Living in Central Florida gives Joe and me the ability to go to the local theme parks on a pretty regular basis. We have annual passes to both Walt Disney World (WDW) and Universal Orlando (Uni) and, pre-COVID, visited both resorts on a pretty regular basis; generally about once every month or two for each resort.
Due to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, both resorts and their respective theme parks closed down in mid-March. Universal reopened in June, and Walt Disney World in July, and we’ve visited both on two separate occasions, for a total of 4 visits.
Both resorts have done commendable jobs in altering their parks and procedures to accommodate for COVID, as well as to ensure there’s proper social distancing, mask usage, etc. But based on our experiences, one or the other park sometimes does a better job of it. Here’s what we found.
(Note: We realize that what we saw during our visits may or may not have just been a one-off, or it may be “the way things are.” Either way, it’s what we experienced during our visits).
Pre-COVID, Universal had 2 huge parking structures, and then you could walk and/or take moving sidewalks, in the shade because you were in a open air parking garage, to get to the guard/X-ray area. WDW had huge, uncovered parking lots for each of their 4 parks, but offered tram service to bring you to the guard/X-ray area.
During our visits to each resort’s parks during COVID, both parked cars in “every other” spot (and then, as needed, would fill up the alternate spots when the first batch of people were gone, in the name of social distancing). Other than that, Uni’s system was pretty much the same as always. WDW is not using the trams, and now requires you to walk, in the sun (or monsoon, if it’s that time of day in Central FL summer), to the entrance.
Winner = Universal, by far. Walking in WDW’s parking lots in the sun, when it’s 95 degrees, with equal humidity, was awful. Walking back to the car at the end of the day, when we were hot and tired, and one day with storm clouds breaking loose, was even worse.
Pre-COVID, Universal had you put all your stuff, including your pocket contents, in a plastic contain that went through an X-ray. Every guest also had to walk through a scanner. WDW historically had guards at X-ray who would manually go through your bags and may or may not ask you to go through an X-ray machine, which would require you to THEN empty your pockets.
During COVID, Universal’s system remained the same as always, except I saw they sanitized their plastic containers after each usage. In the earlier days of reopening, WDW guards had been asking guests to remove everything from their bags for the guards to observe. A few weeks later they got new X-ray machines that allow you to go through with your bag (minus umbrellas and items with high metal contents – if something has too much metal, you buzz and have to go off to the side to show them what metal contents you had).
Winner = tie. Their processes are different but neither is particularly better or worse.
Pre-COVID for both resorts, you could just show up, whether you bought a pass the day of, had a pre-purchased day pass, had an annual pass or were staying at the resorts.
During COVID, both resorts are limiting the number of people who can be in the park at any given time. Uni has said their limit is currently 25% capacity. WDW hasn’t announced what their limit is, but I’ve heard from friends who work there that it’s also 25% capacity per park. At Uni, you can still just “show up” to whichever park you want, on whatever day you want, and can “park hop” (go to the other park) either via the Hogwarts express between the two “Harry Potter lands” or walk between the two parks (they’re within walking distance of each other). WDW, on the other hand, makes you make a reservation. Ressies at WDW are divided between those staying at their resort hotels, those with day passes and those with annual passes. Priority is in that order and some (or all) parks are closed out on some dates, depending on what type of ticket you have. No park hopping is allowed.
Winner = Definitely Universal. Since they don’t require a reservation, and allow park hopping, they are much more convenient to visit, and allow for more activities in one day. It’s noted that both parks at Uni are “selling out” on Labor Day weekend, but it’s a big holiday weekend and that’s been the exception, definitely not the rule.
Both resorts have sit down and quick service (read: counter service. Similar to how you get food at fast food restaurants) restaurants in the parks. That being said, (A) Disney generally has a couple more sit down restaurants per park but (B) Uni has CityWalk, which has several sit-down restaurants, within walking distance (Disney Springs has lots of restaurants but you can’t walk from any park to get there). Both have had mobile ordering available for 2 or more years for the quick service venues.
We were preferably looking for sit-down service during our visits. Our priority for meals was COVID safety so we preferred to not eat in a sit-down establishment if our only option was indoor dining. YMMV.
At Universal’s parks, there were no sit down restaurants with outdoor seating that we could find during our two visits. During our first visit, we ate at a pizza place at CityWalk that was usually quick service but had converted to table service. At our second visit, we left early enough and ate at home.
At WDW’s parks, we had a lunch reservation (that was late enough to serve as dinner as well) at a sit down restaurant but we canceled it when we discovered their outdoor seating was only being used by their outdoor bar. We wound up eating quick service instead, using mobile ordering, which went smoothly. During our second visit, we used mobile ordering for a quick serve lunch, but the kitchen messed things up, which caused a lot of (not very Disneyesque) yelling by the manager to the staff, and a delay of our meal that scored us a free $2 tub of guacamole to go with Joe’s nachos ;-). The same day, we went to Disney Springs for dinner and were able to eat a sit down dinner, outside, without a reservation.
Winner = tie, but with a nudge to WDW. Both have their good and not so good points in the parks but WDW has significantly more outdoor dining options at Disney Springs (which you have to travel to get to, if you’re at any of the parks) than Uni has at CityWalk (which is within walking distance of the parks).
Pre-COVID, WDW had their Fast Pass+ system, wherein you could make a certain number of reservations for attractions ahead of time, for free. Universal had their Express Pass system, where you could buy a “get to the head of the line” pass, as well as a free, same-day Virtual Line system for a handful of rides.
During COVID, Uni is still selling their Express Pass (PSST! It’s TOTALLY not worth it right now, except MAYBE on weekends or holidays) and WDW has stopped their Fast Pass+ system (we’ve always questioned how much they actually need it, anyway). Uni still had a Virtual Line for a handful of attractions, and WDW is still using an online lottery system of sorts, twice a day, to get onto their Rise of The Resistance attraction at the Disney Studios park, but everything else for both parks is just walk on and get in the queue.
The ride queues at both properties are well marked for social distancing, and because the parks are at lower capacity, are not very long. I think the longest we stood on line for anything was 30 minutes on a weekday (and that included popular rides like Hagrid’s coaster, Slinky Dog and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train)
Both Uni and WDW clean their ride vehicles on a frequent basis, as well as when a guest is seen to have removed their mask while on the ride.
At WDW, there are hand sanitizer stations before and after you board attractions but it’s up to the guests to actually use them. Not everyone does. At Uni, a Team Member stands there with a big bottle of sanitizer, so they can squirt your hands before you go on the ride, and there are hand sanitizer stations for your use as you leave.
Winner = Universal. They would have tied, but Uni is more active in ensuring your sanitize your hands before going on the rides.
Pre-COVID, both properties were about equal in every way except what they actually sold.
During COVID, some of WDW’s shops have had opportunities where, to ensure there’s proper social distancing, they ask guests to queue until enough people have left the shop. I didn’t see this at any of Uni’s shops, simply due to lack of patrons wanting to go into said shops ;-).
Winner = WDW (although I’m sure it would be equal if more people were interested in Uni merchandise)
General Health/Safety (Sanitation, Wearing Masks, etc.)
Pre-COVID, cleaning at both resorts was done on whatever schedule was required.
During COVID, both parks have upped their respective games considerably, with cast members/team members required to wear masks and sometimes face shields and gloves, depending on their role. I mean, I saw hand rails being cleaned for the first time in forever! (I’m sure it was being done pre-COVID, but either never when we were there to see it, or it just never reached our consciousness, which is now super attuned to cleanliness).
Both resorts have announcements and signage to remind people to socially distance, wear masks and wash their hands often.
All guests age 2+ are required to wear masks properly while in the parks. Masks must be worn unless a patron is actively eating or drinking, and if they are doing so, it must be done socially distanced from other traveling parties (at Uni) or while stopped and away from others (at WDW). Both parks have “Mask Free” areas where you can sit and take your mask off.
WDW has hand washing stations scattered throughout the parks. I didn’t see any at Universal.
WDW says they have a squad of “health and safety cast members” walking around to ensure guests are following the new health rules but frankly, I only saw one of them in each of the parks (and they wear bring orange-yellow shirts so they’re not easy to miss). Universal has announced no such team, but I did see one team member during the course of our 2 visits tell someone to raise their mask over their nose.
Both Uni and (most of) WDW are in Orange County FL, which has a mask mandate. True, there was the one guy who struck a security guard at Epcot when he was reminded to follow the mask rule. But when we were a the parks, we saw that general compliance with mask use was about 85-90% each time we visited. However that went down to about 75-80% compliance by the end of the day.
Winner = tie, with a slight nudge to WDW for having the hand washing stations and the “health and safety cast members” (even though we didn’t see a lot of them). I would like to see more enforcement of mask use at both resorts, but maybe that’s just me.
And The Winner Is…
Both Uni and WDW have done excellent jobs at making their parks as safe as can be expected during a pandemic. Joe and I are on #teamscience and #teammask and currently feel more comfortable in the parks than we do at our local supermarket.
When it comes to X-ray, food and health/safety, the two resorts are close enough where the differences are negligible. WDW wins for merch but that’s only because WDW has had a need for queues to get into their stores (*cough* undoubtedly due to resellers on eBay *cough*) and Uni hasn’t.
Therefore, for our purposes, Universal wins by a nose. Being able to walk in the shade from the parking garage in the summer is better than having to walk in the sun or rain. Having the ability to visit spontaneously is better for these locals who may suddenly decide to visit after work.
Again, this is our opinion, and we realize that our situation, as locals, is different from that of visitors/tourists. As the blog says, Your Mileage May Vary.
#stayhealthy #staysafe #washyourhands #wearamask
Like this post? Please share it! We have plenty more just like it and would love it if you decided to hang around and get emailed notifications of when we post. Or maybe you’d like to join our Facebook group – we have 14,000+ members and we talk and ask questions about travel (including Disney parks), creative ways to earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points, how to save money on or for your trips, get access to travel articles you may not see otherwise, etc. Whether you’ve read our posts before or this is the first time you’re stopping by, we’re really glad you’re here and hope you come back to visit again!
This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary