Here at Touring Plans, we love Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando equally. Both resorts complement each other’s strengths, like chocolate and peanut butter. In this article series, we will compare the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando offerings directly to help you better prepare for your next vacation. Today we are looking at the two resorts’ counter service restaurant cuisines and atmospheres.
What Is a Counter Service Restaurant?
Counter Service restaurants are fancy names for fast food restaurants. Similar to the real world, guests place their order, pay at a cashier or in the Universal mobile app, and then receive their order at a window or their table. There is no server to refill drinks or provide more napkins.
Some locations, like Thunder Falls Terrace in Islands of Adventure, are set up as a buffeteria. Here guests take a tray, order from food stations, walk through a serving line, and pay at the exit.
Two technologies have transformed Counter Service restaurants – RFID technology and Mobile Ordering. RFID pucks pin-point guest locations to a table for quick food delivery and Mobile Ordering completes the ordering process before arriving at the restaurant.
Cuisines & Food Options
Theme park food is just burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza, and chicken nuggets… right? Disney and Universal’s culinary teams debut new food times regularly while updating old menus to follow the latest culinary trends and guest requests. Menus in the parks now feature a diverse and eclectic selection of food from kebabs to sushi, crepes to rotisserie chicken.
Disney began its Counter Service revolution with the refurbishment of The Land in 2005 and the opening of Sunshine Season Faire. While slightly diminished now, the menus of Sunshine and show kitchens changed how we viewed theme park dining at the time. Over the years Disney overhauled several dining venues before arriving at their magnum opus – Satul’i Canteen. A Mongolian beef and Asian-American fusion restaurant, it changed food quality and variety in theme parks forever.
Disney menus vary wildly from park to park – the Magic Kingdom plays it cautious with a staple of familiar family favorites while Epcot and Animal Kingdom offer the most variety.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter flipped the themed entertainment dining game on its head and changed Universal’s counter service restaurant reputation. Beyond offering fresh and high-quality food these new restaurants also folded in canonical items like Butterbeer. After raising the game in Hogsmeade, Universal then turned their attention to other counter service locations throughout the parks and CityWalk. In the past 13 years, Universal has updated nearly all its counter service locations and straight out replaced five of them.
Universal’s Counter Service meal quality and variety are the same across both of Universal’s theme parks, though recent improvements at Universal Studios Florida put it one step ahead of Islands of Adventure in my eyes. Universal uses the Coke Freestyle machine system for fountain drinks at most counter service locations which provides more options than Disney’s soft drinks.
BUYER BEWARE: Universal sells Platters (an entree and a side) and Combos (entree, side, and milkshake). Combos are priced roughly $4 more than Platters and only exist to inflate the value of the Universal Dining Plan. Skip the Combos and stick with the Platter.
Food is only part of dining at the parks, the other is the atmosphere. Disney and Universal’s restaurants are well-designed, open, and clean spaces – for the most part.
Both Universal’s and Disney’s counter service atmosphere is a step above your neighborhood McDonald’s. Each location is staffed with employees who clean the dining space and stock self-service areas. Dining areas are bright and decorated to a central theme like a 50s jukebox joint, outdoor BBQ venue, mess halls, seaside pub, chaotic kitchen, and more.
At both resorts, we notice that the menu typically reflects the interior space – a burger joint tends to be more plain than a dining location with more exotic food options.
We prefer the Disney counter service location atmosphere over Universal’s options. We prefer the more unique atmospheres and dining options at Disney like Docking Bay 7 or Satuli Canteen and find there are more options overall. This is not to slam Universal, we love many of their dining venues, we just think Disney’s taken it up a notch in the past decade.
The Mobile Order Factor
Whether you despise or love it, mobile order has taken over the counter service scene at theme parks. This system replaces ordering at a cashier with a mobile app and payment. Disney and Universal continue to tweak their mobile ordering systems all the time and currently, we find Universal’s system the most efficient and quick between the two. Universal’s system waits for guests to find a table before their orders are prepared opposed to Disney’s system which is dependent on a timed return window.
For more information on Mobile Ordering read our latest articles on the Touring Plans Blog:
Both Universal and Disney are excellent at handling dietary restrictions, talk to a greeter at the restaurant of your choice to discuss your options or talk to the chef. Some venues fair better with certain dietary restrictions than others, some restaurants feature gluten-free fryers or separate workspaces to prevent cross-contamination. Kosher meals are available by reservation before your visit.
For more information on special diets read our latest articles on the Touring Plans Blog:
What are your favorite counter service locations at Disney and Universal? Leave your picks in the comment section below!