Both parks were extremely fun and worth the money we paid. It was also extremely hot and crowded. If you can at all help it, I would suggest NOT going to either place in July. You have kids out of school and an relentless ball of fire pounding down on you, which means fewer rides ridden and more sunburns.
My son had gone to both parks during spring break on a school trip, and he reports that the lines at that time were nowhere near as long as what we experienced. So, if you really can't take your kids out of school, I'd highly recommend going during spring break--just go any time other than June, July, August in order to maximize your enjoyment.
Other than crowd and sun, we had memorable experiences.
Universal provides much better deals in pricing if you're looking at a shorter vacation stay. A one-day two-park ticket is quite expensive, but if you add a second day, you save 86% on the price of that second day. Then you save 90% on the price of a third day, and get this: 95% on the price of a fourth day.
Disney's deals don't really begin until you get to the fourth day. With current pricing (one park a day), the second day only saves 1%. The third day saves 26%. The fourth saves 84%. The fifth saves 86%, and each day after that saves 89%.
If you really, really, really, really like Disney, then your best bet would be to buy the 10-day ticket park hopper with the No Expiration option. You'd get a great deal, but WOW! What a commitment!
Universal also wins in one other respect. The Universal two-park one-day ticket is about the same as the Disney one-park one-day ticket. But in Universal's parks, there are at least double if not triple the number of rides as there are in Disney's Hollywood Studios. For the short vacation stays, Universal definitely provides more bang for the buck.
In both parks (unless you buy a No Expiration option), if one of your party gets sick and can't make it to the park one day, then you forfeit that whole ticket. You can't transfer the ticket to anyone else (you must verify with a fingerprint). You can't use the ticket past 14 days. And you can't get a refund.
This sucks--as you don't get to enjoy what you paid for.
Parking, Entering, and Exiting
Universal Studios provides a shaded garage that holds an amazing number of cars. Shade is always nice for cars. But once you park, you must walk all the way to the entrance. There are a few moving sidewalks to help you rest or walk faster - though beware the "Three Amigos" that always end up standing next to each other and clogging up traffic.
Disney provides a large open unshaded parking lot. A tram carries you to the park. In the morning, the trams are very efficient, and you're at the gate relatively quickly. They're not quite so quick taking you back to your car when everyone's trying to leave at the same time.
Both parks have tight parking, so beware. At Universal, we even saw a broken side mirror in a parking spot. Ooops!
Both parks check bags for security. Universal does this much, much, much, much more quickly. Disney could possibly learn a few pointers.
Once we got in our car at the end of the day, it seemed that Disney was easier to leave. Possibly a drawback of a parking garage at Universal?
This is worth mentioning--only because Orlando has really bad water. It's not the worst I've experienced, but it tastes and smells awful. It also has a greenish tint if it collects long enough. I'm not sure if this is rust or some kind of swamp algae.
And I only mention this because Disney water is NOT Orlando water. At least the stuff they let us drink isn't. I don't know if they treat the water differently or if they import it from some other source. Either way, the water there tasted great. Even the water fountains were refreshing.
Universal, on the other hand, used Orlando water EVERYWHERE. The water fountains reeked of it, and you could even see some of that green collecting I mentioned. In several spots of the park, there was this strange, strong, vomit-like smell. We never figured out what it was, but I think it was the water.
Both Disney and Universal provided ample shade in most locations. Except: Both parks had city scenes with almost no shade at all. You wouldn't want to stay in those spots for very long.
Both parks provided some kind of misting stations. Universal seemed to do better with this.
However, Disney wins big time on the most important area of providing shade while waiting in line for the rides. While you're waiting in line, you have little choice on where to stand. Disney either had most of the line-waiting inside of air-conditioned buildings, or in well-shaded and decorated outside areas.
Universal, on the other hand, has several rides where you could spend a good amount of time standing in the open sun. The worst offender was the Amazing Spiderman ride. We were standing outside in that line for a bad hour (it wasn't a "good" hour). The awning above us was so high that the sun easily found a way to peek underneath it and hit the backs of our necks. Everyone in that line was MISERABLE, and hardly anyone was talking. Once we got inside the building, we saw that 20% of the first room was dedicated to regular people and the other 80% was for Express/Single-riders, and it was practically empty. That made many of the people in the regular line very ANGRY. But once we got past that first room and cooled off, everyone's spirits seemed to lighten up and the happy talk came back.
Both parks were fun and well decorated. The Disney workers (sorry--I mean cast members) did a much better job at playing their part and keeping on a happy face. As a performer myself, I know what it's like to put on that Barbie-like facade, even during times when you're bored to death or in a lot of pain.
At Universal, we poked our heads into a restaurant just to take a look. My kids said, "Wow! It looks just like in the movies!" I said to the waitress, "This really is impressive." She answered, "Not really. You get used to it pretty quickly." Since we had gone to Disney first, this contrast of being out of character was striking.
There were even a couple of workers on the rides at Universal who were downright rude and bordered on being antagonistic (more on that when I get to the individual rides in a later post). But most workers were helpful and happy.
Most of all, we loved the overall magical feel of Disney and the awesome job Universal did with the Harry Potter world.
In both parks, food is expensive. Universal offers the Meal Deal, while Disney doesn't appear to offer a similar plan (unless you stay at one of their resorts).
We tried Universal's Meal Deal for one day, and I'll go ahead and tell you ... that plan is not for everyone. At first it sounds like an awesome deal. Pay $21 a day for all you can eat (averages out to two meals). Kids cost $10 a day. But before you splurge on this deal, consider the following:
- Your choices are limited and tends to be more like "fast food." My kids likened it to school cafeteria food and they had a difficult time stomaching it. The desserts are limited to cake, cookies, or jello.
- On a hot day, you probably can't eat more than one of these meals in a day.
- Since there are only 7 restaurants that sell that food, you are competing with a whole bunch of other people who bought the same deal you did. If you really want a second helping, be prepared to wait a very long time in line--again.
- If you want soda, that's an extra $9 a day, but you get this souvenir cup to hold it. On the other hand, if you ask for water, (unlike Disney) they give you this dinky plastic cup that holds only a few gulps.
Pizza Planet at Disney's Hollywood Studios: The pizza was decent, though understandably overpriced. (Can't argue with supply vs. demand.) The salad they serve with it was also decent. Plus, it was cool to sit over the arcade and watch the lights. Did you know they have a life-sized "Fruit Ninja" game? Awesome!
Confisco at Universal - Islands of Adventure: We almost walked right past this restaurant while searching for a place to get good non-Meal-Deal pizza. I'm glad we stopped there. You have to wait to be seated, but the service was very quick. The pizza (I'm told) was very good for "amusement park pizza." I ordered the Cobb salad, which was very good with crisp healthy lettuce and fresh vegetables, eggs, and well-cooked bacon. Our kids ate everything on their plates, which almost never happens. The waitress was very friendly and even helped us to remember to use our AAA discount (which we didn't know existed until she told us). Even without the discount, the prices were very reasonable--in the $9-$14 range. (Steaks are more expensive.) If you're looking for speed, good quality, and reasonable prices, this is the place. You can find it as you enter Islands of Adventures just before you make that right turn that leads towards Seuss Land.