Last Updated on July 19, 2023 by Nicole
I recently asked my 12 year old daughter where she would like go for her 13th birthday. This is a tradition in our family. When each of our four children were about to turn 13 years old, they got to pick a special trip with one of their parents. My daughter, my youngest, who as of today has gone to 33 countries, told me she wanted to go to Disneyland.
In March, our family of 6 went to India, and last summer, we went to Peru and Ecuador. We have been all over Europe, and last March, spent time in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. We have visited cities, rural towns, volunteered with orphaned children, and had close encounters with animals in the Galapagos Islands and Africa. The culmination of all this? When my daughter was asked where her curiosity and desire were driving her next? The answer was…
So, off we went, on a weekend, in the middle of July, to Disneyland. In fact, we went to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and Universal Studios Hollywood. (A couple years before we went to the 4 Disney World Parks in Florida.) We spent one day in each park. She asked if her 16 year old brother could come, then her dad, and the four of us flew off for our four day adventure.
While there I couldn’t help asking myself, which amusement park was the best? Which amusement park: Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, or Universal Studios Hollywood, would I recommend in the event someone had only one day or could only go to one park. They were all so different and yet, in many ways, the same. So, which one was the best?
My answer….it depends. They each offer distinct things to different people. The key is to understand the people in your family – their ages, needs, tolerances and goals for visiting an amusement park. You also need to be aware of the timing of your visit. Finally, it is important to appreciate what each amusement park has to offer.
As mentioned above, we were visiting the amusement parks as a family of four. Our children were teenagers, 12 1/2 and 16 years at the time of the visit. Each of my kids had visited these parks a couple times before, as toddlers and later as older adolescents.
My kids love roller coasters and exhilarating rides. There is no fear or vertigo for either of them. They are not interested in meeting characters or having their photos taken with them, although they appreciate how seeing them around an amusement park adds to their experience. They enjoy stimulating and entertaining shows, but these experiences would be secondary to an amazing ride.
We went to each amusement park for one day on a Saturday, Sunday and Monday in July. Except for Christmas time or spring break, I don’t think there are busier days to visit these parks than a weekend in the summer. It was hot and crowded.
Overall, Universal Studios Hollywood has the most exhilarating and action packed rides of all three amusement parks. If I had to recommend an amusement park based solely on heart stopping and crazy rides, it would be Universal Studios Hollywood. If you have cautious children or children who are not big fans of sudden jolts, large drops or loud music, the rides at Universal Studios are probably not the best place for your family.
Disneyland has the most family friendly rides suitable for all ages and temperaments. Except for Indiana Jones and Space Mountain, most rides would work for young children. In other words, most rides at Disneyland would be entertaining but not necessarily thrilling for older kids and teenagers.
This is one of the reasons why Disneyland is such a fantastic place to take younger kids. There are large segments of the amusement park and rides that are targeted towards young kids or older cautious children. However, at the same time, the more exciting rides have been designed so that young children, ready for more adventure but who might not be big enough to go on more action packed rides at another amusement park, can do so at Disneyland.
Disney California Adventure is in between the two. There are some over the top rides that are only suitable for thrill seekers, like California Screamin’ and Guardians of the Galaxy, and a couple of other exciting family friendly rides like Radiator Springs Racers and Grizzly River Run, but not enough to match what Universal Studios Hollywood offers.
Getting To The Front Of The Line At The Amusement Park
Given a choice, none of us want to pay hundreds of dollars each to go to any amusement park only to stand in line for most of the day waiting to go on rides. It would be a blessing if hardly anyone showed up on the day you decided to go. But, that’s not realistic. So, which amusement park offers you the best and fastest way to get to the front of the line? The answer is not definitive.
If money is no object, the VIP Experience
Each amusement park offers a VIP Experience. At Universal Studios Hollywood, this means a $369-$399 price per person and includes a personal tour guide, immediate access to all rides, the best seats for a show, and special backlot access to Universal Studios itself.
At Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, for approximately $360-$500 per hour, you can also have a VIP tour that would include a personal tour guide, immediate access to most rides, the best viewing or seating for shows or events, and special access to character greetings.
If you can afford a VIP Experience, then each amusement park offers a comparable service.
Front of the Line Pass
Spending huge amounts of money for a VIP Experience for a day at an amusement park is likely not a realistic option for most of us. Alternatively, Universal Studios Hollywood offers a Front of the Line pass. A Front of the Line pass offers the holder the ability to go straight to the front of the line once for each ride at the amusement park. It also offers specialty seating at shows and may allow for special meet and greets after a show. The cost depends on the time of year, but generally it costs between $70 and $135 more per ticket.
We purchased a Front of the Line pass for each of us for Universal Studios Hollywood and it was worth every extra dollar we spent. Casually, we walked from ride to ride, knowing that the long lines did not apply to us. We had to leave Universal Studios at 4:45 pm to catch a flight, and the Front of the Line pass allowed us to go on every ride, and see a show or two, while there. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure did not offer Front of the Line passes.
Tricks for Standard Tickets
Each amusement park offers similar opportunities to get to the front of the line faster for standard ticket holders.
Each park has a few rides where there is a separate line for single riders. This means that your whole party can line up in the single rider line, but that each one of you will either get on the ride at a different time, or will be sitting next to a stranger during the ride. This is one of the biggest advantages of taking older kids to these three amusement parks. In the middle of the day, single rider lines were usually 70% faster than the normal line up.
When we were at Universal Studios Hollywood, there was a single rider line up for
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey;
- Jurassic Park – The Ride;
- Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride; and
- Transformers: The Ride 3D.
At Disneyland, they offered single rider line ups for:
- Indiana Jones Adventure;
- Matterhorn Bobsled; and
- Splash Mountain.
At Disney California Adventure, they offered single rider line ups for:
- California Screamin’;
- Radiator Springs Racers;
- Goofy’s Sky School; and
- Grizzly River Run.
FastPass is the Difference
However, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure offered a FastPass for no extra cost, and Universal Studios Hollywood did not. For this reason, with a standard ticket, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will get you to the front of the line faster for certain rides than Universal Studios Hollywood. A FastPass allows you to take your ticket, insert it into a FastPass machine next to a ride, and get a one hour timeframe to return to it at some point later that day. Once you return, you enter a separate FastPass line that essentially takes you to the front of the line. You can only have one FastPass at a time, so you can get another FastPass for another ride after you use the FastPass or after the time expires, whichever comes first.
However, sometimes there is so much demand for a ride and the FastPass that they either give you the privilege of getting to the front of the line many hours later or essentially run out of them. This does not happen often, but when we were there, we were never able to get a FastPass for Guardians of the Galaxy; they were also gone when we went to Radiator Springs Racer; and we had to wait 5 hours between securing our FastPass for Toy Story Mania Ride and the time we were allowed to return to go on the ride. In these instances, the FastPass had no extra value.
When the line-ups to the rides are huge, the crowds are so large that it is difficult to walk in a straight line, and the California sun is super hot, it is nice to have the option to go watch a live show at an amusement park.
For my family, the shows offered at Universal Studios were far better than the shows offered at Disneyland or Disney California Adventure.
- Universal Animal Actors; and
- Special Effects Show.
All three productions were entertaining and engaging for the adults and our two teenagers. WaterWorld, with its explosions and incredible stunts by professional stuntmen and women, was exceptional. It was so good, I would have happily paid extra to see that show there or anywhere else. There are other smaller informal shows found throughout the day all over the amusement park which are equally worthwhile to see. The Raptor Encounter was especially cool.
The shows at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are generally targeted towards younger children. The Hyperion Theatre at Disney California Adventure offered an amazing live musical production of Frozen which was spectacular and as professional as you would find on any major stage in any major North American city. However, the balance of the shows were not interesting to my older children.
The Atmosphere at Each Amusement Park
Without question, Disneyland has the best atmosphere of the three amusement parks. Each area, from Frontierland -Tomorrowland – Fantasyland – Adventureland – and more – is designed and decorated to make you feel that you have stepped into that pretend land. Many children come wearing fantastic disneyland outfits. In addition, there are many wonderful spots for photos (maybe for that special Disney pregnancy announcement)! Sometimes the large crowds made it difficult to appreciate that effort, but overall I felt like each area was special and unique to its theme.
Disney California Adventure makes a similar effort, but with less success in most areas. A Bug’s Land and Cars Land are pretty good, but the rest are less magical.
Universal Studios Hollywood has the least exciting atmosphere. Unquestionably, you feel like you have been dropped into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This is an amazing area of this amusement park. However, the rest of the park feels like a collection of rides thrown together rather than a walk in a pretend world.
Even though my children are older, I think the atmosphere is an important part of an amusement park experience. Every time that I go to Disneyland, I am reminded of the incredible Disney stories and characters of my childhood. I feel happy walking in the different areas of the amusement park, even with the crowds, the large line ups, and the heat. I think the atmosphere is one of the main reasons why Disneyland continues to be one of the most popular parks in the world for all ages, notwithstanding the rides are more suitable for younger children than others.
Which Amusement Park Would I Recommend If You Only Had One Day?
With teenage children who love exhilarating rides and stimulating shows, I would have to recommend Universal Studios Hollywood if you could only go to one amusement park on your visit to California. For a little extra money, you can get to the front of the line for each ride or get one of the best seats for a show. There is a phenomenal amount of rides and shows to keep older children and adults excited and engaged from morning to night.
Disney California Adventure has a couple of action packed rides, but not enough to keep a thrill loving child enthusiastic for a whole day. The shows are not really that interesting for an older child, although the production of Frozen at the Hyperion Theatre was high quality and impressive.
Disneyland does not offer many rides that would make a teenager or older child really excited, and it doesn’t provide many interesting shows for that age group either. However, the atmosphere is wonderful.
No matter how old you are, you feel like you have been transported into magical worlds as you enter different areas of the park. You can’t help but feel connected to memories of your childhood as you see Disney characters and Disney stories that you grew up with. You feel excitement radiating off little ones in their costumes and it can’t help but make you smile.
It might not be the best amusement park to go to once your children are older and clamouring for excitement, but it will, nevertheless, make you feel pretty good spending a day there.
Here are other great tips for visiting Disneyland and California Adventure.
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