Ultimate Guide to a Walt Disney World/Universal Trip
When friends ask me about Walt Disney World vacations, one topic comes up frequently. I get asked about the subject often and was actually asked about it again this morning. Many travelers want to know whether a joint theme park vacation is possible in Orlando. Here’s everything you need to know about planning a joint Walt Disney World/Universal vacation.
A Joint Trip Is Possible but Challenging
I’ve done a joint Disney/Universal vacation and speak from experience here. This trip is absolutely possible. The question better falls along the lines of whether it’s a good idea or not.
A Walt Disney World vacation requires a lot of commitment. The Disney campus hosts four theme parks, two water parks, two entertainment districts, and a sports complex. Unless you regularly visit, by which I mean at least annually, you’ll want to spend a lot of time at Disney. That way, you’ll get the most out of your vacation.
When you split the time between Disney and Universal, you’re limiting the number of things that you can do at Disney. It’s a significant trade-off that won’t pay for most people.
Still, I appreciate the lure of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’ve had my fair share of Butterbeer and waved my wand at many interactive objects. It’s an enticing opportunity for J.K. Rowling fans and the culmination of a lifelong dream to some.
Presuming that you’re set on this course of action, let’s examine other considerations.
You Must Take a Longer Vacation
This section and the next one are why many informed vacationers decide against a joint vacation. They’re the harsh realities of trying to do too much during your trip. And one of them is up to your employer inasmuch as you.
To experience a satisfying joint vacation, you’ll need to spend more time in Orlando. I always recommend a minimum of five days at Walt Disney World. That’s one day to focus on each park plus an extra day to spend doing whatever appeals to you. In a perfect world, you’d take a full week to explore Disney to the fullest, but that’s impossible for some.
On the Universal side, most people would need two days, one for each full park. I’ll suggest something different in a bit, but two days is the minimum for most.
The way that Universal sells tickets, they’ll try to incentivize you to visit for three full days. The park regularly sells tickets that are “buy two days’ of park admission, get one free.” When you have the available vacation time, you should consider it.
The drawback is that all the days you spend at Universal are ones where you’re missing out on Disney. And I’m devout in my belief that Walt Disney World is much, much better.
Universal Is Expensive
Here’s the other sticking point. While Disney has received many unflattering headlines in recent years about its price increases, they’re merely following Universal’s lead.
Ye, the smaller theme park, Universal Studios, initially introduced surge pricing as an option. And Universal’s prices are shamelessly costly for the number of unique attractions at the two parks.
When I helped one of my best friends estimate pricing on a joint Disney/Universal trip, he quickly realized something that shocked him. For a family with two adults and two children, Universal can easily cost $1,000 a day. The amount goes down with the length of stay, the same as Disney, but Universal charges more relative to what it offers.
To receive the best benefit at Universal, the Universal Express Unlimited Pass, you must stay in one of their luxury hotels such as Hard Rock Hotel or Loews Royal Pacific, their answer to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. These properties cost roughly $400 a night to start. Are they worth that much? Well…
You’ll Want the Universal Express Unlimited Pass
I love Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, although the walls have speakers to pump in the music. It gets a little irritating after a day or so, but it’s not enough to detract me from wanting to stay here each trip. But what I really love is the Universal Express Unlimited Pass. It allows guests to skip roughly 90 percent of the line on most rides at the park.
You can imagine how valuable this pass is. And Universal knows this fact. So, they sell it at an extremely high price. You should expect to pay $100 a person for it. However, due to surge pricing, it could cost even more. For a family of four, it should cost at least $400. Yes, that much money somewhat prices you into a stay at a top resort. From a certain perspective, you’re spending half the money on a hotel room and cv half on the express pass.
Universal sells two versions of the pass. One allows entry on a ride once, while the unlimited version obviously comes with limitless return trips. When you have a favorite, you can just ride it over and over again. The unlimited version costs at least $20 more per person, but you get it “free” with a hotel stay at their best properties.
I should stress that the Universal Express pass isn’t perfect. A few rides aren’t included, and three of them are Harry Potter attractions. You must wait in line for them, which somewhat negates the value. Still, this pass allows you to do more during a visit to Universal. You won’t waste a great deal of time standing in line. Even a 15-minute wait is rare on all but the most crowded park days.
A One-Day Visit Is Best
Given the above, you see where I’m going with this. One of the best strategies for a joint vacation is a one-day excursion to Universal Studios. Splurge on one of their fancy hotel rooms for the night. Then, show up as early as possible and plan to go hard for a single day.
After an appropriate amount of research, you’ll know which rides your family is most likely to enjoy. I’ll post a quick list in a moment to help. When you enter the park, target those attractions plus the Harry Potter rides that aren’t available on Universal Express.
Presuming that you don’t mind spending the full day at the park, you should check off most major Universal Studios attractions. Even though the resort hosts two parks, you can easily navigate both. They share the same entry point. And you should be able to do 15-20 rides with the Universal Express Unlimited Pass, as long as you arrive at Rope Drop and stay until closing.
My Suggested Universal Rides
Here are the rides I would suggest are the best:
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- T. Adventure
- Fast & Furious: Supercharged
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Hogwarts Express
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster
- Jurassic Park: The Ride
- Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
- Men in Black: Alien Attack
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- Revenge of the Mummy
- The Simpsons Ride
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
Families traveling with children should also add the Dr. Seuss attractions, although they’re kind of disappointing. Another point is that some of the attractions are eerily similar to others, as Universal Studios operates a lot of motion simulation attractions akin to Star Tours. You may not want to do all of them.
Transportation Is Easy Thanks to Ride-Sharing
The one way I can ease your mind is in the transportation discussion. It’s simple. You’ll simply employ a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft. You can’t use Minnie Vans since they don’t leave Disney property, though.
Your Uber/Lyft driver will know precisely what you want, as a trip from Disney to Universal is one of their most frequent rides. Expect to pay $30 or so on average, more during peak hours where you’ve got surge pricing in effect. The trip will only take about 25 minutes, depending on traffic.
Your driver might even have a few tips about Universal Studios strategies! So, engage them in conversation just in case.
Don’t Expect Great Food
Think of this section as a final word of caution. As a Disney fan, you’re spoiled on what to expect during a theme park visit. Folks, Universal ain’t Disney. You’ll realize it in small and large ways.
Universal’s cleanliness is better than many theme parks, but it’s a far cry from Walt Disney World. Navigating the parks is far easier at Disney, too. And the food, well the difference in food quality is the difference between Justin Verlander throwing a baseball vs. Charlie Brown “throwing” it.
Your best bet for food is actually Universal Citywalk, which includes several chain restaurants. Inside the parks, you may choose the themed restaurants at Simpsons Land and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The food’s nothing special there either, though. In truth, the only place I wholeheartedly recommend within the parks is Mythos. Simply stated, you’re just not at Disney, and you’ll never feel more acutely aware of this than when you’re at Universal Studios.