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.
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.
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.
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.