Home » 12 Universal Orlando Exclusives That Should Make Disney Parks Fans Jealous

12 Universal Orlando Exclusives That Should Make Disney Parks Fans Jealous

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we’re always looking to see the parks we love in new ways. Now, listen, comparing parks? It’s no easy business. There’s no end to the “Disneyland vs. Disney World” debate, or the “Disney vs. Universal” debate. Instead, we’re big proponents that parks should learn from each other’s successes! That was the reason for our look at 16 Disneyland Exclusives that Should Make Disney World Fans Jealous, and the opposite – 16 Disney World Exclusives That Should Make Disneyland Fans Jealous.

Most theme park fans probably agree that at the end of the day, Disney Parks are special places; pretty agreeably, “the best of the best.” But if you think you’ve got nothing to learn, you won’t learn anything. So today, we want to honestly and sincerely look at 12 Universal Orlando Exclusives That Should Make Disney Parks Fans Jealous. These 12 rides, attractions, experiences, decisions, and differences that make Universal Orlando an incredible, astounding, and amazing destination that even Disney could learn a thing or two from… 

1. Islands of Adventure

Look, you can be as much of a “Disney purist” as you want – the pretty objective truth is that Universal’s Islands of Adventure is an absolutely amazing theme park. When it opened in 1999, the “second gate” that officially transformed Universal Studios Florida into the multi-park Universal Orlando Resort (naming snafu aside) was commonly talked about as Universal’s first attempt to break out of “studio park” mode and build something “more Disney.”

But even Disney has never produced something quite as bold as Islands of Adventure. Think about it… Not only was the park the birthplace of the “IP land” – it was also brave enough to avoid dedicating those lands to flavor-of-the-week, blockbuster box office properties. In fact, each of the park’s lands is rooted not in movies, but in something much more powerful: stories. From the picture book worlds of Dr. Seuss to Jay Ward’s Sunday funnies; the eternally-saturated comic book panels of Marvel super heroes to ancient myths and legends. Yes, even Jurassic Park and Hogsmeade started as places seen in novels. Think of it more as a library than a video store.

The park’s physical setup (often referred to as the “Islands” layout) sets each of these literary worlds down around a central lagoon, with bridges over the Great Inland Sea serving as “flash cuts,” instantly snapping guests between incredibly different worlds. Instead of feeling lazy or messy like it could, it feels smart. If Disney were ever to build a third park in Anaheim or a fifth in Orlando, the “Islands” concept would serve it well, allowing Disney to set down worlds of Star Wars, Frozen, Indiana Jones, Monsters Inc., and Avatar together.

But even then, Islands would remain unmatched. A theme park that’s not focused on movies, but dedicated to intergenerational, timeless stories? In this economy?! Can you imagine Disney doing the same? Even Universal has re-used the “Islands” layout at its parks in Singapore and Beijing, but each has reverted back to movie-themed lands (Transformers, Shrek, Madagascar, Despicable Me, Jurassic World, etc.) which, frankly, make them “Island” parks in layout, but “Studio” in spirit, leaving Islands of Adventure a one-of-a-kind creation that we should admire, celebrate, and protect at all costs.

2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

We couldn’t get far on a list of Universal’s must-try offerings without mentioning the ride that remains the envy of Disney Parks fans across the globe – the Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Made possible by Universal’s ironclad, exclusive licensing of Marvel’s comic book heroes (long before Disney owned Marvel, before the “MCU” dominated the box office, and even before 2002’s Spider-Man film starring Tobey Maguire), the ride feels like “the one that got away” for Disney fans. And for good reason.

The ride sets guests down in the steaming, oversaturated, comic book streets of New York, where Doc Ock and the villainous Sinister Syndicate have used an Anti-Gravity Cannon to steal the Statue of Liberty. With his reporters throwing in the towel, the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson recruits hapless tourists (that’s us) to take to the streets in a prototype off-roading, news-gathering vehicle (the “SCOOP”) to get to the bottom of it and capture the headlines.

When The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man opened in 1999, it was a groundbreaking, jaw-dropping, revolutionary attraction the likes of which had never been seen before. Composed of a roving, rotating, motion-simulating ride vehicle passing through physical sets perfectly blended with 3D screen-based animation, the ride was a gigantic leap into the 21st century. (It’s informed just about every modern Disney and Universal E-Ticket ride to follow… arguably, even a few too many modern rides amount to Spider-Man spin-offs.)

But even twenty years later, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man feels like the magnum opus of Universal’s ride collection; certainly, still among the pantheon of modern dark rides on the planet. It’s action-packed, explosive, in-your-face, oversaturated, surprising, thrilling, and – most importantly  – really, really fun. More to the point, it’s a picture-perfect encapsulation of the joy and vibrancy and color superheroes are supposed to be about; a mark that Disney’s own, very different Spider-Man ride arguably doesn’t quite hit

3. Universal Express

Okay, so, Universal Express isn’t an attraction or experience per se, but listen.The Genie+ service at Walt Disney World is a ticket add-on that gives guests the opportunity to book return times at most popular rides and attractions at a Disney Park for $15 per person, per day. Not-so-surprisingly, Genie+ is a thinly-veiled relaunch of Walt Disney World’s once-revolutionary (and always complimentary) FastPass and FastPass+ program. 

Like so many aspects of Walt Disney World post-2020, it’s been transformed into an upcharge, add-on service without really improving its usefulness (and in fact, paying to access the once-free FastPass service now omits the two most popular rides at each park, for which “Individual Lightning Lane” entry must be purchased a la carte for $7 to $14 per person. Yeesh!). The very fact that Genie+ costs money makes it a little easier to compare Disney’s apple to the orange that is Universal Express.

To be clear, Universal’s line-skipping system generally costs about ten times as much per day as Disney’s… but the premium price yields a premium product. We dedicated an entire feature to comparing Genie+ and Universal Express, and while it’s true that both systems have their respective audiences and usefulness, our Facebook fans left no question that Universal Express is more worth the money in its stress-free, tech-free, VIP results. It’s possible that Express would’ve been a far, far better way for Disney to go than to merely charge for what used to be free and seeing Lightning Lanes sell out first thing in the morning.

It should also be noted that hotels in Universal’s highest-priced “Premier” tier automatically include Universal Express Unlimited – a value of at least $100 per person per day. That’s an almost outrageously luxurious “giveaway,” especially considering that Disney’s equivalent tier – ”Deluxe” hotels – regularly cost twice as much per night… and don’t even include the $15-a-day Genie+ service! 

4. Revenge of the Mummy

The Modern Marvel: Revenge of the Mummy is, in many ways, a time capsule for Universal. Opened in 2004, the ride represents the company’s New Millennium commitment to keeping their “Studio” park up-to-date with hot films even at the expense of classics… but it also came before Universal’s infamous overreliance on screens. It’s tactile; physical; real. Sure, nearly twenty years later, it seems a little silly that the ride was billed as “the world’s first psychological thrill ride.” (At least on paper, it’s a fun, family roller coaster mixed with an impressive dark ride and some really great surprises.) But at the end of the day, Revenge of the Mummy is absurdly fun.

On board, guests journey deep into the tomb of Imhotep (except it’s actually a movie set? Or something? Okay, it’s complicated) only to be terrorized by mummies, flames, scarabs, and more. The ride includes animatronics, on-board audio, dead ends, turntables, backwards motion, unexpected stops, fire effects, a twisting roller coaster section, and an uphill launch into the open mouth of the Mummy himself. 

While the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man could easily fit into Disney Parks with a few tweaks, Revenge of the Mummy… could not. “Imagineering aficionados” easily pick apart the ride’s somewhat nonsensical narrative, it’s fourth-wall-breaking moments, and its abstract middle act that would make the “Disco Yeti” want to breakdance. But at the end of the day, Revenge of the Mummy has pure “we-gotta-do-that-again” joy. So while it may not be a ride that could easily be transplanted to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney Parks fans should surely put it on their list of things worth making the trip up the I-4 to see… and be glad that distinctly-un-Disney rides like this exist in Orlando to begin with.

5. Jurassic Park

Steven Speilberg convinced Universal to option the rights to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel even before the book was finished. Similarly, Universal Studios Hollywood began construction on the Lost Legend: Jurassic Park – The Ride before Spielberg’s movie had even premiered. Both turned out to be very, very good moves. Jurassic Park premiered in 1993, quickly becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Crichton’s tale of a bio-engineered boutique theme park of living dinosaurs going terribly wrong was brought to life on-screen with groundbreaking animatronics and cutting edge CGI.

The notion of adding an entire land themed to Jurassic Park to Universal’s in-development second gate is part of what transformed the park from the “Cartoon World” it had been drafted as into the “Islands of Adventure” we know today. In fact, Jurassic Park was meant to be the keystone of the park, positioning its iconic Discovery Center as the “weenie” viewed across the lagoon from Port of Entry. (Interestingly, it was also the only Universal IP in the park.) 

“In-universe,” the Jurassic Park land was meant to resemble the park seen on screen, but to also show what could’ve been there just off screen. The Jurassic Park River Adventure makes sense as a raft ride through herbivore habitats that the “real” Jurassic Park would’ve had; Camp Jurassic probably is the kind of play area that would’ve been built around the island’s amber mines; even the Discovery Center and the short-lived Triceratops Encounter was meant to “build-out” the world of Jurassic Park, giving guests a peek at the park’s “real” veterinary practices, hatcheries, and living animals.

At this point, Jurassic Park is among the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, and certainly has reached that most golden of markers for theme parks: it’s “timeless.” But even still, the new Jurassic World trilogy (launched in 2015 and concluding in 2022) saw dinosaurs explode back into pop culture, while also assuring Universal would keep hold of the topic in the zeitgeist. The new Jurassic World VelociCoaster may muddle the timeline of Universal’s land (and, for us purists, mess with the park’s  “literary, timeless” ethos) but it’s also one of the greatest roller coasters on Earth, period. So Universal should be very glad that Jurassic Park is theirs, and Disney fans – who basically beg Disney to level their dino-themed land entirely – should be jealous. 

6. Water Taxis & Walking Paths

It was 1999 when Islands of Adventure officially completed Universal’s growth spurt into a multi-park “Resort.” Given that Disneyland wouldn’t undergo the same kind of process till 2001 (and soon after for Disney Resorts in Tokyo and Paris), Universal was truly making up the formula as they went. Given that, it’s pretty incredible how much they got right… so much so that Universal’s formula is certainly the de facto one for compact, urban, multi-park resorts that followed in the New Millennium: parking on the periphery; arriving guests funneled into a retail, dining, and nightlife area; two theme parks set next to one another; hotels around the perimeter, each connected to the core by internal transportation and walking paths… 

Forget the “Disney Bubble.” Anyone who’s stayed on-site at Universal will tell you the ease that comes with such an “insulated” experience. Guests converge on CityWalk each morning by moving sidewalks, garden paths, and water taxis. Guests flow between parks (via walkway and Hogwarts Express). They swing by CityWalk for lunch, or catch a boat back to the room for a nap. At night, guests flow out of the parks and disperse back to hotels, walking paths, and nightclubs, all in the “Universal Bubble.” You can catch people jogging along waterways, meandering for pleasure, and criss-crossing between destinations. 

Today – in an era when walkable, environmental downtowns are all the rage – it’s easy to see Universal’s insulated, automobile-free, entirely-walkable campus as a much more modern, thoughtful, accessible, and future-friendly model than the sprawling Walt Disney World with its randomly-scattered parks, hotels, and retail areas served by highways, Monorails, skyways, blacktop parking lots, and a rumbling, fuming army of buses. (It’s hard to explain to first-timers, for example, that you couldn’t walk from the Animal Kingdom Lodge to Disney’s Animal Kingdom even if you wanted to.) Given the chance to build Disney World from scratch, might it look a little more like the multi-park resorts of the 21st century? You’ve got to wonder… 

7. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. When it comes to Universal attractions that should make Disney fans jealous, most would agree that there’s nothing quite as envy-inducing as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Announced in 2007, Universal’s licensing of the Harry Potter franchise for their theme parks was a massive coup right out the gate. But what made the Wizarding World project such a groundbreaking one in the history of themed entertainment is simple: it was the first “Living Land,” bringing to life a place plucked from the screen.

At least as the story goes, Disney actually tried to secure the theme park rights to Potter, but relented when the series’ creator requested “outrageous” caveats, like requiring all in-land merchandise to be “in-universe” (think: robes, quills, ink, and wands; not Harry Potter LEGO sets and video games) and the exclusion of the outside world (no “Disney Parks” plastic bags, no Coca-Cola, and no character meet-and-greets). So imagine Disney executives’ faces when Universal agreed to do it. 

The first “half” of the Wizarding World opened in 2010, when the snow-capped Scottish village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle looming over it – a perfect fit for the literary, fantasy-oriented Islands of Adventure. That’s probably the moment when Disney realized they made a mistake, as guests queued for hours not to get onto rides, but to spend money. Overnight, the industry changed. People didn’t just want to “Ride the Movies”; they wanted to eat where their favorite characters ate; to shop where they shopped; to live in the story!

2014’s addition of a whole second “half” – Diagon Alley, perfectly tuned to the cityscapes of Universal Studios – and its connecting Hogwarts Express only made the Wizarding World all that much more jaw-dropping. Some even consider Diagon Alley the best immersive “Living Land” out there.

So of course, the race to own and acquire IPs worthy of becoming “Living Lands” was on. One-two-skip-a-few and we end up with Cars Land, New Fantasyland, Pandora, Toy Story Land, Place de Remy, Arendelle, Avengers Campus, and, of course, Galaxy’s Edge. Each has seen incredible environments (not to mention, “in-universe” souvenirs and snacks) come to Disney Parks around the globe… but arguably, none have the same “spark” that the Wizarding World does…

None have recreated a world seen-on-screen with such precision; none have brought to life a physical place guests have longed to see for themselves; and maybe more to the point, none have found a true counterpart to… 

8. Butterbeer

Have you really made the bucket list trek to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter if you didn’t have a Butterbeer? Mentioned throughout the Harry Potter book and film series as the go-to elixir for Hogwarts students, Butterbeer is a butterscotch-flavored cream soda drink served at the Three Broomsticks and at various Butterbeer Carts around the village. Initially, it was sold only “cold” (as a fizzy soda) or “frozen” (like a slush), both with a whipped marshmallow topping (tailor-made for social-media-friendly foam mustaches.) 

With the introduction of Diagon Alley, a seasonal “hot” Butterbeer (think: hot chocolate, but butterscotch) joined the menu… as did Butterbeer ice cream, Butterbeer fudge, and Butterbeer potted cream. Basically, if it’s sweet and you can eat it, Universal has probably devised a Butterbeer-flavored version of it to serve in the Wizarding World. That’s really no surprise. Though people may fall head-over-heels to purchase $60 wands at Ollivanders, there’s no doubt that low-overhead Butterbeer is the runaway retail star of the Wizarding World. At least according to Universal legend, the $260 million cost to build Hogsmeade was recouped by Butterbeer sales alone in six months

So of course, Disney has desperately sought an equivalent; not just an IP people want to inhabit, but one with a signature, must-have drink that’ll go viral. Disney really, really wants a Butterbeer of its own. Both Cars Land and New Fantasyland debuted a frozen apple slush with passion fruit mango foam (called “Red’s Apple Freeze” and “LeFou’s Brew” respectively); Pandora has the limeade, apple, and dessert pear Night Blossom with passion fruit boba bubbles; Avengers Campus has Pingo Doce (an inside-joke, lemon-lime-vanilla soda seen in the Hulk movie, dispensed via Coke Freestyle machine). It goes without saying that all are delicious, but none are as essential as Butterbeer.

Without a doubt the closest Disney’s come to cracking the Butterbeer code has to be Blue Milk – a beverage briefly seen on screen in the original 1977 Star Wars and thus elevated into fan service appearances across the Star Wars universe. An entire Milk Stand (serving Blue and Green varieties) opened with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019. Weirdly, though, rather than creating something delicious, agreeable, and refreshing, Disney’s culinary team deliberately wanted the taste to defy expectations. The result is a whole lot of people who fork over $8 for a cup of the non-dairy, slightly-fruity drink, take a selfie holding it, take one sip, grimace, and throw it in a trash can. Arguably, that gives DIsney both the cash they want and the conversation they crave… but it’s still no Butterbeer.

9. Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Remember when Disney Resort Hotels took you somewhere? There was a time when hotels on Disney property weren’t just a place to stay; they let you step into another world. Port Orleans, Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs, Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian Village… Don’t misunderstand – there are incredible hotels on Walt Disney World property. But it’s so pretty undeniable that the lower you sink in their pricing tiers, the less “immersed” you’ll be. Disney’s Value hotel tier – made up of the three All-Star resorts, Pop Century, and the Art of Animation – are all some manner of motel, lightly dressed with oversized pop culture cut-outs. And that makes total sense as a low-priced, “Value” resort… until you see that it can be done another way.

Opened in 2014, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is probably one of the coolest hotels in Central Florida. And that’s saying something. Stylized as a mid-century beachside motel plucked right out of the Space Age, it’s an absolutely incredible, streamlined, modern masterpiece. Filled with parabolas, starbursts, Googie sculptures, boomerang patterns, and odes to classic cars, it’s an ode to golden age of Americana… complete with the Galaxy Bowl bowling alley, the Bayliner Diner restaurant, the Swizzle Lounge bar, two ultra mod pools with sand beach and lazy river, and even Zest soap in the bathrooms. 

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort falls into the resort’s “Prime Value” category (retroactively the second of Universal’s four hotel tiers by the opening of the plain “Value” Endless Summer Resort in 2020, which requires a five-minute shuttle ride to CityWalk). Nightly rates at Cabana Bay generally range from $150 to $200 a night (versus a standard room at Pop Century, between $160 and $300 a night). No exaggeration – it may be the best family hotel in Orlando, and it’s shocking that Disney is missing out on that title. 

10. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure

When Dragon Challenge (formerly, Dueling Dragons) took its last rides in 2017, the intertwined B&M inverted roller coasters were only briefly mourned. While they were cool, they were “just” bare steel roller coasters – clearly leftovers from the Wizarding World’s former life as Merlinwood, and oddly out of place in the otherwise immersive land. At the time, Universal announced that a new ride would take the place of the sprawling coasters in 2019. That ride ended up being Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. 

Narratively, “Hagrid’s” sees guests join Hogwarts’ gamekeeper-turned-Care-of-Magical-Creatures professor for a lesson gone awry when Hagrid’s Blast-Ended Skrewts (creatures described in the books, but never seen in the films) get loose. Magically-duplicated and enchanted motorbikes (complete with sidecar) give guests the chance to round ‘em up, all while exploring the edge of the Forbidden Forest and the ruins of an ancient, mossy stone abbey. Behind-the-scenes, Hagrid’s is one of the most sophisticated roller coasters on Earth, including (spoiler alert) a record seven launches, an instantaneous switch track, and a freefall drop track – to say nothing of the animated figures and effects along the ride’s course.

When Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened in June 2019, it made headlines for two reasons. The first was the wait – initially, up to fourteen grueling hours of reported misery, frustration, bathroom breaks, and utter rage at the technologically-complex ride and its continuous breakdowns. The second was that exiting guests unanimously decreed it one of the best rides on Earth. 

Somehow, that feels accurate! Despite being “just” a bare steel roller coaster itself, Universal’s “story coaster” is also something more. It’s packed with surprises, ludicrously fun, and utter joy from beginning to end. Somehow, it truly is unlike any other ride on Earth. The truth is, Disney doesn’t even have anything quite like Hagrid’s. It’s often compared to Expedition Everest (probably because it’s a “serious” coaster that’s very immersive and where storytelling and thrills fuse) but Hagrid’s is just one-of-a-kind. 

11. TapuTapu

For those of you who dream of the chance to #EliminateStandby, Universal’s Volcano Bay has got you covered. One of the unique revolutions of Universal’s “water theme park” is a simple wearable that all guests are given on the way in the door: TapuTapu. As its vaguely-Polynesian name suggests, the silicone, wearable, RFID bands are meant to be tapped against elements inside the park where – using the same basic idea as a MagicBand – they can activate geysers, lights, fog, or other effects, open lockers, or provide park updates.

But the real benefit of TapuTapu is that Volcano Bay doesn’t have lines. At least, not the typical kind. All of the park’s rides (save the lazy river) are guarded by tikis displaying a wait time. But unlike at a normal water or theme park, you won’t actually be in line for that wait time. Instead, Tapu Tapu’s TapTu Ride feature, one tap and you’re placed in the ride’s virtual queue with a display screen on the device counting down till it’s your turn to ride. In the meantime, you can grab a snack, relax on the beach, or ride a “Ride Now” attraction. 

A water park serves as a great testing grounds for what a “Virtual Queue Only” park could look like because it has lower capacity than a theme park proper, and plenty of things to do while you wait for a return time (like sleeping on a beach chair, playing in the wave pool, or enjoying a Waturi Fusion). The idea of distributing a ride’s capacity entirely through a virtual queue to create a park with (pun intended) virtually no waiting has been a dream for a long time. It’s somewhat surprising that Universal beat Disney to making it real, though. And yes, you do have to return the TapuTapu on the way out. 

12. Ollivanders

For fans of Harry Potter and of the theme park industry, one of the most intriguing offerings in the Wizarding World isn’t a ride at all. After all, one of the most momentous occasions in a young witch or wizard’s life is the day they get their very own wand from Ollivanders – ”Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 B.C.” – in Diagon Alley (with a convenient satellite location in Hogsmeade Village, for good measure!). 

Yes, Ollivanders is a shop stocked with meticulously stacked boxes upon boxes of wands. But there are two ways to get into it: the front door that leads right into the shop, and the side door, which leads into a magical mini-show that’s known to jerk tears from the eyes of Potter enthusiasts… and Disney financiers. Inside a dark, lamp-lit room stacked floor-to-ceiling with boxes, guests gather around a Wandmaker, who selects one lucky volunteer to find their perfect wand. 

The short mini-show sees a few magical mishaps until just the right wand is selected, sending warm light and wind through the room as John Williams’ score begins. It is, indeed, one of the most magical moments in the Wizarding World. Of course, afterwards, guests exit into the rest of Ollivanders where everyone has the chance to purchase a wand. But the show has to more than make up for its operating costs and serves as a pretty incredible advertisement. 

There’s no doubt that Disney has its own “Ollivander’s” equivalent – Savi’s Hand-Built Lightsabers at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. However, there’s at least one important distinction: Savi’s is “paywalled,” so it’s not an attraction or even a store so much as it’s more like a high-priced tour that’s not even accessible unless you fork over $219.99 plus tax. Which is okay, except that like Ollivander’s, Savi’s is really one of the big highlights of Galaxy’s Edge! Now, sure, a whole bunch of onlookers crammed in the room wouldn’t make much sense, and part of the price is precisely because it’s a unique, sought-after experience. Savi’s is a five-star, must-see, tear-jerking experience… for those who can afford it. Which means Disney’s answer to Ollivander’s is actually something different entirely.