still have a show based on Fear Factor. Some of the movies and TV shows that serve as the basis for Universal attractions may be a little musty. But at the end of the day, what difference does it make if you’re riding a good ride. Disney has popular attractions based on Song of the South (a movie that has been banned for decades) and Dinosaur (a movie most guests have forgotten if they ever knew it existed). Additionally, a lot of the properties featured at Universal like Harry Potter, The Simpsons, Despicable Me, and Marvel comics remain very relevant.
- Too Many Motion Simulators/Screens – I will be the first to admit that a lot of Universal’s recent offerings rely heavily on the use of video screens. There is a certain “sameness” to many of Universal’s attractions lately. The Spider-man and Transformers rides, for example, offer variations on the same basic ride design. After riding a few motion simulators that take place in front of a 3-D screen, I find myself needing a change of pace. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Universal offers a number of thrill rides like The Hulk and The Mummy Returns. There are also attractions that feature physical effects like the Jurassic Park and E.T. rides. Most of these are older attractions predating Universal’s screen-addition. I would love to see Universal build a greater variety of attractions in the future. (Rumor has it that the Nintendo-themed land will move away from video screens which if true is somewhat ironic.) But for now, there remains enough of a balance that I don’t think it is fair to accuse the resort of being “all screens”. At least not yet.
- Nothing For Kids – While Universal definitely skews older than Disney, there are lots of things for younger guests to enjoy. Yes, Universal has bigger, faster roller coasters with height restrictions. They are attempting to appeal to a slightly different demographic than Disney World. This is reflected in their marketing materials which identify Universal as a vacation for kids who have outgrown Disney. But that doesn’t mean families with kids won’t enjoy a visit to Universal. While certain attractions won’t appeal to everyone in the family, we found plenty of things to entertain our kids the last time we visited. While I definitely recommend the Magic Kingdom to the 8-and-under crowd, you may be surprised by how much Universal has to offer the grade school set.
- Lack of Theme – Universal Studios does lack a coherent theme. A lot of that park looks like the kind of warehouses you would find on a studio lot. Some parts of the resort are more immersive than others. I would argue that the two Harry Potter lands are better themed than anything you will find at Disney World. But once you get outside of those two lands, there is a steep drop off. Islands of Adventure is more heavily themed than the original park, but there are still areas where large cut-outs are used to set the tone rather than truly transporting guests to another world. While Universal doesn’t always measure up to Disney in this area, it still manages to hold its own.
- Not Enough to Do – I hear variations of this one. “We did everything we wanted to do in a few hours.” “I couldn’t spend more than a day at Universal.” The general consensus among those I have talked to is that there is no reason to spend more than two days at Disney’s competition. Admittedly, you can spend a lot more time at Disney World without running out of things to do. This is largely due to the sheer size of the place. With four theme parks, there are more attractions at Disney World than there are at Universal. There are also more miles to travel between them. Getting from the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios to the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom will require roughly an hour of travel. You can walk from any attraction in Universal to any other attraction in a matter of minutes. That means guests will cruise through Universal at a faster speed, but they will probably experience more attractions per day than a Disney park-hopper. Some of this ties into other admitted short-comings. The over-reliance on screens and motion simulators throughout the resort can lead to early burnout. For some people, there really won’t be enough to do to last more than a day or two. But if you love immersive environments and themed entertainment, odds are you won’t run out of things to do.
It is entirely possible that my perception that Universal Orlando is underrated is colored by the fact that I interact with lots of Disney World fans. Among the general public, I suspect Universal probably gets its due as a fun vacation destination. Universal compares favorably with just about any non-Disney park in the world. Even when compared with Disney, Universal’s parks hold up pretty well. Universal will never match Disney in size, they will never have a collection of beloved characters as large as Disney does and it will probably take several decades for Universal to have the same variety of top shelf attractions, but there are some ways in which Universal is superior.
In terms of cutting edge technology, once the clear industry leader, has lagged behind. Only recently with the upcoming Avatar and Star Wars lands, has Disney made an attempt to catch up with innovations Universal made with the opening of Islands of Adventure in 1999. If you’re looking for thrills, Universal rides are generally bigger, faster and taller than what you will find at Disney. I have already discussed at length at Universal’s compact layout makes it more convenient that the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort.
Additionally, some things come down to a matter of preference. The majority of Disney World fans are going to favor their brand no matter what. But for a lot of people, Disney’s eternal optimism and “gee whiz” cleanliness can be off-putting. The never-ending stream of “dreams” and “magic” can be too much for those who don’t regularly consume large amounts of pixie dust. Some people I know prefer the darker, more cynical and arguably more mature entertainment offered at Universal.
All of which is to say, I like both resorts quite a bit. (Regular reader may have noticed.) I won’t make an argument for one over the other and if you have a preference, I won’t try to change your mind. But I do think a lot of Disney World fans refuse to give Universal a fair shake. While Universal has had some rough patches over the years (it’s opening day was a disaster and it took a long time to right the ship), the resort has been growing and improving steadily for the last seven years or so. Despite a couple of missteps, the place is on an unpward swing with no signs of slowing down any time soon.