Home » Best Day Ever Battle: Disney vs. Universal

Best Day Ever Battle: Disney vs. Universal

For some, a visit to Central Florida is a weeks-long vacation extravaganza. It’s something they’ve planned for months, if not years, and the central purpose is to see and do everything the area has to offer. Others prefer a more surgical approach — stopping in for a few days to experience only the best attractions before returning to their daily lives a bit happier and a lot poorer.

But there are some who, for whatever reason, find themselves in Orlando and the surrounding areas for purposes beyond rest and relaxation. Maybe they’re visiting for work or staying with relatives. Maybe they’re just passing through on a larger road trip, or maybe they needed a theme park fix and couldn’t get any days off.

Whatever the reason, it’s a surprisingly common thing to find yourself with one day — and one day only — free to explore either Disney or Universal, but not both. In such a case, which park makes the most sense? Would Disney or Universal give you the best bang for the single-day buck?

While it’s technically possible to experience both resorts in the same day, in an abridged manner, the travel time and expense make that an undesirable experience for all but the most niche visitors. Really, the experience you’d want to have is the best day you can on a single resort’s property.

So, which is it? Disney or Universal? Sure, if you’re a massive fan of, say, Harry Potter or Star Wars, your decision is already made for you. For everyone else, let’s break down the factors:


Image: Disney

The idea of spending the money it costs to visit either Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando for a single day can seem a bit silly. After all, both companies have explicitly designed their ticketing systems to incentivize lengthier stays — with the cost of a one-day ticket being a large upfront cost, but then charging far less for each subsequent day. 

Disney, sensing the lost opportunity for some revenue on that front, actually has been rather creative at coming up with ways to give single-day guests reasons to visit without compromising that inherent we-want-guests-to-stay-longer ethos. Hard-ticket party events that grant admission for fewer hours, but with increased benefits, have cleverly helped bridge this gap. Universal has started to dip its toe in the water as well, but Disney clearly remains ahead.

But, those types of tickets are slightly secondary to the real core of the question at hand: that is, which park is a better value to visit in a single day?

As of 2019, Disney’s tickets start at $109 for a single day, but can rise at as much as $159 for peak days. If you wish to visit more than one park in a day, a park hopper ticket will cost you $169 at minimum, and can go up to $219 at peak. 

Universal, on the other hand, actually charges more for its basic one-day ticket at $115, but it only goes up to $135 at peak. A park hopper also starts at $170 for Universal, but it only goes up to $190 at the high season.

In terms of pure cost, Disney gets the edge at slower times of year — generally when school is in session or holidays have just passed. If you’re around for busier times, Universal makes more sense.

Park Hoppability

 aloha75, Flickr (license)

Image: aloha75, Flickr (license)

Somewhat related to cost is the park-hopping question. In terms of pure attraction-to-park-hours math, it rarely makes sense to have a park hopping day as the time spent traveling between parks can really eat away and the time you have to ride rides. That ratio, combined with the significantly higher cost of a park hopper pass, generally means park hopping isn’t a great proposition.

However, that’s easy to say when you’re visiting for several days and can see everything you want to in that time. If you’re visiting for just one day, it’s important to be flexible so that you can either hit every attraction you want to or even audible to a different park if the crowds or weather don’t cooperate.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but Disney — thought it has far more theme parks — doesn’t quite make sense as the park hopping destination in this regard. The distance between parks is too vast, and the offerings are different enough that it’s easy to pick one park that truly will keep you entertained all day. The Magic Kingdom and Epcot, specifically, are so vast that they’re nearly impossible to experience fully in a single day. So, you can certainly try and still feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

Universal, on the other hand, requires you to park hop to fully experience its signature attraction: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both parks, though packed with interesting rides and shows, still can be accomplished in one day. For that reason, though it’s more expensive, a park hopping ticket really is the only ticket that gives you the full Universal experience.

If you’re someone who needs a bit of variety and is happy paying more for the privilege, Universal is the way to go. If park hopping isn’t something you prioritize, Disney will keep you entertained in the same place for longer.


 christiantlambert, Flickr (license)

Image: christiantlambert, Flickr (license)

There’s no use dithering or equivocating: Walt Disney World draws more visitors a year than Universal Orlando. In fact, each of the four Orlando Disney parks brought in more guests in 2018 than either of Universal Orlando’s parks. To put an even finer point on it, the Magic Kingdom saw 20,859,000 visitors last year according to the Themed Entertainment Association. Universal Studios Florida — Universal’s most visited park in Orlando — saw just 10,708,000. That’s just over half.

And so, on the surface, it might seem like Disney is way, way more crowded than Universal, right?

Well, it’s more complicated than that

Crowds are hard to measure because, at the end of the day, it’s more important that a theme park feels uncrowded than it is that the park actually is uncrowded. As such, parks have a variety of ways to get more guests into their parks but make them feel emptier once they’re in them.

As a general rule of thumb, Disney’s operations strategies, as well as their wider spaces, make their parks feel emptier even if they might have the same number of people in them as Universal’s. For that reason, if you’re visiting at an off-peak time, Disney will likely feel less crowded and keep you moving — even if it’s not really all that much more or less crowded than Universal. At peak times, however, both resorts will be operating at full capacity — and those tricks and strategies won’t be as effective. Thus, going to the park with fewer people, i.e. Universal, makes more sense.

So, in early December, Disney makes more sense. If you’re visiting on Christmas, check out Universal.

Ride Variety

 happyskrappy, Flickr (license)

Image: happyskrappy, Flickr (license)

One of the things that separates a park like Universal’s Islands of Adventures from, say, Cedar Point is the variety of rides it offers guests to experience. Regional parks tend to have a few simple flat rides, but the main attractions are roller coasters and flight simulators. Theme parks, on the other hand, consider balance and experience far more.

This is crucially important when visiting a park for only a single day. If everything is basically the same in the park, or if there simply aren’t very many attractions to experience, you can get bored easily. If there’s more variety, it’s easier to spend your day exploring the whole property.

If you’re committed to park hopping, Disney obviously is unmatched in attraction variety. You can ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, see Festival of the Lion King, compete in Toy Story Mania, and experience Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run all in a single day. 

If you only want to visit one park, the question is far more complicated.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure offers the single greatest variety of rides in Central Florida. You have thrilling dark rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. You have an intense roller coaster in The Incredible Hulk and a more family-friendly one in Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot are a close second and third.

Epcot, though, has it’s own unique consideration: It’s the most immune to rain. That park’s major attractions can all be experienced in inclement weather, and it features plenty of indoor and covered spaces to kill time in while waiting out an afternoon shower. 

Ultimately, Universal’s Islands of Adventure makes the most sense for variety unless you’re certain to expect a monsoon, in which case, you should visit Epcot.

FOMO Factor 

 stephenjrichardson, Flickr (license)

Image: stephenjrichardson, Flickr (license)

The worst part of visiting a theme park for only one day is the creeping realization that most people aren’t there with the same ticking clock as you. You can watch people boarding monorails back to their hotel or hanging out in CityWalk and feel quite a bit envious.

The FOMO Factor — that is, Fear of Missing Out — is a very real thing, and it absolutely cam impact how much you enjoy your trip. You’re there for such a brief period of time, constant reminders that you can’t see it all can feel like daggers in your toes.

Disney is the absolute worst for this. On-property guests all wear their MagicBands, but you likely are without one — a mark of shame that you must brandish. There are constant advertisements and reminders of the broader Walt Disney World at hand, places you don’t have a prayer of visiting in a single day. Want to do dinner at Be Our Guest? Well, California Grill will taunt you off in the distance. Want to spend 3 hours waiting to ride Flight of Passage? Enjoy the promos for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge on every inch of the property.

Universal, though, is just small enough that it’s almost liberating. “Taking a trip to Disney World” is such a specific, loaded thing in peoples’ minds. If you go, and only spend one day there, people look at you like you’re crazy. Universal, on the other hand, carries no such baggage. Its major attractions are relatively doable in a day, and while its hotels are gorgeous and amazing spaces unto themselves, they haven’t yet earned the cachet of Disney’s resorts.

Universal is small enough to be manageable — one of Walt Disney World’s older sister’s greatest virtues. No one leaves feeling like they could never see it all in a million lifetimes, wondering what wonders they missed out on. They leave contented in what they experienced, pleased that they got their money’s worth even if they might not necessarily need to rush back to see the rest.

All told, whether to visit Disney or Universal comes down to a lot of factors, and those factors are exacerbated when the trip shrinks down to a single day. But all things being equal, in such an abbreviated time frame, Universal just makes more sense.

Yes, a one-day ticket is slightly more, and yes, it might seem more crowded at times. But wouldn’t you rather eat an intentionally-composed single-bite amuse bouche than one bite of an amazing entree that you can’t have more of? Disney is great, but it truly needs time to be savored; Universal is great in both small and large doses.

That is, unless you’re a true Disney addict — in which case, what are you even reading this article for? You already have your next trip booked anyway.