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Disney World vs. Universal Studios: A Comparison Of Two Theme Parks

03/15/2013 09:34 EDT | Updated 03/15/2013 09:43 EDT
Joshua Ostroff

There’s a kid-culture Cold War going on in hot Orlando.

The latest salvo comes courtesy of Walt Disney World’s December launch of New Fantasyland, an expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular section, which doubles its size while finally giving Disney’s uber-popular princesses their own homeland, highlighted by "Little Mermaid" and Beauty and the Beast-themed areas.

Millions of little girls may wonder why the pixie-dust took so long to settle, but perhaps it’s a response to the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter over at nearby rival Universal Studios Orlando, which has since cast a “wingardium leviosa” spell on the surging attendance numbers.

Oh, and neither theme park is done yet. Disney is still constructing a mammoth mountain to house its upcoming Snow White-themed Seven Dwarfs Mine Train due to open in 2014 while Princess Fairytale Hall, a Disney Princess “meet and greet” area, er, “royal court,” is set to start doling out prized autographs and adorable photo-ops later this year.

Meanwhile, Universal Studios has sealed off a good section of its landmass for various construction projects, including this summer’s reported $100 million Transformers: The Ride 3D (to match the ones already attracting massive lineups at Universal Studio Hollywood and Singapore). As well, the long-rumoured Harry Potter expansion (possibly including Diagon Alley and a London waterfront featuring a Gringott's Bank ride) was finally as well as an embiggening of the Simpsons area that would allegedly add a Krusty Burger and Moe’s Tavern, among other Springfield landmarks, to join the Krustyland-themed Simpsons ride and Kwik-E-Mart souvenir shop.

To get back to what’s already recently opened in these two parks, New Fantasyland’s best feature is undoubtedly Enchanted Tales With Belle in her cottage. The Beauty and the Beast area also includes the Be Our Guests restaurant in Beast’s castle—a French resto that serves wine and is the only place in the Magic Kingdom to get an alcoholic beverage, which could explain its insanely long lines—and Gaston’s Tavern which basically only serves roasted pork shank as a main, though it does have hummus and chips as well as veggies and dip for snacks.

Disney World Restaurants. Story continues after the slide.

Best Disney Restaurants

Enchanted Tales is essentially an interactive theatrical production starring your kids and is therefore, a relatively slow-moving experience and has a slow-moving line. It’s worth it, though, as the interaction from Belle is rather wonderful and the animatronic work on the Lumiere and Madam Wardrobe maybe the best ever done. They literally look like a real-life moving cartoons. You’ll be as gobsmacked as your kid.

The Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid ride and its adjacent Ariel’s Grotto meet-and-greet area are pretty good, especially the former because while new, it’s old-school Disney animatronics rather than some newfangled high-tech “4D” ride. But be warned, the Sea Witch section can be scary for smaller kids.

Over at Universal, the park has been enjoying an understandable increase in numbers since opening the Wizarding World of Harry Potter over in their Islands of Adventure park. It is, quite simply, the most fully- realized theme-park area around. This was our second time and we were as amazed as ever.

For any Potter fan, it’s pretty much paradise. Hogsmeade is pitch-perfect from the express train at the entranceway to the just-as-you-imagined Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which makes its endless line bearable by winding it through the castle. You’ll walk past such icons as the Sorting Hat, moving paintings and Dumbledor’s pensieve before getting to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 4D ride, which is easily the most exhilarating in the park and not for the faint of heart.

For those with kids too young to ride it, as we have, it’s still worthwhile to wander through the castle as you can duck out before boarding, though this only makes sense if the line is reasonable. It’s often not.

Potter’s popularity is also its biggest problem. The area’s charm can be lost amidst the eventual throngs, which, at their absolute worst, can cause a two-hour wait just to get into the area with an additional three-and-half hours just to climb aboard the Hogwarts ride.

Tricks For Avoiding Long Lines At Disney World And Universal Studios. Story continues after the slideshow.

Tips and Tricks For Avoiding Long Lines at Disney World And Universal Studio

But if you stay at an onsite hotel, you get an Express Pass which skips almost all lineups and lets you into Wizarding World an hour before the park opens, so you can visit Olivander’s wand shop, fly a hippogriff roller coaster and grab an English breakfast (complete with blood sausage) at the Three Broomsticks.

Though infinitely less epic, but also very well made is Universal’s other recent addition: Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a cute and fun 3D tribute to the film about the Steve Carrell-voiced supervillain, his three cute daughters and his adorable army of minions.

Of course, all these additions also mean subtractions.

In fact, 35 attractions have closed down since the park opened in 1990, including 16 original ones like the Jaws-inspired area, which closed last year. It had included a small recreation of the film’s New England beach town, Amity, and had been a great place to unwind amidst the hustle and bustle elsewhere. Considering the importance of the animatronic great white shark to the original Universal Studios, it’s a shame it had to go. Same goes for the Back to the Future ride, one of the original attractions, which left that timeless time-traveling film series only represented by a Delorean, a train from the third film and photo ops with Doc Brown.

Sometimes the closings make little difference—the Jimmy Neutron ride was hardly a classic when it shut down to allow for "Despicable Me"—and, in general, Universal is based on transitorily popular properties. I’m surprised they haven’t already shut down the Twister ride, to be honest, and it’s only matter of time before Fear Factor Live is replaced.

But Universal Studios is more easily updateable because it’s hipper—and not just because of The Simpsons and Spongebob. Even the mid-nineties characters inhabiting Marvel Super Hero Island and the wonderfully whimsical Dr-inspired Seuss Landing, not to mention Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs, are inherently cool: they’re part of the park’s pop-cultural currency.

Disney, however, is the opposite of hip. The Magic Kingdom is a land of saccharine songs, endless parades and one-day-my-prince-will-come gender politics. Aside from a brief but beautifully weird kiddie dance party in Tomorrowland featuring an orange spacesuit-clad, ass-shaking Goofy, it would have been hard to tell what decade we were even in.

But what Disney has to offer instead is history and nostalgia—a mouse mascot from the '30s, medieval princesses from the '40s, Mainstreet USA’s '50s fetishism and even the retro-futurism of Tomorrowland.

So that means when Disney attractions close down, it hits a bit harder. New Fantasyland has resulted in the shuttering of Mickey’s Toontown, an area inspired by "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", as well as the closure of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which had been around since the park’s opening in 1971.

The thing about Disney World is that its longevity and consistency, not its pop-culture currency, gives it an emotional depth that Universal Studios will never really have, at least not for a long time.

Disney World In Instagram. Story continues after the slideshow.

Disney World In Instagram

The moment that really stood out for our family was when my son’s grandmother took him on It’s a Small World just as she had once taken my wife. I had my own strong memories of riding it at California’s Disneyworld with my folks when I was a kid. And the ride’s unchanging simplicity and intricate perfection tied our three generations together through overlapping magical memories.

This Orlando arms race shows no sign of slowing, nor should it. But both parks should to be mindful of how they evolve. Universal Studios should carefully evaluate how classic their areas could be if they kept them going—"Jaws" may be a lost cause but maybe now that we’re approaching 2015, it’s time make a new Back to the Future Part II ride with hoverboards. But by all means, ditch the attractions with no pop-cultural relevance anymore and keep beefing up the ones that will have a lasting legacy like Harry Potter and Simpsons.

As for Disney World, it might be time to consider revamping Disney’s Hollywood Studios to give your new acquisitions their proper due. Only Pixar’s "Toy Story" gets the full Disney-World treatment and it only has one ride: a Buzz Lightyear shooter in Tomorrowland. Magic Kingdom is restricted, with reason, by its historic areas, so perhaps it’s time to build something elsewhere that’s able to realize Pixar’s imagined worlds.

Then there's the potential behind while incorporating Disney's sister properties like The Muppets, Star Wars, Studio Ghibli (which Disney distributes outside of Japan) and Marvel (if and when you finally pay off Universal Studios to get the theme park rights back.) Combine the two and you can also keep expanding the Magic Kingdom without watering down the traditional characters or closing down classics that connect grandparents to their grandkids.

But however this arms race plays out, there really is only one winner—your kids.

Is there a theme-park attraction that you hold close to your heart? Let us know in the comment section below or via Twitter @HPCaTravel.