Home » 3 Reasons Why Theme Park Fans Need Disney AND Universal

3 Reasons Why Theme Park Fans Need Disney AND Universal

Catastrophe Canyon

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we do our best to offer coverage of a wide range of theme parks all over the world (and we’re in the process of expanding our coverage of seasonal parks, as we know the lack of this is a common complaint). Naturally, though, a lot of articles focus on topics related to Disney and Universal, the two behemoths of the industry.

The comments on these articles, both on the site and on our Facebook page, often involve sniping between Disney fans on one side and Universal fans on the other. Both sides claim that their favored company creates better rides and experiences than its rival. And both claim that we are biased against one or the other.

I’m a life-long fan of Disney theme parks, and worship Walt Disney like a demi-god. I also wrote the first book about the history of Universal Orlando. The process of writing this book really highlighted to me the extent to which the competition between the two firms has led to huge benefits for Disney and Universal theme parks and those that visit them.

With that in mind, here are three reasons why we should celebrate the successes of Disney AND Universal, even if we have a preference for one over the other.

3. The rivalry leads to more innovation

Let’s take a step back in time to the late 1980s. Disney had established itself in Florida, and both the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center were attracting huge crowds. Universal had built a successful studio tour in Hollywood, and was now keen to expand into the Orlando market with an East Coast version.

Michael Eisner, Disney’s then-CEO, was not about to take this competition lying down. He ordered Imagineers to expand plans for an entertainment-themed pavilion at EPCOT Center into a full-blown studio park: Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios…for now at least). This would open a full year ahead of Universal Studios Florida.

Catastrophe Canyon

Catastrophe Canyon at Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios).
Image © Disney

Universal now faced a dilemma. Disney’s park would offer a tram tour, which was to be the headline attraction of Universal Studios Florida under the original plans. Ironically, if it stuck with those plans, it would face accusations of copying Disney, and not vice-versa. Instead, it set about completely redesigning the park, blowing up set pieces from the Hollywood tour into individual rides.

The owners of Universal knew that they would need something special to tempt guests away from Walt Disney World even for a single day. In an attempt to “out-Disney Disney”, they committed to spending the eye-watering sum of $30 – $40 million each on major attractions such as Jaws, Earthquake: The Big One and Kongfrontation.


And what rides they were! Kongfrontation featured 39-feet-tall animatronic beasts. Jaws boasted robotic sharks that powered through the water. And Earthquake saw a San Francisco subway station being reduced to rubble over and over again. The attractions were like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

Universal over-stretched itself, and the opening of Universal Studios Florida was a disaster. The three major rides malfunctioned, and failed to work properly for months afterwards (Jaws had to be closed altogether and rebuilt over a period of three years). But once the rides were up-and-running, and Back to the Future: The Ride came on stream in 1991, the park was soon a huge success and was attracting more visitors than Disney-MGM Studios.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Disney’s response, having been accused of lacking thrill rides compared to the competing studio park down the road? It built the mighty Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – still one of the most highly-regarded attractions it has ever put together.

There are many more examples of Disney and Universal spurring each other on to ever greater feats. During early planning for Islands of Adventure, the second theme park at Universal Orlando, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was initially designed as a fairly basic dark ride. Then Disneyland unveiled the incredible Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Universal decided to up its game, and produced a stunning combination of 3-D effects, physical sets and motion simulation instead.

2. They offer distinct experiences


You wouldn’t see this at a Universal park…

Although Disney has adjusted its offerings over the years in response to competition (opening The Seas at Epcot, for example, to take on SeaWorld Orlando), it has generally stuck to doing what it knows it can do better than anyone else: creating immersive, stunningly-themed attractions and entertainment for the whole family.

Halloween Horror Nights

…and you wouldn’t see this at a Disney park.

Universal always knew that it wouldn’t make sense to take on Disney head-to-head, and it had created its own brand of movie-magic experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. These days, it offers a greater focus on thrills for a slightly older audience, as well as dominating areas such as adult-oriented Halloween events that Disney won’t touch.

Can you imagine Halloween Horror Nights at Disney? No. Can you imagine Mickey Mouse parading down Diagon Alley on a giant, cartoon-style float? No. And that’s a good thing.

For theme park fans, it’s surely a better thing to have two giants offering distinct experiences than just one offering the same old thing year-after-year.

1. There’s more money and creativity to go around

After the huge success of the first few Harry Potter books and movies, it was inevitable that rumors would begin to circulate that theme park operators would seek to license the characters for use in rides and shows. Realistically, only Disney and Universal had the money to do J.K. Rowling’s creations justice.

Disney came close to snagging the rights for Potter, getting as far as signing a letter of intent with Rowling. But it walked away when Rowling demanded too much creative control over the project. Universal was only too happy to pick up the pieces – and the hugely impressive Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure was the result (with Diagon Alley to follow a few years later).

Hogwarts Castle

Would we have a real-world Hogwarts Castle without the Disney-Universal rivalry?

What if Universal wasn’t around as a credible competitor to Disney? Would Rowling have been forced to been forced to compromise on her vision (an unlikely scenario)? Or would there be no Harry Potter theme park land at all (probably more likely)?

We’ll never know, but I for one am grateful that both Disney and Universal are financially strong companies with brilliant creative people working for them. They may both have their ups and downs, and you may prefer one over the other. But be glad for the innovation and excitement that this rivalry has brought us over the years.