Theme Park Insider

What's the difference between Disneyland and Walt Disney World?

September 9, 2016, 11:09 AM · Visiting Disney has become a rite of passage for many American families. Kids grow up with the Disney characters — from the classic "Big Five" of Mickey Mouse and friends, to all the Pixar movies, to more modern Disney-owned characters such as those from Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Disney is family for millions of people around the world, so when it comes time to plan a family vacation, it's no surprise that many choose to spend that time with their Disney family.

But which Disney should fans visit? Disney has six theme park resorts around the world: the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, Tokyo Disney in Japan, Disneyland Paris in France, and its two newest properties, Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland in China. For most visitors, the best choice is to visit the Disney resort closest to them, especially if it is in the same country. That minimizes your travel hassles and expenses.

Americans have two relatively easy choices for a Disney vacation: Disneyland on the west coast, or Disney World in the east. Beyond their location, what's the difference between these two choices?

Disneyland offers two theme parks and three hotels in a small, walkable resort in an urban community while Walt Disney World offers four theme parks, two water parks, and dozens of hotels on a sprawling development on the outskirts of its city. Yet both resorts offer a comparable number of rides, shows, and attractions, thanks to Disneyland packing so much into its relatively small space.

Size and density aren't the biggest differences between the two resorts, however. In my experience, the biggest difference between Disneyland and Walt Disney World is what you need to do to plan a visit to each one. With its large number of local visitors, Disneyland is more conducive to a spur-of-the-moment visit, while the huge percentage of out-of-town visitors at Walt Disney World demands more advance planning at that resort.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I write about the differences in planning Disney vacations on each coast, including the differences between Disneyland's Fastpass ride reservation system and Walt Disney World's relatively new Fastpass+. I also talk about getting restaurant reservations on each coast, differences in ticket options and what you need to do to get around each resort... without losing your patience.

As a Southern California native and resident... and a former Orlando resident and Walt Disney World cast member, I've spent countless hours at both resorts and know them both well. Ultimately, I prefer visiting Disneyland for the convenience of its smaller size and lack of need for advance reservations. But I love Walt Disney World, too. Having all those advance reservations can provide some comforting peace of mind for someone who's only going to visit Disney once or twice in a lifetime. And Disney World seems to have a wider range of price points for families looking to save (or splurge!) on their Disney vacation.

Dedicated fans can argue about all the details in one resort versus the other: which has the better version of Pirates (Disneyland), Haunted Mansion (Disney World), Space Mountain (Disneyland), or the Tower of Terror (Disney World)? Disneyland fans can point out that only their resort has the Marvel characters. (Marvel is located at rival Universal in Orlando). And Disney World fans can counter with the upcoming Avatar-themed land that only they will have. Frankly, these debates can go on forever, and they're part of the fun of being a Disney fan — no matter on which coast your loyalties lie.

Ultimately, there's no "wrong" choice here. Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World offer wonderful vacation experiences to families who take the time to investigate them and choose the vacation package that best fits their needs. But the differences between the two resorts are real and worth that consideration.


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Replies (23)

September 9, 2016 at 11:40 AM · I live in Eastern Canada, so WDW is a lot closer. But I also visit DLR, for the unique attractions available there and elsewhere in California. Because we visit in alternate years, there is always something new at either resort by the time we get back there.

But I chose WDW in the poll, because of the enormous package deal offered in Orlando. WDW really is a world onto itself, and we also appreciate having on-site value resorts.

September 9, 2016 at 1:18 PM · Anytime the question is, "Anaheim or Orlando?" the answer is always, "Tokyo."
September 9, 2016 at 1:53 PM · WDW has always been my thing, lived in Florida for a few years to go there a lot. Plus, just so much more in Orlando with the multiple parks and amazing hotels and just overall experience better.

That said, do enjoy Disneyland's Magic Kingdom more with better versions of most rides, the Matterhorn, great Fantasyland and such. Do want to get back there soon but right now, still go with WDW as better overall.

September 9, 2016 at 3:16 PM · My family and I usually go to Orlando, when we go to Disney, in February and it is simply for convenience. We do not spend all of our time at WDW and it is simply easier to get to Universal or Sea World if we so choose. Also spring training is on so if we wish to watch the Yankees its less then an hour away and then spend some time on the beach before heading back. As for travel from where we live in Canada, north of Montana, DLR is about 600 miles closer then WDW but flight costs aren't much different, it is just because the things that interest us are more accessible for us in Orlando.
September 9, 2016 at 3:21 PM · I think Robert hits the nail on the head. The 2 resorts are really too different to compare. For a week long vacation getting lost in Disneyworld is more attractive. For a quick 2 or 3 day trip Disneyland is better as you get way more attractions per park. And yes, I would agree that Tokyo is still the King of Disney resorts (any extra time you have can easily be spent exploring the adjacent worlds largest/cleanest/safest metropolis). I do think that Shanghai could rival Tokyo, that is if they can come up with a park that matches DisneySea.
September 9, 2016 at 3:30 PM · There really is no "wrong" answer here. Both are great, and are unique in their own way. However, I chose Disneyland in the poll. Even though I live on the east coast (New York), and closer to Disney World, I still prefer Disneyland. To me, there is something more magical about it. There is more of a charm at the parks, especially Disneyland park. Maybe it's because Walt himself was there, I don't know?

In my opinion, Disneyland offers best versions of the attractions they both share. Some of the attractions include: Pirates of the Carribean, It's a Small World, Peter Pan's Flight (recent enhancements), and Space Mountain. Disneyland also offers many unique rides including Radiator Springs Racers (best Disney ride in the U.S,), Indiana Jones Adventure, Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, as well as Haunted Mansion Holiday, It's a Small World Holiday, and Space Mountain Galaxy. Hyperspace Mountain was also unique to the park.

Typically, I stay at the Disneyland Hotel, which I enjoy the fact that both parks are within walking distance. As great as Disney World is, I don't like the fact that I have to wait for a bus to take me back to my hotel. Even though the Disney World hotels are nice, waiting for a bus at midnight isn't always the most enjoyable experience. At Disneyland, I can leave the park at midnight, and be back at the hotel within ten minutes tops. I also like the fact that you walk through Downtown Disney on the way to the parks.

Staying at Disneyland also offers the opportunity to explore more things outside of Disney. I usually go to LA, San Diego, or the beaches in Southern California. I can catch a ball game, a concert, hike in the mountains, or lay at the beach. To be honest, other than the parks, there isn't much to do in Orlando. I would need to drive 2-3 hours to Miami, in order to enjoy myself. The weather is much better in California as well. Florida's weather is much too humid, where California's weather is much more manageable.

I enjoy both places, however, in the end, I would choose Disneyland over Disney World.

September 9, 2016 at 3:49 PM · Gosh, tough question but I went with Disneyland. It's still the place where the family can meet and spend a day together. My kids and siblings, nieces and nephews and extended family can always make time. WDW is a planned vacation, when we can pull it off it's a better time. Depends where you live I guess. I live in TX now so I go both ways and still prefer Disneyland.
September 9, 2016 at 5:35 PM · our family lives in Texas and we went to Disney World every year for 9 yrs. We now go to Disneyland every year. We aren't fans of the new magic bands and the new fastpass system at Disney World.
September 9, 2016 at 7:14 PM · I have been to both and I prefer WDW because it is more immersive experience. Also,I think the cast members are better in Florida. Having said that,if I had small children and limited time, DLR is a better choice. Everything is concentrated together in the two parks which makes it easier to do more in less time. No bus rides saves time. I also think there is more attractions for smaller children.
Ron F
September 9, 2016 at 8:32 PM · Both are great resorts and strengths and weaknesses. However, I would say that Disneyland has the better in park experience. Better rides and It is great having them all so close to each other. New Orleans Square alone is just a great land. That being said I think in recent years that the cast members are better at being energetic and creating magic at Disney world. I think this is is due in part that cast members stay shorter amounts of time and know that it is more of a limited time thing.
September 9, 2016 at 8:40 PM · Walt Disney World Resort is better overall than Disneyland Resort. But Disneyland and California Adventure are the 2 best Disney parks in America.
September 9, 2016 at 9:26 PM · Both WDW and Disneyland have their advantages that make them each magical. The theming, size, spectacle,the transportation system (monorails, the magical express, ferries)! the hotels, the uniqueness of each park including the water parks, the shows, the variety of things to do that suit every taste plus how it separates itself from the real world creating a true vacation gives WDW it's advantages.
While Disneyland has the intimacy, the weather, overall better rides (Pirates, Indiana Jones Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers), awesome parades and shows (Fantasmic, World of Color, Frozen, Golden Horseshoe Revue, more spectacular Holiday season (World Of Color, Nightmare Before Christmas: Haunted Mansion, It's A Small a World Holidsy) and finally more magical fireworks displays at night. Plus the fact that you can get away from Disneyland if you get overloaded and head to the beach or Universal Studios or Hollywood.

In the end though I would pick Disneyland not only for the reasons given but it was the first park that I visited with my family & the one that I have the fondest memories including riding Space Mountain w/ my sisters (our first ride at Disneyland) at eight years old so long ago. There is just about Disneyland that is missing from WDW and it started with Walt. He wanted a place where the magic just feels so much more personal and intimate...

September 10, 2016 at 3:14 AM · The Happiest Place on Earth vs The Most Magical Place on Earth.

It always bothers me when I hear people say Disney World is the happiest place on earth. It's NOT.

In the poll, I chose WDW because I lived in Orlando for ten years, and I love that you almost feel like you're in another country. It's huge. No matter where you go, you're still on Disney property.

However, Disneyland definitely feels more magical, which is odd since that title belongs to Orlando - technically. I'm also a big fan of urban planning and walkability, so the layout and smaller size of Disneyland appeals to me more. Not to mention they pack so much more into a smaller space.

But again, Disney World feels like a country, or at least its own state. You almost feel like you could live there, if they only had a Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Fresh Market.

September 10, 2016 at 5:15 AM · Disneyland due to its intimate nature and the feeling that Walt himself built it. The bus transportation at WDW ruins some of the magic. I love how I can walk everywhere at Disneyland Resort. I'll be there next week and won't be renting a car, and won't be needing any transportation at all while at the resort. It's a great feeling, and definitely adds to the magic and happiness. Also better weather in SoCal than Central Florida helps as well.
September 10, 2016 at 6:15 AM · I would say for a lot of people the choice may boil down to location. I live in Canada in the same time zone as Orlando. So I typically go to there because I get more parks for less travel cost and time getting there.
September 10, 2016 at 8:12 AM · I think that both parks have a different vibe to them because WDW in Florida feels like it's just tourists and the Disneyland park feels like locals who live in California with not many tourists.

This matters I think because the vibe of the people is different: in WDW, being at a park where everyone around you is a tourist there for the first time or maybe second time in years, everyone feels like they are discovering the place and the pace is slower. People are wandering around like cattle sometimes. There is the big frustration of many things being all booked up with reservations, so you can't go to WDW and do things spur of the moment. You have to be willing to either do the tedious reservations too or take your chances on what will be left and what you can luck into. But you can't have your heart set on doing anything.

Disneyland feels like it is packed every day with people who live locally around Los Angeles. There are many Spanish speakers and it feels like the park is located in Mexico at times. Spanish is everywhere and makes it feel like you are in another country, not the US. There are a lot of hipsters at Disneyland too and people racing around being kind of pushy since they know how to work the system with the fast passes and all that and they know the park like the back of their hand. If you are there for the first or second time, you can be overwhelmed by the locals. There is not as much to do outside the parks as there is in Orlando. The Anaheim area is not very nice and can be a little scary in my opinion. In Florida, if you want to leave Disney property you have lots of options. In California, everything is kind of seedy and run-down around Disneyland. That makes me feel more trapped at Disneyland.

In my opinion Disneyland really needs that third gate to even compete with WDW as an option for a family vacation. If you are an adult or a couple, you can do Disneyland just fine and deal with its challenges. If you are a family, then WDW is more the place for you. You will have a better time at WDW even if you don't do the reservations thing and overplan every day because you will have more options for things to do outside the parks if everything at Disney is booked up. With Disneyland, you have fewer options and it's not as easy or safe to get around to do other things around Los Angeles.

That's the thing too: if you go to Disneyland, you are going to a park surrounded by a sketchy urban environment. That means you can be on vacation mode in the parks but you have to snap back into real world mode to travel around the park and do other things, because you need to keep your wits about you. In Florida, you can be in vacation mode from the moment you land at the airport until you get back on the plane to go home. It just feels safer in Florida and easier to drive around. You can be in a vacation bubble at WDW but at Disneyland once you leave the park gates reality hits you in the face again faster.

September 10, 2016 at 8:51 AM · You forgot to mention the ride overlays at Disneyland. Went to WDW thinking their haunted mansion would have the nightmare before Christmas overlay as well as space mountain's ghost galaxy overlay. However, they were the same ride as if I went during the spring.
September 10, 2016 at 9:34 AM · Tokyo Disney and Universal Studios Orlando
September 10, 2016 at 3:34 PM · I was eleven when WDW opened. I loved the place. Then EPCOT CENTER opened and I loved that. Now I have to make reservations for everything 6 months in advance. That is not my idea of fun. I don't go anymore.
September 10, 2016 at 5:22 PM · Disneyland: A universe where you can escape into.
Walt Disney World: A universe from which there is no escape.
September 10, 2016 at 6:26 PM · Before Fast Pass Plus, it would be easy. WDW is a complete vacation package. Assuming you have the money, you can really go big. It really is a world in and of itself. However, it is now much more difficult to maximize your stay if your goal is to experience as many attractions as possible. Gone are the days of riding Haunted Mansion three times in 30 minutes, or walking on Mission Space. Best case for our family is six days at WDW and finish with three at Universal with their Express Pass. Now, if I want to experience Classic Disney, it would have to be California. The old system is much, much better, and the weather is not unbearably hot. My dream is that I will wake up and hear that WDW has decided to go back to the old system. The last time we went to Orlando, we completely skipped WDW and spent four days at Universal, which was a blast.
September 11, 2016 at 9:27 AM · I choose Disneyland because I have a lot more memories at Disneyland than at Walt Disney World.
September 11, 2016 at 11:11 AM · Robert is right of course: no wrong choice. However, I have the feeling that personal history may play a role. WDW was the first theme park I visited (in 1976) so I know I have a nostalgia factor. Also, I saw EPCOT coming and the first visit was like stepping into the future, so it's my favorite park despite well known issues. My rational part tells me that Tokyo is fantastic, that Disneyland is Walt's park, but my heart sticks to WDW...

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