For theme parks, the Summer of 2019 was an epic one. We saw the opening of Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando Resort and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run at Walt Disney World. I was fortunate to be at the opening event for each and am often asked that age-old question, “Which is the better ride,” and even, “Who has the better theme park?” In fact, the only thing these two rides might have in common is their long names.
As theme-park lovers, we can’t help but compare Disney and Universal. But don’t think for a second, comparing the two brands is lost on the executives at each park. Universal opened The Wizarding World in June of 2010 and upped the anty with the addition of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express (which connects Hogsmeade and Diagon) in July 2014. Almost immediately, in 2015, Disney announced plans for Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge to open at Disneyland and Disney World. Was Disney’s announcement a direct response to Universal’s success with all things wizardry? The need to compare the two goes back long before Summer 2019. I truly believe it was a seed planted by Michael Eisner and the higher-ups at Universal while the construction of Hollywood Studios (Formally, MGM) was in a race against Universal as they built their park in Orlando. But that’s a whole other blog post, for another day, my Disney History lovers.
Each park had success with their openings, but there were a few disappointments for both as well. And to be fair, let’s realize the fact that we’re essentially comparing one ride in a land that’s existed since 2010, to a ride that exists in a land that also opened on the same day and is unlike anything Disney Parks has ever produced.
On its opening day, Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure guests waited in lines as long as 10 hours to experience the new Harry Potter-themed coaster. As the day went on the ride’s reliability only got worse. This lead to Universal taking to their social media to announce that the ride would be opened mid-day for several weeks until the bugs were worked out. Lately, if the ride is even open at all, you’ll find lines as long as 3-6 hours. I was there on September 8th and tried to ride it, but at 7:00 pm the ride was closed due to capacity (the actual park closed at 9:00 pm). Universal announced plans to create a virtual line if they had to, but as of the other night when I tried to ride it, there was no virtual line system in place.
Here’s where the issue of no virtual line or it being closed due to capacity truly upsets me- I LOVE this attraction. Marketed as a “Story-Coaster,” within one second of hopping on the motorbike, I was completely immersed in the story of Hagrid’s. I completely felt like I was in the magical forest, and I didn’t want to leave. After the media event that evening, I went back to my hotel room where I proceeded to make a video about the event and the ride. I was left speechless. The only words I could muster up were “groundbreaking,” or “next level.” I praised Universal for raising the bar in the theme park industry.
Galaxy’s Edge opened without their largest and most innovative attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Rise of the Resistance is scheduled to open on Dec. 5, 2019. This means when the land opened, it opened with one attraction, Smuggler’s Run. Within one hour of the opening day of Galaxy’s Edge, the land was forced to enact the boarding-pass system or a virtual queue. Guests were asked to check their My Disney Experience App, where they would be given a time to come back to experience the new land and Smuggler’s Run. Almost immediately, crowd control was in place and it worked. A system like this has proven to work for the Walt Disney Company so much so, they seem to have perfected it. When it comes to efficiency, they went in the opposite direction of Universal.
Theme park goers who have an allegiance to Universal are quick to point out how Smuggler’s Run only had 2-3 hour wait times, where Hagrid’s (on a slow day) is 2-3 hours and had record-breaking wait times within in its first few days. First of all, no one wins with long wait times and to brag about one ride having longer wait times is silly. However, comparing the two wait times isn’t fair unless you also state the weather factor. Galaxy’s Edge opened just one week before Hurricane Dorian decided to visit the entire state of Florida. Families who booked their vacations (most were probably booked because of Galaxy’s Edge opening) were forced to cancel as Orlando Airport and Walt Disney World closed due to the weather conditions.
Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is a league of its own. But to compare the two attractions is like comparing apples to oranges. How can one even compare Galaxy’s Edge to The Wizarding World? You really can’t, they’re both next level and completely immersive. In fact, when I toured Universal the morning of the media event for Hagrid’s, I kept thinking how the “it word” of Summer 2019 seems to be- immersive. But here was The Wizarding World, which J.K. Rowling herself- played a crucial role in the development and execution of, and these folks have been immersing their guests since 2010! Why did it seem like 2019 was the time to start throwing that word around?
Hands down, Smuggler’s Run delivers the most interactive experience for a theme park guest. As one of its six riders, you get to control almost every aspect and function of the biggest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Before the ride, you get to hang out on the ship itself. Which makes for great photo ops and insta-worthy moments. Immediately after riding it, I went on Instagram to describe the attraction as more like being in a video game, than on a ride. And I still stand by my statement. By riding Smuggler’s Run, you’re essentially putting yourself in a real-life video game.
Let’s not also forget the nostalgia factor. Nostalgia is Disney’s middle name and the Imagineers know how to use it to pull on our heartstrings. Star Wars spans over decades of fans, fans who loved it when they were little and are now able to share their love for it with their children. To these Star Wars fanatics, allowing them to take a ride on the Millennium Falcon, or blast it into lightspeed as the driver, is monumental. Maybe even more than that, it’s life-changing. It only proves that Disney doesn’t just make dreams come true for children. Millions of adults who grew up with these movies are having their dream come true by being able to walk through and drive their beloved ship.
But does this mean that Galaxy’s Edge or Smuggler’s Run is the end-all, be-all when it comes to the future of theme parks? Not so fast.
Not once on Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure are guests asked to do anything other than to sit there and take in every element of the Magical Forest. To be honest, I loved that. I’m all about technology and interactive rides, but sometimes when I’m on vacation (especially in a theme park), I don’t want any jobs. I don’t want to have to think over things as I do in real life, because I’m on vacation and isn’t that the point? After riding Hagrid’s I felt joy. I felt the joy I got after riding Splash Mountain for the first time in 1993. The same joy I got when my husband and I took our sons on their first roller coaster, Big Thunder Mountain. It was just pure, simple, unequivocal joy. And let’s not sleep on the Harry Potter franchise. Although it’s history isn’t as rich as Star Wars, it’s movies and books are alive and well with families. I grew up reading the books and can’t wait for the day I can start reading them to my children. Just last night, we started the first movie with our 4 and 6-year old, and they love it. Universal may have found their way into the “nostalgia factor,” after all.
There’s no point in choosing which ride is better. Each hits emotional notes for me, as I’m sure it does anyone else who rides both. I wonder would I feel the same way if I had ridden Smuggler’s Run before Hagrid’s? Yes. Hagrid’s is joy and happiness. Smuggler’s Run is fulfilling a dream.
It goes back to the answer I give when I’m asked which park I would choose. Obviously, I’m born and raised Disney. Pixie dust runs through my veins and that mouse is my family. But when I went to Universal in June, for the first time since 2006, I left saying I was ready to trade my lightsaber in for a wand.
Here’s the good news, I don’t have to trade in either and neither do you. There’s room at the table for each park and a great theme appeals to everyone. There are different styles, and different ways of storytelling (Yes, Universal employees are storytellers too), which each park manages to have found what works best for them. If both companies were the same and their content in and out of the parks was the same, we’d eventually become bored with both of them. In fact, the competitive nature of each makes all us guests the true winners.
It’s been a great Summer for Universal and Disney. And the future is even brighter for both with the opening of Rise of the Resistance at Galaxy’s Edge in December 2019. And I think I speak for everyone when I say, we can’t wait to see what Universal Resort has up their sleeves with the construction and opening of their 4th theme park, “Epic Universe.”
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