Universal operates best (but not exclusively) on the resort model—stay here, play here—and it helps that its campus is easier to roam than Disney’s: It’s walkable or traversed by quick, free ferries or buses, so you can park your car and forget about it. 
There are two traditional theme parks, Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure (a third park, Epic Universe, has been announced for 2025), and one cutting-edge water slide park, Volcano Bay.

You’d be remiss if you left town without seeing at least two of Disney’s parks, but the design chutzpah is happening at Universal—many observers agree that the spectacular Wizarding World of Harry Potter trumps anything else in America's theme park industry. Thanks to these top-notch parks, there’s now a true threat to Disney’s dominance, and as more people grow annoyed with Disney’s declining service level and money grabs, Universal is making rapid gains.
There's a Wizarding World of Harry Potter area in each of the theme parks, so if you want to see them both, you have to purchase a ticket to both of its parks. Unless crowds are insanely nutty, such as before Halloween Horror Nights or during Christmas week, the two main parks take about 2 days to see adequately. Most of the time, lines are nowhere near as long as they are at Disney. With a two-park pass and a willingness to bypass lesser attractions, for now you can see the highlights in a marathon day, provided at least one of the parks stays open until 9 or 10pm. (If you want to see Volcano Bay, you need an additional day.)

Bopping between the two theme parks is quick and easy, since their entrances are a 5-minute stroll apart, or a quick ride on the incredible Hogwarts Express connecting train. 

HISTORY—The opening of Universal Studios in 1990 heralded a new era for Orlando tourism. Instead of merely duplicating its original Hollywood location, which is on a historic movie studio lot, Universal Orlando built a full-fledged all-day amusement park.

While its opening was famously troubled, there was little doubt that Universal’s innovations, when they worked, instantly raised the bar for amusement parks worldwide. A chief advance was that almost all of its attractions were indoors—even the thrills. Given Florida’s scorching sun and unpredictable rains, this leap shouldn’t have been as novel as it was. While Disney, still working on a California model, allowed its guests to twiddle thumbs in the cruel heat as they waited in line, Universal’s multistage queuing system kept them entertained and air-conditioned while they waited. Therefore, Universal Studios is the park you should choose on rainy days or excessively hot ones. (At Islands of Adventure, though, many of thrill rides travel outdoors and will shut down at the hint of lightning.) Even the covered parking garages at Universal Orlando (shared by both parks and CityWalk) were surprisingly novel for Florida.

Disney was clearly spooked. It hastily banged out a movies-themed park of its own, Disney–MGM Studios (now called Hollywood Studios). It was a rush job, lacking the organization and thematic quality that made its previous two parks such smashes, and today it’s the least popular Disney park.

Throughout the 1990s, Universal’s one-park setup meant it mostly grabbed visitors on day trips from Disney. That changed—and the fight got ruthless—in the summer of 1999, when a second, $2.6-billion park, Islands of Adventure, made its dazzling debut. Universal broke the bank, even poaching Imagineers. Universal’s domain has further expanded to include the nightlife district CityWalk and four fun hotels.

Universal's two parks combined still only fetch a third of the visitors attracted by Disney's four, but that proportion is growing by the year. Most of the time, lines are nowhere near as long as they are at Disney. Unless crowds are insanely huge (such as before Halloween Horror Nights events or during Christmas week), Universal takes about 2 days to adequately see. With a two-park pass and a willingness to bypass lesser attractions, you could see only highlights in 1 marathon day, provided at least one of the parks stays open until 9 or 10pm, but ideally, 2 days is the minimum requirement. In any event, bopping between the two "dry" parks isn’t hard, since their entrances are a 5-minute stroll apart or you can take that dazzling connecting train.


General information: www.universalorlando.com; 407/363-8000
Guest services: 407/224-4233
Hotel reservations: 888/273-1311
Dining reservations: 407/224-3663
Vacation packages: www.universalorlandovacations.com; [tel] 877/801-9720
Lost and found: 407/224-4233, option 2
Twitter: tag @UniversalORL or #AskUniversal—it responds quickly