- I visited Orlando, Florida, in 2021, and spent time at Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk.
- Though I appreciated things about both free destinations, I much preferred Disney's option.
- The food, entertainment, and overall atmosphere was better, in my opinion.
I visited Florida for a weekend in the middle of December 2021. During that trip, I spent time at both Disney Springs and Universal's CityWalk.
I took my first plane ride to visit the tourist destinations, and went to both during the day and at night to compare them.
My hotel was just a few minutes from Universal Orlando, so I visited CityWalk first. Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed.
I arrived at 12:30 p.m. and had to pay $27 for parking. From there, I had to walk a decently far distance between my space and the actual destination. Luckily, there were plenty of moving walkways to help speed things up.
I quickly realized that the morning parking fee exists because Universal's theme parks and shopping center share garages. Still, the price was hefty for only a short visit, and I was frustrated knowing that I'd have less money to spend once inside.
CityWalk was pretty quiet when I arrived, and it stayed that way until I left, which I appreciated.
I liked being able to walk around without massive crowds, and found that I was able to enjoy each spot I visited.
Restaurants greet you right at the entrance, though I noticed that many of them were places I could visit at home.
I saw a Starbucks when I first walked in, as well as a Panda Express and Moe's nearby. There was also a Cold Stone Creamery, Cinnabon, and Hard Rock Cafe located in CityWalk.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with chain restaurants. Some of them were even unique, like the Burger King Whopper Bar that sells specialty burgers.
But the giant billboards promoting the restaurants and sheer number of them made me feel like I was back home walking through Times Square instead of a vacation spot.
That said, there were plenty of standout eateries that caught my attention.
One of which was the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen.
From the outside, it looked like a scene straight out of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Inside, it was even better. There were countless candies to buy, a bustling restaurant, and steampunk robots walking around.
My two favorite spots were the Red Oven Pizza Bakery and Voodoo Doughnut Orlando.
There are Voodoo Doughnut shops across the US, but I'd never had a chance to visit. So I got four classic doughnuts — including the shop's raspberry-filled Voodoo Doll — and loved each one.
I also had one of the best pizzas of my life at Red Oven Pizza Bakery. I ordered the Bianca pizza made with three cheeses — mozzarella, fontina, and sottocenere — and haven't stopped thinking about it since.
Unfortunately, many of CityWalk's non-chain restaurants were closed during lunch and didn't open until much later in the day.
In addition to restaurants, there were also a ton of food stands — like this Coca-Cola one.
I hoped to find some unique Coke beverages or theme-park snacks here, but I didn't find either. When I visited, the stand only sold regular soda and treats like popcorn.
After browsing CityWalk's wide range of food options, I took a shopping break.
Spots like the Universal Studios Store were some of my favorite parts of CityWalk. I loved being able to browse "Harry Potter" merchandise and Universal Orlando T-shirts without having to pay for a theme-park ticket.
I also thought many of the prices were reasonable compared to Disney, where I'm used to buying expensive souvenirs.
There were also merchandise kiosks spread throughout CityWalk, though they never seemed very busy.
Though some sold theme-park merchandise, others were a bit more unexpected.
One had an array of anime merchandise, while another sold custom airbrush T-shirts like those you commonly see at malls and on boardwalks.
There's a beautiful stage on the water where many people stopped to rest and take pictures.
You can also get a great view of Universal Orlando and CityWalk from the spot.
There was a winter-themed section called Mistletoe Pines, but it wasn't all that convincing in the daytime, in my opinion.
When I first walked through this area, I didn't immediately realize it was winter-themed. People were passing straight through, and using the section as a walkway to other areas of Universal.
It was only when I got close to some of the booths that I realized there were specialty hot chocolates and other winter treats for sale.
I visited CityWalk again in the evening, and saw that it comes alive at night. But unfortunately it felt crowded.
CityWalk's atmosphere was completely different when I returned around 6:30 p.m. Almost every restaurant was open, stores looked more inviting, and neon signs lit up the entire place.
I especially loved that parking was free after 6 p.m., and that the Mistletoe Pines area became more festive with more open booths and characters walking around to greet you.
But because Universal Orlando's theme parks closed around that same time, crowds seemingly tripled and as a result it became more difficult to get around.
I visited Disney Springs the next day, and had a seamless time getting into the shopping center.
Parking was free, and there was a short line to enter security. From there, I only had to make my way down one escalator before I entered Disney Springs.
Once inside, I immediately wanted food. Like at CityWalk, there are numerous restaurants located right near the entrance.
Chicken Guy! is a great spot for lunch, while Gideon's Bakehouse is the No. 1 place I'd recommend for dessert. There are also places like B.B. Wolf's Sausage Co., Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, and Wine Bar George — all of which are exclusive to Disney Springs.
There are some chains like Starbucks, Wetzel's Pretzels, and Blaze Pizza, as well, but they're fewer and far between than at CityWalk.
One of those spots is the Coca-Cola store. The drink company has a much bigger spot at Disney Springs than at Universal.
Inside, you'll find two levels of Coke-themed products ranging from shirts and makeup to ornaments and special-edition bottles.
At the very top, there's even a rooftop bar where you can sip Coke beverages from around the world, order alcoholic drinks, and get a standout view of Disney Springs. It's become one of my favorite spots in the entire shopping center.
The atmosphere at Disney Springs was warm, welcoming, and perfect for the Christmas season when I visited.
Decorations were everywhere rather than in one spot, and there were plenty of holiday activities for visitors.
One of my favorites was the Christmas Tree Stroll, in which visitors could search to find 20 trees that were decorated with ornaments inspired by Disney characters, rides, and movies.
I found that Disney Springs was pretty crowded at all times of the day.
Whereas CityWalk only became super crowded at night, in my experience, Disney Springs was consistently busy. Parents and children frequented the spot in the mornings, while teenagers and adults crowded the space at night.
I noticed nods to the Disney World theme parks just about everywhere.
But I did skip a bunch of stores like Sephora and Anthropologie because I can visit them at home. Still, I found that some chains like Uniqlo and Kate Spade had Disney sections of their stores to display their collaboration merchandise, which made them feel a bit more special than other stores.
I also found rides and other experiences in-between stores and restaurants.
While I found there wasn't much to do at CityWalk besides eat and drink, I found the opposite to be true at Disney Springs.
The shopping kiosks at Disney Springs seemed more like luxury boutiques.
I noticed handcrafted art, specialty snacks, and flowers when I visited.
Disney Springs continued to bustle at night with food trucks, live music, and more.
Whereas Universal Orlando's nightlife caters more to adults, I thought that Disney Springs had more options for all ages.
After dark, I saw couples listening to live music, families eating dinner, and kids running around places like the Lego store.
I much prefer Disney Springs overall, but I still think there are things to be appreciated about CityWalk.
In my opinion, Disney Springs is the better place to spend a day. Parking is free, there are more things to do, and both adults and children can enjoy it.
That said, I understand why some people might enjoy Universal CityWalk more. The free shopping center is in the same spot as its theme parks, and it's a great option to visit popular places that you might not have access to at home.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. But if I was to recommend only one, there's no doubt I'd choose Disney Springs any day.