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The Darker Side of Disney versus the Lighter Side of Universal

Learn about the attractions at Universal Studios and Walt Disney World Orlando

At first glance, the differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando are easy to spot. Disney is fun, friendly, safe, and family-oriented. Universal is edgy, with a focus on action, thrills, and the illusion of danger. While these are reasonable overall descriptions, the theme parks, like everything else in the world, are complicated and multi-faceted. Walt Disney World has an oft-overlooked darker side, while Universal Studios offers plenty of lighter moments.
Cinderella's CastleConsider the beloved films of childhood on which many classic Disney attractions are based. Snow White, Disney’s first full-length animated film and star of a much loved Fantasyland ride, was based on a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. The original story was frightful and disturbing, as were most of the Grimm fairy tales. Even cleaned and sanitized by Disney, the story is about a wicked stepmother/witch who attempts murder on her stepdaughter. Pretty dark material, if you think about it. The ride itself, though tame and even silly to adults, comes complete with a warning label: “May be too intense for young children.” The name of the ride was changed from the original, adding the word “scary” to better convey the emotions children may feel during the ride. This did not help and in 2012 Walt Disney World shut down the Snow White attraction ride.

Disney’s twin themes are triumph over adversity and the success of good over evil. Yet these themes are presented starkly, and we are encouraged to cry along with the characters. Who can forget the moment when Bambi’s mother was shot by a hunter? The next line, “Your mother can’t be with you any longer,” is seared into our collective unconscious.

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Dr. Seuss LandingWalt Disney World has entered what some refer to as the thrill ride arms race, offering dark and scary rides on a par with the best of the best. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of the best examples anywhere of a psychological thriller. In that ride, Disney has turned its legendary knack for storytelling towards the dark and disturbing. In a scene that appears to be taken from a Twilight Zone episode, and narrated by a Rod Serling look alike, the preshow explains the history of the abandoned hotel in which you are standing. As the story goes, an elevator was struck by lightning and everyone onboard disappeared into the Twilight Zone. Lightning flashes outside the window, then you are invited to step on board the hotel’s old service elevator.

What happens next is a psychological terror at its finest. The elevator moves upward, and the doors open onto a hotel hallway. Suddenly, your elevator car moves forward, down the hall! Before you have time to process what is happening, your senses are assaulted with darkness and random floating imagery. The doors close, the elevator lifts again, and the doors open, this time to the outside with a look over the park. You hang in midair for a few seconds before the drops begin. A random number of drops later, you land safely at the bottom and are welcomed back by the Rod Serling sound-alike. You stumble off the ride, unsure of exactly what just happened. Pretty dark material, really.
Universal Studios, while known for its thrills, offers many light-hearted attractions and shows. Seuss Landing is one of Islands of Adventure’s islands, dedicated entirely to the writings of the beloved Dr. Seuss. While the cast of characters is certainly zany and unique, they are silly and innocent as well. Even the Grinch, though he tried to take Christmas away, had a change of heart at the end. And he certainly never thought of murder to move his plans along.

Universal employs a tongue in cheek approach to most of its material. While the movies may be intensely scary, the in-park shows find ways to cut the tension, making the audience laugh as well as jump. A great example is the Horror Makeup Show. This behind the scenes show teaches the audience some of the secrets of makeup special effects. The hosts are a classic straight man/funny man duo with masterful comic timing, giving the sometimes gory material a light and downright silly treatment.

The Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue is another example of Universal’s tongue in cheek sense of humor. Take four classic Universal monsters – Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman – add in two backup singers/groupies, and get Beetlejuice to host the show. The result is a silly and irreverent rock and roll show with plenty of laughs.

Even the legendary Halloween Horror Nights, known for its emphasis on gore and terror, offers the opportunity to break the tension. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is a Halloween Horror Nights classic. Each year brings an entirely new edition of the show, poking fun at the year’s pop culture. The 2006 edition featured, among others, Captain Jack Sparrow in a petticoat, Superman singing “Up, up, and I’m gay,” and Tom Cruise going through an utter breakdown. The shows are hilarious, and fans look forward to each new version.

Many of Universal’s attractions are light and innocent, with no horror or thrill storyline at all. Take a walk through Toon Lagoon, one of the islands at Islands of Adventure, where the theme is the Sunday comics. There are lots of water features for the kids to play in, and the Dagwood sandwich at Blondie’s is delicious.

The Dueling Dragons roller coaster

Dueling Dragons - Orlando Florida
In addition to the Dueling Dragons roller coaster, the Lost Continent offers a Renaissance Faire styled open-air market and Mythos restaurant. Mythos has been named the Number One Theme Park Restaurant in the World for several years running, and with good reason. The mythical theming, world class food and top notch service make Mythos a top choice. Be sure to look around even if you do not eat.

A Walt Disney World vacation is widely known as a family-oriented, fun, and safe classic vacation. A Universal Studios vacation is known for being hipper, edgier, and more action-oriented, presenting the illusion of danger. While these descriptions certainly bear out in the overall flavor of each resort, it is important to remember that both parks are designed to appeal to a broad customer base. Disney offers a decidedly darker side, and Universal brings a lighter side. Next time you are in the parks, look around. You may be surprised at how easy it is to change your perceptions.

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