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 slowly declining service level, Universal is making rapid gains. In 2014, the opening of the Diagon Alley area of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter turned the resort into a destination people will tour over 3 days rather than two. Universal's resort is also easier to roam than Disney's: It's walkable or traversed by quick, free ferries, so you can park your car and forget about it—no waiting for crowded buses.
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 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.
Just like with He Who Must Not Be Named, there was always a master plan for a total domination. In 2014, Universal cut the ribbon on a brilliant new idea never tried before in theme parks. After the 2010 addition of Islands of Adventure’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Hogsmeade proved to be an unprecedented blockbuster—it added a second Harry Potter land, Diagon Alley, in the other park, Universal Studios. Here’s the genius part—they are linked by a special-effects-laden train that requires guests to purchase a ticket to both parks to see everything. Universal’s parent company, Comcast, marshals its many holdings, including NBC, to promote the destination with the intention of sapping traffic from rival Disney.
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, and the 2014 opening of Cabana Bay, now it largest hotel, finally gave economy visitors an on-property roost. 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 now that the second Harry Potter section has opened, though, 2 days is the new minimum requirement. In any event, bopping between the two parks isn’t hard, since their entrances are a 5-minute stroll apart or you can take a dazzling connecting train.
General information: 407/363-8000; www.universalorlando.com
Guest services: 407/224-4233
Hotel reservations: 888/273-1311
Vacation packages: 877/801-9720; www.universalorlandovacations.com
Lost and found: 407/224-4233, option 2