To preface this comparison – let us start by saying that you cannot really compare these 2 parks; Disney is so much larger and both parks’ attractions are quite different. However, we were looking for a guide when we planned to do one or the other and could not find anything to make up our minds. We ended up splashing out on both parks, but if you have limited time this post may help you decide where to spend your day.
Please note: there are actually 2 Disney Parks located directly across from one another, Disneyland and California Adventure. We managed to visit both in one day and we covered most of the rides, some twice. We will share our itinerary for Universal and Disney in the future, but for now we’ll just go over our thoughts on what we experienced.
Universal has amazing dark rides. The most popular and in our opinion the best is Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey. Other virtual rides include the Simpsons, Transformers and Minions.
Disney does not have that many dark rides but California Adventure’s Soaring is amazing and the Star Wars Adventure in Tomorrowland is not bad either.
Overall, Universal wins this round. However, their rides seem to be much shorter than Disney’s.
Universal: 4/5 Disney: 3/5
Roller Coasters (we LOVE THEM!!)
Universal does not have a lot of roller coaster type rides; their best is the Mummy – an indoor rollercoaster that is reasonable fast and jerky. Thanks to the single rider lane we managed to do this ride twice, waiting only a few minutes each time. We also went on The Flight of the Hippogriff twice – we were the first ones on there and just stayed on – it is a nice ride but geared towards younger Potter-heads.
Disney’s roller coasters are spread across both parks and you have to make sure you get your fast passes sorted so you do not wait in line for 45+ minutes. California adventure’s California Screaming does a loop-de-loop – a must if you ask us! California Adventure also has Radiator Springs Racers and Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, probably the 2 most popular rides in either park. In Disneyland you’ll find Space Mountain, a fast, indoor roller coaster that you ride in the dark. There is also Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds and many more smaller coaster type rides to choose from.
Disney wins this round hands down, even if you only visit one of the two parks you’ll get your fair share of thrill rides. They are also, again, longer in duration compared to Universal’s.
Universal: 2/5 Disney: 4/5
Water Adventure Rides
Universal’s only real water ride is Jurassic Park. Before you enter check out the raptor walking around with its keeper. You will get wet on this one no matter where you sit. It is over quickly but boasts an impressive story line and amazing animatronics.
Our favourite Disney water ride is Splash Mountain. You will get soaked in the front and wet everywhere. The story has been the same, including the animatronics, since it first opened decades ago and it’s still amazing! Get ready for a massive drop at the end! California adventure has Grizzly Peak, a wild ride you take in what looks like wooden barrels. Heaps fun and also very wet, no matter where you sit. Keep your bags off the floor if you can!
Disney wins this round because they have way more variety, but also because their rides are longer.
Universal: 2/5 Disney: 4/5
Universal’s Studio Tour is the sole contender for the park in this category – if there are other story rides they did not entice us enough to check them out. This bus tour takes you around the film studios and gives you inside information about how movies are made. It is really impressive and entertaining, but also a welcome break from walking around in the sun.
Disneyland’s Small World is so relaxing the lady behind us literally fell asleep. Flo was shocked at how “white washed” the cute puppets are, but it is a nice ride never the less. Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure saved our feet in the late afternoon. Any Disney fan who loves this movie will also love the ride – it is really well done. The Indiana Jones Adventure and Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland are both what we would classify as story sides with a kick. Great entertainment and incredible detail!
The Universal bus tour is awesome and informative, but Disney’s rides are stunning.
Universal: 3/5 Disney: 5/5
Universal has the Minions, Puss in Boots, the Simpsons and even a velociraptor. You most likely won’t have to queue for a long time to get a picture.
Disney’s has princes and princesses; old school Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse; Marvel characters like Star Lord and Thor; and most likely your favourite childhood hero. You will, however, have to wait to take a picture with them.
We would have liked to see more characters in Universal. They seemed to change over so that Fiona was away when Shrek came out and Marge and Bart were there but we never saw Homer… Disney on the other hand even lets you track their characters on the app and you will struggle NOT to see characters everywhere.
Universal: 3/5 Disney: 5/5
In Universal, everyone was lovely and friendly and helpful. They refer to each other as the character’s name (“ask those students over there for further help” in Hogwarts) and are just plain nice. We also got super lucky because we were picked to get on rides earlier than some other people waiting with us, so maybe we are a bit biased. We did not interact with anyone who was not in a great mood or at least pretending to be.
Disney seems to only be the happiest place on earth when you are a visitor. Staff at both parks seemed almost grumpy; they talked loudly to each other about non work related stuff, like their plans for the weekend, while operating rides in groups; and did not convey the “Disney Magic” everything else in the park did. They were not unfriendly and helped when needed, but overall we were surprised at the lack of smiles and enthusiasm.
Universal:5/5 – we were super impressed! Disney: 3/5.
Universal has clean toilets around every corner and free water fountains in a lot of locations. There are not a lot of shady areas which became a bit of a problem during lunch hours – everyone flocks indoors or hogs the available trees. They do cool you down with fans that spray water mist. The Universal app is great and even allows you to create an itinerary so you know which rides you’d like to do. It includes a map, show times, descriptions of the rides etc. The Wi-Fi provided in the park is also very good – we did not lose connection once and could even upload photos.
Disney’s bathrooms are also clean and plentiful, but their water fountains seem to be few and far between. While they give you free “ice water” at most eateries, this comes with a disposable cup + lid + straw. Not impressed at all with that, especially because there seemed to be no way for us to recycle those parts correctly. Our water bottles were not “allowed” to be filled instead of using the disposable cup.
Lots of shady areas available in Disneyland, which was a blessing – no fans though. The Wi-Fi dropped out a lot and while the app is great to see where you are and where the characters, rides, etc., are it does not give you much more than that unless you purchase a MaxPass. With MaxPass you get to book your Fast Passes on the app instead of at the designated locations – it literally saves you hours which is a huge plus (check out our next post for more details).
Universal: 4/5 – needs more shaded areas. Disney: 3/5 – loses points for sustainability!
Like we said, you cannot really compare Disney and Universal and this becomes especially apparent when you look at the ticketing options.
1-Day general admission tickets to Universal Studios can cost between $105 to $116 depending on the day you choose. For this you get entry to the park and access to all the rides till 10pm. Universal also offers a Front of Line ticket that allows guests to skip most queues, but this costs a lot more, between $179 and $254. Personally we recommend reading our upcoming post with a proposed itinerary for Universal to save you that cash and make the most out of your day 😉 One tip we can give you now is to book direct through Universal website as this gives you early admission to Hogsmeade and all the Harry Potter related rides.
Our Disney Park Hopper tickets with MaxPass cost $175 p.p. but the standard 1 park admission is $110 – MaxPass is an extra $10 p.p. (at the moment) while the Park Hopper upgrade costs $55 p.p. If you select Disneyland only you get to stay and go on rides until midnight while California Adventure shuts it’s rides at 10pm. There is no queue jumping ticket option for Disney parks but the extra $10 for MaxPass is well worth it when it comes to booking your FastPasses. For us the Park Hopper made sense, but you’ll need to plan your day well in order to get the most out of both parks. Check out our upcoming blog for guidance on this.
To bring the price down we advise you pack your own food. We thought Universal was strict but saw people with home made sandwiches etc. Disney let us bring everything but the kitchen sink.
The score is a tie – 3/5 for both as queues could always be shorter and tickets cheaper 😉
Shows and Entertainment
Universal’s Waterworld was great and we can highly recommend it. Did not make it to any of the remaining 3 (we left the park at 3 PM) and there were no bands or anything like that happening.
Disney, on the other hand, is almost too much. There are bands playing; parades happening all day; and multiple shows on at the same time. The finale shows, World of Color at California Adventure and Fantasmic! at Disneyland, are simply put insane.
Our tip would be not to wait and queue to see a parade but to just walk past it when it happens – saves you time and you still get to see most of it.
Universal: 4/5 for high quality shows but lack of variety. Disney: 5/5.
Both parks are fun – where Universal lacks classic coasters it makes up for with dark rides and the lack of characters is balanced out with the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff.
Disney is on another level – they have most of your favourite characters; better and longer rides; and way more things to keep you entertained. However, Disney does lose points when it comes to amenities such as Wi-Fi connection and drinking water, something they could easily improve by taking a few tips from the Universal setup.
Whatever you decide you will surely enjoy your day ateither of these amazing parks – we loved them both!
Our winner: Disney!