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December Vacation: Comparing Amusement Parks in Florida

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Welcome to Florida! Well, not really, but I did recently go to Orlando and Tampa with some friends. It was about two weeks before Christmas and the weather was great even if the crowds were not. Seventy to Eighty degrees in the day time and in the sixties at night. It really was beautiful considering New York was in the low twenties and snowing. Makes me wonder why I moved back.

Me and two guy friends rented an Air-BNB and a car for about 5 days just outside of Orlando. We had two days of shopping and down time and three days at three of Florida's iconic amusement parks. Which three? Well I am glad you asked. In order of visitation it was, Busch Gardens Tampa, Universal Studios and Disney's Hollywood Studios. All three of them are vastly different and offer each person a unique experience. In this post I would like to compare all three and give my pros and cons to each park.

  • Accessibility: First off I would like to give a disclaimer. I am the heaviest I have been since I got divorced in 2005. That being said, I am not so big that a day at a major amusement park should be disappointing. Well, it was for both Busch Gardens and Universal. Disney, like always, was completely accessible for everyone of all ages. Say what you want about The Mouse, but they make sure that the whole family, no matter the size or age, can enjoy everything they have to offer. This is one of the greatest strengths and why they are still the number one park for people to visit.

That being said, both Busch Gardens and Universal failed in different ways. Busch Gardens was the worst with me being unable to ride about 90 percent of the rides in the park. Those that were actually running anyway, but I will address that in the next point. After having to be removed from the first two rides we tried, I decided to utilize the test seats before getting in line. This helped solve the embarrassment problem, but didn't help the experience over all. I ended up walking around and waiting while my friends rode on the rides. This made my time there disappointing and my friends as well. All three of us agreed that even if I lose weight in the future, we will most likely not be going back. I actually wanted to send an email demanding my money back since I paid to pretty much walk around. I know it is not their fault I am overweight, but they should have taken bigger people into account when designing the rides and have at least one set of cars on each ride that could accommodate bigger people. In accessibility, Busch Garden's was a complete fail.

Next is Universal. Now, a lot of the rides at universal were accessible to me, even if some weren't. I was too big for all three of the Harry Potter rides and that was disappointing. I did live there, however, so I have ridden both the Original ride and Escape from Gringold's. Even though it was disappointing I expected not to fit, since I barely made the cut when I was thin. This is a big weakness for Universal in my opinion, since more than just kids like Harry Potter and the rides seem specifically designed for kids and thin people only. Again, this really is inexcusable for Universal. There is no reason they could not have created a few seats that would accommodate bigger people. If it were Disney, they would have. I also could not ride the Velecicoaster or the Hulk coaster. Pretty much anything that resembled a roller coaster. Overall, I was able to enjoy my time at Universal because there were plenty of other rides and attractions for me to enjoy. So Universal was not a complete fail like Busch Gardens, but it wasn't as enjoyable as Disney.

Disney being first, however, did have some experiences that were inaccessible if you didn't plan months in advance. For instance, they don't have any walk up options for such experiences as Savi's lightsaber build. My friend's wanted to build their own lightsabers, but because we didn't make reservations months in advance, we couldn't. As a consolidation price, we were all going to buy one of the many character lightsabers at Savi's shop. Of course, all they had were two options claiming Covid19 shortages for the lack of stock. The two options, Princess Leia and Rey. I mean really? Who actually want's either of those. They had lots of those in stock, but none of the others. That was kind of an inexcusable problem in my opinion. We paid a lot of money for the whole experience and Disney couldn't give it to us. The lightsaber stock may not have been their fault, but not having a walk up option for Savi's build was just poor management. Of course, the one weakness for Disney is that they don't care about you, they care about the people who they know are going to spend the money. We were even told that Disney hotel guests get first dibs if their even were any no shows. They could have easily rectified the disappointment we faced by having at least three spots from each group open for walk ups. Even with this weakness, having all rides and shows accessible to everyone puts then higher than the other two.

So, to sum it all up from best to worst, it is Disney at the top, Universal a close second and Busch Gardens was in the toilet. Next we go to overall park experience.

  • Overall Park Experience: Now, what I mean by overall park experience is how immersive the experience in the park was. From rides being down, friendliness of park staff, cleanliness and overall enjoyability. I am not talking about cost, I will address that next.

  • Once again, Busch Gardens came in last. Even though it is a big zoo that is designed to give you the experience of being in Africa, it still fell short. About twenty-five percent of the rides and most of the shows were down with no real reason given for it. I can only guess it was because of the off season, or, the ever popular Covid-19 excuse. Given that Universal and Disney still managed to have all of their rides up and running, there really is no excuse. The park was also dirty with very limited dinning and entertainment options other than the rides that were open. The staff was fine, but didn't really make you feel like you were in Africa. In fact, the safari which used to be free, is now hidden behind a paywall of forty dollars extra. That is forty dollars on top of the already high price of admission. I give Busch gardens a 6 out of ten on cleanliness. A 4 out of 10 on immerse experience and a 5 out of 10 on ride enjoyability. I would have give the last one a higher rating if all of the rides were actually running. All in all, it is pretty much a Six Flags with animals.

  • Next I want to tackle Universal. Now, with the advent of both sections of the Harry Potter World I feel that Universal rivals Disney in immersive experience. Also with the return of King Kong and nostalgic rides such as ET, Shrek, the Mummy and Minions you really get the feel that you are walking through the movies. Were as, I do miss Jaws, Twister and the Earthquake ride, it still has that Universal feel we all know and love. The staff, especially the Harry Potter section, really draw you into the experience making you feel like you really are at Hogwart's or the Transformer's Nest. The new Bourne Experience which replaced the Terminator stunt spectacular, was so great that I actually felt like I was in a Jason Bourne movie. Overall, the park was clean, the staff were great, and the rides enjoyable. Even though Universal has made great strides, they still come in at a close second to Disney. Closer than they used to be and making ground every year, but still not quite there yet. I give a 9 out of 10 for cleanliness, a 9 out of 10 for immersive experience and a 7 out of ten on ride enjoyability. It would have been higher if I had access to all of the rides.

  • Next is Disney Hollywood Studios. Now, I will say that they have changed a lot of the park and it feels less like a stroll through the movies and more like a generic Disney park. For me, this lessons the experience a bit. They replaced the Great Movie Ride with a Mickey Minnie cartoon ride, that is still pretty good in its own right, but not as good as the original ride that was in the Gromit's Chinese Theater section. So, we geeked out and came to the park dressed as Jedi. I know cool right? I want to say that every staff from the entrance to Galaxies Edge made us feel like we were actual Jedi. they played right along with us, making comments from Jedi scum, to: thank you for being here to keep us safe master Jedi. It was awesome! Now, I know that Disney is known for their immersive experience, but they didn't have to go the extra mile the way they did. Over all, Disney was clean, the staff were beyond helpful and the rides were immersive and enjoyable. Some things in the park were by reservation only, but we did manage to get into Olga's Cantina even though we did not have a reservation, so that was a plus one. Not having pretty much any stock at Savi's from Holocrons to lightsabers was a strike against them however. I know they claimed Covid shortages, but this is Disney and for what they charged they should have found a way. All in all, they were still top of the list in overall park experience, with Universal a close second and Busch Gardens once again dead last. I give Disney a 9 out of 10 for cleanliness, a 10 out of 10 for immersive experience and a 9 out of 10 for ride enjoyability.

  • Price and Overall Park Cost: Ok, now in bang for your buck all three are pretty similar. Busch Gardens is the cheapest by far with the price of ticket being around eighty dollars. The cost of parking was also cheapest. Food prices came in a little cheaper than the other two, though not by much. A bottle of water was around five dollars here, where it was around seven at the other parks. The pretzels, fountain drinks and other snacks were also slightly cheaper. Given that the park has a cheaper feel to it than the others, it should be expected that the overall cost would be as well. Merchandise was also cheaper than the other two parks as well by around ten dollars per shirt ect. Since the overall experience was lesser than the other two parks, I would expect the food to cost to be less as well. I guess you get what you pay for, and you pay less for Busch Gardens and get less for your money.

  • Universal is pretty much on par with Disney in price. The price of parking was cheaper than Disney and was on par with Busch gardens being around twenty six dollars. Since we bought park hopper passes in order to enjoy the Hogwart's Express, the ticket cost for Universal was higher than the other two. Considering you get two parks instead of one, the extra cost was acceptable. Still at over one hundred dollars per day, it is not a cheap place to visit. You do get discounts the more days you stay, but you have to pay for more days, which in the end, costs more. If you are planning to go to Universal for a week, for instance, you can get a good deal on the tickets. Of course, you are staying for a week and that in itself is not cheap. Overall, Universal is no longer a family friendly experience as the cost goes up every year. For a family of four on a medium income to go here would most likely be impossible. The food and merchandise were expensive, but not as expensive as Disney, but still really high for what you get. For the three of us to eat a meal at the park it was around seventy dollars. Not terrible, but you would get more for less at Applebee's or Chili's.

  • Now on to the Mouse. We all know that Disney is known for being money hungry. I just wanted to let you know, they still are. All and I mean all of the prices on everything from parking to food have gone up from last year. Not just gone up, but gone up significantly. One day in the park was one hundred and thirty dollars and it wasn't even peek season. It is around one hundred and fifty dollars or more during peek season. One of my friends had to buy a mask because he forgot his and it cost him around ten dollars for three plain white masks. One thing Disney knows how to do is get your money. Everywhere we went they were trying to sell you something. A t-shirt is now over thirty dollars and a hoodie over sixty. Don't even get me started on the snacks. Just expect to pay four to five times what you would in a regular store. Not so unlike a movie theater concession stand. You know, ten dollar popcorn and ten dollar sodas, ect. But, we do expect that and we know that if we want the full experience of Disney we are going to pay out the nose for it. The problem, however, is that Disney has consistently raised their prices while simultaneously taking away perks. Especially if you stay on park. Also, the inability to provide adequate stock for the full experience and too many reservations needed, make Disney a little bit too high for what you get in the end.

  • Even though Disney is by far the more expensive place to visit, it is still in my opinion, worth the money. Unless you are staying on park, than it is a complete ripoff where it didn't used to be. Universal, is a little less expensive, but still very expensive and costs far more than it did just a few years ago. One thing I will say, is that they didn't claim any covid shortages and you could pretty much buy anything you wanted at Harry Potter World from wands to robes. Unlike Disney, who couldn't manage to keep Galaxies Edge stocked properly. So, here I feel Universal overtook Disney but just slightly. In overall cost, Universal had the most bang for the buck, with Disney being a close second on cost verses experience. Busch Gardens, is by far the cheapest option here, but remember, you get what you pay for in overall experience.

I hope you enjoyed my little post and that it was informative. If you are looking to take your family to Florida this year, maybe this will help you chose what parks to attend. Remember, sometimes the cost is worth the experience and other times it isn't. For me, Universal and Disney are still worth the money, but most likely soon they will not be. Especially as they raise prices but offer less for the money. (Here's looking at you Disney.) Busch Gardens is great for a day if you are thin, have teenagers or love the Six Flags style experience. The rest, is up to you.


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