Orlando Theme Park Arms Race: How Universal is competing for Disney’s crown

Over 50 years ago, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Park opened its gates in Orlando and quickly became the prime theme park destination in the country, and the world

The resort opened three more parks – Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom – which solidified Disney’s impact on the theme park industry. Known for its innovative rides and hospitality, it became every child’s dream vacation to visit Disney World.

Even with the openings of Seaworld in 1973, and Universal Studios in 1990 and Islands of Adventure in 1999, Walt Disney World’s parks remained the highest visited tourist destination in Orlando. 

In 2010, Disney’s dominance on the theme park landscape began to shift.

The grand opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure changed theme parks forever.

There had never been a theme park experience as immersive as The Wizarding World, with guests being able to make their own magic wand, drink butterbeer, and step into an extremely detailed recreation of Hogsmeade village from the movies. 

Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Orlando. (Photo courtesy of Troy Jarrell from Unsplash)

An expansion of the land opened at Universal Studios in 2014, this time recreating Diagon Alley and connecting the two parks via the Hogwarts Express attraction.

Instead of being seen as a one and done day trip, The Wizarding World gave guests a reason to travel to Orlando for a vacation at Universal’s parks specifically. 

This marks the first time Universal Orlando Resort was being looked at as a serious competitor to Disney’s offerings, meaning Disney needed to retaliate.

Views from Pandora: The World of Avatar, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. (Photo courtesy of Luke Tanis from Unsplash)

A year after The Wizarding World’s opening, Disney announced that the world of Pandora from the Avatar franchise would be coming to Animal Kingdom. 

Soon after, Disney also announced lands for the Toy Story and Star Wars franchises.

Even with these new additions, post-pandemic attendance numbers for Disney have remained lower than usual for the parks.

In 2021, Magic Kingdom remained the most visited theme park in the U.S. However, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure rounded out the top 3, having higher attendance than three out of four of the remaining Disney Orlando parks.

On the movie side of things, Universal Pictures’ The Super Mario Bros. Movie recently grossed over $700 million at the box office, and became the highest grossing video game movie of all time. 

Walt Disney Pictures’ last two animated films Lightyear and Strange World were box office bombs, grossing $226.4 million and $73.6 million, respectively.

Universal’s third Orlando park Epic Universe is set to open in Summer 2025, with Super Nintendo World being a confirmed addition to the park. 

Making a section based around a highly successful video game franchise now with a highly successful movie based on it drawing in a new, younger audience, Universal’s Super Nintendo World is looking to become a huge draw to the park, which can attract Disney’s target audience of families. 

Stephanie Howell, a wife and mother of three from Denver, recently visited the Disney parks with her family this past spring break season. 

Howell’s parents paid for a guide to accompany them on their trip. 

Stephanie and her family in front of the Cinderella castle in Magic Kingdom. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Howell)

“Honestly, without the guide who knew the parks, how to work the Genie+ system, and grabbed our Starbucks and lunch order for us, I would have been lost,” said Howell. “The app [Genie+] isn’t really user friendly and it’s a complex process of how and when to use it. Without our guide my experience would have suffered.”

Genie+ is an app that plans out your vacation and gives you scheduling suggestions to do everything you want on your trip to Disney parks. It also has a paid version that gives you the option to purchase ‘Lightning Lanes’ which allows guests to skip lines for a fluctuating price starting at $15 a day per person, and has ranged up to $35. 

On top of this, there are also Individual Lightning Lanes for popular e-ticket attractions, such as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and Avatar: Flight of Passage, which can range from lows of $10 per ride to $25 per ride depending on the day.

This change has been highly criticized, with guests complaining about having to pay for a service that was once free, and how their experience has been reduced to micromanaging their entire day on their phone.

The ability to wait in an advanced line can do wonders for families aiming to do as much as they can in a day at these parks, and is a highly sought after feature.

Howell and her family were fortunate enough to have a personal guide for most of their trip to navigate the frustrating parts of a Disney vacation for them, but what about families who spend all their money on simply making it to Disney and not being able to pay extra fees for Genie+?

Orlando native Jamison Grant criticizes the Genie+ system.

Grant has loved the theme park experience since he was a child.

“When I was 8 years old, Universal Orlando Resort was my first experience riding a real roller coaster, and it was beyond incredible,” said Grant. “At Walt Disney World, I was always so captivated by Disney’s immersion and ‘will to thrill’ that kept me excited to come back.”

Now at 24, he is an annual passholder at Universal Orlando Resort and frequents the park on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis. Neighboring Walt Disney World resort, however, has lost his attendance.

“I think the new attractions Disney has opened have captured my attention, but unfortunately I’m not running to the gate to try them,” said Grant. “To get on these rides, you literally have to be up at the crack of dawn refreshing the virtual line app just to get a spot. I’d rather wait in a line for 90 minutes than not get a boarding group and waste a day hoping something will be available so I can ride a new attraction.”

At Universal Orlando, there are multiple ways to acquire an express pass. It can be bought up front for prices fluctuating between $89.99 to $349.99 per person for a single-day pass to be used one time per ride for all participating attractions, and $99.99 to $379.99 per person for a single-day pass to be used an unlimited number of times per ride. 

This is clearly a very expensive alternative with prices averaging around $100 to $140 per person, but can be the most viable option for those traveling alone or with one other person. 

The more likely option for families would be staying in a Universal Premier Resort, as express passes come with your hotel key. 

Universal’s highest tier of annual passes also allows holders to gain access to an express pass if they are in the parks after 4 p.m.

Currently, the only way to skip lines at Disney is if you purchase Genie+ to access the Lightning Lane system.

Despite their flaws, families and fans alike still flock to Disney for the magical moments they are known for.

“Overall, it was expensive, But there is something to be said about the magical moments Disney gives families,” said Howell. “My kids were in awe from start to finish and seeing their faces and experiencing Disney through the lens of them is something for which I’ll always be grateful.”

Even though Universal appeals to an older demographic, the upcoming Epic Universe park may be the one thing to push Universal to Disney-level heights.

“Universal always does a good job of keeping their attractions current to things that people will enjoy while maintaining that technological progress they are known for,” said Grant. “Epic Universe will be an undeniable attraction destination for theme park lovers, gamers, and moviegoers alike.”

Kamille Bascus is an aspiring television editor who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Digital Journalism at Florida International University. In her free time, she enjoys editing, playing games with friends, and watching reality television shows.