Which is the best choice for your family?
Is Bigger Better? You Decide
The first difference between the two Orlando theme park resorts is size.
Sprawling over a whopping 43 square miles, Disney World is about the same size as San Francisco. All in all, Disney World includes four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios), two major water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), 27 Disney resort hotels and about a dozen non-Disney hotels, a campground, four golf courses, plus the Disney Springs shopping and dining neighborhood.
You can't see all of Disney World in a single visit and shouldn't try. Instead, come up with a Disney World bucket list for your family based on your kids' ages and interests. As your kids grow up, your bucket list will change and you'll come up with new must-do experiences when you visit.
Though considerably smaller, Universal Orlando Resort is still very substantial at 840 acres. It includes two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), the night-time entertainment complex Universal CityWalk Orlando, and four on-site Loews Hotels (Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, Royal Pacific Resort and Cabana Bay Beach Resort). You could feasibly experience most of Universal Orlando Resort in a three- or four-day visit.
The Nostalgic Nod Goes to Disney World
Another major difference between the two Orlando theme park giants is their histories.
Disney World opened in 1971. Walt Disney dreamed up the ambitious "Florida Project," but he died in 1966 and never saw it open. Walt's brother and business partner, Roy Disney, lived to see Disney World open but he died three months later. Disney World opened with one theme park and three hotels but has grown over the years to the size of a major city.
Universal Orlando got its start in 1990 with the opening of a single theme park, Universal Studios Florida. The attraction complex exploded in size in 1999 with the addition of Islands of Adventure, Universal CityWalk, and the first on-site hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
Atmosphere and Energy
How does the vibe at Disney World compare to that of Universal Orlando? They are apples and oranges.
If you think Disney World is all about Mickey Mouse, princesses, and sweet kiddie rides, then you just aren't paying attention. Everywhere you turn is a tour-de-force of immersive and imaginative storytelling, where the famous Disney details make all the difference and even the queues are fantastically creative.
As you would expect given Disney World's enormous size, there is much to explore beyond the rides as well as many wonderful free experiences outside the theme parks. Partnerships with the Pixar, Indiana Jones, Marvel, Star Wars and Avatar franchises add an edginess for older kids and adults, and the way Disney uses technology is always way ahead of the curve.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere at Universal Orlando is super fun in a totally different way and, of course, Universal owns a vast armory of characters and franchises. Of Universal Orlando, we can safely say this:
"Universal has a brash, in-your-face attitude. If the sweet 'it's a small world' defines Disney World, the ominous, enormous Transformers set the tone at Universal. Things are always blowing up and out of control on its attractions. The CityWalk complex always pulsates with energy. Underwater speakers at the Hard Rock Hotel's pool ensure that guests never miss a lick of a searing guitar solo. If it's solace you seek, head to the Bahamas. If you want to pump up the action, head to Universal."
Tickets and Planning
Ticket prices at Disney World and Universal Orlando are comparable, with a one-day adult ticket around or just over $100 and multi-day tickets on a sliding per-diem scale.
There has been a sea change in how you plan a Disney World vacation with the introduction of a new ticketing process called My Disney Experience, which bundles nearly every aspect of your trip together. Instead of a ticket, you get a MagicBand, a rubber bracelet containing a computer chip that holds all the components of your Disney World vacation—theme park ticket, room key, dining reservations, PhotoPass—and it also acts as a resort charge card. FastPasses have been replaced by FastPass+, a digital version of the line-jumping system that can be managed from your smartphone.
While vast, Disney World is easy to get around via an excellent complimentary transportation system. Getting between theme parks and resorts generally require a 10- to 30-minute shuttle on a bus, ferry, or monorail.
Due to its smaller size, getting around Universal Orlando is even easier. Complimentary transportation includes water taxis and shuttle buses. Waterways connect the on-site hotels to both theme parks and CityWalk and everything are also within walking distance.