My husband and I love Las Vegas. I love Disney World. But would we love Universal Orlando? Read on to find out how Universal stacks up against Sin City and The Happiest Place on Earth…
My husband decided to spend his two personal days this year enjoying a long weekend at Universal Orlando. There were several reasons for this. One, he knew I’d already be in Orlando having just spent a week in Disney with my mom. Two, he wanted to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And three, it was closer than Vegas–the only other place we’d consider flying to for ‘just’ a long weekend.
We hoped that we could make a short Universal trip as much fun as a Vegas trip. It seemed like everything we like about Vegas was also available at a Universal Orlando resort–and Orlando is in our own time zone.
The danger, of course, was in the comparison. How would Universal compare to the Disney vacation I had just enjoyed? How would Universal compare to a Vegas vacation, which was the kind of trip we intended to replicate? The answer on both counts–Universal would be more fun and less expensive. Double bonus!
Disney vs. Universal
I love Disney because it is easy to have fun there, it is a controlled environment (read: there are restrooms everywhere), and it is generally beautiful. Universal had all of the same qualities and then some.
As you can see from my Portofino Bay Resort review, the resort was beautiful. It was also easier to navigate than a Disney resort and much less filled with screaming children. But the the thing that gave Portofino Bay the advantage over a Disney resort was the pool area. Not only was it blissfully quiet (you’ll notice that I almost alwasy combine the word ‘quiet’ with the word ‘blissfully’. It’s a teacher thing!), but in Universal they actually trust you to act like an adult and sit in the pool whilst sipping a drink.
Flash back to my first (and only) day at the pool at Animal Kingdom Lodge in Disney World. I’d had a long, hot day in the park. My mom was taking a nap. I got myself a mojito–brand new Libba Bray book in hand–and positioned myself on the sitting ledge of the deep end of the pool. I hadn’t even managed to sigh a sigh of relaxation before a Disney lifeguard approached me–very nicely, mind you–and told me that ‘Florida law requires drinks be kept at least six feet from the pool’s edge’.
My reply to him was less than nice. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Florida law? So I’m not going to be able to do this at Universal, either?’
‘Sorry m’am’, he replied.
My reponse was a rather huffy–‘Well, I guess Vegas wins’, which was the title of the angry post I immediately wrote on my real-time travel blog.
As I came to find out, this was total crap. Even if there is a Florida law, only Disney pays attention to it. I spent at least an hour each day at Universal happily sipping my mojito, reading my kindle, and enjoying the cool escape of the pool–all at the same time! And of course I took the opportunity to point out the in-pool drinking in yet another real-time travel blog post, which you can view here. It contains a crappy iPhone photo of a woman IN the pool WITH a drink!
In addition to the resort and pool experience, the dining experience at Universal is superior. You don’t have to make reservations six months in advance–or even six minutes in advance–and the food is fantastic. We enjoyed meals at Mamma Della’s, Mythos, Tchoup Choup, The Palm, and Bice; all were fabulous and dining reviews–with photos–are coming soon.
This is not to say that Universal is better than Disney in every way. Disney’s rides are much better–and isn’t that the point of a theme park vacation? Well–only kind of. There is also something to be said about being able to get on those rides in a reasonable amount of time. Which brings me to my next comparison–Disney’s Fastpass System vs. Universal’s Express Plus Pass.
I am glad that Disney offers fastpasses. I suppose I am also glad that Disney offers fastpasses to anyone who knows how to use them (which is a surprisingly small amount of people). But if I’m being honest, I like that Universal offers the Express Plus Pass only to people willing to pay for it–because I am willing to pay for it.
Selfish? Absolutely. Honest? You betcha.
The Universal Express pass is so much better than the Fastpass system. First of all, it really is more of a front of the line pass than a Disney Fastpass. A fastpass puts you in a shorter line. The Universal Express Plus Pass allows you to walk past the normal line–you can wave if you’d like, but that’s just mean–and typically plops you off right at the boarding area. You then ride–and go right back to the beginning of the ride to ride again. And again. And again. While those same people stand in the standby line, watching you.
I may be a jerk–but how great is that?
Additionally, there’s no backtracking involved. I ended up jogging through all of Fantasyland to get a fastpass for Pooh only to find that I was 10 minutes wrong about the time that I was allowed to claim another pass–so my choices were stand there for ten minutes or jog back to the Teacups where my mother was waiting (I chose to jog back.)
Universal’s Express Plus Pass is more than worth the extra cost of staying on site. Add to that the early-entry to The Wizarding World (which I will discuss in a later post) and I’d say that’s the best perk I’ve found. I–and surely thousands of others–would pay dearly to have the same benefit in Walt Disney World.
When looking at the entire experience, a Universal vacation is much more our style. But then we don’t have children–nor will we ever. On our next Orlando vacation we will do a backwards trip–we will stay at Universal and visit Disney for a day or two. How wild is that?
Universal vs. Las Vegas
We’ve been to Vegas twice–two summers in a row, in fact–and we don’t even gamble. So why do we go to Vegas? Because it is a place where we can really get away. We spend our mornings by the pool, our afternoons napping, and our evenings eating in wonderful restaurants and taking in fantastic shows. This was the kind of vacation we were looking for at Universal–something fun, entertaining, and relaxing.
We absolutely found all of these things.
As I’ve already mentioned, the resort and resort pool beat out our Vegas trips (we’ve stayed at MGM Grand and Paris Las Vegas.) It was beautiful, quiet (blissfully so!) and relaxing. The pool kicked butt, and the transportation was phenomonal–much better than the sorry excuse for public transit that is the Las Vegas monorail.
The entertainment at Universal is vastly different than Las Vegas entertainment, of course. Comparing Cirque do Soleil to The Revenge of the Mummy is far from applese to apples. But personally, I’d rather enjoy a full day at a theme park than a 90-minute performance in Vegas–no matter how fantastic that performance may be.
The food is better in Vegas. There is more variety in Vegas; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to find anywhere on earth with a better density of fantastic and varied dining experiences. But the food in Universal is good–I’d say better than Disney’s food. I didn’t partake in any of the counter service offerings, but the restaurants we visited were great. I’d choose Bice over California Grill any day–and I make this comparison having had almost the same meal at each place. And while the view isn’t as stunning from Bice, it’s pretty freaking fantastic.
Given the above, I’d still say that Universal wins. Why? One word: cost.
Our meal at Bice, the most expensive restaurant on site at Universal, was half as much as we’ve spent at The Bellagio, and it was enjoyed in a room with tinkling piano music, not the dinging of slot machines. A glass of Prosecco was $9–it would be double that in Vegas. A four-day-two-park pass to Universal was less than the cost of one ticket to Cirque’s LOVE–though LOVE is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. And yes, Portofino Bay is a bit more expensive than MGM Grand–but when you add in the difference in ‘other costs’ (food, entertainment, and airfare) and take into account that Portofino Bay is just plain nicer, it still wins out.
Dollar for dollar, you get more at Universal. And I’m pretty darn cheap. After all, each dollar saved is a dollar more that I can put towards my next trip!
But What About…?
You may be wondering why there isn’t a Disney vs. Las Vegas section of this post. That is very simple. You see, they are both wonderful in their own way, but they are so very different from each other there’s really no point in comparing them. They exist at opposite ends of the vacation continuum–though the continuum is really a circle, so they ARE similar in some ways. But Universal exists evenly between the two, and that’s why I love it there. At Universal I can be half kid, half adult. And that’s what a vacation is really about.