Anywhere you look, you’ll find rivalries. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Marvel vs. DC. Coke vs. Pepsi. The list goes on and on, with the only certainty being that devout fans of one side have little, if anything, good to say about the other.
Theme parks are no different. While people might have a particular favorite, perhaps a small park in their home town or an obscure one linked to a treasured family vacation, one rivalry stands out among the others. From the moment Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida opened their gates less than a year apart, the two companies became the rivalry. With the opening of Islands of Adventure and later the creation of the Wizard World of Harry Potter, Universal continued to establish itself as a worthy competitor to Walt Disney World.
Over time, the divide has increased, with devout Universal and Disney fans often bickering over which park is superior. Listen to almost any podcast that prefers one brand or the other, and there will usually be at least a few derisive comments about “the other park” in town. The arguments vary from person to person, but often the brand loyalty is so strong a Disney fan wouldn’t dare visit a Universal park, and vice versa.
You might find yourself wondering what side of the issue I come down on, and might even assume because I write so much Disney content, I must clearly be a Disney guy. But the reality is that I enjoyed both parks during our September visit to Florida, and I anxiously await my return trip. I’m also planning to visit Frontier City, a park in Oklahoma City, and might even venture out to a few others in the surrounding areas.
Because I’m actually a theme park atheist.
I adapted the term from the expansive Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, whose frequent use of footnotes influenced me to use them on this site as well1. When talking about a friend who loved sports but professed to have no favorite teams, Simmons said he was the only professional sports atheist he knew. Given the divide between Disney and Universal I began to see online, I felt like it was a pretty apt way to describe myself.
In fact, if I really had a “home theme park”, it would probably be SeaWorld San Diego2. I’d been aware of the SeaWorld parks growing up. In fact, it was a little hard to avoid them, given most of our textbooks in elementary and junior high were published by Harcourt Brace Jovonovich, which owned the parks. I distinctly recall a science text book with a splashy photo of a killer whale on its back cover. I never made it to SeaWorld during my public schools year, however.
In Oklahoma, you had two theme park options: Frontier City in Oklahoma City, or Six Flags Over Texas in Dallas. Our family went to both at least once, and there were a handful of field trips connected with different clubs and activities in school as well. The joy in these trips was offset by the reality of sitting in a school bus for several hours(If you’re wondering why this was unpleasant, you’ve clearly grown up with cell phones). My brother and I also paid a visit to Six Flags over Georgia during a trip to visit our mom in Atlanta, but theme parks weren’t a regular part of my life growing up.
SeaWorld came about as part of a field trip for an Oceanography class at Saddleback College. Though our behinds the scenes tour supposedly didn’t include park admission, I’d bought Christie a ticket and we decided to explore a little more. In addition to the animal exhibits, SeaWorld had a few attractions, including Shipwreck Rapids. I knew I had to try it.
I’ve talked about my addiction to rapids rides in the Disneymoon posts here, but in case anyone is unfamiliar I’ll step back and explain. Anywhere between eight and twelve guests board a round boat that is then released onto a water track designed to have several large rapids sections, as well as other features like waterfalls and sometimes even water guns other guests can use.
Shipwreck Rapids was my first experience with a truly themed rapids ride, tied in with the entire area’s theme. In the storyline, Shipwreck Island is located in the South Pacific and is notable for, you guessed it, a number of ships being marooned there. Shipwreck Rapids goes past some of these ships, with great set pieces like a dangling piano that will sometimes shoot water at you. I fell in love with it, and actually decided a few months later to get a Platinum Pass for the park, which I kept until we moved to Arizona a few years later.
There were a number of great attractions in the San Diego park, like Wild Arctic, a simulator ride in the vein of Star Tours. During our last visit to the park before our Arizona move, Christie and I braved the newly opened Journey to Atlantis, to that point the most thrilling ride we’d ever been on together. But Shipwreck Rapids remained my favorite and I made a point to ride it every time we visited. On one trip back after we’d moved to Oklahoma, I even got to ride it twice in a row, making it one of only three attractions I’ve ever done that with3.
While the trip to Orlando may have stoked the fires of my theme park passion, the kindling was clearly put in place by SeaWorld San Diego.
If SeaWorld San Diego taught me to love theme parks, our honeymoon in Orlando provided a master’s level course. Seven straight days of theme parks, and I would have gone back for another week if the opportunity presented itself. Even though we spent five days in Walt Disney World to only two in the Universal parks, I returned home with a healthy appreciation for both, and at different points will find myself missing one or the other depending on my mood. And if you’re planning a visit to Orlando, I’d argue that both are worth your time.
Let’s get the most basic difference out of the way to start with. I’d argue that Walt Disney World is far more kid friendly, while the Universal parks have a more grown up, slightly edgier feel to them. It’s probably never more pronounced than at Halloween, where Disney offers the Not So Scary Halloween Party, while Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are definitely not for the faint of heart. But in general, Universal Studios has the more thrilling and extreme attractions, while Disney still aims for a wholesome, all ages experience.
Walt Disney World is big. Really big. With four theme parks, thirty four resorts, a massive shopping complex and still plenty more room to grow, you’d be hard pressed to run out of things to do. Special events liked the beloved Epcot Food and Wine Festival and a wide range of leisure activities only add to the options. Of course, that many options means that a Disney vacation usually requires meticulous planning. That size also means it can be difficult to get from Point A to Point B, especially if you’re trying to get from your hotel to a restaurant located in another.
Universal’s property is far smaller, and City Walk doesn’t offer quite as many options as Disney Springs. There are only five hotels on site with the recently opened Sapphire Springs, and Universal doesn’t have quite the same range of activities at its resorts. However, the smaller size boasts some wonderful benefits. It’s incredibly easy to step out of the park, enjoy a meal in City Walk, then re-enter the park. The two gates are also within walking distance, and there’s even a Hogwart’s Express attraction to shuttle you between the areas if you have a two park pass.
The Disney parks have decades of history behind them, and many of its attractions need no introduction. Pirates of the Caribbean was well known before the world heard of Captain Jack Sparrow, and almost everyone in the world know the titular song to It’s a Small World(even if they fear getting it stuck in their head for days on end). The overall theming of Walt Disney World is still amazing, and you could easily lose yourself in the details on Main Street if you wanted.
On the other hand, for anyone from my generation, the Universal parks have attractions based on properties we grew up with. From Transformers and Terminator 2 to the Simpsons and Harry Potter, there’s plenty to see in Universal that will ring the nostalgia bell. And while I’d still have to hand the overall theming crown to Walt Disney World, recent additions like the Wizarding World show that Universal is narrowing the gap.
One advantage Disney has over Universal is how accommodating it is to its larger guests. Some of the most popular attractions in Universal aren’t accessible to “Pooh sized” guests, while Disney attractions can often accommodate them. This is particularly notable on newer attractions like the two big Harry Potter rides. On the other hand, if you’re looking for thrilling attractions, then Universal has more to offer you. From the intense roller coasters to amped up version of classic rides like Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, the Universal parks offer a more intense experience overall.
That said, you’ll find comparable experiences in both parks. If you like Splash Mountain, then odds are good you’ll enjoy the Jurassic Park River Adventure(though River Adventure has a steeper drop). Star Tours and The Simpsons Ride have some undeniable similarities, and both Men in Black Alien Attack and Toy Story Mania offer fun, interactive game experiences.
The bottom line is that, no matter what you love in Universal, you can find something in Disney that you’ll enjoy almost as much, and vice versa. Transformers the Ride 3-D and Jurassic Park River Adventure rank right up there with Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Tours on my list of favorite attractions. If you’re loyal to one, give the other a day of your time. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
And even if you don’t enjoy yourself, I assure you both parks are better off with the rival existing. Having a great rival can bring ou the best in you, and I honestly believe in the next few years we’ll reap the benefits of this theme park war as guests.
1 – It might sound surprising that I list Simmons as an influence, given his treatment of the Oklahoma City Thunder, in particular giving them the “Zombie Sonics” nickname. But I legitimately enjoy his work and think he’s got a really good perspective on things. It’s okay to disagree on points and still like people, really!
2 – I’m well aware that, thanks to Blackfish, SeaWorld has become a contentious subject, and while I have my own opinions on the matter, I’m going to limit my discussions to the attraction aspects of the park.