Home » Theme Park Showdown: Universal vs Disney

Theme Park Showdown: Universal vs Disney

One of the strangest feuds on the internet is the battle between Universal and Disney loyalists. Based on scale, it’s a lot like fans of the Hartford Yard Goats hating the New York Yankees, but the Goats have shown a lot of promise in recent years. They hired a wizard back in 2010 and have risen fast after that. Think of them as a team full of top prospects with plenty of potential.

Universal’s problem is that they didn’t get their start until 1990. They’re effectively an expansion team compared to Disney, who founded the theme park industry in 1955. To my mind, Universal has done a tremendous job in catching up over the past decade. In 2009, they had only 23.7 million guests. By 2017, that number had more than doubled to 49.5 million. Disney’s still tripled them with 150 million annual park visits, though.

With the sides in constant competition for vacation revenue, I’m starting a new series. I’m going to compare the parks in a few key areas to see which one deserves some of your disposable income. We’ll start with the attraction type that Walt Disney invented, the dark ride. Which theme park has better dark rides? Read on to find out…

Selecting the best dark rides at each park

Image: DisneyLet’s be clear. Universal Studios simply cannot compete with Disney theme parks in terms of quantity. Disney’s 25th-best dark ride would be up for consideration for Universal’s top ten. For this reason, Universal’s starting at a considerable disadvantage in this conversation, one Disney will face when we compare roller coasters in a future piece.

To keep things interesting, we’ll limit this debate to the four best dark rides from each company. And we’ll let you pick! I’m using the handy dandy top 100 theme park attractions list to determine the best of Disney and Universal.

According to you, Universal’s top dark rides are Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Skull Island: Reign of Kong…and that’s it. You only voted three of Universal’s finest dark rides onto the list, and so I’m arbitrarily picking Men in Black: Alien Attack as the other selection.

Image: DisneyThe situation is MUCH different with Disney dark rides.  You believe that the best ones are Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Na’Vi River Journey, Haunted Mansion, and Splash Mountain. And you’re passionate on the subject. All four of them are in the top 11 overall theme park attractions in the world based on your voting.

You went on to select between 8 and 12 others, depending on how open we leave the category. Admittedly, some of them are multi-park duplicates, though. We’ll stick with the four that you prefer for the sake of convenience, although I maintain that Spaceship Earth was robbed.

Discussing Universal’s finest

I see a vast divide between the best two dark rides at Universal Studios and the others. In other words, I agree with your voting. I’ll take them in alphabetical order as I evaluate the overall quality of this group.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Image: Universal StudiosInarguably the most significant achievement in Universal theme park design before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this attraction kept Universal Studios alive for years. Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe heightened the world’s awareness of Spider-Man, this attraction demonstrated to everyone why the Web Slinger is the epitome of the modern superhero. It’s a masterpiece, and I’ll fight anyone who claims it’s anything other than an A+ attraction.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Image: Universal StudiosOne of the ironclad laws of the theme park industry is that something better eventually comes along. At Universal, Spider-Man may have kept the lights on for years, but… Remember that thing I said earlier about Universal’s traffic doubling in less than a decade? I’m not exaggerating when I state that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a primary reason why. As the flagship attraction at The Wizarding World, it has dazzled theme park tourists for many years now. It, too, is an A+ attraction.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

Image: Universal StudiosNow we’ve reached the bottom half of the divide. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been on the Men in Black: Alien Attack bandwagon for many years now. It’s an exciting competition wherein you try to murderify more aliens than your friends. You get to talk smack before and afterward. In the middle, you’ll have a fantastic time experiencing a day in the life of the Men in Black. It was once a solid A attraction, and I’d still give it a B+ today.

Skull Island: Reign of Kong

Image: Universal StudiosBefore Skull Island: Reign of Kong opened, Universal executives worried about that shocking moment from the ride, the one that signifies that you’re in peril. I’m not quite sure why they were so concerned. It’s Kate, the NPC of the attraction, who takes the kind of beating ordinarily reserved for Wile E. Coyote. In a strange coincidence, Skull Island feels like an amalgam of two different Disney dark rides we’re about to discuss, ones that are scary and immersive. I’d give it an A-, but I don’t expect it to age well over the years.

Discussing Disney’s finest

Image: Disney

Home field advantage is a thing in all sports, and it’s a part of theme park tourism, also. Disney invented the dark ride, and they’ve had every year since 1955 to perfect it. They have done that. I’m of the opinion that a dozen dark rides are A+ attractions. That doesn’t mean that the ones you picked are part of that list, though. Let’s take a look…

Haunted Mansion

Image: DisneyIf you asked my wife to name her one true theme park attraction, she’d either say Millennium Force or Haunted Mansion. For me, it’s Millennium Force, while Haunted Mansion isn’t even my favorite dark ride at Disney. As hinted earlier, my answer for that is Spaceship Earth. Even so, I happily acknowledge that Haunted Mansion is proof that genre mash-ups work at theme parks. The spooky/silly nature of the attraction is why it has stood the test of time. It’s obviously an A+ dark ride and one of the greatest ever.

Na’Vi River Journey

Image: DisneyHere’s the surprise of the list. While many critics suggest a chasm between Avatar Flight of Passage and its much less storied sibling, Na’Vi River Journey, you’re head over heels in love with both. Each attraction at Pandora – The World of Avatar is ranked in the top 10 in the world according to you. I wouldn’t pick both of them as the best overall like that, but I happen to agree that Na’Vi River Journey is an understated masterpiece of Imagineering. You genuinely believe that you’re riding a boat down the river on an alien planet, just as you accept that danger lurks everywhere. In that way, it’s a kindred spirit to Skull Island, only done better. Na’Vi River Journey is an A attraction…at a minimum. 

Splash Mountain

Image: Disney

Happiness is underrated on dark rides. A crucial part of efficient set design is constructing something that will entertain guests. Joyous sequences abound on Splash Mountain, one of the longest rides on this list. You’ll delight in all the merriment from these anthropomorphic animals, chortling at their misadventures. Then, you’ll splash into the water and wonder why life can’t be that simple and pure all of the time. Splash Mountain is an A+ attraction. Period.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Image: DisneyOnly Disney could take a simple concept like the drop tower and evolve it into one of the most brilliant dark rides ever. For no logical reason, you enter an elevator that Rod Serling has warned you is cursed. It’s terrible strategy on your part, but you regret nothing the instant your ride begins bouncing. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is your favorite dark ride on the planet. Who am I to disagree? It’s also an A+.

Given the grades listed here, the conclusion here is obvious. Disney’s dark rides are all A+ attractions save for arguably Na’Vi River Journey. Universal has two that can definitely hang with the best of Disney. Then, they have two others that are solid theme park attractions, ones that you’d ride again and again on a light crowd day. They just can’t measure up to Disney’s standards…and again, Disney has a bunch more phenomenal dark rides not even listed here. They OWN the dark ride industry.

Round one undeniably goes to Disney over Universal, and even the most passionate Universal fan would have to acknowledge that.