Disneyland vs Universal Studios – Which Park Is Best?

Disneyland California and Universal Studios Hollywood both boast a range of roller coasters, character meet-and-greets, shows and entertainment, but which one is best?

If you’re travelling with young children then we’d recommend the Disney parks over Universal Hollywood since there are more rides & attractions for their height & interests. However, if you’re on an adults-only trip or travelling with teens then Universal Studios is likely to be the better option.

That’s because Universal Studios has more mature thrill rides and theming alongside, what we believe to be the best attraction at the park, a one-hour Studio Tour of one of the largest TV and film studios in Southern California.

What’s The Difference Between Universal Hollywood And Disneyland?

There are an extensive number of differences between Universal Hollywood and Disney California starting with the companies who own each theme park.

Universal Hollywood, is owned by NBCUniversal while Disney California is owned by the Walt Disney Company.

Universal Hollywood is also a working production studio. As such TV shows and films are being shot in studios adjacent to the theme park. Meanwhile, Disney California is a dedicated theme park.

Disney California is also significantly older (having opened on the 17th of July 1955) and subsequently more nostalgic than Universal Studios (which opened on the 15th of July 1964).

However, while Disney California may be older, Universal’s movie studio actually dates back to 1912.

Universal Hollywood is located between Burbank and Beverly Hills close to the Hollywood Sign. Meanwhile, Disney California is located 40 miles away over in Anaheim.

The final major difference between the two theme parks is their structure. Universal Studios Hollywood is very much independent, and while there are some nearby hotels none are ‘on-site’.

Meanwhile, Disney California is made up of two theme parks (Disneyland and Disney California Adventure) and has a number of on-site hotels which give it a more ‘resort-like’ feel.

Which Park Is Bigger Universal Hollywood Or Disneyland?

Despite having a working TV and film studio attached to the theme park, Universal Studios Hollywood is significantly smaller than Disney California which is more of a resort-based theme park.

This means that even during the peak season, most visitors to Universal Hollywood can see everything the theme park has to offer in a single day.

Meanwhile, Disney California is made up of two theme parks (in contrast to Universal’s one) and a number of on-site hotels.

While it is possible to visit both Disneyland theme parks in a single day, or even spend one day at each of the parks it can often be a whirlwind and result in you missing selected rides or finer details – especially during the peak season.

As a result, we often recommend three days at Disney California.

Who Has The Cheapest Ticket Prices Universal Hollywood Or Disneyland?

If you’re travelling on a budget then you’ll likely want to be conscious as to how much it costs to visit each of these theme parks, and one of the largest cost factors is the park tickets themselves.

The cost of a ticket to both Universal Studios and Disneyland depends on a number of factors including;

  • Time of year
  • Day of the week
  • Number of days
  • Guests age(s)
  • California residents

For example, park tickets for mid-week in the off-season are often $10 to $30 cheaper per person, per day when compared to weekends in the peak season.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Since Universal Studios Hollywood is a single park (unlike the two theme parks at the Disneyland Resort) the ticketing system is significantly more straightforward.

A one-day park ticket generally costs between $109 and $129 per person, plus tax.

Meanwhile, a two-day park ticket costs between $149 and $169 per person, plus tax – although, given the size of the park we think a two-day ticket is an overkill for most people.

Disneyland

Given that Disney California is more of a resort than Universal Studios Hollywood (complete with two theme parks and a number of on-site hotels) it’s no surprise that the variety of park tickets is more extensive and complex.

A one-day park ticket generally costs between $104 and $154 per person, plus tax. However, this increases to between $159 and $209 if you’re looking to park-hop between both Disney California and Disney California Adventure.

Meanwhile, a two-day ticket generally costs around $235 per person, plus tax increasing to around $290 for the addition of a park-hopper.

For those looking to extend to three days, you’ll generally be looking at around $310 per person, plus tax increasing to around $365 per person, plus tax for a park-hopper.

Four and five-day tickets are also available, however, based on our experience (even when travelling with kids) three days is generally enough to cover both parks.

If you decide that Disneyland is the right park for you, then after purchasing your ticket to the park you'll need to use the Disney reservation systems to reserve your entry into the park. 

Without both a park ticket and a reservation you will be denied entry.

Ticket Enhancements

Both Disneyland and Universal provide a number of enhancements to your ticket to allow you to have a unique experience or skip the standby line on numerous rides within the park.

At Universal Studios you’ll find a VIP Experience Ticket which costs upwards of $369 per person, plus tax.

This ticket allows you to go behind the scenes with an expert tour guide and includes the benefits of an Express Pass allowing you to skip the line on a number of rides within the park.

Meanwhile, for those looking to maximise their time at the Universal Hollywood park, there is an Express Pass ticket which when purchased with a one-day park ticket generally costs upwards of $189 per person, plus tax (making the Express Pass portion of this ticket roughly around $70 per person, plus tax).

This ticket includes one-time express access to each ride, attraction, and seated show within the Universal Studios park.

Meanwhile, over at Disney California guests can purchase Disneyland Resort VIP Tours which cost upwards of $3,500 plus tax in addition to your park ticket.

The VIP Tour is private and allows you and nine others to enjoy a customisable VIP Tour lasting between 7 and 10 hours in total.

For those looking to enhance their trip to Disneyland without breaking the bank, there’s Disney Genie+ which has replaced the previous Disney FastPass system.

Disney Genie starts at $25 per person, per day plus tax and is to be purchased in addition to your park admission using the Disneyland mobile application.

This service allows you to use Lightning Lane entrances on selected rides by reserving your slot using the Disneyland mobile application.

The process is significantly more limited and complex than the Express Pass at Universal Studios but maybe worthwhile if you find yourself visiting Disney California and not wanting to wait in line.

Annual Passes

Both Universal Studios Hollywood and Disney California offer guests the opportunity to buy an annual pass.

At both theme parks, annual passes come in a range of different options depending on your requirements.

We have in the past owned annual passes to Universal Studios but not to Disneyland California.

At Universal Hollywood, guests can purchase;

  • California Neighbour Pass – $179 (valid for 9 months only & 215 blackout dates)

  • Silver Annual Pass – $219 (90 blackout dates)

  • Gold Annual Pass – $299 (40 blackout dates, 15% off food and drink plus free general parking)

  • Premium Annual Pass – $549 (no blackout dates, 15% off food and drink, free general parking, free Halloween Horror Nights ticket & complimentary Universal Express access after 3pm.

Over at Disneyland, annual passes are known as Magic Keys and come in three different formats;

  • Enchant Key Pass – Significant park blackout dates

  • Believe Key Pass – Still a large number of blackout dates

  • Inspire Key Pass – Still some blackout dates at both parks

You can learn more about the blackout dates for each of the different annual passes at Disneyland on the Disney website.

Which Is More Crowded Disneyland Or Universal Hollywood?

Disneyland California is more popular and more crowded than Universal Hollywood. However, this is also a result of the park’s capacity.

Universal Hollywood has a reported park capacity of around 25,000 people per day. Meanwhile, Disneyland California has a reported park capacity of 85,000 people and generally averages 50,000 people per day.

However, given that Disneyland is significantly larger than Universal Studios, guests are evenly distributed, and as such while there may be on average double the number of guests at the Disneyland parks it doesn’t always feel twice as crowded.

Who Has The Best Rides & Attractions

Disneyland has more rides than Universal Hollywood, even when only factoring in one of the theme parks within the Disneyland California Resort instead of both.

Theme Park# Rides & Attractions
Universal Hollywood12
Disneyland53
Disney California Adventure34

Whether the rides at Disneyland or Disney California Adventure are better than those at Universal Hollywood depends on your height and interests.

Rides & Attractions At Universal Hollywood

Universal Hollywood is split into two areas; the upper lot and the lower lot. Within each lot, you’ll find a number of themed areas including Jurassic World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The most popular rides at Universal Studios Hollywood include;

Backlot Tour – Perhaps the most unique ride at any theme park this one-hour guided tour takes you around the working film and TV studio lot. This tour also includes two attractions; King Kong 360 and Fast & Furious: Supercharged.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – This ride isn’t a rollercoaster, instead, a robotic arm is used to transport you around different scenes from the Harry Potter film in near darkness.

Revenge Of The Mummy: The Ride – This enclosed rollercoaster is one of our personal favourites at Universal Studios Hollywood and see’s you reach speeds of 45mph.

Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash – This is one of the newest rides at Universal Studios and is based around the Secret Life of Pets franchise. The ride experience sees guests transformed into puppies as they go on a journey through the streets of New York City in search of a new home.

Rides & Attractions At Disneyland

Disneyland is just one of the two theme parks at the Disneyland California Resort. This park is the oldest of the two and contains nine different themed areas including;

  • Main Street USA
  • Adventureland
  • New Orleans Square
  • Critter Country
  • Frontierland
  • Mickey’s Toontown
  • Fantasyland
  • Tomorrowland
  • Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge

Meanwhile, some of the top attractions and rides inside this theme park include;

It’s A Small World – The inaugural version of this ride premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before being moved to Disneyland as a permanent attraction in 1966.

Splash Mountain – Based on the 1946 Disney film Song of the South this iconic ride can be found in both Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland and Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Indiana Jones Adventure – This simulation ride sees guests board military troop transport vehicles and accompany Indiana Jones on a turbulent quest through a dangerous subterranean lost temple guarded by a supernatural power.

Pirates of the Caribbean – Situated in New Orleans Square, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was opened in 1967 and was the last ride whose construction was envisioned and personally overseen by Walt Disney, who died three months before it opened.

Rides & Attractions At Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure is the second theme park at the Disneyland Resort in California. Much like Disneyland, this park is split into different themed areas, these include;

  • Buena Vista Street
  • Paradise Gardens
  • Avengers Campus
  • Pixar Pier
  • Cars Land
  • Pacific Wharf
  • Hollywood Land
  • Grizzly Peak

Meanwhile, some of the most popular attractions at this theme park include;

Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! – This ride replaces the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and features the same format (dark accelerated drop tower) albeit with Guardians of the Galaxy theming.

The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure – This ride is fantastic for young children given that it has no height requirement and despite being in relative darkness isn’t very scary.

Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters – This is one of three attractions inside Cars Land, and see’s guests ride in a trackless dancing car with a similar facade to those featured in the Cars films.

Pixar Pal-A-Round – Formerly known as the Sun Wheel and Mickey’s Fun Wheel, this 150-foot-tall wheel is an icon within the Disney California Adventure park. Each gondola is themed to a Pixar character while the wheel itself has a pie-eyed Mickey Mouse face at its centrepiece.

Downtown Disney District vs Universal CityWalk

Both Disneyland California and Universal Hollywood have an open-air entertainment, dining and shopping space attached to their theme park.

At Disneyland California, this is Downtown Disney which is home to a range of table-service and quick-service restaurants including;

  • Tortilla Jo’s
  • Naples Ristorante e Bar
  • Jamba Juice
  • Starbucks

Alongside this, you’ll find the Splitsville Luxury Lanes bowling alley and Ballast Point Brewing Co. serving a range of craft beers on tap.

For those looking to shop, you’ll find a range of high-street stores, independent boutiques and Disney-themed options this includes;

  • Disney Dress Shop
  • The LEGO Store
  • Pandora Jewelry
  • Sephora

Meanwhile, over at Universal Hollywood, the entertainment district is known as CityWalk and much like Downtown Disney it’s made up of more than 30 different quick-service and table-service restaurants including;

  • Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
  • Cinnabon
  • Firehouse Subs
  • Jamba Juice
  • Starbucks

The entertainment here includes the Universal Cinema which features state-of-the-art IMAX with LASER and iFly an indoor skydiving experience suitable for both children and adults.

Finally, for those looking to shop, there’s a range of stores available here including;

  • Abercrombie and Fitch
  • Billabong
  • Dodgers Clubhouse Store
  • Fossil
  • Hot Topic

Entry into both Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney does not require theme park admission, however for those driving to the parks you will (in most case) still need to pay to park in the parking lot.

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