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I’m a travel agent, and a not insignificant portion of my business comes from Disney. I specialized in Disney. I keep up with all the Disney blogs. I know an embarrassing amount about Disney parks and everything they have to offer. So, it feels almost sacrilegious to say, but my family likes Universal Orlando better. Yes, I’ll say it: Universal Orlando is one of the best family vacations for family trips to a theme park.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love Walt Disney World. We visit about once a year on average, and the truth is, it’s magical. My idea of a perfect night is a Mickey Premium Ice Cream Bar and watching the fireworks at Magic Kingdom. But, the truth is, Disney is a lot of work. You have to make dining reservations 180 days in advance, fastpasses 30-60 days in advance, and then stick to that exact schedule during your visit like a trained soldier. I don’t know about you, but getting up at 7 am, 6 months before my family vacation to book a brunch reservation is not my idea of relaxing or fun. And while we are there, I feel like I’m orchestrating a well-choreographed mission the whole time. Our Rise of the Resistance boarding group was just called, then we have to run over to Slinky Dog Dash at 11, so we can make our noon reservation at Sci Fi Drive in Theatre, go go go go go! 

 

 

Restaurants

If you want to visit the hottest restaurants at Disney, you need to start planning 180 days in advance, because that’s when dining reservations open up. If you want to eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table in December, you need to book that reservation in June. That’s crazy! Who can plan that far ahead with kids? The day that we have a great reservation that I’ve been looking forward to for 6 months is the day my husband will feed our kid too many sweets and we’ll all end up back at the hotel due to a bellyache, I guarantee it. Sometimes, we eat breakfast too late, and we aren’t even hungry yet for our lunch reservation. At most restaurants at Universal, you can just walk right up and get a table. You might have to wait a few minutes, but I’ve never waited longer than a half-hour. Even the restaurants and character meals that you need reservations for, a few days is enough notice, I’ve scored same day reservations plenty of times. It’s really nice to not be on such a tight schedule and just eat when we get hungry. 

 

Mythos has been voted the best theme park restaurant for many years, and you don’t even have to get up before the sun to eat there

 

Hotels

The same is true for the hotels. Many of Disney’s hotels routinely sell out months in advance. If the dates you can travel are tight, and you have a certain hotel you really want to stay at, you might need to plan a year in advance.  That’s not as common at Universal. And quite frankly, Universal’s hotels are nicer. Have you seen Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal?  It’s arguably one of the nicest value hotels in Orlando! Cabana Bay has a lazy river, a water slide, hot tubs, fire pits and 2 really nice pools! Universal’s Aventura hotel has a robot that brings you that extra shampoo you asked for. The hotels at Universal are the bomb, and they are usually cheaper than Disney too. 

 

Aventura’s famous robots are usually found in the lobby unless they are making a delivery. They pose for pictures and tell jokes. On our most recent visit my joke was: Who did the robot share his secrets with? His most rusted friend

 

My view from the window of my room at Cabana Bay during a recent stay. I can almost taste the fruity drinks at the bar

 

Rides

Universal’s Express Pass system blows Disney’s Fast Pass system out of the water when it comes to convenience and flexibility. At Disney, you reserve fastpasses 30-60 days in advance, and they are included with your park ticket. At Universal, you have to buy an express pass, or stay at one of Universal’s 3 premier hotels which include them. But, I think the cost of the upgrade is worth the freedom. When you are ready to ride, just walk up to the ride and get in the shorter line. No timed reservations, no running halfway across the park to make your 10:30 Flight of Passage fast pass,  no checking your phone to see if any good fastpasses are available, just show up and ride. When our kiddo was still a baby, and I was particularly sleep deprived, our family slept through our alarms and missed 2 of our 3 fastpasses for the day. I don’t even set an alarm at Universal. Let’s be honest, kids ruin all our plans. Every Disney mom I know has gotten up at 6 am to book fastpasses 60 days before their vacation, only for their child to decide they won’t ride any of those rides that mom lovingly got up early to book because they are too scary, loud, bright, indoors, outdoors, hot, cold etc. 

 

Hogwarts Castle is home to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, if you’re a wimp like me you can just walk through the castle without riding

 

So, it feels almost sacrilegious to say, but my family likes Universal Orlando better.

 

Getting Around

Moving around and switching parks at Disney is a pain. Disney’s system of monorails, boats, Skyliner and buses to get around can’t be matched. But all those options are confusing and overwhelming. Let’s be honest, going from Magic Kingdom to Epcot takes forever. You have to hop 2 monorails, and clear security again. Meanwhile, your kids are fighting, someone needs a clean diaper, and your spouse left the diaper bag on the monorail. Unlike Disney, most of Universal’s attractions are all together, so you can easily walk almost everywhere. Another bonus, you only have to go through security once, you don’t have to go through security again everytime you leave a park (the only exception is if you go to Volcano Bay, the waterpark, because it’s in a separate area away from the main hub). Switching between Universal’s two parks is a breeze, it’s a ten minute walk or you can hop the Hogwarts Express. Universal’s City Walk dining and shopping area is right outside the gates of their two theme parks, so it’s easy to visit if you need a short break. 

 

Who doesn’t want to get around via Hogwarts Express? I’ll take this over a monorail any day

 

 

The Best Family Theme Park Vacation

I love Disney World, and I’ll be excited when I can take my toddler to see his friend, Mickey Mouse, but admittedly, that’s not what I daydream about. I’m daydreaming about the stress-free, plan free days that await me at Universal’s Orlando Resort. A leisurely stroll through Diagon Alley, sipping a butterbeer and window shopping at the stores. Or,  riding my favorite ride, Men in Black , and then heading out into City Walk for a relaxing dinner, then hitting snooze 3 or 4 times the next morning. 

Someday soon I’ll see this view on my way out of Islands of Adventure

 

Getting to Universal’s Orlando Resort

The easiest way to get to Universal from Southern California is to fly into Orlando International Airport (MCO). If you are only visiting Universal for your trip, you really don’t need a rental car! Universal’s transportation system, once you reach the resort, is great and fast! Uber or Lyft is your cheapest option to get to the resort from the airport, or you can grab a taxi.

 

Emily Householder Stacey is a writer, travel agent and mom based in sunny Cleveland, Ohio. Emily runs Aida’s Adventures travel agency while her son takes his afternoon nap. She has traveled throughout Australia, Asia and North America and the rest of the world is on her bucket list. Emily and her family love a good theme park. They have annual passes to 5 of them!

 

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