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I spent a day at Universal and Disney World and found the latter isn't worth the extra money right now

(left) nighttime shot of cinderella castle disney world (right) nighttime shot of hogwarts castle universal orlando
The parks have both changed a little throughout the pandemic.
To make things fair, I planned similar days at Universal Orlando and Disney World.
(left) woman selfie in front of universal globe (right) woman selfie in front of cinderella castle
I went to both parks to figure out which is best.

I've been visiting Central Florida's popular theme parks my whole life, and Disney World and Universal are definitely the top two, even with their COVID-19 restrictions and limitations. 

To help less frequent visitors make an informed decision about which park is worth the money, time, and effort, I planned full, mid-week days at each property and reviewed them based on different categories.

Here's how it went:

I started my trip at Walt Disney World by checking into the Dolphin Resort.
exterior shot of disney world dolphin resort
I stayed at the Dolphin Resort.

It can be staggeringly expensive to book a stay at a Disney World resort — the deluxe properties have rates of $700 a night.

I opted to stay at the Dolphin, an official Walt Disney World resort that comes with all the perks but is a little more affordable since it's operated by Marriott. I paid $264 for my one-night stay.

The upscale property features an expansive pool area complete with cocktail service, slides, and waterfall features. There are also several on-site restaurants.

I found it to be on par with Disney's deluxe properties, but for a fraction of the cost.

At Universal, I stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
shot of the pool at cabana bay resort universal orlando
It's a great resort if you're looking for some pool time.

Thanks to the ever-growing list of budget-friendly hotel options at Universal Orlando Resort, there's little reason to stay off property.

For this trip, I choose the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which cost $119 for my one-night stay.

I still got the amenities and perks of the higher-tier resorts, like on-site dining, bars, entertainment, and two pool areas, but at a fraction of the cost.

For tourists trying to keep an even tighter budget though, rooms at Universal's Endless Summer Resorts can often be found for under $100 a night. 

I had to book my Disney ticket in advance, and I was only able to get entrance into one park at first.
selfie in front of beauty and the beast topiary at epcot
I started my day at Epcot.

Disney World is currently running on a reservation system that requires all guests — including those staying at on-site resorts — to buy their theme-park tickets in advance.

It books up early and leaves little to no room to wing anything on your vacation.

On my visit, I was only able to snag a reservation for one of Disney World's four theme parks, Epcot. But I opted for a park-hop ticket, so after 1:00 p.m., I was able to roam freely to the other parks as long as they weren't at capacity.

At Universal, I had no problem getting tickets for both theme parks on the property.
entrance to island of adventures universal orlando
There were more last-minute ticket options available.

Universal Orlando's two theme parks were operating on a first-come, first-served basis, but resort guests received priority access.

I was able to enter the parks one hour prior to off-property guests, and throughout my day, I could freely hop back and forth between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.

Disney's parking lot was crowded but it didn't take me long to get into the park.
lines of cars entering epcot theme park disney world
It looked pretty crowded when I first pulled up.

When I arrived at the parking lot about an hour before Epcot was set to open, I was met with a line of cars that moved impressively fast

Once I parked, the crowds also moved quickly through security, and guests were able to enter about 30 minutes prior to the official opening time.

When park hopping became available in the afternoon, I left my car in the Epcot parking lot and made use of the free transportation options Disney offers. 

I would never drive to Universal because the parking area is cramped and crowded.
entrance to universal orlando
I walked to the park entrance from my hotel.

I would never suggest driving your own car to Universal Orlando, especially if you're trying to get to the park for opening. The main entrance is compact and often severely backed up.

Since Universal provides its resort guests with free transportation options, I was able to avoid this.

My preferred method of transportation is the walking paths connecting the hotels to the parks. The 15- to 20-minute walk ends at an entrance that's reserved for resort guests, allowing for expedited security and smaller crowds. 

At Disney World, the attraction wait times ranged from 20 to 60 minutes.
exterior shot of wait time board in front of tower of terror hollywood studios
The wait times got longer in the afternoon.

When I started my day at Epcot, I headed straight to one of the park's most sought-after rides, Frozen Ever After.

I waited around 25 minutes, and throughout the day, ride times across the parks hovered between 20 and 60 minutes.

The wait times were also fairly accurate with those listed on the My Disney Experience mobile app. 

Disney World wasn't offering FastPasses (which usually let guests reduce a few wait times) when I was there because the system was suspended amid pandemic restrictions, so I had to wait in the standby lines. 

The one exception was Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios, which was operating on a virtual-queue system that you could sign up for on the app.

The wait times for the most popular Universal attractions were definitely longer.
exterior spot of hogwarts castle at universal orlando lit up at night
The "Harry Potter" rides typically have longer waits.

Unlike the largely family-friendly rides at Disney World, Universal's attractions are for thrill-seekers. There are rides based on several popular franchises, like "Harry Potter" and "Jurassic Park."

Because I was staying on property, I was able to secure a virtual-line pass for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure right from the comfort of my hotel room.

When I arrived, I headed directly to the newest attraction, the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. The listed wait time was 60 minutes, but I made it through in just over 40.

Like at Disney, the wait times increased in the afternoon, and some of Universal's rose to over an hour.

Universal was also still offering expedited line access through the Express Pass program, which is available for purchase and offered to guests at higher-tier hotels.

Since I have a premier annual pass, I receive a daily Express Pass after 4:00 p.m. This key benefit makes getting an annual pass at Universal much more appealing to me than Disney World at the moment.

The character interactions at Disney are still fairly limited.
mickey mouse riding by in cavalcade hollywood studios
The characters ride and walk by at a distance in the parks.

Character interactions were still limited at Disney with the pandemic restrictions, which may be a deal-breaker for families with kids. 

Popular characters were still scattered around the parks, but they passed guests at a distance or drove by in what Disney calls "character cavalcades" (mini parades that occur sporadically throughout the day).

This could potentially lead to an awkward and upsetting experience for a child looking to run up and hug Mickey or Minnie.

The Universal character interactions were more exciting and interactive.
selfie with trollz character at universal orlando
I was able to take selfies with some of the characters.

I wasn't disappointed by Universal's vast number of character meet and greets.

There were many selfie opportunities — like at the brand-new character meet-and-great location for the DreamWorks stars — as well as characters strolling throughout the parks.

I had a hard time snagging a Disney dining reservation but ended up finding a walk-up at a resort restaurant.
shot of the bread service from sana animal kingdom resort
The bread service at Sanaa is famous.

Like with the park tickets, I had a difficult time securing last-minute dining reservations at Disney

But the mobile app was offering a walk-up availability function, which allowed me to check nearby restaurants for available seating.

This can be hit or miss, but I was able to secure a last-minute lunch reservation at Sanaa, a popular restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. 

I also utilized the app's mobile-order feature to effortlessly pick up drinks at quick-service locations around the property. But some of the more in-demand spots, like Woody's Lunch Box at Hollywood Studios, didn't have available time slots for up to three hours.

I couldn't get a reservation at Universal, and I ended up waiting in long quick-service lines for my meal.
exterior shot of crowds in front of lard lad donuts universal orlando
The lines were long and a bit chaotic.

Disney's dining-reservation and ordering systems are largely done through its app, but there's no way to book a dining reservation on the Universal mobile app — you have to call or book online.

Universal's mobile-ordering system is also flawed, to say the least. The park recently did away with it almost entirely.

Quick-service lines were extremely long on my visit, even at beverage and snack stands. To avoid a major headache, I think it's absolutely necessary to eat at off times or outside of the parks entirely.

I happened to be visiting Disney during Epcot's annual Flower and Garden Festival.
food plates from epcot flower and garden festival
The festival offered some tasty foods.

Disney World has popular festivals and special events throughout the year, and my visit fell during one of my favorites, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.

Most of the festival dishes are priced between $4 and $9 allowing guests to sample affordable, gourmet-level food.

Some of my favorites were the Meyer-poached lobster salad with grapefruit-rose vinaigrette and the yuzu-marinated hearts of palm. 

There were also fun topiaries of beloved Disney characters around the park that made for perfect photo ops. 

I was able to experience some of the Summer Bite booths at Universal.
food offerings at the summer bites booths universal orlando 2021
There were some fun, limited-time food offerings at the park.

When I visited, Universal was offering a series of Summer Bite booths — many of which were Japanese-inspired in honor of the Tokyo Olympics

Although the dishes weren't nearly as impressive as Disney's festival options, the white-cheddar mac and cheese was delicious. The generous portion was $9.99.

Universal's festival goodies were mostly full-sized portions, so it wasn't as easy to sample a few dishes as it was at Epcot. 

Disney had a few shows running, and I caught the "Happily Ever After" fireworks at Magic Kingdom.
happily ever after at magic kingdom disney world
The firework show was back after a hiatus.

The restrictions shut down almost all of Disney World's parades, shows, and nighttime spectaculars, but they've slowly started to reopen. 

When I visited, shows were happening in all four parks, and I was able to catch a Mariachi Cobre performance at Epcot.

I also got to watch Magic Kingdom's "Happily Ever After" fireworks show, which was a fun way to end my day. 

There were a number of shows and parades happening at Universal on the day of my visit.
exterior shot of horror make up show at universal orlando
I caught the Horror Make-Up Show at Universal.

Universal's Superstar Parade, featuring SpongeBob SquarePants, the minions, and other popular characters, was running during my visit. 

Comedic stage shows, like the Horror Make-Up Show, were also available throughout the day.

At night, Hogwarts Castle came to life with a dazzling projection-light show that was worth seeing, even for a novice "Harry Potter" fan like me.

I really liked the Flower and Garden merchandise Disney has this year - but it was pretty expensive.
flower and garden merchandise at epcot 2021
The limited-time merchandise was cute but expensive.

Disney has continually produced lust-worthy souvenirs, but they come with pretty steep price tags — the ever-popular spirit-jersey shirts retail at $69.99.

Disney has successfully curated a fan base that excitedly awaits the latest merchandise drops. I loved the vibrant limited-edition collection for Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival as well as the home line collaboration with illustrator Jerrod Maruyama.

But I typically shy away from actually buying most of the items because of the cost.

The merchandise at Universal is generally a little more affordable.
inside merchandise location universal orlando
There were new things on display for the VelociCoaster.

Universal is growing in the merchandise department, even though it still offers fewer interesting options and releases than Disney.

But overall, the souvenirs are less expensive, with plenty of fun shirts in the $20-to-$30 range.

The most exciting release I saw during my trip was a retro-inspired line featuring Universal's opening-year logo.

Many of the new attractions and experiences at the Disney parks were delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
overhead shot of france at epcot disney world
The new attractions that were set for 2021 haven't opened yet.

Disney World's long-awaited new additions have been riddled with delays over the course of the last year.

Highly anticipated attractions, like Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot and Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Magic Kingdom, are still under construction.

Remy's Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot, an import from Disneyland Paris, was also delayed. But it finally received an opening date of October 1, 2021, to coincide with Disney World's 50th-anniversary celebration.

Because of the pandemic delays, I didn't have the chance to experience many new things at the parks.  

But there were a number of new things for me to experience at Universal.
exterior shot of velocicoaster at universal studios orlando
The VelociCoaster is a new attraction at the park.

Universal Orlando has really shined over the past year with a number of new experiences opening.

The parks were able to pull off new food festivals, immersive Halloween experiences, and even a brand-new high-thrill ride, Jurassic World VelociCoaster.

Throughout my day at Disney, the mobile app was helpful for planning out rides and dining.
moble app qr code in front of backlot express dining at hollywood studios
The mobile app was super helpful at Disney.

The My Disney Experience app ran like a well-oiled machine throughout my day at the parks.

It allowed me to access wait times, place mobile food orders, peruse merchandise, and even unlock my hotel room.

There's also a Disney MagicMobile system that allows guests to enter the theme parks with a digital pass on their phones. 

Universal's mobile app was definitely less helpful.
screenshot of universal mobile app virtual line pass
I couldn't plan as much on the Universal mobile app.

Universal's mobile app left much to be desired.

I mainly relied on it for park hours and show times because many of the attraction wait times on the app were inaccurate.

The app is essential if you're looking to book any of the attractions using the virtual-line system. But since those rides can change throughout the day, the process can be frustrating and confusing for first-time users. 

With the current restrictions and limitations, I think Universal is more worthwhile for families, and Disney is probably better for adults-only trips.
universal studios orlando
A visit to Universal is a better value right now.

After visiting both parks, I think Universal Orlando Resort is the obvious choice for a family-friendly destination.

Now is the perfect time for budget-minded groups because most of the attractions, character interactions, and entertainment experiences are in full operation, so you'll get the most value out of your trip.

The ability to book on-site accommodations for around $100 a night is also a plus. And visitors don't have to do as much advanced planning to have a fun day at the parks.

I'd say Disney World is ideal right now for adults-only trips or splurgy family vacations.

Many of the signature offerings, like character meet and greets and parades, are limited or completely unavailable, so the Disney experience might feel a little watered down.

Without FastPass and early park admission, I also see little reason to drop big dollars on the deluxe Disney resorts when there are several more affordable options available. 

But with a proper mindset and expectations, you can plan a trip with plenty of time for relaxation, leisurely dinners, and a visit to one of Epcot's popular festivals.

Read the original article on Insider

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