Many Disney fans who have only been to one of the U.S. parks are often surprised to find out just how different Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts actually are. If you are used to Walt Disney World and are now planning a Disneyland visit, don’t assume you know it all. Conversely, if you are a Disneyland veteran venturing to Walt Disney World for the first time, you need to change up your planning and preparation too!
Growing up in the Deep South, “Disney” for me always meant Walt Disney World in Orlando. My family took trips many times to Florida to visit Mickey and Minnie. After heading to college, I started dating a California boy and found out he loved Disney as much as I did. He grew up making similar Disney pilgrimages, except his family vacations took him to the original Disney: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We married and settled in Northern California, where we visit Disneyland often, both with and without kids.
With my Walt Disney World upbringing and Disneyland adulthood experience, I am in a unique position to offer some words of Disney wisdom to fans of one park heading to the other for the first time. Here are the differences between Disney World and Disneyland and the ways your Disneyland and Disney World vacation experiences will differ (as well as tips for making the most of those differences).
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1) Size & Scale
You probably already know that Walt Disney World in Orlando is a much, much larger resort. Compare Walt Disney World’s 4 theme parks and 2 water parks to the 2 theme parks at Disneyland. The acreage difference, however, is what is truly astounding; compare about 30,000 acres of Disney-owned property at Walt Disney World to 510 acres at Disneyland.
The size and scope of Walt Disney World affects all aspects of a vacation there, from hotel choice to transportation options to just how early you have to get out of bed to make rope drop. The small size of Disneyland is a game changer for Walt Disney World veterans because many of those considerations are non-issues at Disneyland. Disneyland veterans, of course, need to be prepared to plan for new logistical challenges on a Disney World vacation simply due to its size.
2) Best Hotel Options
I’m a firm believer in the value of staying on property at Walt Disney World. The perks and proximity offered by Disney properties are simply too great to ignore if you want to experience all that Walt Disney World has to offer. Those perks include Extra Magic Hours (early entry and late night hours), priority Fastpass+ booking, access to Magical Express, free parking, and more. Because Disney offers a number of properties at nearly every price point, even budget travelers can often afford to stay on-property.
At Disneyland, my calculation changes and so should yours (check out my post detailing the factors to consider when staying on or off property at Disneyland and my thoughts on best Disneyland hotel choices for families with babies and toddlers). There are no “value” resorts at Disneyland and the perks of on-property access are not as great. Early entry is the only real perk of significance but you can get 1 day of early entry into Disneyland park with a 3 or more day park hopper ticket even staying off-property. Since Disneyland is so much smaller, there are many reasonably priced hotels within steps of the main park entrance that afford all of the proximity benefits at a fraction of the price.
3) Air Travel
When flying to Walt Disney World there is pretty much only one airport choice that makes sense: Orlando International (MCO). Those brave enough to fly Allegiant can also use Orlando’s Sanford airport (SFB). Tampa is an 80 mile drive, but its airport (TPA) is rarely cheaper and could present traffic hassles.
A trip to Anaheim affords travelers a lot more air travel options, in my humble opinion. LAX is by far the largest airport in the region and the one that many travelers coming from the East Coast or South will need to use it to get the best deals. For travelers flying in from other places (especially up and down the West Coast), however, there are some airport choices that are excellent alternatives that are closer and easier: John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA) and Long Beach (LGB). You can get from both airports to the Disneyland main gate in 20 minutes. My family chooses to fly into SNA for nearly all of our trips, as it is served frequently by Southwest flights from SFO and OAK. There are other airports in the region that could work in a pinch: Burbank (BUR), Ontario (ONT), and even San Diego (SAN).
4) Transportation & Getting Around the Parks
The bus, ferry, and monorail system at Walt Disney World rivals the transit systems of some major cities, connecting dozens of hotels to theme parks and more. Getting the most out of your Walt Disney World vacation without wasting time in transit requires getting to know that system well.
In contrast, there really is not a transit system at Disneyland. There is a short monorail from Downtown Disney near the Disneyland Hotel that drops guests into Tomorrowland, but it isn’t that much faster than walking. There is also a shuttle system operated by the city of Anaheim to local area hotels too far to walk. My advice for Disneyland is to stay within walking distance and use your own two feet as transit while you are there. It’s liberating not waiting for shuttles.
5) Fastpass & Fastpass+
If you follow Disney news, you probably already know about the Fastpass+ system at Walt Disney World utilizing new technology and Magic Bands. This system requires booking Fastpasses many weeks or months in advance to have access to the more popular attractions. It also limits you to three advance reservations a day in a single park.
Disneyland, however, still offers the “old” paper Fastpass system that you can only access in the parks on the day of your trip. There is no need (yet) to pre-book Fastpasses at Disneyland so those planning last minute trips won’t find themselves out of Fastpass luck. With the ease of park hopping at Disneyland, savvy Fastpass users can often snag more than a dozen Fastpasses in a single day by strategically changing parks and maximizing both systems (and even those with babies or toddlers too small to ride can maximize Fastpasses using Rider Switch).
6) The Ease of Park Hopping
Walt Disney World and Disneyland tickets cost about the same, but a big price differential is the park hopper option. Many families forego park hopper tickets to save money. At Walt Disney World, this is often a wise choice because of the distance between parks and the transportation time required to park hop. At Disneyland, however, the two parks are right across from each other, making hopping easy and a great way to ride more and snag extra Fastpasses. There is simply more value from the park hopper ticket at Disneyland than at Disney World.
7) Effect of local visitors
Both Disneyland and Disney World offer discount annual passes to locals. Given the huge population of the Los Angeles area and the relative small size of Disneyland, however, the local crowds can affect Disneyland much more than the locals in Orlando do.
What does this mean for out-of-towners? Check Southern California holidays and school schedules before planning your Disneyland vacation to make sure the park won’t be flooded with locals if you are planning a once-in-a-lifetime Disneyland vacation.
8) “New” Rides
Disneyland has a few attractions that will be “new” to Walt Disney World veterans. Some of my favorites in Disneyland park include Matterhorn and Indiana Jones. California Adventure has Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, Goofy’s Sky School, and many more. Finally, don’t miss some Disneyland originals in Fantasyland (especially if you have little ones): Casey Junior Circus Train, Storybook Canals, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (which used to be in Disney World but closed years ago).
For Disneyland veterans heading to Walt Disney World, there are a lot of rides that will be new to you (too many to list!). The one making headlines is the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. But don’t miss these other favorites: Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom), Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios), and Spaceship Earth (EPCOT). Finally, watch for the Frozen ride to open in the Norway pavilion of World Showcase in EPCOT some time in 2016.
9) Attraction Variations
If you have experienced an attraction at Walt Disney World that has a counterpart at Disneyland, it very well may be new to you too! Some of the rides may have the same name in both parks, but that doesn’t mean the rides are the same. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, is a substantially longer (and in my humble opinion, better) ride in Disneyland. Space Mountain’s cars seat two passengers side-by-side in Disneyland, whereas the Walt Disney World ride has bobsled style vehicles where passengers sit by themselves in single file. Experiencing and exploring the variations is part of the fun of trying a new Disney park.
(Want a sneak peek at the ride differences? Don’t miss this post comparing key differences between Disneyland and Disney World attractions.)
Dining choices abound at Walt Disney World simply because of its size. It would take months to try all the restaurant options! Disneyland has less variety but has several excellent restaurants in its own right too. For a nice Disneyland meal, try Napa Rose, Carthay Circle, or Blue Bayou.
If having a dining plan is something you value, it’s important to remember that dining plans are just not available at Disneyland. For Walt Disney World dining plan veterans, this is a great time to change it up and see whether the Disney dining plan is really a value for your family: see if you can eat cheaper without a dining plan for once (I bet you can!).
What other differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland have you noticed? How have those differences affected how you travel at each resort?