Disneyland Differences

Sure, Disneyland is Walt’s original park, but is it better than Disney World? Yes and no. At Disney World we’ve got miles of green space, lakes, boats, a massive monorail system, more than twenty-five resorts (and counting) and over two hundred places to eat, to say nothing of four parks, Downtown Disney, and two water parks. Disneyland is tiny by comparison, with just three Disney-owned resorts, two parks, and a smaller Downtown Disney, all surrounded by a bustling urban area.

Before last year, I had no desire to visit Disneyland, but my boss had an event out there that we were able to cover and who am I to say no to an impromptu Disney trip? Still, I remember heading the airport and wishing I was going to Disney World instead. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Smaller, more intimate, less crowded and busy, Disneyland has so much to offer the Disney World fan. Here’s what immediately struck me about the differences between the two parks:

1. Disneyland is a local park.
Part of the charm of Disneyland is that it’s a local park. You’ll see families who’ve been going there for generations; It’s just part of what they do for fun. While the bulk of Disney World guests are doing the hardcore version of park touring, which can lead to a lot of stress, you don’t see as much of that in Disneyland. This makes the park easier to tour, I think. Less drama, fewer parents having meltdowns. It’s just a very different atmosphere when your attitude isn’t “do or die.”

2. No Magical Express.
I’m sure I’m not the only Disney guest who’s stood in the middle of LAX and wished for Magical Express. If you fly into Los Angeles, you’ll pay around $30 for a shuttle to and from the airport if you don’t have a car. And if you have a car? Get ready for some serious traffic. Orlando International Airport is an easy 45-minutes away from Disney property even on the worst days. Disneyland is as close as 45 miles, but It can take you hours to drive it if you hit rush hour at the wrong time—and rush hour starts early and goes late.

3. The food.
Disneyland leads in quick-service meals, which are often more healthy and varied than what you’ll find in Disney World. Table-service meals are not quite as good in Disneyland, however. In addition, I think the waiters in Disney World are more professional. Despite the rather poor state of table-service dining, there are some standouts, like Carthay Circle and Napa Rose, that give one hope. Bonus: You can buy fresh fruit all over the place in Disneyland. It’s expensive but a nice change from what we see in Disney World.

4. It can get cold. Really cold.
While the weather in the Los Angeles area is generally mild, bring a sweater or light jacket for summer nights. In winter, you’ll want to bring a coat. Expect rain during the winter and don’t complain: Californians deal with so many dry spells, they’re happy to see it even if it does ruin your day.

5. Prepare to have your mind blown by Pirates of the Caribbean.
Chances are that you’ll love the differences between your favorite Walt Disney World rides and those same rides at Disneyland, but by far the biggest surprise is Pirates. Do yourself a favor: Don’t read too much about it, just go and enjoy. I promise this is one ride that’s markedly better at Disneyland.

6. The castle is small.
You probably already know this, but Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is really small, like smaller than the average McMansion. I remember the first time I walked into Disneyland, one of my traveling companions said sarcastically, “Oh look at the castle. Isn’t that cute?” Be prepared to be underwhelmed if you’re a longtime Disney World visitor. Another issue, for me at least, is that the sight lines all way up Main Street are blocked by trees around the hub in front of the castle. It’s a minor thing, but when you walk into a Disney World park, you’re awed by what you see in front of you. Disneyland is a little bit more subtle, but there’s beauty there nonetheless.

7. Passholders are king.
Disneyland has a much larger percentage of passholders than does Walt Disney World. Expect to be asked whether or not you’re a passholder whenever you purchase something—they get great discounts on merchandise, resorts, and food.

8. You can “hop” all day long.

The distance between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure is less than a football field, so you can easily go from park to park all day long. There are no finger scanners so you’ll need to get your hand stamped.

9. Free-range characters.
Don’t be surprised if you see characters moving through the parks greeting guests as they go. This is partly due to the fact that there are no underground tunnels by which to move easily, but also, it’s just the way it’s always been done here. It’s a nice extra for those of us who are used to more rigid meet and greets. At character meals, most characters are unaccompanied by handlers, something you would never see in Walt Disney World. This allows for more spontaneous and relaxed meetings.

10. Disneyland is more expensive.
Expect to pay around 10% more for food and beverages and even more for your room: Disneyland resort is expensive, no way around it. When I’ve done the numbers, I’ve found that I can generally book a comparable room, tickets and the dining plan at Disney World for the same amount that I can get just tickets and the room at Disneyland. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Are you a hardcore Disney World fan who has visited Disneyland? What did you think? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

20 thoughts on “Disneyland Differences”

  1. Nice article. Not only is Pirates better at Disneyland but Space Mountain, with its on board soundtrack and heightened visuals, is a far superior attraction. The most significant difference between the two Magic Kingdoms is the number of attractions. Disneyland has almost 3 to 1 more attractions than WDW. I have always felt that the problem with long lines at WDW stems from a lack of attractions. Even with the new Fantasyland in Florida we have not moved forward in the number of attractions in the park. We are simply replacing attractions that had been shutter and not replaced. In my opinion, that makes for a thoroughly more enjoyable Magic Kingdom experience at Disneyland.

  2. As far as food, I think Blue Bayou deserves an honorable mention given the ambiance of you eating in the Pirates ride.
    I always thought the queue to enter Pirates at WDW was better.

    The castle is small but only because it came first. I think WDW will always have the edge just because when built it always had a reference of Disneyland to better plan.

    Cool article, I rarely see comparison reviews from the other side.

  3. I’ve been to WDW many times, but never to DL. It’s great to read articles like this because it helps the many Disney fans who, like myself, are 100% familiar with WDW but are clueless about DL. I’m looking forward to visiting DL someday soon, but it does seem very pricey.
    I agree that WDW needs more attractions! The Magic Kingdom could use a few, but goodness knows that AK and HS need a serious boost in ride quantity. Well, at least we are getting Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at MK.

  4. I’ve visited WDW many times throughout my short life time, but I’ve only been to Disneyland once. I think the biggest shock for me was the size, as I’m so used to the space that WDW has. The castle was a crazy difference for me too, even though I kind of prepared myself for it. I totally agree with the Pirates idea though, as I constantly wish the entire New Orleans Square area, featuring the restaurants and the extended Pirates, would be in Florida. But I think my least favorite attraction at Disneyland had to be Haunted Mansion. It just “died” in a comparison to the Disney World version, although I’d love to see it all decorated up for the Halloween and Christmas season. By far my favorite part of Disneyland is the smaller atmosphere though. It just was easier. You could walk everywhere (although my feet complained a lot about that fact) and everything was easy to reach. And I don’t think I could ever complain about the Indiana Jones Adventure, by far my favorite attraction out in California. As much as I love WDW, and I’ll be traveling there in July, I’m really hoping for a second trip to Disneyland to have the experience all over again!

  5. I grew up visiting both WDW and Disneyland, and WDW is much closer for me today, but Disneyland truly has my heart. I was able to take my WDW kids there last year and I was a little nervous but they absolutely loved it for all the reasons that you mentioned above. Way back when WDW had “free range” Characters as well and I miss those days. I’m not a fan of the rigid meet and greets but with the volume of people in Florida it’s just become how it has to be. I think that you’re right about fewer guest melt downs too and much of that could very well be about the high local percentage.

  6. If you’re going to CA to go to Disneyland you shouldn’t fly into LAX – John Wayne is much closer.

    Blue Bayou is a great dining experience. Pirates is bigger but Mansion seems somewhat smaller. It’s funny how the waterfall in Pirates in Disneyland is functional (to get you under the railroad tracks) and was reproduced in WDW even though that’s not an issue there.

  7. I am a former WDW CM and though I love ‘the World’ dearly, Disneyland is a favorite of mine! It just seems more nostalgic to me and I love how closeby everything is. As much as I love a good monorail ride, taking buses everywhere in WDW gets old fast.

    If you can, fly into SNA (Orange County – John Wayne) instead of LAX. Problem solved ;)

  8. I visited Disneyland for the first time in January, after going to the WDW parks ~20 times between ages 16 and 26. I found Pirates to be notably disappointing, as did my husband, with a similar Disney background to my own. The first half just didn’t make sense. The overall price to vacation there IS significantly higher, but I DON’T think it’s worth it. That said, we saw so many attractions in a single day that I’m fairly certain I generally only see 1/2 to 1/3 of that during a standard MK or Epcot day. The wandering characters are the best, though! I saw so many old favorites (like Pinocchio!) that I was in shock!

  9. After visiting WDW my whole life, we went to Disneyland for the first time last year. I must say it is a close second in my eyes. I feel like you really are closer to Walt and his vision when you’re there, because of the originality of it. The castle was a big disappointment, but I did love a lot of things that WDW does not offer. Their version of “under the sea with nemo” was great, their “pirates” was amazing as well. I also really enjoyed their “space mountain” since you can sit next to someone. Also can’t beat cars land! Both DL and WDW have their advantages, I feel lucky I can say I have been to both :)

  10. I have grown up going to Disneyland maybe once every 2 years and now as an adult i go maybe at least twice a year if not more. Last october was my first time at Walt Disney World. Honestly i was quiet bummer about the magic kingdom in orlando. I don’t know why, but i expected so much more. Better rides or something i guess. The only thing that i am jealous of is WDW’s haunted mansion. It has a few added wrinkles to it that i wish could get added to californias version.
    As a whole i enjoyed my trip to WDW because of the Wild Animal Park, that place is sooooo awesome and was worth the trip on its own. Also we went during the Food and Wine Festival and the night scene at Epcot Center is fun. Everybody is out drinking having a good time. Really wish we had those 2 parks in Cali but we got space issues.

  11. Christopher T. Rhodes

    I. WANT. NO. NEED. TO. VISIT. DISNEYLAND!!! I live 45 minutes away from Walt Disney World and, while thoroughly obsessed with the resort and Disney altogether, there is no easier way to hype me up than to say the word, “Disneyland”. I am so excited to visit, that I continually price-check my dream vacation there!

    This article touched on many things I had heard before, but I am nevertheless excited and enthralled by all I read!

  12. No doubt that it takes a very long time to drive from LAX to Disneyland most hours of every day, but I should point out that LAX to Disneyland is fewer than 35 miles, not “as close as 45 miles” as stated.

  13. Oh–and another option is to fly into Long Beach (LBG), if you can manage it. It is a wonderfully small airport, and not at all difficult to get to Disneyland from there.

  14. I lived in the ORlando area as a child, so we went to WDW countless times. When Igo now it is like going home for me. I miss Florida terribly and would go to WDW once a season if I could. THe last time we went my son was 15 months old and my daughter and step daughters were 8, 8, and 10. We took our first DIsneyland trip ths past October and I was expecting to be dissapointed but I totally wasn’t!!!! My son who is now 4 had a blast!! My husband had to be in LA for work so my son and I tagged a long. We had a wonderful trip. THe park was small enough to enjoy with a preschooler yet there was so much to do. Cars Land was a huge hit. My son askes me at least twice a week when we are going back. Hopefully we will be able to go back during the summer with our girls too. I love the differences in the parks and I agree that Pirates and Space Mountain are better at the Land. I like the seating better for Space Mountain there. And the best news is my husband is now a total Disney convert! I love both places and look forward to going to both for many many years to come. ANd as far as the food goes, the character buffet at Mickey’s Surfs Up Breakfast was awesome!!! THe caramel banana french toast was divine!!!!

  15. Thanks for this Article. My wife and I are looking forward to going to Disneyland at some point in the next year or two. My brother and his wife go to DL all the time. He told me that the biggest difference between the two is you can visit the entire park from open until close and ride most of the rides that you want to ride.

  16. Thanks for an interesting article. I’ve never been to Disneyland but I’ve been to WDW many times and Disneyland Paris several times. I plan to visit Disneyland in the future and the differences are what would make it interesting. I visited Disneyland Paris first so I was surprised the first time I visited the Magic Kingdom as there was no dragon under the castle. It just shows how Disney parks designs have evolved and changed over the years.

  17. I loved reading this, I need to visit Disneyland resort again soon, last time I went was in 98 and I can’t remember much.

    I would love to see a comparison between Disneyland Paris and Disneyland resort! It would be great to see how the European experience compares to the American experience!

  18. I’ve lived on both coasts, and have been able to visit the Orlando and Anaheim resorts with about 8 or 9 multi-day visits to each since the 80s. Growing up in New York, the trips were obviously to WDW. My first trip to Disneyland wasn’t until 1997, though now that I live in California, most Disney vacations are there.

    I often consider the differences between the resorts (and there are MANY), though I wouldn’t bother making a claim that one is better than the other. Yes, WDW is bigger, and has a lot more to do, but that has its downside. A visit to Disneyland can be done in a long weekend, and doesn’t require a week’s worth of lodging and vacation to be seen. Any mentioned of Disneyland being more expensive ignores the fact that you’re likely going to be there spending your money for half as long!

    A park-to-park comparison is useless, as Disneyland has easily a dozen beloved attractions that the MK at WDW doesn’t. (Nemo, Matterhorn, Alice, Mr. Toad, Roger Rabbit, Canal Boats, Casey Junior, Snow White, Indiana Jones, etc., etc.) Some versions are better at WDW (Splash Mountain, Haunted Mansion) and some are considerably worse (Pirates, Space Mountain). Really, the only place that WDW MK exceeds is in Tomorrowland.

    But as soon as you add in the three other theme parks, it goes completely lopsided, and that’s saying nothing of the 30+ resorts that WDW sports. What I just keep in mind is that it comes down to the notion that quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. More doesn’t necessarily mean better, it just means more.

    The one thing that matters most to me is this – Walt Disney may have dreamed of WDW, but he BUILT Disneyland. I can feel that every time I step on Main Street. It’s the only Disney park he ever saw. There would be no WDW without Disneyland, and while all my personal nostalgia may lie with the Orlando resort, I’m still able to appreciate that the real history is in Anaheim.

    In the end, it’s fun to compare and contrast, and I’ve loved doing that at the Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong resorts as well. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from visiting all 11 parks, it’s that the parks and their experiences are as diverse as the guests who visit them. And while there’s nothing wrong with having a personal preference, using a word like “better” is awfully subjective. I much prefer the idea of people visiting every Disney park they can, and being able to find something that’s special to them. It’s pretty hard not to.

  19. I LOVE the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland! They say because Disneyland is smaller it only has room for the best and most magical rides!

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