Disney vs. Universal – California Edition

Perhaps you may have seen this photo before:

Disney vs. Universal

Disney vs. Universal

It’s no secret to theme park lovers, fanatics, and Disfans; there is a strong rivalry between two of the greatest theme park brands in the world. This post seeks to compare and contrasts Disneyland Resort with Universal Studios Hollywood. Click here for the Florida edition (including Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando).

While there are diehard fans on both sides, this post will try to remain partial in its rankings of the resorts in ten diverse areas:

Theme Park Locations

Resorts & Entertainment Districts

 Park Theming & Layout

Ticket Prices & Affordability

Attractions (Signature vs. Thrill vs. Mild)


Food & Dining Experiences



Seasonal Festivities


Depending on the route taken and the traffic level (there is always traffic in L.A.!), Universal City, “The Entertainment Capital of L.A.”, lies approximately 45 minutes to an hour north of Anaheim and the “Happiest Place on Earth”. Ideally, both resorts can be explored in one vacation period but this is strongly advised against.

Disneyland Resort is located approximately 30 minutes from the beach in a large metropolitan area. Fortunately, the freeway conveniently leads right onto the resort. Highly visible signage directs motorists to the theme parks, Downtown Disney, and resort hotels. All around the resort city are numerous hotels (ranging from budget-friendly motels to luxurious resorts and spas), restaurants and entertainment districts (i.e. Anaheim’s Garden Walk); all within walking distance to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Parks.

Universal Studios Hollywood is located in the hills of Studio City, a short 10 minute trip to Hollywood attractions, such as the Walk of Fame, wax museums, TCL Chinese Theatre, and the Hollywood & Highland shopping center. That being said, Universal Studios is located near the largest draws for tourists to the Los Angeles area. The theme park itself, however, is only within walking distance to the CityWalk and official resort hotels.


Disneyland Resort(DLR) is composed of two theme parks, one entertainment district, and three hotels. The entire area is highly themed by Disney’s famed Imagineers and has set the bar for resorts worldwide. Though completely dwarfed in scope with the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, the DLR is still immaculately clean and beautiful. The Downtown Disney district offers family-friendly dining experiences, shops, shops, and more shops! In addition, the DLR can be traversed from end to end in a matter of minutes.

Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) is home to the movie and television studios as well as the theme park, two hotels and the CityWalk. Recently, Universal’s owning company Comcast announced major plans to renovate the Universal Studios Hollywood resort by adding new hotels, new venues for CityWalk, and several new attractions for the theme park.  As of writing this, USH is in the midst of construction and renovation, with cranes and temporary boarded walls all over.  Nevertheless, the park, hotel, studio, and CityWalk remain open and fully operational.

Both resorts have movie theaters and areas for live musicians to perform. In addition, both resorts offer parking exclusively for the entertainment district. However, whereas Disney’s Downtown Disney aims for families with children ages four to ten, Universal’s CityWalk is the place of choice for young adults and families with kids in the pre-teens and teenage years. Some venues, such as John Lovitz’s Comedy Club and Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar, is adult-orientated entertainment.


USH is laid out on multiple layers. The Upper lot is home to the shows and family attractions. The Lower lot is where Universal places the thrill rides. The layout of the park does not flow as well as other Universal theme parks, nor does it feel functional (especially with the current construction). However, the recently constructed Universal Plaza Tower does give the park a sense of breathability and acts as a sort of hub for the park. Also, the tower, designed in art deco style, is quite beautiful and adds to the “movie feel” of the park.

DLR serves as the the originator of the hub and spoke layout concept, one that is imitated at nearly every Magic Kingdom-type park worldwide. Each of the lands of Disneyland Park and California Adventure are beautifully and intricately themed and gorgeously laid-out, especially the recent addition of Buena Vista Street and Cars Land in California Adventure. USH, on the other hand, could use a bit more theming than the pervasive movie-studio stucco and decor.


As of writing this, USH’s “buy a day, get the year free” campaign is much more effective than DLR’s astronomical ticket prices. Although DLR has more to offer in the way of shows, attractions, and “things to do”, the day-tickets and annual pass prices are very expensive, especially when compared to USH’s annual pass options.

On the other hand, merchandise and food options are pretty similar at both resorts, with tees costing around $20 and hamburgers costing $10. Disney does offer more elegant dining options within the park and the prices do fluctuate accordingly.

As mentioned above, DLR is surrounded by hotels and motels of all types. While the Disney hotels range from moderately expensive to ultra lavish, off-site options often more variety. Universal’s hotels are offered at a fraction of Disney’s costs, with other hotels located a short shuttle or taxi ride away.


USH’s signature attraction is none other than the famed Studio tour, a 45 minute excursion through Universal’s movie studio and backlots with attractions offered in select soundstages. This is usually the longest line in terms of length, but the wait time usually goes by rather quickly.

USH is best known for its thrill rides. Thrill seekers will find solace in Jurassic Park- The Ride, where they will board water rafts and plunge 84-feet after escaping a terrifying T-Rex. Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride and Transformers are also sure to satisfy thrill seekers, with attractions such s Shrek 4-D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem  rounded off the more mild attractions.

DLR has too many iconic attractions to name. Most notable would be the attractions at Disneyland Park including Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Space Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Visitors will find DLR is home to many thrill rides in addition to the classical mild rides, such as Small World and Peter Pan’s Flight. Thrill seekers will find  California Screamin’, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Splash Mountain to be  big  on thrills!

When it comes to the number of attractions, DLR beats out USH in every area. USH’s attractions can almost be counted on two hands, when DLR needs all the fingers and toes it can get!


Both USH and DLR can experience a multitude on crowds. Tourists should try to avoid the weekends and major holidays when planning a trip to either, if they want room and space to breathe. DLR, however, pulls in the award when it comes to crowds. During Regular seasons, it is not uncommon to find attractions with wait times  45 minutes and longer.  Pathways are filled with strollers and  lines are wrapped around the block (literally).

USH is no stranger to crowds, but, fortunately, wait times are usually no longer than 25 minutes on regular days for main attractions and nearly every ride can be experienced in one day at the theme park (which is great, since Universal usually closes fairly early in the evening).


As mentioned earlier, Disney has more to offer in the ways of elegant table service, with notable dining at Carthay Circle and Blue Bayou Restaurant. USH has little more to offer than theme park food stables (i.e. hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, etc.), except when visiting CityWalk.

Also, as mentioned before, DLR has many other restaurants located within the resort or a short walking distance away. These range from McDonalds, located 5 walking minutes away, to Steakhouse 55, located within the Disneyland Hotel.


Universal’s current roster of shows include: Universal’s Animal Actors, Waterworld, and the Blues Brothers. In addition, there are smaller scale shows (such as the Can-Can dancers on the European streets, and the tap dancers on the New York Streets) and occasional parades that allow meet-and-greets of Hollywood stars such as Beetlejuice, Lucille Ball and Scooby Doo.  Universal’s biggest draw is Waterworld, which includes live performers, stunts, action, and explosions.

Disney’s shows are too numerous to name. The major shows are the afternoon parades in each park and the nighttime spectaculars Fantasmic, fireworks, and World of Color. In addition to this, DLR also offers an Aladdin-style broadway show, Disney Junior show, Mickey and the Magical Map theatrical show, among others.


Both parks feature meet-and-greets with movie characters, but Universal cannot compare to the sheer number of Disney characters available for meet in greets in highly-themed locations (e.g. Mickey Mouse in his residential home location in Toontown). Universal, however, has much shorter lines to meet characters when compared to Disney. Immediately upon entering Disneyland Park’s Town Square visitors are met with Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, and Mickey Mouse himself (Disney’s Big 5!). Universal, on the other hand, lacks major defining characters. The only ones who come remotely close are the Despicable Me minions and the Simpson’s family.  Perhaps this is an area of opportunity for Universal to create a solid foundation for characters that will be readily available to meet in all its studio parks.


Universal’s season festivities can be summarized by two seasons: Holiday (aka Christmas and New Years) and Fall (Halloween).  In between  these two major seasons Universal will observe other traditions, such as  Chinese New Years and Mardi Gras.  The Holiday festivities are dominated by Grinchmas and a seasonal holiday concerts in CityWalk. Fall is characterized mostly by Halloween Horror Nights.

DLR is focused mostly on Christmas and Halloween seasons as well, but, as a result of its size and history, these celebrations are larger in scope.  Disney also observes other holidays, such as Independence Day, Easter, Mardi Gras. Some celebrations, such as Summer, are observed all season long. These celebrations bring even larger numbers of guests to the DLR than usual.



So maybe this post was a little misleading, as there is no “Winner” in this battle royale. Both resorts are awesome and are marketed towards families but in slightly different age ranges. Both resorts offer similar activities and festivities, but in different ways. Which park do you enjoy best?

Hollywood, California


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