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Universal Entrance Arch image

Universal Studios Florida was dubbed “The Little Park That Could” during its early years, after a disastrous opening day nearly caused it to fail. Even after the complex finally found its legs, few people ever expected it to become anything more than an add-on to a Walt Disney World vacation. But when Universal acquired the theme park rights to Harry Potter, and current owner Comcast began pouring money into the parks, people began to take notice.

With Disney’s recent questionable choices, particularly FastPass Plus and My Disney Experience, Universal is looking to capitalize. Beyond the Potter hype, people are finally taking notice of all the little things Universal does to create an excellent guest experience. In fact, one of the most frequent comments from long-time Disney loyalists after their first Universal vacation is how much more relaxed they felt at Universal. Here are 5 ways that Universal makes that happen.

Editor's Note: The views below are Lisa's, and do not necessarily reflect those of everyone at Theme Park Tourist!

5. Express Passes

MIB Express EntranceMIB Express EntranceThe Express queue is typically less than 15 minutes.

While Disney spent millions on FastPass Plus, Universal kept doing what it has always done—giving free Express passes to its hotel guests and offering them for sale to everyone who walks through the gates. Instead of making ride reservations 60 days in advance, or running around the parks to pick up legacy FastPasses, you can decide to buy an Express pass at any time during your visit—except on extremely crowded days, when Express occasionally sells out. With pass in hand, you simply use the Express queue instead of the Standby, at almost every attraction, all day long. Hotel guests get unlimited Express, which allows you to use Express over and over again at the same attraction. This option is also available for day visitors at a higher price than regular Express, which allows one use per attraction.

Is a pay-to-play system fair and equitable to all? That depends on your perspective, but there is no doubt that it works. The pricing, which is based on projected crowd levels, creates a self-limiting system. Some people never visit without an Express pass, even on days with light attendance. Others refuse to buy one even on the most crowded day of the year. The balance between the two extremes creates a system that generally keeps Express waits under 15 minutes and Standby waits under an hour (extremely hyped new attractions such as the Gringott’s ride, which does not have Express access, notwithstanding).

4. Walking distances

CityWalkCityWalkEverything is within easy walking distance at Universal Orlando, including the CityWalk entertainment district.

If you are used to vacationing at Walt Disney World, you are probably all too familiar with the crush of people trying to get on a resort bus after the fireworks. How about allowing two hours to make it to your dinner reservation? Allowing time to hike from your room to the hotel bus stop when trying to make rope drop?

Universal Orlando is compact, and it is easy to walk from even the most distant onsite hotel room to the parks in less than 30 minutes. Water taxis and shuttle buses run continuously, but many people enjoy the freedom of being entirely on their own schedule. The paths are pretty and well-marked, helping you relax on your way to or from your destination. Who knew that getting there really could be half the fun?

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