Theme Parks: Disney vs. Universal

Promotional photo of Universal Studios Hollywood. Copyright goes to Universal Parks.

Hi! It’s Annie!

I have mentioned several times in these types of posts that I am a California native who grew up with theme parks. I had a Disneyland annual pass up until the age of around seventeen and then switched to having a Universal Studios annual pass and have had one ever since. There are several reasons for this that I’ll go into in a second. But locals in California and Florida have been asked a single theme park question probably more than any other. Should I go to Universal Studios or Disneyland? While I have been to the parks in Florida as well, I can’t speak as well to them as I haven’t spent much time in them. But I can at least try to help people who might be looking to choose when it comes to visiting Cali. I know the parks here like the back of my hand. (And yes, I have visited Disneyland a few times since I was seventeen.) So let’s get into the differences between both and why you might want to spend your money going to one park over the other.

Kids:

A lot of people are looking to travel with their entire families including small children, and I have to tell you that Disneyland is a far superior park if you’re with kids. Especially really young children. Universal Studios has an extremely small kids area near the Despicable Me ride ‘Minion Mayhem’. And that’s one of very few things kids can do at that park. Universal recently opened their ‘Secret Life of Pets’ dark ride, which also gives kids something to do. But most of the rides aren’t very friendly to small children. Universal focuses a lot more on thrill rides and faster experiences than Disney does. In Disneyland you have the entirety of Fantasyland packed full of rides that are little kid friendly as well as several rides scattered throughout each park that the entire family can go on.

California:

A lot of people when visiting Cali come for the California experience. They want to experience the different culture and maybe even learn something more about it while they’re here. Don’t let the name ‘California Adventure’ in Disneyland fool you. That park used to be full of California themed rides and culture. The Pixar Pier was originally Paradise Pier and reflected the famous piers in California. It even played fair renditions of ‘Beach Boys’ music; because while many of the stereotypes about Californians are wrong for the most part, a lot of us did grow up listening to the ‘Beach Boys’. The park even featured the Golden Gate Bridge, tributes to speed trains, tributes to our redwood trees, the ‘Hollywood Tower Hotel’ (‘Tower of Terror’ which still exists in Florida), and ‘Soarin’ Over California’ which was basically the ride now but it was all in California. All of that is gone. The only California thing about this park that truly remains is the name. Universal Studios is all about the movie making business in California and, unlike other Universal parks around the world, features the Studio Tour. This is a tram that drives you around the Universal lot; a real working studio that you may recognize from several films and television series. Not only that but the City Walk just outside is a perfect example of regular California night life. If you want to choose a park that really makes you feel like you’re in California, go with Universal. The park is also conveniently located very close to Griffith Park and the Griffith Observatory which are so worth it if you want to stop by.

Money:

I know this is a big one and it really depends. Disney has upped their ticket prices again, so Universal will always be cheaper. But, as long as you’re not park hopping at Disney, the day tickets aren’t actually too different. But if you want to go to a park for several days or heaven forbid want an annual pass; Universal is so much cheaper. Firstly, I think everyone knows by now that Disney has completely eliminated their annual pass system. Meaning that if you want to continue to go to Disney for a long period of time, you have to pay extreme amounts so that you can buy a daily pass every single time. Even before they got rid of their annual pass system, it was so expensive that it felt like you either worked to go to Disneyland and nothing else or you were rich. No in between. This is actually the reason for my family switching to the Universal passes in the first place. We simply could not afford to go to Disney anymore. If anything that entire mess has gotten so much worse. Universal is so much kinder to your wallet and to people in general.

Business Practices:

Going off the last thing I said, Universal is all around kinder to people in general. They did not get angry when they were told to close their doors because of a worldwide pandemic. They did not get rid of almost all of their staff. They didn’t get rid of their annual pass system. They also ascribed to California Covid related guidelines much more than Disney did during the lockdown. If there was any time that showed everyone the true colors of theme park companies, it was during quarantine. Universal has become known, especially now, for being better than Disney at treating their guests and their employees better over-all. So if you’re going for morals, definitely stick to Universal Studios.

Rides:

This is what a lot of people want to know the most about. I would definitely say that Universal has some unique rides and focuses more on thrills. If you’re looking for that, then that’s where you go. Universal is also known for having some pretty immersive rides and queues. But, over-all, Disney has much more variety. I am actually really glad that Universal released ‘Secret Life of Pets’ recently, because it’s one of the only rides at the park that doesn’t feature a screen. And while the rides that feature a screen generally do it well, it can be tiresome to have so few rides feature practical effects. I love practical effects, so eventually I want to see a lot of those too. Disney is much better at variety. While their rides aren’t as immersive in general, they do have a few that are. For example, ‘Indiana Jones’ is a completely immersive experience and the ride only uses practical effects. It’s seriously one of my favorite rides I’ve ever been on because it has both. The queue walking through the temple is gorgeous and the ride mechanics make it a real thrill ride without it having to be a roller coaster. Disney definitely wins when it comes to ride variety and so probably wins this over-all.

Immersive Lands:

This is the main thing that people have been comparing lately. When I say “immersive lands” I really mean ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ versus ‘Galaxy’s Edge’. I’ve been to both. I love both. But to me the superior one is pretty obvious. My sister talked a little bit about this in another post, but ‘Galaxy’s Edge’ fails from trying to base this entire experience off of the entirety of Star Wars rather than something specific. While it’s immersive, it doesn’t necessarily feel transportive. Universal specializes in sets and actually chose a place from the movies. So when you step into Hogsmeade it feels like you’re stepping into the movie. Between the Butterbeer (which is much more plot relevant and tastes much better than blue or green milk) and Hogwarts in the distance, it is nothing short of absolutely breathtaking. And don’t get me started on ‘Forbidden Journey’ which is one of the best rides ever created. I am still a bit mad at the Harry Potter series because of she-who-must-not-be-named, but that doesn’t take away from how magical this part of the park is. Universal wins here.

Really, it depends on what you want your experiences to be. Both parks have their perks. I’ll say right now that Disneyland is a bigger park and probably has more to do. But Universal also has plenty, and if you’re trying to go any time soon both parks are closing early because of California guidelines. Please, please, please, don’t travel if you aren’t fully vaccinated. I know this will fall on a lot of deaf ears, but please still keep yourselves and other people safe. If you’re asking me which annual pass I enjoyed more, that’s a really difficult question for me to answer. Because I grew up with Disneyland, I’m going to say that. But I will say that where I’m standing now, I feel much better about holding a Universal pass after everything the Disney company has done. And I certainly have enjoyed having a Universal pass anyways. Because I have to mention Kpop, ATEEZ actually visited Universal a couple years ago and had so much fun which makes me feel even better about having my pass. It’s hard to choose between the two because they are both so different, but I do hope that this gives some idea of what to choose.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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