I have a confession to make: I love Disney. I know, those of you playing along at home are thinking, “But aren’t you the same chica who was extolling the virtues of showing kids horror films?” Yes. Yes, I am. But nonetheless, I love Disney. And most of all, I love Disney World. Not just The Haunted Mansion or the Tower of Terror, but Peter Pan and It’s a Small World too.
When my daughter was about two years old, we first visited Disney World, and just like that, we were hooked. We’ve made at least one pilgrimage to the Mouse every year since and have even embarked on a quest to visit all the Disney parks before our oldest graduates from high school. (Yes, I freely admit we have a problem. It might even be clinical.) For years, we strayed nary a step off the Disney property. And then a friend insisted we visit the Universal parks. “But,” we said. “We’re loyal. We could never cheat on the Mouse!” Lucky for us, we did.
It only took once, and we were Universal fans as well. (Okay, we have an amusement park addiction—I’m looking into 12-step programs.) As my kids have grown, we still visit Orlando, but now we spread the love more evenly and I’ve come to believe that even the most ardent Disneyphile needs to carve out time for Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Here’s why:
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As we’ve established, I have a theme park addiction. I’m not proud of it. Okay, maybe a little. But the point is, I’m a tad more than familiar with theming. I’ve enjoyed it from Anaheim, California, to Bruhl, Germany. Without a doubt, the best themed attraction I have ever encountered is Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando. Add into that mix the Hogwarts Express taking you over to Islands of Adventure and Hogsmeade Village, and the world of Harry Potter alone is worth the visit—even if you aren’t a super fan. Fair warning, though: You’re likely to have achieved fanatic status by the time you leave. The attention to detail is astounding. I’ve visited multiple times and I still find new and hidden wonders. The rides themselves are fine, but it’s emersion in the world that really seals the deal. If you have kids (spouses) that are into Disney’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, make sure to check out the interactive wands. Spell casting portals appear across both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and are worth the cost of the wand. The attractions don’t end there! From the flame-spitting dragon to the ice cream flavors, Diagon Alley has more than enough to justify a day away from Tomorrowland. And don’t forget the butterbeer!
Amusement Park, Not Just Theme Park. This may seem like a fine distinction, but in the case of Universal, it carries weight. Theme parks tell a story, Amusement parks push the thrills. Certainly the Wizarding World is a themed area, but the rest of the park is allowed to flow freely without an iron-fist to detail. Men in Black next to Fear Factor? Why not? The Simpsons Ride within a stone’s throw of E.T.? Sure! Not having to theme each area to specific parameters allows for greater variety and…
Bigger Thrills! At the Disney World parks, even the biggest thrills, let’s be honest, are fairly tame. With the possible exception of Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, the thrills are less about adrenaline and more about the story. Universal is the opposite. They aim to toss, twist, and drop you in the most extreme ways possible. Compare The Hulk, The Mummy, or Rip Ride Rockit to anything at Disney. If you’re looking for adrenaline, there is no comparison.
A Multi-park Pass Has Value. Full disclosure: We always buy the Park Hopper pass at Disney World. But the truth is that without proper planning, it isn’t easy to visit more than one park per day. Due to sheer size and location, vehicular transport is required to move between Disney parks. Your legs alone can get you from Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure. And if you want a bigger thrill, the Hogwarts Express runs between the two Wizarding Worlds and is an attraction in itself.
Express Pass and Express Pass Plus Are What (Some of Us Wish) FastPass Should Be. Sure, you have to pay for Universal’s Express Pass and Express Pass Plus and Disney (currently) doesn’t charge, but rather than the hassle of trying to determine where and when you will want to ride specific attractions more than a month in advance, Universal lets you flash a card and beat the line. Express Pass allows for one ride per attraction and the Plus option is unlimited. Both are easier than choosing which three rides you want per day at a Disney park. Further, you can purchase the Express passes for one or both parks, while Disney allows only one park for FastPasses. And don’t even get me started about juggling tier 1 versus tier 2 attractions!
Characters! This one may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, what is Disney known for if not characters? But the problem we’ve found with all those great Disney characters is that they’re, well, Disney characters! While my son still won’t consider a trip complete without hugging Stitch, the pickings for a 9-year-old boy aren’t quite the same as those for a girl. While Disney will always have a hold on my heart (I still hug Eeyore whenever possible), the diversity at the Universal parks is something to be admired. Further, they aren’t quite as hung up on separating each character into the correctly themed areas. (Remember, amusement park, not theme park.) Within one half block at Universal Studios, we ran into Woody Woodpecker, Bart Simpson, Betty Boop, Doc Brown of Back to the Future, and Shaggy and Scooby! Just try and find Buzz Lightyear and Elsa signing autographs side-by-side! Islands of Adventure features enough comic book characters—male and female—to get both my 9-year old son and my 12-year old daughter excited.
I’m well aware that in these days of tough economic times, it can be difficult to afford a trip to Orlando. But if you are able to take your little people to visit the Mouse, try to fit in a day (or two) at the Universal parks. I think you’ll be glad you did.