Sorry for the lateness of this, I meant to write it up weeks ago but life got in the way!
So here I am, a little over two months later, reflecting on the trip as a whole. There were for sure some surprises, some absolutely thrilling moments, and some crushing disappointments, but overall this was just such a delightful trip. I’m so glad that we went, L and I both were thrilled. It was the right mix of relaxing and busy, and juuuuuuust long enough that we desperately wanted to go home at the end of it.
Disney vs. Universal
“Disney Rival Six Flags Adds New Rollercoaster!”
“Universal’s Epic Universe Is Coming — Should Disney Be Worried?”
“10 Reasons Why Disney Is Getting Its Ass Handed To It By GenericPark2000!”
Headlines like these seem to be all over the place the last couple of days, and I can’t help but wonder if there is too much cocaine in the cornflakes of the theme park press.
Disney doesn’t have a true competitor in their space. Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Park, none of these companies are in the same business as Disney. They’re all in the rides business, Disney is in the experience business.
I spoke a bit about this during my post for Day 11, but I wanted to elaborate a little bit on things. My background is in technology, but I’ve built a number of businesses and built expertise around ensuring customer delight, both in the digital world and the real one, so I might be hyper-sensitive to things around that. Be warned.
When I was doing research for my trip, over the last 4 years or so, I started following a lot of blogs and YouTube channels built around Disney. Many of them breathlessly wondered if Universal Studios was going to gasp overtake Disney, and if Disney had something to fear from the juggernaut of the coming Epic Universe.
No, Disney doesn’t have anything to fear. The experiences are so night-and-day different.
When we returned, L and I were talking to family about our trip, and she said something that has really stuck with me: she thought that Disney was going to be like a better version of Canada’s Wonderland (our local rollercoaster park here in Toronto, it’s fine, but it’s like a 6 Flags or Cedar Fair, mostly about thrill rides and not really about ambience or theming). What she realized was that was actually the way Universal Studios was, and Disney was much more experiential.
Universal Studios (and the other parks) won’t “win” because they don’t care about the little interactions, only the big ones. They have giant rollercoasters that turn you inside out, and they have some really gorgeous theming, but that’s where it ends. The Harry Potter areas are a great example! Sure, they look pretty great, but every time I bought a butterbeer it was from someone who was working for Universal Studios, but when I bought a Coke from a similar vendor in Galaxy’s Edge, I was buying it from a vendor who lived on Batuu, and they engaged with me as such.
The food at Universal is what you’d expect at a theme park: mediocre with some nice highlights. Disney consistently thrilled us, even quick service places.
There are legitimate reasons to go to one over the other: if you primarily care about biggest, fastest, most thrilling, Universal is the way to go. If you’re looking for something uniquely available at Universal (such as Harry Potter or Jurassic Park), then it’s a no-brainer. Money: that’s totally legit. But if you’re going to judge your time based on the experience as a whole, the more subtle hits of joy that come from mundane interactions being delightful, Disney is going to blow you the fuck away.
I’m planning to do the Galactic Starcruiser in 2024 with another partner, and after discussions with L, we’d both consider going to Aulani over some other Hawaii resort, simply because our interactions at Disney World were so top-notch.
The Perils of Aging: Motion Sickness
Imagine my horror when I realized a few years ago that I was starting to get motion sick on rides. As a life-long thrill-seeker, it hurt my heart to discover many of my favourite rides made me sick. I started using the ear-patches, but those little miracles were discontinued in March this year, and neither L nor I had any left by the time we realized.
I wish we’d looked into taking Gravol, to see if it’d help and not make us too groggy, but we decided to tough it out with mixed results. L was far more affected than I was, but it was still hard at times.
Real bad: Star Tours, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Transformers 3D, generally most screen-based rides especially if they were 3D (I’m looking at you, 60% of Universal’s rides!)
Not great: Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run (I was mostly ok, L was not).
Mostly OK: Cosmic Rewind (after 2 rides, L was done for the day, but would ride it again; I was 100% fine), Space Mountain (a little rough for multiple rides)
A+ would ride again: Rise of the Resistance, Runaway Railway, Rock’n’Rollercoaster, Slinky Dog Dash, Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-rat Barges (dress for it, but SO FUN, no motion sickness at all!) , Velocicoaster (L didn’t go on this, but motion sickness didn’t affect me at all).
Whoa. Some of the best meals of my life were at Disney World. Victoria and Albert’s is in the top 5 meals of my life and I strongly recommend it. Sell your kids or an organ, and indulge. Other highlights: Jiko, Nomad Lounge, Ohana (that bread pudding!), Skipper Canteen, and California Grill. Nothing at Universal was notable, though butterbeer is excellent.
Food at Disney requires a bit of research, I found the Disney Food Blog YouTube channel a pretty helpful resource, their blog itself is a mess that’s impossible to find anything good on. I also found their guides pretty terribly formatted and hard to use.
Theme Park View, Club Level. This was an amazing hotel stay. Club Level was worth it for us, primarily because we had separate food service from the rest of the hotel during the hurricane, which meant no long, long lines. After a day or two, I was worried it was mostly too much money for too little benefit, but the power of nature increased the value significantly. It was also handy to grab and go something quickly whenever we wanted, often for breakfasts on park days. However, I don’t think I’d do club level again.
The theme park view was absolutely worth the price. We stayed on the third floor, with a view that can’t be accurately be replicated in photos (the castle always looks far away in photos; in reality, it looks much closer). I know this isn’t the most accessible stay for many people, but in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: if you have the means, I highly recommend it.
Our room was perhaps a bit loud, we could often hear families in the hall laughing or fighting, and the fireworks music and light parade on the lake were often pretty loud, though we were often sleeping by the time they started.
We watched a fair amount of TV, what with the hurricane and all, and it was really good. Nice that we could easily connect our phones and stream Disney+.
Quieter, and very nice to have a king-sized bed at last. The room was pretty plain, and the view was fine, looking over the bay with the boats in it.
At night we watched TV a bit, and the goddamned picture smoothing was on, with no way to turn it off. This is another benefit of staying at Disney resorts that are run by Disney: they care about details like this. You’d think that Universal Studios would care about the movie-watching experience in their hotels, except they’re NOT their hotels, they’re Lowes, who evidently doesn’t give a crap about how anything looks or sounds.
The whole check-in, then go to another place to get your tickets process is ridiculous, another terrible experience that I assume is because Universal doesn’t operate the hotel.
I’ve previously stayed at the Royal Pacific, and preferred it to Portofino. I didn’t go there this visit because I didn’t want a direct comparison to the Polynesian, but that happened anyway. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
This really was a dream trip. For all my kvetching and whinging, this was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip. Both L and I had a really great time, it wasn’t too negatively affected by the weather, aside from a brief hurricane, and really taught me a thing or two about crafting great experiences.
Using BG1 was a serious boon, like having a super power. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So much Cosmic Rewind was had because of it. So much.
What would I do differently?
- No club level
- Universal first, for a shorter amount of time
- Gravol experiments
- Research restaurants at Universal more closely. I’m sure there’s some goodish ones, I just never found them
Thanks for following along with my nonsense for so long. I hope to do this again when I go with B to do Galactic Starcruiser and a shorter, moderate hotel stay in 2024.