Universal’s CityWalk vs. Downtown Disney

by Gray Cargill on January 27, 2012



Ask almost any regular Orlando visitor which has the best nightlife options–Universal Orlando’s CityWalk or Disney World’s Downtown Disney–and the majority will say: CityWalk. I would have also said this, even before I visited CityWalk for the first time (mainly because I’m still bitter about Disney shutting down the Adventurer’s Club). And yet if you look at it purely from the numbers, CityWalk offers almost nothing that Downtown Disney doesn’t:

Categories Downtown Disney
Restaurants (sit down and fast food) 24 22
Celebrity Chef Restaurants 1 (Wolfgang Puck – you can also count this as 3, since there are 3 different service areas) 1 (Emerils)
Fine Dining 3 (Fulton House, Portobello, Wolfgang Puck Dining Room 1 (Emerils)
Sports Bars 0 (ESPN is at the Boardwalk) 2 (NASCAR Sports Grill and NBA City)
Movie Theater 1 (AMC Downtown Disney 24) 1 (AMC Cineplex 20 with IMAX)
Retail Stores A whopping 35 18
Nightlife Venues (excluding movies) Approximately 7 give or take – House of Blues, Raglan Road, Paradiso 37, Disney Quest (video games), outdoor courtyard, stage, buskers. (Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall aren’t counted, because they’re at the Boardwalk.) 8 – Pat O’Briens, Red Coconut Club, Citywalk’s Rising Star, the groove, Fat Tuesday, Bob Marley – A Tribute to Freedom, Margaritaville, Hard Rock Live.
Headliner Show Cirque du Soleil La Nouba Blue Man Group
Quick/easy to get to from all onsite hotels? no yes
Quick/easy to get to from all on property parks? no yes
Attraction 1 – Characters in Flight balloon ride 0

Disclaimer: Numbers are approximate; I may have missed some things.

Is this a case of “perception is reality”? Maybe it’s less about categories and more about specific offerings? Or perhaps it has more to do with the customer demographics at each place? For me, and for other adults traveling without children, CityWalk may be more appealing because it seems to offer a more adult-oriented experience at night than Downtown Disney does. That’s not to say you won’t see children in strollers at CityWalk or that there are no bars in Downtown Disney, but there seems to be a more adult atmosphere at CityWalk.

Nightlife at Citywalk

Nightlife at CityWalk

There is certainly nothing obvious about the retail experiences at each to suggest that one would appeal more to an adult crowd than the other. However, CityWalk does have more chain restaurants that may appeal to the masses (Hard Rock Cafe, Margaritaville, Bubba Gump, etc.) and nightlife options that project more of a “party” atmosphere (Hard Rock Live, Pat O’Briens, Fat Tuesdays, the groove, etc.). This explains why young adults looking for a club scene gravitate to CityWalk, not Disney World.

Hard Rock Cafe CityWalk

Hard Rock Cafe CityWalk

CityWalk wins hands-down in terms of ease in getting to it from anywhere else on Universal’s property and then getting around it. Because of how spread out Disney World is, it can take as long as 45 minutes to get to Downtown Disney from certain resorts and parks. Whereas Universal is so compact that CityWalk is a quick walk or boat ride away from any of the furthest points on property. CityWalk is also shaped like a ring, which makes getting around quicker and easier than getting from the far end of Disney’s West Side to the far end of Disney’s Marketplace.

Retail, dining and entertainment at CityWalk

Retail, dining and entertainment at CityWalk

If I thought Disney World executives actually gave a damn about its childless adult guests, I would suggest they made a strategic error by splitting the property’s nightlife options between two distinctly different areas–Downtown Disney and the Boardwalk–which are nowhere near each other.  For guests stuck on site without a car, you have to make a choice about where you plan to spend the evening, either/or. It’s more difficult to move from say, a movie at Downtown Disney’s cineplex to dueling pianos at Jellyrolls on the Boardwalk; whereas it’s quite easy to go from CityWalk’s movie theater to Pat O’Brien’s dueling pianos–which is just up a set of stairs. But ultimately, I don’t think Disney execs care about offering adult-oriented nightlife.

walking path

Citywalk is a short (and pretty) walk or boat ride from the resorts

Does this mean I’m going to switch my allegiance from Disney World to Universal? Er, no. What it means is that I can appreciate that each park does some things better than the other, which makes them both equally worth a visit. What Universal does very well is nightlife, and that’s mostly because of CityWalk. Now, your mileage may vary; if you’re a major Disney fan, you may prefer to be surrounded by everything Disney, all the time. But if you’re visiting Orlando and nightlife is very important to you, do yourself a favor and check out CityWalk.

Margaritaville's Porch of Indecision

Margaritaville's Porch of Indecision

Have you visited both CityWalk and Downtown Disney? Which did you prefer, and why?

Gray April 27, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Can’t say I’m surprised, Rick D. I agree with you on all points, Citywalk is just more appealing for all those reasons. One of the biggest losses for adults at Disney world was the Adventurer’s Club. That place was so awesome. It boggles my mind that TPTB don’t get that.

Rick D April 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Living about two hours south of Disney, I would often go up for weekends, and Friday night at Pleasure Island was always part of my itinerary, every time whether I was with someone or solo. Now that P.I. is closed, I find very little to attract me to DTD, except an occasional meal at House of Blues.

Now when I drive up on Friday nights, and drop off my bags, I head to Citiwalk or sometimes Pointe Orlando. Rising Star is my new fave place to hang out at Citiwalk, always a fantastic time there- although Pat Obriens and Margaritaville are both stellar as well. Nascar is a great place if I want to see the game, although NBA city leaves me a little cold. Hard Rock has one of the best bars anywhere, and some of the best bartenders. So Universal has my nightlife dollar for the forseeable future.
And if Universal ever opened up a place that was as immersive as the Adventurer’s club was? I’d be in heaven!

Gray March 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I love that, Dave–sounds like you’re torn between the two. I can totally understand that. 🙂

David March 20, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Thanks Gray,

I really enjoyed the blog. I believe I enjoy Downtown Disney during the day and early evening and CityWalK at night. With the closure of Pleasure Island, Downtown Disney has seemed to have lost its way for a nightlife. CityWalk with all of the clubs and the amazing Hard Rock gives the feel of a party every night. Downtown Disney as mentioned has free parking and transportation to the resorts including the BoardWalk. DD seems to me easier to access the city even though CityWalk at Universal is more centrally located. I don’t know that I could choose but I know I really enjoy them both. Thanks Again!

Gray February 19, 2012 at 8:50 am

Thanks, Dan!

Dan February 19, 2012 at 1:18 am

Hey Gray,
Great site! Keep it up,

Let us know if you ever feel like doing guest post. We’re always looking for new writers.


Gray Cargill February 14, 2012 at 7:20 am

Free parking definitely makes a difference if you’re staying off-site.

Watch Me Eat February 13, 2012 at 11:16 pm

As someone who lives locally, Downtown Disney wins in my book on the sole fact that they have free parking…

Gray Cargill January 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Did you dine in the upstairs dining room at Puck? It’s more formal than the cafe downstairs. The cafe, I agree, is not fine dining (although I do like the food). Not just “older” folk, Linda; I don’t think Disney’s all that interested in 20-somethings who don’t have children, either. It’s not that they don’t want our business; it’s just that they don’t go out of their way to create experiences that are just for us. Whereas Universal does.

Linda January 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Yep. I’ve been to both. Love both. But haven’t been for around five or six years, though. Apart from Nouba, which blew my mind and made me a life-long Cirque du Soleil addict, I agree, Universal somehow has a better buzz. I can’t even put my finger on why. Wolfgang Puck wasn’t my idea of fine dining, to be honest, and I’m not even sure that I wanted or expected fine dining on this kind of vacation, and I’ve done it, I think, five times. Hard Rock café fits the mood better, and the shopping was better in Universal too. I adore Disney, but perhaps it’s what you say, they aren’t so interested in “older” folk.

Gray January 28, 2012 at 10:21 am

Really? Wow. That’s a lot. You’re a real fan, then.

JoAnn January 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

I always try to visit a Hard Rock Cafe if I’m in a city that has one. I haven’t made it to the one in Orlando yet. I’ve been to around 12 or 13 of them.

Gray January 28, 2012 at 9:35 am

The Hard Rock is definitely fun. They’ve got lots of memorabilia and great music playing all the time. 🙂

JoAnn January 28, 2012 at 9:23 am

I haven’t been to CityWalk but would consider going just to go to the Hard Rock Cafe.

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