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Universal Orlando

Remember the days of Magical Express? Extra Magic Hours? FastPass? Complimentary MagicBands? As anyone who’s visited Walt Disney World since the start of the “Most Magical Celebration on Earth” will tell you, the “Disney bubble” has officially burst. From slashed entertainment to paid-for hotel parking; $15 a day for FastPass to pay-per-ride line skipping, it seems that a new ethos has overtaken Disney Parks, where per-capita revenue has replaced guest satisfaction as the company’s key performance indicator.

Sure, price hikes, diminishing themes, and slow construction have frustrated Disney World guests for decades… but for many, canceled perks and new up-charges have been the last straw. Would executives ever have imagined that Disney World’s 50th Anniversary would be the time when a quarter of Theme Park Tourist readers report they’re done with Disney World, and this time they mean it? More and more, guests are reporting that they’re exploring parks outside the Disney World “bubble”... and finding a lot to like!

Image: Universal

For example, we gave “Done With Disney World” readers a Disneyland-focused list of reasons to give Walt's "original magic kingdom" a try, plus 16 Disneyland-exclusive rides and attractions that make a trip out West worthwhile for Imagineering fans.

Today, we want to celebrate a much nearer alternative to the increasingly-elite Disney World that many readers have already discovered the joys of. Last month, we detailed 12 Universal Orlando Exclusives That Should Make Disney Parks Fans Jealous – an enviable collection of rides and attractions that turn Universal's two parks into a must-see Mecca for anyone who loves the theme park industry. Today, our highlight of Universal Orlando continues not with one-off rides or attractions, but by celebrating four very big ideas that make Universal worth a visit for anyone who's "Done with Disney World," or open to seeing Universal in a whole new light...

1. Universal is more than what you might think

Image: Universal

Look: Universal’s got no one to blame but itself for choosing to build its first from-scratch theme park in Walt Disney World’s backyard. By the time Universal Studios Florida and its blacktop parking lot opened in 1990, Disney World was already three parks, two water parks, a dozen hotels, a shopping district, and a club district in, and certainly already a scale and scope that no one will ever come close to building again. In some ways, it’s easy to imagine that Universal doomed itself to being an “add-on” at best, and a “leech” at worst, existing purely to siphon guests away from their real Central Florida destination.

The “narrative” around Disney and Universal probably began to change with the opening of Islands of Adventure in 1999, which was pretty inarguably a "must-visit" for anyone who claims to care about or study the theme park industry. Writing it off would be a tall task for even the most loyal of "pixie-duster." Often exceeding Disney's standards of design at the time, Islands of Adventure remains one of the strongest, most innovative, and most beautiful theme parks on Earth, period. 

Of course, it was made all the stronger with the 2010 addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – an industry wide pivot point that not only equipped Universal with one of the world's most sought-after theme park experiences, but did the much more difficult task of finally getting some Disney fans to recognize just how slow, lumbering, and inactive Disney World had been at investing in its parks.

Image: Universal

The momentum Universal built via the Wizarding World arguably hasn't stopped. Even as Disney has "answered" Hogsmeade with New Fantasyland, Pandora, and Batuu, Universal has been relentless in growing its theme parks. 

Now especially, with Disney’s overt and unapologetic “nickel and dime” strategy, declining standards, growing lines, cut costs, and slowdowns or standstills on future investment while trumpeting record-breaking profits from increasingly "preferred" guests, the “taboo” on recognizing Universal as a worthwhile destination is at last lifting, and more and more Disney loyalists are at last considering the possibility that Universal really isn’t what some Disney fans have become convinced that it is

Image: Universal

A weird, popular, classist, collective consciousness shared by some Disney fans seems to position Universal as a grimy, grungy, teen-infested county fair where fights are frequent, humor is tasteless, paint is peeling, and fly-by-night, flavor-of-the-week characters roam the streets farting glitter (okay, that was real) as guests race from 3D simulator to 3D simulator to be jostled, rumbled, and sprayed all day long.

And to be fair, Universal’s general attitude is obviously more “irreverent” than Disney’s; there’s less for toddlers to do and far more “thrills” (including, of course, absolutely stunning world class ones); Universal’s collection of characters and stories and movies is generally more “pulse-of-pop-culture” than Disney’s famed timelessness and in-house stories and environments; and Universal Studios Florida, specifically, does have a few too many rides that amount to being shaken in front of a screen (we count 4). 

Image: Universal

But we should also be clear: Universal Orlando is a wonderful, world-class resort. It’s clean! It’s safe! It’s young! It’s agile!  Its theme parks and CityWalk are cool! Bold! Thrilling! Family friendly! And yes, timeless!

They have some of the strongest ride lineups on Earth – probably stronger than some Disney parks – plus shows, restaurants, secret spots, and hidden gems worth discovering. For those of us who profess to love theme parks or the themed entertainment design industry, a great many lessons can be learned from Universal Orlando, and efforts to paint their parks as low-class, low-quality imitators or knock-offs is A) wrong, B) uninspired, and C) boring.

At best, bland, cookie-cutter "anti-Universal" sentiment (see above) comes across as simplistic, uninformed miming of tired tropes shared by brand loyalists who aren't looking to learn, expand, or have fun, but who wants to start petty, tired, and pointless brand loyalty battles best left to early 2000s message boards. It's worth an eye roll, but not a response. To so coldly and completely write off the work of the designers who bring Universal's parks to life and the people who make memories there purely due to "brand loyalty" is... kinda gross. 

In the meantime, those of us with a genuine love of the art of theme parks, dark rides, roller coasters, scenic design, guest service, industry history, and storytelling know that there are lessons to be learned from across the industry, and certainly from a major, quality player like Universal. There are aspects of Universal that exceed Disney's standards, and aspects that fall short. But more to the point, Universal is its own thing entirely, bringing a whole lot of its own to the table! 

2. Universal is the beautiful, walkable, “bubble” resort you’re looking for

Image: Disney

One of the prevailing stories people tell about Walt Disney World is of the “Disney bubble” – an invisible sort of force field within which the “real world” disappears, leaving only the comfortable assurance of Disney Magic™. The “bubble” is cited by many as the reason Disney’s $325-per-night “Moderate” motels are worth the same rate as any number of upscale luxury hotel brands just a mile away (but importantly – outside Disney’s sphere of influence). Disney has even begun to use the term on guest surveys, recognizing that the allure of the “bubble” alone might be enough to make up for the end of Magical Express, free resort parking, free FastPass, package delivery, shrinking portions, and a surprisingly uninspiring 50th Anniversary celebration.

We won’t lie: there is a sense of comfort that comes with passing into Disney property, wrapped in the assurance of provided transportation, brand familiarity, and Disney’s exceptional guest service and Cast Members.

But to pretend a Walt Disney World vacation is somehow “all-inclusive” or an “escape” from the real world would only be true for the richest of guests. The rest of us have to contend with being “stranded” at Value and Moderate resort hotels with crowds packed into bus stops every morning; relying on an army of buses (or rental cars or rideshares) to navigate literal highways; the continuous need to use your quickly-draining smartphone to set 6:55 AM alarms, order food, pull up tickets, pay for parking, pay-per-ride to skip lines, join Virtual Queues, unlock hotel rooms, and more…

Image: Universal

Here’s the point: that “bubble” you’re describing? The one where you don’t have to drive anywhere, and everything’s connected, and the “real world” is kept at a safe distance, and your phone can be turned all the way off if you want to? Arguably, the best place to find it in Central Florida is… Universal. 

When Universal graduated from a single park to a multi-park resort in 1999, it invented the formula that Disney would later use in California (2001), Tokyo (2001), and Paris (2002). Its space limitations actually became its strength and the modern, urban, multi-park resort model was born: a central shopping & dining district set between two theme parks with purpose-built, master-planned garden walks and waterways diverging from there to hotels set along the property’s perimeter. Parking is set along the exterior, and the entirety of the resort’s interior is pedestrian-friendly, vehicle-free, and walkable. 

Image: Universal / Loews

This might as well also be a place to praise Universal’s on-site hotels. For example, their “Value” options include a resort we consider one of the best in Central Florida, period – Universal’s Cabana Bay – plus the almost stunningly. The resort’s three “Premium” hotels include the absolutely stunning Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, and Portofino Bay, which – like Disney’s equivalent “Deluxe” hotels – could support resort-based vacations in their own rights, but unlike Disney “Deluxe” hotels, cost half as much and automatically include Universal Express Unlimited for every guest. (Disney’s “Deluxe” hotels don’t even include the $15-a-day Genie+.)

Universal Orlando feels beautifully simple and modern compared to the behemoth of Walt Disney World. And it’s fine if you love Disney’s massive, sprawling property of highways sliced through undeveloped land. The scale of Disney World is part of what makes it one-of-a-kind.

Image: Universal

And we get it – Universal can’t ever hope to have the Magic™ that Disney World does. But arguably, Universal’s formula is much, much better at forming a true “bubble.” They won’t give you a free ride from the airport, either, but at least once you’re on Universal property, you can ride water taxis between your hotel and CityWalk, walk between the parks, dine at other hotels, luxuriate at Volcano Bay, and you won’t so much as see a car or a bus unless you want to. 

Long story short: if you still think of Universal as the little studio park of creature-feature rides in big boxy soundstages, it's time to update your thinking. Universal Orlando is one of the most extraordinary, exciting multi-park resorts on the planet, and the "bubble" you're looking for? It's here. 

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