Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World versus Disneyland

June 12, 2015, 12:16 PM · How hard can it be?

Of course that was the first thought that crossed my mind when confronted with the idea of planning a vacation to Walt Disney World (WDW). Why wouldn’t it be? After all, I have spent more days and nights at the Disneyland Resort (DR) than I can even count. I am the “expert” amongst my circle of friends - the one who gets the call when someone wants to know something about the parks. “How busy will it be tomorrow?” “Where should we eat?” “Is this show worth the wait?” Questions like those are sure to come my way. I am comfortable answering those questions and the others like them. I know that place like the back of my own hand so again I ask myself the question, “How hard can it be?” The answer perhaps surprisingly is “very.”

Disneyland opening
Disneyland's opening, from Life magazine's archive of Disney theme park photos.

The differences between the DR and WDW are measured in leaps and bounds. At the end of the day, with the exception of it all starting with a mouse, there are probably more things that make them different than make them similar. That means planning a vacation in Orlando is much different than planning one for Anaheim. Everyone knows the big differences - four parks versus two (not counting the water parks,) attractions you can only see on one coast or the other, the charm of visiting Walt’s original vision or the awe of seeing his vision after getting a taste of what was possible. But there’s more. So much more.

Walt Disney World opening
Walt Disney World's opening, from the same collection

When you start looking at the differences that divide Disney’s original duo of parks, you have to start with size. For a Disneyland aficionado, we simply can’t begin to ponder the scale of WDW. A park hop for us involves walking out one gate that is within shouting distance (with a strong voice) of the other. A park hop in WDW involves a plethora of travel options including monorails, buses, and boats. Thinking of starting your day at the Magic Kingdom and ending the night at the Studios? It can be done, but for a Southern California native used to nothing needed but shoe leather, it can be a big culture shock as well as a logistical nightmare when planning.

The end of a long day at the DR means fireworks and - for many - a shuttle ride to their car so they can drive to their hotel of choice. Sure, there are on-property options - a whopping three of them to be precise. But there are also a sea of non-Disney hotels that are all within walking distance of the Resort. Don’t want to stay on property? No problem. But when they call it Walt Disney WORLD, they are not exaggerating as you can settle in at any number of on-site resorts - sprawling hotels each with their own advantages and disadvantages at picking one over the other. In Anaheim, few would pick the Grand Californian over the Disneyland Hotel based on proximity to the parks but in Orlando, many select their hotel based off how close it is to their favorite park. There are off-property options in Florida as well but the sense of immersion created by staying at a Disney hotel must really add a little extra “oomph” to that dream vacation.

Another factor to consider during planning is the length of your stay. When I was a kid, my family made a trip out to Florida one time - a five day trip to WDW. Five days at a time when there were only two parks - the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. With the Studios and Animal Kingdom - not even stopping to consider two water parks, a championship-level golf course, the sprawling Downtown Disney complex, and countless other entertainment options - you find yourself looking at a solid week easily. Oh, and if the lure of Universal Orlando’s siren song is too much to resist, you can make that ten days without blinking an eye. In Anaheim, many can wrap up both parks in three or four days... five if you want a very relaxing trek. But after that, if you’re looking for more, it’s time to leave the DR. Knott’s Berry Farm is just up the road a bit, Universal Studios a bit farther. Of course, the truly adventurous can brave the Southern California freeways (worse than it sounds) and make it out to Six Flags Magic Mountain or down to Sea World or the San Diego Zoo. But if we limit our stay to on-property, it’s a much shorter trip.

What about the logistics? Planning a WDW trip requires the kind of strategy session that a NASA engineer might find impressive as you juggle Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR) that you can make SIX MONTHS before your trip (I can barely figure out what to eat for dinner tomorrow night most of the time), a sea of websites offering “crowd calendars” to assist you in picking out what park should be visited on each day of your trip and what order you should tackle every ride, and, of course, the love it or hate it Fastpass+ that you can use to book your ride time on your favorite attractions 60 days in advance of your trip. It’s a plan that requires spreadsheets, conference calls with the whole family, and essentially, a crystal ball to know when and where to do what.

The DR is a less stressful plan in my opinion. Yes, there are fantastic restaurants at the DR but very few of them actually require a reservation to eat there. Yes, I’m sure if asked, I could formulate a plan of what ride to tackle in what order but the size of the parks make them much easier to criss-cross to hit your favorites without running yourself into exhaustion. The question of what park to visit each day becomes a toss of a coin in most cases because if one park is busy, odds are high both parks are busy. Visiting WDW seems to be a science to many - a trek backed by years of study, research, and analysis while the DR maintains more of an art as the two parks are flooded by locals who have spent much of their lives there and can tell you the best bathroom to visit within fifty feet of where you’re standing.

In the end, planning a vacation for many generates the same stress that you’re hoping to avoid with your trip. For many, it will be months upon months of planning out every meal, every ride, and every bit of Disney magic you can manage to squeeze into your allotted time there. But the true magic comes in the experience. So after all the ADRs are made, after all the Fastpass+ reservations are set, and after you’ve figured out the perfect time to get that World Of Color Fastpass to stand in the perfect spot, take a deep breath, look around, and soak it all in. Look at the people around you. See the smiles, hear the laughter, and make the memories that will last a lifetime. Now that’s gotta be the best plan of them all, right?

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Replies (8)

June 12, 2015 at 2:06 PM · I don't know why but I guess it's the area, but hotels in Southern California are expensive for a decent hotel. I wanted to go to DR later this year but it would be cheaper just to go back to WDW & Universal Orlando instead. For the cost of flying to California, renting a car and getting a hotel at a decent location that won't get your car stolen or worse. I can just drive to Orlando and get a hotel within less that a mile or two from Universal or Disney for less than $300 the entire week. Sorry for the rant everyone, I just hate the airlines.
June 12, 2015 at 3:38 PM · I grew up on WDW, but am a true-blue DR fan now, for the reasons you lay out above. The last time I was at the Magic Kingdom, I had to wait over 30 minutes to catch a monorail back to my hotel (the boat line was over an hour). We were exhausted! At DR, by comparison, from the time I decide to leave the park, it's AT MOST a 10 minute walk back to the Grand Californian. During the day, we pop back to the hotel for swimming and naps (and drinks!!).

Sure, WDW has Animal Kingdom and the Hollywood park, but most anything that's decent there is also at DR, and without all the travel and walking. And we also have Mr. Toad's, Indiana Jones, Casey Jr., Radiator Springs and on down the line. We also don't have to worry with the Fastpass+ system, which sounds like a nightmare.

Why murder yourself trying to shuttle all over the sprawling WDW complex when a 10-minute-or-less walk will get you more rides (and better weather!) at DR. To my mind, it's no choice at all.

June 12, 2015 at 8:42 PM · I originally lived 45 minutes from Disneyland. Now I live 15 minutes away. I go more now. Disneyland requires no planning. Lines are more manageable. Disney World is another world. Lots of planning is needed. You can be there a week and still not see everything despite the fact that attraction count is almost the same. Never have I seen so many people in the off season. There's a historic reason to visit Disneyland and the many local theme parks, but Orlando is the vacation capital for theme parks.

Animal Kingdom and Epcot are well worth the visit to Disney World. Magic Kingdom's new Fantasyland is impressive plus the restaurants in the castle and "Be My Guest" are great. You can't beat the dining opportunities there whereas at Disneyland, I might just skip fine dining. One downside, DHS is a waste and DCA is significantly better.

June 13, 2015 at 2:32 AM · How about planning an Orlando trip which includes both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort? That would truly be a real challenge.
June 13, 2015 at 11:58 AM · I am in the Disneyland camp. WDW is just too cumbersome to navigate, even using the restricted roads as a cast member. The DLR is so much better at the end of the day when you leave the park and just want to crash. The same can be said for UOR.
June 13, 2015 at 1:55 PM · I haven't been to Walt Disney World yet, but based on what I've heard about planning from friends who have gone it sounds more difficult to plan a week at WDW than the two-week Europe trip I did a few years ago. I like planning, but I also like to have some flexibility and with the way WDW is going I could see it becoming too difficult for the average visitor to get what they want out of a vacation.

Disneyland, on the other hand, requires very little planning once you get to the resort. While a touring plan can be helpful, if you're visiting for at least three days it isn't all that necessary and advance reservations for dining are only mandatory during the busiest times. While there are rumors of Fastpass+ making its way to California, I don't see a real need for it here as the current system works fine for the resort's target audience. Sure, there are ways to optimize a trip, but unlike WDW the average visitor could just show up at the park without any advance planning and have the vacation they want.

June 15, 2015 at 7:58 AM · Agreed. The travel time between parks, planning necessary, etc. Is just too much in Florida.
June 15, 2015 at 10:56 AM · Our family actually loves WDW. We enjoy the planning and see it as part of the process of getting excited before we get there. There is also so much fun to be had at WDW. We like that we can have a 7-10day vacation at WDW (& also go to Universal if we like). The great thing about having this debate is you'll need to go to both Disneyland and WDW every so often just so you can compare them lol. it's great just to be on vacation but if I had to choose I would go with WDW :)

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