How Universal Differs From Disney

By Lisa Fritscher

One need only watch television commercials to witness the ongoing competition between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. From the thinly veiled references of Universal’s “If I had to hug one more princess…” commercials to the ante-upping “Year of a Million Dreams” promotion by Disney, it is clear to see that the two are in friendly competition. This only makes sense, given the two resorts’ physical proximity and similar market niche.

First time visitors to the Orlando area are often confused by the seeming similarities between the two resorts. After all, both offer a combination of thrill rides, shows, and classic attractions. Admission prices are similar. Both are noted for excellent themeing, cleanliness, friendly staff, and attention to detail.

So how does one sort out the differences between the two destinations? Is one better than the other, or is it worthwhile to go to both? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to look at each resort’s history, vision, and market niche.

Walt Disney World can best be described as “classic.” Although exciting new rides and attractions are added yearly, Disney strives to uphold the guidelines set out by “Uncle Walt” himself, back in the 1950s. Despite the existence of roller coasters and thrill rides, Disney feels “safe.” The thrills are mild and the focus is on family. Whether visiting alone, with friends, or in a multigenerational family group, as a guest you are considered a part of the extended Walt Disney World family.

Universal Orlando, by contrast, brings the thrills in a big way. Home to Orlando’s most famous roller coasters, as well as the jaw-dropping excitement of attractions such as Jaws and the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Universal seeks to put you in the middle of the action. This does not mean that Universal is not family-friendly; there are numerous attractions aimed at children. Universal just tends to be a bit edgier.

Evidence of this fundamental difference between the two resorts can be seen in their Halloween celebrations. Disney’s offering is Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. As its name promises, this party offers trick-or-treating, characters in silly costumes, playful shows, and even the chance for park guests to dress in costume.

Universal, on the other hand, brings the terror of the legendary Halloween Horror Nights. From three nights with one haunted house in its opening year, this event has expanded to 21 nights in September and October, with seven haunted houses and multiple scare zones. The best way to describe the event is intense, and parents would do well to heed the PG-13 recommendations.

Another key difference between Disney and Universal is in the movies and television shows that are represented in the attractions. Disney is, of course, best known and loved for their classic animation. Films from Snow White to Lilo and Stitch are represented in their own attractions. Disney-MGM Studios includes MGM’s classic film library, including scenes from such beloved films as The Wizard of Oz. Epcot focuses on a utopian view of both world culture and the technology of the future, while Animal Kingdom presents an idealized look at exotic lands.

Universal, by contrast, is best known for both horror films and action films. Universal Studios invites you to “Ride the Movies,” taking you both inside and behind the scenes of some of the best known movies of the horror and action genres. The Horror Makeup Show will teach you everything you wanted to know about horror makeup and special effects, while Fear Factor Live allows selected park guests to participate in stunts similar to those on the featured on the hit TV show. Islands of Adventure takes you into Universal’s brand of comics, from the superheroes and villains of Marvel Superhero Island to the mythical creatures of The Lost Continent.

Universal offers several in-jokes, poking fun at their more well-known neighbor down the street. For example, a classic line that is often used in the Horror Makeup Show is “This isn’t Disney, we don’t have to be nice.” A café façade outside Earthquake: The Big One has a sign identifying it as “ The Buena Vista Café,” a reference to the old Lake Buena Vista shopping village that became Downtown Disney. Even the Shrek show, like its namesake film, contains many obvious references to Disney films and attractions.

Although it may seem that Universal and Disney are in some sort of fierce competition, the reality is not nearly so sinister. As Universal employees are told during orientation, “We know they’re there. They know we’re here. They do what they do, and we do what we do.” Many guests, particularly those from out of town, feel that they have to choose. Frequent visitors to one or the other often state that it feels like “cheating” if they visit the other resort. This attitude is a source of amusement to most locals, who often hold annual passes to both, and visit whichever happens to strike their fancy on any given day. The vast majority of those who work at one also work at the other, or have at some point in their careers.

This last point can be used to demonstrate how strongly pre-conceived notions can alter perception of reality. There are loyalists to Disney who would never dream of going anywhere else, and loyalists to Universal who would never set foot at Disney. Some members of both contingents love to argue as to why “their” park is better. Both sides tend to bring up employee attitudes as a point in their arguments. The Disney side swears that Universal Team Members are rude and inconsiderate. The Universal side counters that Disney Cast Members are sappy and “over-pixie-dusted.” Employees laugh and shake their heads, wondering how their personalities could completely change when they take off one uniform and put on the other.

Universal and Disney both have a lot to offer to the theme park industry. No matter which is your favorite, it is true that you can have too much of a good thing. Including both Universal and Disney in your vacation plans allows you to enjoy both the heartwarming nostalgia of Disney and the edgy excitement of Universal. The parks are located only 20 minutes apart, making visits to both easy to accomplish. Universal and Disney offer widely differing experiences, yet the cleanliness, friendliness, and excitement that they share make both parks worthy of a visit.

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