Hey, Snobbies! It’s me: Jordie-Bear, reporting live from my little nest in Texas.
It’s been a while. We’ve missed you. And with our return, we are so excited to be launching a website so that we can stay better connected with you, our not-so-little Disney/Universal fam.
Things have changed since we’ve last talked, and we’ll get into that soon. Our first podcast will document all kinds of new beginnings since we last spoke: a proposal, a marriage, a baby. Morg and I have been busy! But for now, this post is a deep-dive into my recent February 2023 trip to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Here we go!
It had been three years since I last went to Disney and Universal, and so much has changed. I’ll be honest: I was shocked by some of our experiences, let down by others, and at times (somehow) pleasantly surprised. How do Disney and Universal still manage to surprise us all these years later? I think the best way to document what went down—the good, the bad, and (yes) the ugly—is to go park-by-park and truly deep-dive into my time at the most magical place(s) on Earth.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS/ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE (February 10, 11 and 12)
My husband Ryan and I decided that the most cost-effective (and coolest) way to truly “do Universal” was to spend our first two nights at the Portofino Bay resort on Universal property—and I am so happy we did! If you want to read more about Portofino Bay Hotel, and why I absolutely recommend it, please visit our blog post “How Universal Studios Orlando’s Portofino Bay Hotel Blew Me Away.”
But for now, let’s focus on the parks.
I am so happy to report that Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure have really stepped up their game. I have a feeling they used the last few years as an opportunity to embrace the need for change—and unlike Disney (sadly), they changed for the better! I used to believe that Disney World won the day in this category hands-down, but following the pandemic, I now categorize this as a true “toss-up.” I’m talking about the employees and “cast members.”
Both at the hotel and in the parks—and even on CityWalk—Universal cast members were incredibly helpful, cheerful and kind. They were often focused on Ryder’s experience and interacted with him in a way that was great for kids. The water taxi drivers welcomed him on the boat and even invited him to the front, where he had a great view of the lake and surrounding buildings. At Mythos, our waitress was patient and spoke to Ryder with a big smile on her face.
All the characters were fun and spirited, and the cast members posted up outside of the attractions were always happy to see us. That’s how it felt, anyway. There was only one cast member who seemed glum (he was working at Suess Landing), and quite honestly, I think he was just having a bad day. Who doesn’t have one of those every once in a while? Overall, I was so impressed by the employees at Universal Studios Orlando.
Now, for the parks themselves: I’m going to move through this part quickly, because not much has changed. Let’s start with:
Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure Wins:
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure: While the line is long, it is worth the wait (no matter what the wait is). The is the coolest rollercoaster I have ever been on, and while I had ridden it before, I felt surprised again and again. I don’t think the Imagineers have the edge on rides that they used to. Universal has completely stepped up their game, especially in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Pro-tip here: try to ride on the motorcycle if you can (instead of the sidecar), and go on it at night.
- Ride Cues: Disney does this well too, but starting the story off in the line is so important for little riders because it keeps them entertained. Ryder, our “little rider,” was so distracted by the cues that he often forgot to keep walking when the line started moving.
- Express Pass: Maybe this is a hot take, but Universal does Express Passes way better than Disney does. Genie, and Genie+, are a bit confusing to master, and oftentimes we ended up paying more to hop in Lightning Lanes (Disney’s version of the Express Lane) which still took a long time to get through.
- Most Underrated Attraction: The Mummy. I will never understand why so many of my Universal park-goers skip this attraction. Guys—it may look small from the outside, but this thrilling attraction (with my guy Brendon Fraser) is one of the coolest coasters on property. Plus, it’s a long ride.
- Easy to navigate walkways: Something about the flow of Universal makes it easier to navigate than most Disney parks, in my opinion.
- Gift Shops: Watch out moms and dads, because Universal’s end-of-ride giftshops are more appealing (and distracting) than ever before. Our little cutie wanted a toy in every shop, and I found 10+ shirts I couldn’t live without (except I didn’t get any of them and I’m still alive and kicking, so I promise you will survive too).
- Best Snack: It depends. In my opinion, the popcorn is better than Disney’s, the churro is the perfect on-the-road dessert, and the turkey leg, while not my personal favorite, has a real cult following (our sister Madison turns into a walking turkey leg every Universal trip).
- Mythos: This in-park restaurant is a family must-do every vacation. The food is amazing (the Fork, Knife and Spoon Grilled Cheese is illegal in seven states because it’s too delicious. Not really but kind of), and the atmosphere is a 10/10. You truly feel like you’re living in the Greek mythology age, and Zeus is your dad, and you’re waiting in this beautiful cave mansion for him to get home so you can hear how his day at work went.
- CityWalk: This is kind of like Universal’s version of the World Showcase, except minus the countries and, in their place, you get huge, vibrant restaurants and live music. My favorites include: Vivo, BigFire, and Hardrock Café (this is mostly for the atmosphere). Also, note that Hardrock Café is actually located in between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure Losses:
- Cleanliness/Attraction Upkeep: Like Portofino Bay, the parks seem to cut corners when it comes to the visual elements, from chipped paint to weathered benches to dirty ride cues.
- Frequent Ride Delays: Some of the older rides shut down so frequently that we had to leave the lines and return hours later. Spider-Man was by far the worst offender!
- Bathrooms: Unlike Disney World, Universal doesn’t really theme their restrooms (with the exception of the Wizarding World) and they are typically less clean than Disney’s. That being said, Disney’s restrooms were lacking the cleanliness they usually boast (does this have something to do with the lay-offs?)
- Lacking a Little *Magic*: Don’t get me wrong: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are definitely magical, but walking into the park on the Universal Studios side is just lackluster. I’m really hoping that Epic Universe will pour a lot of creativity into the entrance of the park, making it nostalgic for all of the kiddos who will grow up with it.
Now, let’s rate the restaurants we went to:
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
We went here because we thought Ryder would love it (mostly because of the massive milkshakes) and he did! However, the food wasn’t great (I don’t recommend the flatbreads) and I don’t love character visits when you don’t know who the characters are.
Reference above. In short, I love it here!
Sitting outside at Vivo when the weather is nice and crowd-watching is now one of my favorite pastimes. If you like Italian food, I highly recommend. I also recommend: the lasagna!
Hard Rock Café
With the Hard Rock, what you see is what you get. That’s why I love it here. The vibe, the food, and the experience (not to mention the fun gift shop) are so worth the drop-in.
Service: 9/10 (We had the best server)
Overall, how was my experience at Universal Studios Orlando?
Improvement Score (Scale -5 to 5): +2
DISNEY WORLD (February 13, 14 and 15)
13th: Animal Kingdom, Epcot
14th: Magic Kingdom, Epcot
15th: Hollywood Studios, Epcot
*We park-hop and end every day at Epcot*
For our days at Disney World, we stayed at Yacht Club, which is located on The Boardwalk and is truly one of the best positioned resorts on Disney property. With access to the Skyliner and the Monorail, traveling in between parks has never been easier. But there is so much more to this resort than a great location. If you want to check out my review of Yacht Club, please visit our blog post: “Why the Yacht Club at Disney World is an Underrated Deluxe Resort that Deserves Your Attention.”
The Yacht Club is Ryan’s favorite resort because of the location, but it now is his favorite for other reasons, too. This trip, we stayed on the fifth floor, which is the Regatta Club at Yacht. WOW! This was our first time staying Club Level at a Disney resort and I think I’ve turned into a lifer. I cannot, CANNOT express how much of a game-changer this was for our family. With a personal concierge and free breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and water at any time of day, we’ve never felt so prepared to tackle the parks.
Cast members at Yacht Club are next level; we didn’t have one bad interaction. Everyone we passed greeted us in the hallways, and after a bout of the stomach bug (THIS WAS SO DEPRESSING), they cleaned our rooms twice a day and even gifted Ryder with a plush Mickey, a coloring book, and a personal note.
While we never could move our lunch and dinner reservations successfully after being thrown off by a 24-hour bug, we weren’t charged the cancellation fee due to being under the weather, and at 12:00 PM one night, when Ryan was getting sick, the front desk opened up the gift shop for me so I could purchase anti-nausea medication. When I say that the service at the Yacht Club was next level, I am not lying.
Unfortunately, the service inside the parks was a little different. The cast members seemed less cheerful, less inclined to “play the role” of the “we’re happy you’re here” greeters that I grew up with. Honestly, some of them were downright rude; one of the cast members waving us forward in line was so unpleasant that I felt inclined to distract my son so he wouldn’t be disturbed by the behavior. At one of our favorite restaurants in Epcot, we were one of the last families of the night, and the waitstaff was so anxious for us to get up and leave that we couldn’t even enjoy ourselves. We felt rushed and ended up stuffing our faces just so they wouldn’t keep waiting around our table like bored puppies. And then, weirdest of all, there were so many more adults in Disney parks than families with children.
I know that this may seem nitpicky or even stupid to point out, but it did change the experience a little bit. Disney World, for the first time in my life, felt less magical and childlike and more—oh my days, I cannot believe I’m about to say this—theme park-y. Is this because of the economy? The political turmoil? Due to the lackluster “plus-ing” of the theme parks in the last half-decade? I’m not sure, but I do know that less kids at Disney World felt really . . . off.
But it wasn’t all bad.
Disney World Wins:
- Cosmic Rewind: Whew! Because of the way Genie+ is set up, and because Disney World has been restricting cues for new rides since the introduction of Rise of the Resistance in late 2019, getting a spot in line is hard. Not everyone will have a chance to ride Cosmic Rewind, because the virtual cue lines on the My Disney Experience app fill up fast. But due to after-park Magic Hours (which you get when you stay at a Deluxe resort), we were lucky. Ryder was barely tall enough for this indoor coaster, and the ride shut down not once but twice, but we made it through the cue (which was pretty awesome) and eventually hopped on. And WOW! This is a rollercoaster with new technology that can’t really be explained on paper. There’s a track, and the vehicle remains on the track, but your personal cart spins around in different directions at the same time. It’s a one-of-a-kind ride that is now one of my top three favorite rides at Disney World.
- Gift Shops: No one has better merch than an in-park Disney store. With merchandise regularly being replaced, there’s something new every time you visit.
- Joffrey’s: From giant donuts to creamy chai tea lattes, Joffrey’s is always a must-do. My favorite location: outside the Tower of Terror exit. Is this spot ever busy?
- Clean Walkways: While the bathrooms left something to be desired this time around, the walkways were flawless.
- Harmonious: OH MY DAYS. Family, I have never—I repeat, NEVER—cared about the firework shows at Disney World. The only time I really enjoyed it was when we were able to sit on a barge with our boy Frank as he explained the entire show to us in detail. This was years ago. But now, Harmonious is here. And times have changed. And I’m a mom of two. Fireworks now feel . . . surreal. This firework show gave me chills the entire show through. As we sprinted through the park to hop on Cosmic Rewind, we all became distracted by what I believe the be the most beautiful and moving fireworks display I have ever seen. Highly recommend.
- Space 220: Epcot’s new(ish) restaurant Space 220 is certainly an experience! The small details made dining in space feel like a reality, and I was extremely surprised by the quality of the food since I have heard mixed reviews. To me, it was a slam-dunk (I will say: Ryder was a little freaked out by the idea that we’d left Earth, but once he got his kids’ souvenir cup, he settled in just fine).
- Some Things Never Change: Disney (mostly) understands the importance of nostalgia and doesn’t touch the parks’ decades-old winners. From the Tower of Terror to the Sci-Fi Diner to different shops and photo-ops, Disney serves as a time capsule. RIP The Great Movie Ride.
Disney World Losses:
- There is No Off-Season: Disney World is always in high demand, no matter the time of year. February kind of felt like spring break.
- The Cast Members Just Weren’t the Same: I’m not sure if the Cast Members feel overworked and underpaid or if they just switched up their hiring process, but there is a crisis going on at Disney Theme Parks that Bob Iger and upper management should be paying attention to.
- Too Many Jobs to Do, Too Little Staff: From unclean bathrooms to messy and unorganized cue entries, it sometimes felt like a big circus. Yikes!
- The Crowds Didn’t Seem Happy; They Looked Tired and Unsatisfied: This was the weirdest twist in the Twilight Zone yet. What is up with the crowds? I couldn’t understand why the air in Disney was so different this time. Were people just devastated by how expensive Disney has gotten? Or were they disenchanted for the same reasons I was? Things felt different in Disney—there’s no denying that. I hope whatever is missing will be replenished, stat. Don’t let the magic die!
- The Guest Does Not Come First: This one is a big ouch for Disney. Whether it’s navigating the difficult Genie+ or trying to snag or move a reservation (or even grabbing some quick service food), things have gotten out of control at Disney. The entire time I was there, I kept thinking about how Universal treated us versus how Disney treated us. With the exception of the Yacht Club, Disney staff acted like we were roaming tourists; Universal acted like we were welcomed guests.
- Ratatouille is Cute, But Hard to Sit Through: This might be an unpopular opinion, but my husband, son and I all left the ride feeling extremely dizzy. This revered attraction, in our opinion, goes to show you that not everything new works all the time. That being said, that scene in the pantry (or maybe it was a fridge), with the larger-than-life sacks of flower and cheese wheels was too cool. More of this and less in-your-face, 3D, moving screen moments, please.
- Is Disney World the Most Magical Place on Earth Anymore? This one is hard to answer, but for me, the answer is still yes. I do believe that Disney has a lot to work through in the post-pandemic age. Things need to be improved upon, and it’s going to take time and money. We need creativity, imagination, and to refocus on what makes Disney so great, which is childlike wonder. I hope and pray those in charge at Disney will wake up and start taking these concerns seriously, because while we had a blast, when we left, my husband looked at me and said, “Let’s skip a year and go back in 2025.” Yikes.
Now, let’s rate the restaurants we went to:
San Angel Inn
This must-do restaurant in Epcot is located in the Mexico pavilion and is my favorite place to dine in all of Disney World (I suppose it’s tied with Sci-Fi). That being said, someone tell the chef to stop changing the menu! They still have the pollo a las rajas, but guys! It includes potatoes now, not rice. Ugh! It just wasn’t as good.
La Cava Del Tequila
Came for the avocado margaritas, stayed for the queso. A cool hole-in-the-wall tequila bar that few know about. We met a great dad-daughter duo who were celebrating his lay-off (because he was moving on to bigger and better things) and stuffed our faces with the best queso and guac ever. Side note: our server was the best server of the whole trip! We talked about him for ten minutes after we left.
Atmosphere: 7/10 (it’s great, just small)
Prepare yourselves, fam. It’s not good. While Via Napoli has been a family favorite for years, this time was different. Unfortunately, this is the beloved Epcot restaurant that let us down (as stated earlier). Our server was pleasant, but everyone else wanted us to hurry up so they could go home. It was uncomfortable and the pizza wasn’t their best. I still recommend Via Napoli because it’s normally a show-stopper, but this trip we were disappointed. Signed, seriously underwhelmed.
Be Our Guest: Canceled due to stomach bug
Sci-Fi Diner: Canceled due to stomach bug
Cape May Café: Canceled due to stomach bug
If you’re wondering: no, the stomach big did not play any role in our comparisons between Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando. The truth is, the Yacht Club staff was so incredible when we got sick that if anything, it would have improved our interpretation of our trip. When it comes down to it, I think Disney has some soul searching to do. We still loved it. I will return next year, with or without the husband, to wheel around my two little besties! But I am hoping, praying, that when we do, Disney will feel like its old self again. A girl can dream, anyway.