(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

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! 






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



Onsite Hotels


The same is true for 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





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 every time 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



Where to Stay


I high­ly rec­om­mend stay­ing onsite at Uni­ver­sal if you can. Cabana Bay Beach Resort is super nice, and very afford­able! ($120–150) The top 3 hotels at Uni­ver­sal even offer free express pass­es if you stay there! So I high­ly rec­om­mend The Hard Rock Hotel, the Portofi­no, or the Roy­al Pacif­ic Resort. My hus­band loves the Hard Rock, lots of mem­o­ra­bil­ia every­where! Also you can try the Hilton!

You can find the best deal at any of them at Trav­e­loc­i­ty!



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!