I’ve been to Walt Disney World dozens of times. It’s my happy place. I’ve been so often, I can close my eyes and see the location of almost anything at the theme parks. I’m a lifelong WDW fan.
In 2016, I took my first trip to Disneyland, the place that started it all. It was amazing! But as such a WDW fan, I was ultra-alert to differences between the two most magical places.
Recently, I’ve been working with a client who is planning her first trip to Walt Disney World. But for her, Disneyland is her second home. When we first met, she said she had been to Disneyland so many times, she knew it like the back of her hand. I thought, this is my kind of person! I immediately knew what she meant.
So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the differences between my favorite place on Earth (WDW), and the incredible place that inspired it (DL). Here are my most memorable differences:
*Size: In terms of vacation, size DOES matters. For first-time Walt Disney World visitors, I would recommend no less than 5 days- minimum. There is SO much to see and do. At Disneyland, we were able to spend 2 full days, and see and do most of our wish list. It’s more convenient for some people to take shorter amounts of time off of work, so Disneyland has the advantage in this aspect. BUT, that being said, I prefer being away from the real world longer, so personally, I give the advantage to WDW here.
Not just that, but you can literally fit the entire area of Disneyland property into Magic Kingdom’s PARKING LOT. The entrances to Disneyland and California Adventure are right next to each other. And the on-property hotels are RIGHT THERE, as well as their Downtown Disney district. No need to worry about buses, rental cars, monorails or ferry boats. This was a surprise to me, because Walt Disney World is so spread out, and feels massive comparatively. And is also the size of San Francisco. (If you plan on visiting Disneyland, be sure to get Park Hopper tickets. You will feel so silly if you don’t, because once you get there, you will see the two park entrances are RIGHT next to each other.)
*FastPasses: WDW has the FastPass+ system, which I am very familiar with. You can book your FastPasses up to 60 days before you arrive, to guarantee your spot on your top must-do rides. But this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, WDW used a paper FastPass system, where you could only reserve a FastPass for later in the same day. And that’s similar to the system that Disneyland still uses today. At Disneyland, you add MaxPass to your park tickets once you are inside the theme park, and then select your first FastPass for that day. So if you want to guarantee a FastPass for a more popular ride, you’d better be there early in the day- otherwise, you’re waiting in the stand-by line with everyone else. This leaves me at a distinct disadvantage, because I am a late riser. Not only that, but I prefer WDW’s Magic Bands for electronic FastPasses, instead of DL’s in-app or paper FastPasses. Plus, DL offers FastPasses for way fewer rides than WDW. They have added FastPass lines at a few attractions in the last 2 years, but still. Advantage: Walt Disney World.
*MaxPass vs. Memory Maker: Your options to collect your vacation pictures are a little bit different at each place. Both have Disney photographers stationed strategically throughout the parks, ready to take the perfect shot. However, at Disneyland, unlimited photo downloads come with your MaxPass purchase. So, you get your FastPasses for the day AND all your vacation pictures for only $10 per ticket, per day. Pretty sweet deal.
At Walt Disney World, FastPass+ is included with every theme park ticket. But if you want unlimited photo downloads, you’ll need to add Memory Maker to your vacation package. For $169 pre-purchase, or $199 once you arrive, Memory Maker works for your entire vacation, and includes everyone in your travel party. So for convenience, Walt Disney World has the advantage on this one, but Disneyland has the price advantage here. Let’s call this one a draw.
*Ride Queues: Not something that everyone cares about, but I love all of the little details that Disney puts into its ride queue areas (which we affectionately call the “cow lines.”), and its ride loading areas. So I was really surprised to find most Disneyland queues just a simple barrier outdoors, where everyone walked back and forth, until you enter the building, and BAM! You get on the ride. It’s A Small World at DL doesn’t even offer the chance to go inside before you load into the boats. It just struck me as odd, since Disney is known for their line management techniques. At WDW, lots of time and thought has been put into the area where you wait, even including interactive games, little hidden characters and more. Plus, it’s a chance to get inside from the elements. I don’t know, maybe the elements aren’t as severe of a factor in California. But I missed the theming of the queue areas. For me, it helps set the stage for the ride you’re about to get on, and increases the immersive experience. Advantage here: WDW. (Although weather advantage probably goes to DL.)
*Single Rider Line: Disneyland offers this great service at more rides than Walt Disney World, so advantage: Disneyland on this one. It’s a great alternative if you weren’t able to get FastPasses to Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin’, and others.
*The Disney Dining Plan: Only exists at Walt Disney World, and is a great convenience and money saver, when used to its full advantage. Disneyland offers the option to pre-pay for one character meal when you book a vacation package, but doesn’t have anything all-inclusive like WDW’s 3 different dining plans. Advantage: Walt Disney World.
*Alcohol: I’m not a big drinker, so this is not a major point for me, but I know it is for many people on vacation. Disneyland has alcoholic beverages readily available. Just around, scattered at various establishments throughout the parks. This such a novel idea at Walt Disney World. Yes, you can drink your way around the world at Epcot, but when Be Our Guest became the first restaurant to sell alcoholic drinks in the Magic Kingdom, there was a big uproar. Now, you can find alcoholic beverages at select locations in all 4 WDW theme parks, but I was still struck by how many people I saw at DL, casually strolling around with beer in their hand. So, advantage: Disneyland.
*Characters Roaming Freely: I mean, without handlers or Character Attendants. We were walking around at Disneyland, and we spotted Mary Poppins and Bert on a jolly stroll, just walking with a few guests. I was totally caught off guard- mostly because I love Mary Poppins, but also because there were no. . .lines. No rope with a sign posted, telling you when a certain character would be there. It was more organic, and I liked it. I like the spontaneous idea of just bumping into your favorite character. At Walt Disney World, most characters are stationed at specific locations throughout the park, with an attendant who manages the line. So I give the advantage here to Disneyland, because I prefer the serendipitous feeling. However, if you have your heart set on meeting a particular character, you will want to give the advantage to Walt Disney World, with their designated places and times to meet and greet.
*Spontaneity: Disneyland and Walt Disney World have a lot of the same rides, shows and characters, but they are two very different vacations. A Walt Disney World vacation requires much more advanced planning to maximize your time there. Advanced dining reservations begin booking 180 days in advance, and FastPasses at 60 days. At Disneyland, these things are not an option, so it offers a more spontaneous vacation experience. Plus, since it’s smaller, I felt like I was missing out on less. At WDW, there are some things I still haven’t seen and done, in all my trips there. For me personally, I like to plan ahead, so I prefer Walt Disney World on this one.
*The Bubble: This is a very important difference to me. One of the things I enjoy most about visiting WDW is escaping the real world. Once you cross those magical gates, you are in a whole other world. It’s a key part of the vacation experience for me. So I was really surprised to be driving up to Disneyland property, and just beyond the traffic light ahead of me, I could see the Guardians of the Galaxy ride. There is almost no distance at all between the real world and Disneyland. In fact, it’s one of the things that Walt Disney disliked about his California theme park, and he made a point of buying as much land as he could around his Florida property to avoid repeating this. Once you get inside the Disneyland gates, you feel the bubble, but once you go up on Mickey’s Wonder Wheel, the Incredicoaster or any other tall ride, there’s the highway right there, complete with hotels, chain restaurants and the noise of busy roads. I see why Walt was disappointed in this aspect. Advantage: Walt Disney World.
Rides At Both Coasts: One of the things I wanted to include in my Disneyland trip was to ride some of my WDW favorites, to see if they were any different at DL. Here are my findings:
Space Mountain: is SO much better at Disneyland! It is smoother and a more comfortable ride. The WDW version feels more jerky to me.
Haunted Mansion: the ride is the same, but the building facades are totally different. The Disneyland version has a real Southern-New-Orleans-gingerbread-trim feel to it, and the detailing on the building is beautiful. The WDW version is more brick-institution-broke-down-castle-esque. Its ride queue takes you though its graveyard as you make your way into the mansion, so it’s notably more macabre than the deceptively cheerful outdoor queue for Disneyland’s version. I prefer the stark contrast of the Disneyland experience.
It’s A Small World: the Disneyland version loads its boats outside, but it has that beautiful building facade. And at Christmastime, it’s decked out with tons of lights, which is so great. While I prefer loading inside (at WDW), the ride itself has the advantage at DL of having little Disney characters hidden within the scenes, and it’s fun to try to spot them. WDW’s ride says good-bye to you personally on its goodbye signs in the last scene before you unload, but I prefer the cute characters. Advantage: Disneyland. And yes, the song is exactly the same on both coasts.
Pirates of the Caribbean: one of my all-time favorite rides at Walt Disney World, so I was delighted to find that the Disneyland version was longer, included 2 drops instead of just one, and had some additional pirate scenes added. Mostly extra skeletons in the beginning, but still cool. So, ride advantage: Disneyland, but I do love the ride queue at Walt Disney World, where you wind down through a dank castle.
I didn’t get to go on everything that exists on both coasts, but don’t worry, I’ll definitely be back. Both coasts offer the beauty of meticulous details, characters you know and love, and innovative rides, shows and special effects. Either one is a great choice- you really can’t go wrong!
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