When you compare Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, there can sometimes be a temptation to say that one is better than the other. Now, almost 25 years after Universal opened, it's fair to say they're roughly even. Yes, there are things one might do better than the other – Disney's service is unparalleled, while Universal has many more thrill tides – but on the whole, both are elite-level theme park experiences.
Nevertheless, it certainly is fun to compare and contrast them – especially in the areas in which they are seemingly going right after one another. Here's one example:
Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, but they didn't build their first on-site hotel until 1999. To put that in perspective, Disney already had 15 of their own hotels built on their property by then – from the regal Grand Floridian to the cost-conscious All Stars. And that doesn't even include the Downtown Disney hotels or the Swan and Dolphin, none of which are operated by Disney (much like Universal's agreement with Loews Hotels).
Since 1999, Disney's added just two hotels – Pop Century and Art of Animation – while Universal has built three more, with plans for another to open in 2016.
Now, it makes sense that Universal would want to build their own hotels – after all, Disney's business model has essentially been to keep guests on-property as long as humanly possible, and that's a good model to emulate. But, what's particularly interesting, is how Universal has seemingly used the successes and failures of Disney's hotel operations to make the opening of theirs go more smoothly. In fact, they've borrowed so much from Disney's playbook, that some of their hotels might feel downright familiar to someone who's spent some time resort-hopping around WDW.
Check it out:
1. Portofino Bay Hotel = Grand Floridian Resort
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel was Universal's first hotel and, arguably, its grandest. Designed to replicate the Portofino harbor in Italy, this resort is most similar to Disney's Grand Floridian due to its overpowering air of luxury.
Yes, it's also got elements of some other Disney resorts – the waterfront promenade is very reminiscent of Disney's Boardwalk – but, on the whole, Universal and Loews seemed to be aiming for the romantic and luxe vibe that Grand Floridian carries with it.
The two even compare on other levels too: both resorts offer boat transportation to their neighboring major theme park, both offer multiple culinary options, and both come complete with their own opulent spa. Even it's location is similar – it's close enough to the park that you don't need a bus, but far enough away to feel like a retreat of its own.
But even more than specifics, it's the atmosphere that makes the two resorts feel like siblings – they create a feeling of timelessness and comfort, even while appealing to the globe-trotting, old-world fashionable set. If you're at home at the Grand Floridian, you'll also be at home at the Portofino Bay.
2. Hard Rock Hotel = Disney's Boardwalk Inn
As with Portofino, there are some other Disney-esque elements here (the music theme, obviously, is similar to All-Star Music, and the architecture is vaguely reminiscent of Coronado Springs), but the best point of reference for the Hard Rock Hotel is Disney's Boardwalk Inn.
In addition to convenience – the Hard Rock Hotel is just steps away from Universal Studios Florida's gate – the resort offers an awful lot of entertainment and memorabilia. Plus, its location right next to CityWalk gives it the same sense of place and energy as the Boardwalk – it's not just a hotel, but it's a destination. And, to top it all off, the Hard Rock Hotel offers its own live concert series called Velvet Sessions, providing even more options for outside-the-parks entertainment, just as Boardwalk does with its dance club and piano bar.
There's just so much to do – from a great pool, to awesome bars, to great dining – that it's not tough to see how Universal stole a page from Disney's book in making Hard Rock Hotel more than just a resort.
3. Royal Pacific Resort = Polynesian Village Resort
Located on the other side of CityWalk from the Portofino Bay Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort can definitely feel far-removed from the rest of Universal Orlando. But, while it may feel somewhat distant, that isolation pays off due to the beautiful and engrossing south Pacific theming.
Obviously, that aesthetic style is not unique to Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, but with Royal Pacific's fountains, tikis, and wood accenting, it's hard not to make the connection with Disney's beloved resort. Beyond the theming, Royal Pacific offers water transportation to the parks (much like the Polynesian), unique south-seas dining, and a lovely beach.
But, perhaps the clearest connection with the Polynesian comes with Royal Pacific's weekly luau show, complete with live music, all-you-can-eat food, and traditional hula dancing.
If you love the Polynesian, you'll also enjoy the Royal Pacific. It certainly lacks the nostalgia and classic feel of the Poly, but if you're looking to stay at Universal and have a similar experience, Royal Pacific will do just fine.
Sadly, there's no Dole Whip, though.