It was only two years ago when I first visited a Disney theme park. I’d always wanted to go but, for some weird reason, just hadn’t. That changed when I had the opportunity to visit Disneyland in California. Since then I’ve returned four times, visited Walt Disney World in Florida twice and even spent a day at Disneyland Paris. Still, I am nowhere near being a Disney expert, but my experiences in the parks do provide me with an interesting opportunity to step back, appraise them from a pseudo-scientific point of view in an effort to help you decide which park to add to your own travel to-do list. Ultimately, there is no wrong answer. All Disney Parks are fantastic for people of all ages and backgrounds, but there are certain features that differentiate Disneyland and Walt Disney World, making them very different travel experiences.
The most obvious difference between The Happiest Place on Earth (Disneyland) and the Most Magical (Disney World) is their respective locations. Opened in 1955, Disneyland calls Anaheim, California home and the city very much grew up around it. Since Disney didn’t own or control the surrounding land, any number of hotels, motels and restaurants have opened (and closed) over the years, creating a sort of hospitality chaos around the park. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida though is a different matter all together. The resort covers 39 square miles, or 25,000 acres, making it a small city in its own right. Whereas Disneyland is a place, Walt Disney World is a destination and the company controls all aspects of life on-site, down to the unique rules allowing it to essentially function as its own municipality.
Location should’ve played a bigger role in my visitation schedule, but it hasn’t. Due to the other features of Disneyland, it’s a park in which I feel very comfortable and I don’t mind flying out to California from the East Coast for just a couple of days. The location of Walt Disney World though in what is basically a separate fiefdom, makes it a more intimidating process for me. It’s an event to travel there, to organize things to see and do and isn’t a destination that I can visit casually. But the location of Walt Disney World is also to its great benefit. Orlando enjoys many more air connections than does the closest airport to Anaheim and once there, it’s nice to let Disney manage every aspect of the travel experience.
The most obvious difference between the two parks is the scale on which they exist. Disneyland opened in 1955 on a footprint that really didn’t allow for a lot of expansion, not to the level that Disney and others would have liked. Today the Disneyland Resort consists of two parks: the original Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. The second park opened in 2001 on what had been a parking lot and although it struggled in its early years, continued changes and improvements have made it a solid second park. In addition to the two parks there are also three Disney hotels as well as a shopping district called Downtown Disney. Given the available land and restrictions, the size of the Disneyland Resort in 2020 is as big as it is likely to ever be.
Walt Disney World is different. Buying enormous tracts of lands under a variety of pseudonyms, Disney eventually amassed enough property in central Florida to nearly qualify as its own city-state. And that’s what the company wanted, to have the freedom to grow and evolve as well as not to be dependent on other entities, be they private or public. Dumpy hotels once (and still sorta do) lined the streets leading up to Disneyland, but in Walt Disney World the entire experience is carefully controlled, no detail left to chance. That means that over time four different theme parks have been created along with dozens of hotels at all levels, a shopping district and so much more. Walt Disney World is the kind of manufactured universe that Disneyland wanted to be, but never could have been.
It’s probably not fair to compare Disneyland and Walt Disney World in terms of attractions, but I feel I have to. Disneyland is a fraction of the size of Disney World, but attracts so many visitors thanks to the quality of the attractions and their history. This was the first Disney Park, and many of the rides that have come to define Disney Parks around the world all started here. Disneyland has of course evolved over the years, and many new attractions have been added while others taken away. Most recently, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge made its worldwide premier here, signaling a new era in Disney’s history. Across the street, Disney California Adventure is a nice complement to Disneyland itself. With several attractions and experiences, there may not be as much to do here but I love it for its laid back feel and the opportunity to get out of Disneyland itself for a while. Disneyland though isn’t a place where one spends a week on vacation, at least I don’t think so. You can easily do one park a day and have done just about everything on your to-do list. If you want to take things slower, then two days in Disneyland and one day in California Adventure makes sense, but beyond that I’m just not sure what one would do.
Walt Disney World on the other hand is a destination where you could spend as much time as you like and not run out of things to do. Each of the four parks take at least a full day to enjoy, but more time would be better. In addition to the parks there are any number of other ways to enjoy some time relaxing from the hotels themselves, to a water park, large shopping district and more.
Ease of Visiting & Overall Feeling
People are oddly divided when the topic of comparing the two American parks comes up. The parks illicit very strong emotional responses, and where one first experiences the magic of Disney is usually the park they prefer. There are exceptions to this, and there are certainly aspects of Walt Disney World that I greatly prefer to Disneyland, namely the fact that it’s a much more expansive experience. But it’s that ease of visiting that ultimately makes Disneyland my own favorite park to visit. I love the fact that it’s very approachable and isn’t as nearly an intimidating experience as is Disney World. I can visit Disneyland on the spur of a moment and still enjoy the parks as they were meant to be enjoyed. Walt Disney World is different. Disney World requires a lot of advanced planning and preparation, all in an effort to enjoy the attractions and experiences at the top of your own to-do list. Disneyland is also a day park, meaning that if that’s all the time I have I can still experience everything that makes it so special. And if I do have more time, then I can literally walk across the street to Disney California Adventure and enjoy everything that park has to offer. Transferring between parks in Walt Disney World is not nearly as easy an experience, whether you use bus, monorail or Uber, it can easily take an hour or longer to transfer between the four parks.
What the two parks do have in common though is that special feeling that only Disney manages to provide and it’s that which has endeared it to me. While I do have a park preference – Disneyland – which park you decide to visit depends on a variety of factors from time and convenience to budget and preference. There is though ultimately no wrong answer. Both parks are amazing and what really matters is that you visit and enjoy them as they were meant to be enjoyed, all the while embracing your inner child and the magic of the parks.