Traveling While Fat: Disney World vs. Universal Studios

I’ve written a lot of words about a lot of topics on this blog, but the post I get the most mileage out of is always a surprise to me. It’s my blog on my trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. It consistently gets traffic and comments. And honestly, guys? It’s probably the post I put the least amount of thought and work into. But, hey, I get to be the top Google search result for “fat at Disney,” which I consider my life’s crowning achievement.

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I mentioned in this post that I’d had a bad experience at Universal Studios when I went. I thought about writing more detail about it, but I wasn’t even sure I had enough content to get through a post because… well, I fit on one single, solitary ride there. And after the first day of trying test seats and not fitting in them, I totally stopped trying to fit on rides. But I do get questions every once in awhile about Universal Studios, so I figured it was worth organizing into an actual blog post why I had a bad experience at Universal Studios and whether it’s even worth going if you’re fat.

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Is Universal in Orlando Fat-Friendly?

This is very easy: NOPE!

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Universal Studios markets itself as more of a “grown up” theme park. It specializes in “thrill rides.” And here’s what that means: It’s a lot of rollercoasters. And more rollercoasters means more intense restraints. There are not many low-key rides at Universal. So, if you’re a rollercoaster person, Universal is probably right up your alley! But if you’re not, or you are a size where fitting into rollercoaster restraints is sometimes (or always) a problem, Universal is going to be tough for you. Because the rides there are intense. And the restraints are unforgiving.

Now, I am a 5’4″ woman who wears a 26 or 28 in plus-size clothing. In Torrid sizes, I’m a 4. I have a small bust, large hips, fat legs, and a round belly. It’s important to understand that because of the variance in human bodies, some people who are my size may have a much easier time simply because they are shaped differently. Someone with thinner calves may have no problem fitting on some of the rollercoasters. And someone with a very large bust may not be able to make an overhead restraint fit. Fitting on rides at Universal has also been noted to be a problem for very tall people, especially those with long legs.

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Me and my husband on our honeymoon, in a water taxi to Universal.

If you want to hear from a variety of differently sized and shaped humans about whether they were able to fit on certain rides at Universal, there’s a Facebook group for that: Universal Parks Curved. There are a few thousand members in that group who have been to Universal and can give you the low-down on whether you’re likely to fit on a particular ride and what their overall experience was like at Universal.

I fit on the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride at Islands of Adventure. It’s basically Splash Mountain, but with dinosaurs. It’s a very steep ride up and a big drop into water. It was fun! This ride has bench seats with a lap bar, so it’s a more forgiving ride in terms of size-accessibility. I got separated from my husband and ended up sitting next to some teenagers, who were really nice and very concerned about how concerned I was during the trip to the top. But other than that, all the rides I tried to fit onto were a hard no.

Is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Fat-Friendly?

Again, no!

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It’s worth mentioning here that going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a dream of mine since it first opened in 2010. When it came time to choose a honeymoon destination, I piped up immediately: THERE. And I went knowing that I would probably not fit on any of the rides because the size-accessibility of their rides has been an issue since megafans who helped run sites like Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron (remember them?!) reported that they were unable to fit on the rides they were being asked to preview. And it’s something Universal has promised to fix for years (“Oh, we’ll keep your feedback in mind for our next rides!”) but has never addressed. (The newest ride, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which was not yet built when I went in 2018, has received a mixed reception in terms of how size-accessible it is.)

I tried the test seat for Escape from Gringotts, which is a VR-coaster that simulates the dragon escape from The Deathly Hallows. It was a hard no. The seat was molded plastic and I couldn’t get the restraint to buckle. I asked the friendly attendant if I was likely to fit on any of the other rides. He told me no, but recommended that I try the Hogwarts Express. Now, that’s not really a “ride” as much as it’s a short train ride with a show to get between parks. The wait for the train ride was epic (thankfully we were able to bypass some of it) but was it worth the wait? Meh.

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I did not fit on: Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a standard steel coaster that simulated Harry’s hippogriff ride from Prisoner of Azkaban, Escape from Gringotts, and at the suggestion of the staff member, didn’t even try Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is the ride through (and outside) Hogwarts. This was a huge bummer, but the wait was long and I was demoralized at that point. Dragon Challenge was closed when I went in 2018, and the new Hagrid ride was still under construction. So, I didn’t try either of those rides, which I assume would have been more of the same.

But Is It Worth Going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?

As a huge Harry Potter fan? Yes, absolutely, it was worth it, every second. Even though I didn’t fit on the rides.

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I would actually go so far as to say that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the only reason it’s worth going to Universal at all. And I think Universal knows this, which is why the Harry Potter attraction spans both Universal parks, connecting Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios with the Hogwarts Express. Universal put a lot of love into designing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The level of detail is truly astounding — a wonder to behold. I entered The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by walking to the back of Universal Studios and entering Diagon Alley for the first time, I swear to god, felt like being Harry stepping into Diagon Alley for the very first time with Hagrid. It was that magical. (And, as a testament to that, traffic was clogged at the entrance to Diagon Alley with people who were all in awe stopping to drink it in and take photos and say “WOW” instead of walking.)

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is truly one of the only parts of Universal where there is plenty of fun to be had even if you don’t go on any rides. You can eat at The Leaky Cauldron, which is fantastic experience. You can drink butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks. You can have ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s. (Personally, I recommend the butterbeer soft serve, which is my favorite form of butterbeer.) You can shop at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes! You can even walk through Knockturn Alley! (Which, PRO TIP, is dark, shaded, and significantly cooler than anywhere else in either park, if you need a break from the Orlando swamp weather.) And you can see a show and buy a wand at Ollivander’s.

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So, bottom line, if you are a Harry Potter diehard (like myself), it’s worth going even if you can’t fit on the rides. The rides seem cool, but the immersive fan experience at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is worth the price of admission. Would I recommend going for that sole purpose? Eh. I’m not sure, because like any theme park experience, it’s going to set you back quite a bit. It’s not cheap. But if you’re in Orlando and wondering if you should do a Harry Potter day? Do it!

Do I Do Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure?

So, unlike Disney, which is basically the size of a state in New England and has a sprawl you cannot fully comprehend until you go, Universal is much, much smaller. There are two main parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, and they’re right next to each other. You can do both parks in one day without it being an exhausting death march like it would at Disney. (There’s also a water park, which I don’t care about, because I got my fill of screaming splashing youths at our hotel’s pool.) The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is at the back of each park, with Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. The Hogwarts Express connects the two. That is to say, if you want to see both areas of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you’ll need to buy admission to both parks.

If you have to choose, and you’re at all concerned you won’t fit on the rides, I’d recommend choosing Universal Studios and Diagon Alley. There was just SO MUCH TO DO and look at in Diagon Alley. That’s where you’ll find the wand show, Florean Fortescue’s ice cream, The Leaky Cauldron, and Knockturn Alley. In terms of experiences and merch, there’s just less to do in Hogsmeade beyond rides. You can get some butterbeer, buy the same stuff you already bought at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and look longingly at the castle and wish you could fit on that ride.

Universal vs. Disney – Which is Better?

Walt Disney World in Orlando is hands-down more fat-friendly. And, this is just my personal opinion, but I also had a better overall experience at Disney. Not only did I fit on every single ride I tried, the parks were impeccable, they offered a variety of different types of experiences, and I just had much more fun. I went in early December, so there was Christmas everywhere, and it was just a magical time. And I’m not even really all that into Disney! (I am, however, into Star Wars, and plotting a return to check out Galaxy’s Edge, the new Star Wars attraction.)

Outside of rides, there just wasn’t much to do at Universal. You could eat, but the food is not that great or exciting, and the merchandise is pretty generic all through the parks. Universal has an area called City Walk, which is kind of a downtown shopping-and-dining area comparable to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney), where there’s a VooDoo Doughnuts, Emeril Legasse restaurant (which is actually quite good – try the banana cream pie), and chains like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville (which is actually fun, they have live music), Hard Rock Cafe, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. There’s also a steampunk sit-down restaurant called The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, which was really fun and original. They serve those wacky milkshakes with whole ass pieces of cake on top of them. One of the best experiences I had at Universal was (and I am saying this totally unironically) seeing Blue Man Group. It was fun! Their show is fun. Sorry, it is. It is delightful, tourist-friendly fun. So, there are definitely things to do at Universal without rides, just far less than Disney. I also found Universal to be kind of dirty, there was a lot more trash around, and the parks just looked run-down in spots.

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Disney has a bigger variety of rides and experiences. You want rollercoasters and thrill rides? You’ve got several, including the Rock ‘N Roller Coaster and Flight of Passage. You also have more chill, family-friendly rides, like the Dumbo ride, Peter Pan ride, the teacups, and so on. Then there are experiences like The Haunted Mansion (which I fit on, no problem) and Tower of Terror (which I didn’t get a chance to try). The food, in every way, is better. (And not just because Disney has a variety of fine dining experiences and counter service restaurants and signature treats throughout the parks. Even the churros and soft pretzels are better than at Universal. Sorry. It’s just true, and as a fat person, I am an authority on this issue so do not @ me.) 

Disney also has a better selection of exclusive merchandise for all of its properties. So, if you’re looking for shopping, Disney wins out in this area, too. SORRY UNIVERSAL. You lose.

The one perk for Universal is that it’s a much more easy-to-navigate theme park than Disney. Disney is… a lot. There are a lot of parks, some of them are far away from each other, there are multiple modes of transportation and not all of them go from every resort hotel to every park, there’s skyliners, the monorail, Minnie Vans. It’s just hard to figure out, really. Universal is much simpler. All resort hotels have easy access to the parks (We stayed at Loews Royal Pacific Resort and it had a water taxi to and from the parks, which was nice.) I walked fewer steps at Universal than I did at Disney — at Disney, I averaged about 10 – 15,000 per day, and at Universal it was around 5-8,000. So, if mobility is a concern and you’re worried about being physically able to trek through a theme park, Universal is a little bit more accessible in that regard. (Also, if you stay at a Universal resort hotel, your room key is your line pass, which also eliminates the need to strategically reserve Fast Passes, like you do at Disney.)

How Universal Can Do Better

I know this is tricky territory because I have had self-described engineers yell at me because I wondered aloud why it is possible to put a man on the moon but not a fat person on a rollercoaster. (The Internet Engineers inform me that it is scientifically impossible to put a fat person on a rollercoaster.) But the first step to making Universal better is adding a few accessible seats built for larger guests to rides. And when they shut down rides for improvement or build new ones, take a look at accessibility and try to make changes that allow more people to enjoy the rides.

Universal could also add different kinds of experiences. I know that their thing is thrill rides, but adding some different types of rides (think The Haunted Mansion or It’s a Small World, even) that offer a fun experiences WITHOUT requiring such intense restraints would enable more people to enjoy the parks. Seriously, Disney has this down: I rode on plenty of fun rides that allowed me to participate and get the full park experience that only required a lap bar or seatbelt that went on for miles and miles. Since half of Universal’s rides depend heavily on VR, I have no idea why you can’t have more rides that utilize VR but don’t require that the ride be strapped into heavy-duty restraints. I mean, consider if you’re a parent with a kid who LOVES Marvel and is begging to go to Universal. If you’re fat, you may not be able to accompany your kid on any of the rides, and your whole vacation could be a bust. I’m not going to go as far as to say that creating an expensive theme park without considering size accessibility is a major issue in the world. You have to be in a relative position of privilege to even consider such a vacation. It’s just one more area where fat people are excluded from public life in a way thin people take for granted. I mean, Universal certainly didn’t offer any sort of rebate or discount on my admission

I think they are staring to get a feel for the immersive fan experiences that theme park customers will flock to, if The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is any indication, but the rest of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are sorta… lackluster. There’s nothing all that special about any one area, and some of them are stunningly old. (For the record, there’s still an E.T. ride, and an area of the park that expects people to know who Marmaduke and Dagwood are.) And there’s Minions and a… Late Night with Jimmy Fallon ride? (My relatives tell me this ride was excellent but the very concept of it is evidence that Universal is very much out of touch with what people want out of a theme park experience.)

The other thing they could do is up their game when it comes to food and shopping. Nothing I ate at Universal was particularly good, and some of it was downright bad, bland cafeteria food. Most people don’t go to theme parks for food and shopping, but the standards are so low at Universal. If it’s a “grown up” theme park experience, why are you serving me stale churros and hot dogs like I’m in third grade? The food at Disney is so much better, because they not only put thought into what kinds of food to offer and where, they made sure everything tasted great and was absolutely beautiful. (Is there anything more beautiful than a genuine Mickey bar?! So simple, so perfect.) It wouldn’t be hard to do better, and in terms of merch, Universal owns plenty of franchises and could absolutely do better than offering different kinds of shirts with the Universal logo.

Disney just has more to offer all guests, but especially those who are worried about spending money on an expensive theme park vacation when they’re not even sure they’ll be able to fit on any of the rides. To my fellow fat people: If you are worrying about fitting at Disney, don’t. A few of the rides may be no-gos (such as Flight of Passage) but you will definitely be able to find rides to enjoy and experiences you can participate in. They’re super accommodating. Universal, well, they have a lot of work to do before I’ll ever return to their parks. But I’m hopeful Universal, if they try, can make their parks more worthwhile for larger guests.

It’s the literal JOB of theme parks to provide a fun, exciting experience for their guests. And Universal does that. For some guests. But not all.

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