Stepping through the mirror: Comparing California's Disney and Universal attractions to their Orlando versions

Stepping through the mirror: Comparing California's Disney and Universal attractions to their Orlando versions
Photo via Disney Parks

Greetings from the Golden State to the Sunshine State: The weather is here, wish you were fine! While Orlando has been "enjoying" temperatures in the 50s, I've been spending the past week basking in summer-like Southern California, exploring our theme parks' West Coast siblings.

Visiting Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood is a bit like stepping into a mirror universe; Mickey may not sport an Evil Spock goatee out here, but there are enough subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between the coasts to disorient even the most dedicated park-goer. While I wouldn't want the resorts to be clones of each other, here are a few features I discovered in LaLa Land that I demand they "bring to Orlando!"

Disneyland Resort is significantly smaller than Walt Disney World in acreage, but it's superior in every other category that counts, from attraction quality (and quantity) to upkeep. Huge chunks of both parks – from Sleeping Beauty Castle and Splash Mountain to Soarin' and World of Color in California Adventure – are currently closed in preparation for the resort's upcoming 60th anniversary. Even so, there's still more to do there than at any WDW park, thanks to only-in-Anaheim experiences like these:

Running of the Goats: WDW's Animal Kingdom has a petting zoo, but it's an inconvenient train ride away from everything else. Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch is centrally located and features a herd of affectionate pygmy goats that I've grown ridiculously fond of. Best of all, at the end of each day, the goats are led en masse back to their beds in an adorable alternative to Pamplona's bull run. I'd post a video, but that much cute could kill the Internet.

Big Thunder Mountain: When WDW refurbished their Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, they added interactive doodads to the queue but didn't do diddly to the actual attraction. Disneyland completely replaced their track, making it smooth as a runaway mine train could be, and added dynamite projection mapping effects to the finale. We want moar 'splosions!

Fantasyland enhancements: Speaking of projection mapping, Fantasyland's Alice in Wonderland dark ride was recently redone with video effects that enhance the nearly 60-year-old classic without corrupting its charm; similar upgrades are planned for Peter Pan and pals. WDW's Pan and Pooh rides look pretty pathetic in comparison, even with their interactive queues.

Royal Theatre Frozen Show:I thought the Frozen sing-along at Disney's Hollywood Studios was the most subversive show in Disney's repertoire, but the storytelling at Disneyland's Fantasy Faire is even snarkier. This RenFest-esque "rough theater" ridicules its Elsa-obsessed audience, roping in references to Star Wars, the Haunted Mansion and even Les Miz; the gags may go over kids' heads, but grown-ups get it.

Better burgers: WDW's fast food is almost uniformly awful, with their hamburgers being particularly bad. But just outside DCA, inside the Grand Californian hotel's Whitewater Snacks, they serve one of the best burgers ever: a huge juicy patty topped with guacamole, pico de gallo and piles of carnitas pork. Eighty-six the fried shrimp burger from Hollywood Studios' ABC Commissary and serve this instead! And for the vegetarians, please bring over the fried green tomato sandwiches from Hungry Bear Restaurant.

As a theme park, Universal Orlando is superior to Universal Hollywood in almost every respect, especially with the studio currently a maze of construction walls. Hollywood's handful of rides are all the same or better in Florida, and their unique attractions – like King Kong 360/3-D – often migrate east in improved forms. But the 50-year-old attraction does do a couple of things better than its younger brother:

Universal Experience Museum: This well-curated walk-through exhibit displays artifacts from the studio tour's storied past, including animatronic Cylons and the original Back to the Future DeLorean. USF was rumored to be getting a similar museum for Florida's 25th anniversary, but recent construction permits refer to an "NBC Universal Media Lab" instead, whatever the heck that is.

Super Silly Fun Land: Wanna get wet? USF's Curious George playground (which is likely on the chopping block) is similar to USH's new Despicable Me water playground, but not nearly as cool. Because: Minions!

VIP Tour: I've taken Universal Orlando's VIP tour several times, and while skipping the lines at Potter is nice, it has nothing on Hollywood's VIP service. Orlando can't compete with the opportunity to walk the studio's famous backlot (selfies in front of Hill Valley's courthouse!), but they could give you a gourmet breakfast and lunch and include park admission in the $299 price, like Hollywood does.

Guest recovery: When a ride breaks down at UOR, you're lucky if you get a skip-the-line return ticket. When the same happens at USH, everyone gets free jelly beans! Sometimes, it's the little things.


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