Here's what you should know about these central Florida theme park resorts, from rides and events to hotels and dining.
For many families, central Florida is the ultimate vacation destination. The biggest decision to make when visiting? Choosing which one of the region’s many theme parks to visit. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando sit just miles from one another and serve as the two leaders in themed entertainment. Each resort complex is sprawling and immersive, complete with convenient transportation systems, endless dining options, incredible rides, and many hotels.
For fans of classic Disney films and the latest Marvel blockbusters, Disney World may be the obvious choice. Those passionate about Harry Potter and his mystical world or serious thrills will want to visit Universal Orlando Resort. Accommodation options can also factor into your decision, with hotels ranging from budget to ultra-luxurious. In addition to attractions and accommodations, annual events and holiday parties may draw guests to a specific park.
When it comes to comparing Disney World vs. Universal Orlando, there's a lot to consider. Of course, we recommend visiting each resort at some point — they offer totally different (and super fun) experiences. Here's what you need to know about Florida’s best theme park resorts.
Walt Disney World Theme Parks
Walt Disney World is home to four theme parks, two water parks, and a shopping, dining, and entertainment district. At the land of Mickey Mouse, guests can enjoy the original park, Magic Kingdom, home to the iconic Cinderella Castle, along with classic attractions, like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a celebration of the golden age of pictures, where some of your favorite movies come to life. It’s also home to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a land dedicated to the film franchise with immersive attractions, dining, and shopping. Epcot celebrates the many diverse cultures of the world and is home to attractions from family film favorites like Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a marvel in theme park design that pairs animal conservation and exploration with family attractions and exotic bites.
Universal Orlando Theme Parks
Universal Orlando Resort houses two theme parks, one water park, and an adjacent dining and entertainment district. Universal Studios Florida was the theme park that started it all. With working sound stages that produce television and film, the park features attractions that invite guests to live out the storylines of their favorite movies. Next door, Islands of Adventure features several mythical lands, including those themed to Harry Potter and Jurassic Park. Volcano Bay water park transports guests to the South Pacific with sandy beaches and rich vegetation alongside its many slides and water features.
Walt Disney World Hotels
Disney World is home to over two dozen resorts across its 27,000-acre property, ranging from value hotels to deluxe accommodations. Every resort provides complimentary transportation to all theme parks, water parks, and Disney Springs. Budget seekers can enjoy value-level accommodations, like Disney’s three All-Star resorts, that while offering fewer amenities provide a comfortable place to relax after a park day. For a more luxurious abode, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is a stunning property with fine dining and gorgeous pools just steps from Magic Kingdom.
Universal Orlando Hotels
Universal Orlando has eight on-site resorts that range from value hotels to luxury properties, with all but two within walking distance of the parks. Each resort provides a mode of transportation to the theme parks and CityWalk, including boats, buses, and walking paths. The three deluxe resorts — Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort— sit within a short walking distance of the parks. The budget resorts pack the value with restaurants, spacious pool complexes, and on-site coffee shops.
Walt Disney World Rides and Attractions
Walt Disney World is home to classic attractions themed to beloved Disney films and new attractions that immerse guests in Marvel, Star Wars, and other blockbuster franchises. In Animal Kingdom, Pandora – The World of Avatar is a fascinating land with one of Disney World’s best attractions, Avatar Flight of Passage. At Epcot, the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is a groundbreaking attraction that embraces state-of-the-art technology and storytelling.
With the emphasis more on story and less on thrills, most attractions at Disney World are suited for the entire family.
Universal Orlando Rides and Attractions
The crown jewel of Universal Orlando Resort is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Spread across two lands in both parks, the world of the fictional character is brought to life in movie set-level designs. One of the best rides at Universal Orlando, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, is a multi-launch steel coaster that throws you right into the fanciful world.
Universal’s newest attraction, VelociCoaster, is a high-speed, launched roller coaster themed to the Jurassic World film franchise. Other thrilling highlights include the enclosed roller coaster, Mummy: The Ride, and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Children will enjoy a whimsical land dedicated to Dr. Seuss or an out-of-this-world bike ride with the adorable alien on E.T. Adventure.
Volcano Bay features a towering 200-foot volcano with a slide that plummets guests 125 feet.
Most attractions have minimum height requirements, meaning the resort might be best for families with older kids and adults.
Walt Disney World Restaurants and Bars
There are hundreds of places to eat at Disney World, with options ranging from quick-service meals to four-hour-long chef’s tastings. A highlight for many is the property’s character dining restaurants. Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom welcomes guests for the rare opportunity to head inside the castle and enjoy a royal feast. Guests will be delighted to know that quick-service options around the property aren’t limited to chicken fingers and burgers. Inspired eats can be found across the parks and resorts, like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where you can find the fan-favorite Ronto Wrap.
Elevated experiences abound, especially at Disney Springs. Here, guests with sophisticated palettes can enjoy Japanese A5 Wagyu from celebrity-helmed Morimoto Asia or enjoy an immense selection of wines by the glass from Wine Bar George, the only master sommelier-owned restaurant in Florida.
Universal Orlando Restaurants and Bars
There are dozens of great restaurants at Universal Orlando, ranging from quick-service locations to fine dining with plenty of character. Playfully done (and delicious), Green Eggs and Ham Cafe is a Dr. Seuss-inspired locale serving Who Hash straight from the pages of the beloved books. Be transported to the Mediterranean coasts through idyllic scenery and delicious eats at Bice, an outpost of the high-end Italian restaurant at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. You’ll swear you’re about to rub elbows with Harry Potter and his schoolmates at The Leaky Cauldron or Three Broomsticks where you can enjoy classic British delicacies, like fish and chips.
Universal’s CityWalk, located next to both theme parks, is the ultimate nightlife destination, with plenty of bars and restaurants. Take the mic during live band karaoke at Rising Star or sip on the New Orleans favorite, a hurricane cocktail, at Pat O’Brien’s as you dine on Louisiana-inspired bites and enjoy dueling pianos.
Walt Disney World’s Special Events
Disney World’s many hard-ticket holiday events may be reason enough to visit for many guests. The family-friendly Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is wickedly fun (and accessible) for all with unlimited candy and appearances from rare characters. The streets of Main Street U.S.A. shine with festive holiday décor during the resort-wide celebration. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, an after-hours event, spreads holiday cheer with exclusive stage shows, attraction overlays, and special fireworks shows.
Epcot is home to four award-winning annual food and wine festivals that take place throughout the year. Open to all ages, the spotlight is on globally inspired small plates that are made for sharing.
Universal Orlando’s Special Events
Halloween Horror Nights, now in its 31st year, is the country’s premier Halloween event. The greatest films of the genre are brought to life through immersive walk-through attractions, eerie atmosphere, and high-energy shows that aren’t for the faint of heart.
The holidays shine at both of Universal’s theme parks, with Grinchmas being a family favorite at Islands of Adventure. The citizens of Who-ville dramatically (and comically) retell the well-known Dr. Seuss story, and there are even opportunities to meet the Grinch himself.
For over 25 years, Universal Studios Florida has celebrated Mardi Gras at epic proportions with park-wide live music, Cajun cuisine, and an evening parade with authentic floats from New Orleans. The respected annual event that fuses fun and food is included in standard park admission.