- I frequently visit Disney World and Universal Orlando, but the pandemic has changed the parks.
- I decided to rate them on different categories, such as dining, entertainment, and accommodations.
- After visiting both, I think Disney is best for adults and Universal is best for families right now.
To make things fair, I planned similar days at Universal Orlando and Disney World.
I've been visiting Central Florida's popular theme parks my whole life, and Disney World and Universal are definitely the top two, even with their COVID-19 restrictions and limitations.
To help less frequent visitors make an informed decision about which park is worth the money, time, and effort, I planned full midweek days at each park and reviewed them based on different categories.
Here's how it went:
I started my trip at Walt Disney World by checking in to the Dolphin Resort.
It can be staggeringly expensive to book a stay at a Disney World resort. The deluxe properties have rates of $700 a night.
I opted to stay at the Dolphin, an official Walt Disney World resort that comes with all the perks but is a little more affordable because it's operated by Marriott. I paid $264 for my one-night stay.
The upscale property features an expansive pool area complete with cocktail service, slides, and waterfalls. There are also several on-site restaurants.
I found it to be on par with Disney's deluxe properties but for a fraction of the cost.
At Universal, I stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Thanks to the ever-growing list of budget-friendly hotel options at Universal Orlando Resort, there's little reason to stay off the property.
For this trip, I choose the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which cost $119 for my one-night stay.
I still got the amenities and perks of the higher-tier resorts — like on-site dining, bars, entertainment, and two pool areas — but at a fraction of the cost.
For tourists trying to keep an even tighter budget though, rooms at Universal's Endless Summer Resorts often cost less than $100 a night.
I had to book my Disney ticket in advance, and I was only able to get entrance into one park at first.
Disney World is running on a reservation system that requires all guests, including those staying at on-site resorts, to buy their theme-park tickets in advance.
It books up early and leaves little to no room to wing anything on your vacation.
On my visit, I was able to snag a reservation for only one of Disney World's four theme parks — Epcot. But I opted for a park-hop ticket, so after 1 p.m. I was able to roam freely to the other parks as long as they weren't at capacity.
At Universal, I had no problem getting tickets for both theme parks on the property.
Universal Orlando's two theme parks were operating on a first-come, first-served basis, but resort guests received priority access.
I was able to enter the parks an hour before off-property guests, and throughout my day, I could freely hop back and forth between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.
Disney's parking lot was crowded, but it didn't take me long to get into the park.
When I arrived at the parking lot about an hour before Epcot was set to open, I was met with a line of cars that moved impressively fast
Once I parked, the crowds also moved quickly through security, and guests were able to enter about 30 minutes before the official opening time.
When park hopping became available in the afternoon, I left my car in the Epcot parking lot and used the free transportation options Disney offers.
I would never drive to Universal because the parking area is cramped and crowded.
I would never suggest driving your own car to Universal Orlando, especially if you're trying to get to the park for opening. The main entrance is compact and often severely backed up.
Since Universal provides its resort guests with free transportation options, I was able to avoid this.
My preferred method of transportation is the walking paths connecting the hotels to the parks. The 15- to 20-minute walk ends at an entrance that's reserved for resort guests, allowing for expedited security and smaller crowds.
At Disney World, the attraction wait times ranged from 20 to 60 minutes.
When I started my day at Epcot, I headed straight to one of the park's most sought-after rides, Frozen Ever After.
I waited about 25 minutes, and throughout the day, ride times across the parks hovered between 20 and 60 minutes.
The wait times listed on the My Disney Experience mobile app were also fairly accurate.
Disney World wasn't offering FastPasses (which usually let guests reduce a few wait times) when I was there because the system was suspended amid pandemic restrictions, so I had to wait in the standby lines.
The one exception was Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios, which was operating on a virtual-queue system that you could sign up for on the app.
The wait times for the most popular Universal attractions were definitely longer.
Unlike the largely family-friendly rides at Disney World, Universal's attractions are for thrill seekers. There are rides based on several popular franchises, like Harry Potter and Jurassic Park.
Because I was staying on the property, I was able to secure a virtual-line pass for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure right from the comfort of my hotel room.
When I arrived, I headed directly to the newest attraction, the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. The listed wait time was 60 minutes, but I made it through in just over 40.
As with Disney, the wait times increased in the afternoon, and some of Universal's rose to more than an hour.
Universal was also still offering expedited line access through the Express Pass program, which is available for purchase and offered to guests at higher-tier hotels.
Since I have a premier annual pass, I receive a daily Express Pass after 4 p.m. This key benefit makes getting an annual pass at Universal much more appealing to me than Disney World at the moment.
The character interactions at Disney are still fairly limited.
Character interactions were still limited at Disney with the pandemic restrictions, which might be a deal breaker for families with kids.
Popular characters were still scattered around the parks, but they passed guests at a distance or drove by in what Disney calls "character cavalcades" (mini parades that occur sporadically throughout the day).
This could potentially lead to an awkward and upsetting experience for a child looking to run up and hug Mickey or Minnie.
The Universal character interactions were more exciting and engaging.
I wasn't disappointed by Universal's many character meet and greets.
There were many selfie opportunities — like at the new character meet-and-great location for the DreamWorks stars — as well as characters strolling throughout the parks.
I had a hard time snagging a Disney dining reservation but ended up finding a walk-up at a resort restaurant.
As with the park tickets, I had a difficult time securing last-minute dining reservations at Disney.
But the mobile app was offering a walk-up availability function, which allowed me to check nearby restaurants for available seating.
This can be hit or miss, but I was able to secure a last-minute lunch reservation at Sanaa, a popular restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.
I also used the app's mobile-order feature to effortlessly pick up drinks at quick-service locations around the property. But some of the more in-demand spots, like Woody's Lunch Box at Hollywood Studios, didn't have available time slots for up to three hours.
I couldn't get a reservation at Universal, and I ended up waiting in long quick-service lines for my meal.
Disney's dining-reservation and ordering systems are largely done through its app, but there's no way to book a dining reservation on the Universal mobile app. You have to call or book online.
Universal's mobile-ordering system is also flawed, to say the least. The park recently did away with it almost entirely.
Quick-service lines were extremely long on my visit, even at beverage and snack stands. To avoid a major headache, I think it's absolutely necessary to eat at off times or outside of the parks entirely.
I happened to be visiting Disney during Epcot's annual Flower and Garden Festival.
Disney World has popular festivals and special events throughout the year, and my visit fell during one of my favorites, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.
Most of the festival dishes are priced between $4 and $9, allowing guests to sample affordable gourmet food.
Some of my favorites were the Meyer lemon-poached lobster salad with grapefruit-rose vinaigrette and the yuzu-marinated hearts of palm.
There were also fun topiaries of beloved Disney characters around the park that made for perfect photo ops.
I was able to experience some of the Summer Bites booths at Universal.
When I visited, Universal was offering a series of Summer Bites booths — many of which were Japanese inspired in honor of the Tokyo Olympics.
Although the dishes weren't nearly as impressive as Disney's festival options, the white-cheddar mac and cheese was delicious. The generous portion was $10.
Universal's festival goodies were mostly full-sized portions, so it wasn't as easy to sample a few dishes as it was at Epcot.
Disney had a few shows running, and I caught the Happily Ever After fireworks at Magic Kingdom.
The restrictions shut down almost all of Disney World's parades, shows, and nighttime spectaculars, but they've slowly started to reopen.
When I visited, shows were happening in all four parks, and I was able to catch a Mariachi Cobre performance at Epcot.
I also got to watch Magic Kingdom's Happily Ever After fireworks show, which was a fun way to end my day.
There were a number of shows and parades happening at Universal on the day of my visit.
Universal's Superstar Parade, featuring SpongeBob SquarePants, the Minions, and other popular characters, was running during my visit.
Comedic stage shows, like the Horror Make-Up Show, were also available throughout the day.
At night, Hogwarts Castle came to life with a dazzling projection-light show that was worth seeing, even for a novice Harry Potter fan like me.
I really liked the Flower and Garden merchandise Disney had this year, but it was pretty expensive.
Disney has continually produced lustworthy souvenirs, but they come with pretty steep price tags — the ever-popular spirit-jersey shirts retail at $70.
Disney has successfully curated a fan base that excitedly awaits the latest merchandise drops. I loved the vibrant limited-edition collection for Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival as well as the home-line collaboration with the illustrator Jerrod Maruyama.
But I typically shy away from actually buying most of the items because of the cost.
The merchandise at Universal is generally a little more affordable.
Universal is growing in the merchandise department, even though it still offers fewer interesting options and releases than Disney.
But overall, the souvenirs are less expensive, with plenty of fun shirts in the $20 to $30 range.
The most exciting release I saw during my trip was a retro-inspired line featuring Universal's opening-year logo.
Many of the new attractions and experiences at the Disney parks were delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Disney World's long-awaited new additions have been riddled with delays over the course of the past year.
Highly anticipated attractions like Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot and Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Magic Kingdom are still under construction.
Remy's Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot, an import from Disneyland Paris, was also delayed. But it finally received an opening date of October 1, 2021, to coincide with Disney World's 50th-anniversary celebration.
Because of the pandemic delays, I didn't have the chance to experience many new attractions at the parks.
But there were a number of new things at Universal.
Universal Orlando has really shined over the past year with a number of new experiences opening.
The parks were able to pull off new food festivals, immersive Halloween experiences, and even a brand-new high-thrill ride: Jurassic World VelociCoaster.
Throughout my day at Disney, the mobile app was helpful for planning out rides and dining.
The My Disney Experience app ran like a well-oiled machine throughout my day at the parks.
It allowed me to access wait times, place mobile food orders, peruse merchandise, and even unlock my hotel room.
There's also a Disney MagicMobile system that allows guests to enter the theme parks with a digital pass on their phones.
Universal's mobile app was definitely less helpful.
Universal's mobile app left much to be desired.
I mainly relied on it for park hours and show times because many of the attraction wait times on the app were inaccurate.
The app is essential if you're looking to book any of the attractions using the virtual-line system. But since those rides can change throughout the day, the process can be frustrating and confusing for first-time users.
With the current restrictions and limitations, I think Universal is more worthwhile for families, and Disney is probably better for adults-only trips.
After visiting both parks, I think Universal Orlando Resort is the obvious choice for a family-friendly destination.
Now is the perfect time for budget-minded groups because most of the attractions, character interactions, and entertainment experiences are in full operation, so you'll get the most value out of your trip.
The ability to book on-site accommodations for about $100 a night is also a plus. And visitors don't have to do as much planning to have a fun day at the parks.
I'd say Disney World is ideal right now for adults-only trips or splurgy family vacations.
Many of the signature offerings, such as character meet and greets and parades, are limited or unavailable, so the Disney experience might feel a little watered down.
Without FastPass and early park admission, I also see little reason to drop big dollars on the deluxe Disney resorts when there are several more affordable options available.
But with a proper mindset and expectations, you can plan a trip with plenty of time for relaxation, leisurely dinners, and a visit to one of Epcot's popular festivals.