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WDW or Disneyland - Which is Better?

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People often ask Carol and I which we prefer, Walt Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California. They are always surprised when we respond, “You can’t compare the two; they’re really quite different.”

Our friends often protest, “But they’re both Disney resorts, they have many of the same rides and attractions at both. They must be comparable!”

No, they are not . . . at least not in our opinion.

We have been going to Walt Disney World regularly since 1977 and we are huge fans. In 2005 we took our “once in a lifetime” trip to Disneyland, it was the 50th Anniversary year. Wow! We were blown away. It was wonderful, so wonderful that we have now been there seven times in the past seven years. So much for “once in a lifetime”.

Walt Disney World is the most popular and the largest vacation destination in the world. It covers 47 square miles, has four theme parks, over 20 Disney owned and operated hotels, a huge campground, countless restaurants, two water parks, a five story video arcade, a shopping district, several golf courses and a Richard Petty track. All of the facilities are connected by a transportation system which includes hundreds of buses, scores of boats and a monorail. It’s a self contained city which employs about 66,000 people and hosts tens of millions of tourists every year.

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Disneyland is a classic. It was the world’s first theme park and it led the way for all the others. This is the park I grew up dreaming of . . . I would rush home from school every day to watch The Mickey Mouse Club on television. Spin & Marty, Davy Crockett, the Mousketeers and Annette. Oh yes . . . Annette! Every boy in my generation had a crush on Annette! Each Sunday night Walt Disney was on TV showing us a bit of Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland or Tomorrowland; he captured our imaginations and whet our appetites. It was almost 50 years before I fulfilled my boyhood dream and took the trip west to Disneyland.

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The scope and scale of the properties is so much different. Disneyland is in an urban area and is surrounded by fully developed properties. Walt Disney World has lots of room to grow; only about a third of the 47 square miles has been developed so far. The entire Disney property in California would fit inside the parking lot at Florida’s Magic Kingdom.

This disparity in size makes for some big differences in the experience you have at each resort. In California you can walk between the theme parks or to any of the hotels and other attractions in just a few minutes. In Florida you rely on the free Disney transportation system to get from your resort to the parks and attractions. This leads you to some wonderful sights you can see from the boats or on the monorail.

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Approaching Florida's Magic Kingdom by boat

In California the monorail is considered an attraction; in Florida it’s a vital transportation link. In California everything is close and convenient; in Florida it’s vast and diverse.

Do they have the same attractions? Yes and no!

Both parks have Pirates of the Caribbean, but they are different! Both parks have It’s a Small World, but they are different! Both parks have a castle but they are different!

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Walt Disney World's Cinderella Castle

When we first arrived at Disneyland in 2005 Carol headed off to the Bank of Main Street (now the Art Gallery) to pick up her Annual Pass while I headed to the upper deck of the Train Station to get a picture of Sleeping Beauty Castle. As I took my first look down Main Street USA the first thought I had was, “Where’s the castle?”

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Where's the castle?

Then I saw it . . . so much smaller than Cinderella Castle in Florida. It’s only 77 feet tall, less than half the 189 foot height of Cindy’s place which serves as the focal point in the Magic Kingdom.

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Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle

In Disneyland if you are disoriented you look for The Matterhorn (147 feet) to get your bearings.

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The Matterhorn

While the California castle is smaller than its Florida counterpart it has some very interesting features. You can walk through several hallways and see a diorama of scenes from Sleeping Beauty. Don’t miss this attraction!

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In Florida Tinker Bell flies every night from Cinderella Castle but in California, where The Matterhorn dominates the skyline, she flies from the peak. She disappears for a while and then she flies back for an encore. It’s an amazing sight in Florida but it’s amazingly spectacular in California.

Many attractions appear in both parks but each coast has a number of unique ones as well. In California Country Bear Jamboree closed in 2001 but carries on in Florida. Mr. Toads Wild Ride, based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, continues to operate in California but closed in Florida in 1998. Oddly enough, each of the attractions was closed to make room for Winnie The Pooh!

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Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Almost all the attractions which are duplicated in each park have unique differences. In California you line up outdoors for It’s A Small World and you board the boats outside before you sail into the attraction. In Florida you board inside. The interior configuration and displays are quite different as well. The exterior façade of the California version is lavishly lit at Christmas and the nightly The Magic, The Memories and You show is projected on it. It’s a very busy area every evening.

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Disneyland's It's a Small World loading area

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Disneyland's It's a Small World at Christmas

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Florida's It's a Small World loading area

The Haunted Mansions in each destination have some of the same scenes but on the whole they are very different. Carol and I much prefer the California version which is located in New Orleans Square rather than Liberty Square like the Florida mansion. Try to schedule a visit to California between Halloween and Christmas. They shut the mansion down for a few weeks before Halloween and after Christmas in order to add the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay and then remove it. They don’t just tweak the ride, it’s a complete makeover. If you are a Nightmare fan you simply must see the Disneyland Haunted Mansion with the overlay. It is mind-blowing!

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Disneyland Haunted Mansion

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Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion

We also prefer the California version of Pirates of the Caribbean which is set in New Orleans Square. You board your boat at Lafitte’s Landing and get a peek at the dining area of the Blue Bayou Restaurant as you sail through the bayou before plunging into the pirate’s grotto.

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Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean

In Florida the Pirate’s attraction is part of Adventureland. You pass through a golden Spanish fort called Castillo Del Morro (inspired by Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan) before you board the boat for your descent into Pirate’s Cove.

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Walt Disney World Pirates of the Caribbean

I must also mention my favourite entertainers at Disneyland, Billy Hill & the Hilbillies! This quartet plays regularly at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon and the show is always a laugh-fest. They are all talented musicians and they are all complete hams.

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We make it a point to sit through several of their 25 minute shows each time we visit. When I walk past the empty Diamond Horseshoe Saloon in Florida’s Magic Kingdom I always lament that Florida doesn’t have Billy Hill.

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We need to stage a sit-in or some sort of protest . . . each of us carrying a “We Want Billy Hill” sign. OK . . . OK, all you folks in California relax, we’re not trying to steal Kurt and the boys, we just need a group like them!

There are so many other differences, the Aladdin Show, an awesome Toontown, Storybookland, the California Screamin’ roller coaster, the Alice In Wonderland Ride, New Orleans Square and so much more in California.

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Aladdin Show at California Adventure's Hyperion Theatre

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Disneyland's Storybookland

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Disneyland's Toontown

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Disneyland's Toontown

Florida has Mission Space, the Finding Nemo show, the Festival of the Lion King show, The Great Movie Ride, the Lights, Motors, Action stunt driving show, The Universe of Energy and plenty of other unique attractions.

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Hollywood Studio's Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights

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Lego figures at Downtown Disney

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EPCOT's Mission Space

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Animal Kingdom's Festival of the Lion King

In California they have just opened an exciting new area in the California Adventure park. Carsland looks amazing, I can’t wait until we see it this December. Of course in Florida they have opened some of the new attractions in the totally redeveloped Fantasyland. It seems that there’s always something fresh at each destination.

If you still don’t believe me when I say, “You can’t compare the two; they’re really quite different.” there is only one thing for you to do. Visit both just as soon as you can . . . then you can draw your own conclusions.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me then!

The previous post in this blog was These Are A Few Of My Favourite Disney Things.

The next post in this blog is Dining in Paradise at Disney's Aulani Resort.

Comments (13)

Wendy Crober:

Hi Gary,

Very interesting article. We haven't been to Disneyland but look forward to seeing it in the next couple of years. I'm sure it will feel really different but we're looking forward to all the attractions that are different.

I like your recommendation to go between Halloween and Christmas...when do they put the Christmas decorations on It's a Small World?

Wendy

[Gary adds: I'm not sure about the timing of the Christmas show. Can some of our California readers help with Wendy's question?]

Mark:

We are WDW people going to DL for the first time earlier this summer. I will have to say though we enjoyed our trip to CA and glad we went, but we prefer WDW. I have yet to put my finger on a single reason "why".

That said every Disney fan needs to visit Carsland at DCA. Beautiful in the day, breathtaking at night.

Kim:

If I remember correctly, Disneyland has its Christmas decorations completely put up in the middle of November. I believe they take them down a few days after New Year.

We like to go in November as the Christmas decorations are our favorite and it's not too cold. Have fun on your trip!! :-)

[Gary adds: Thanks Kim ]

Kelley:

As always, I enjoy your articles!

We have been to both and would go back to California in a heartbeat. Everyone kept telling us we would be disappointed because it is so much smaller.

Smaller yes, disappointed no!

Have fun in December!

Pilar:

My family and I were born and raised in Orange County, CA, and annual DL pass holders for 10+yrs until we moved to WA State in 2004. To say I've been to DL at least 250 times is not unrealistic...

My husband and I took our 3 kids to WDW for the first time in 2007 and could not believe how profoundly different it is from DL! Better in so many ways, and then not as much in other areas. We've never been able to put our finger on it, but this article really does our feelings justice! (since 2007 we've been to WDW a total of 42 days on property -we kinda got hooked!)

We too will be at DL in December! (12/27 -1/3) When will you be there?
Best,
Pilar

[Gary adds: This year we plan to be there Dec 11 - 18. ]

Elizabeth:

Hello and Thank You for the article. We're heading to the West coast in 3 weeks and plan to take a day to visit Disneyland.

We're so excited to be where it all began.

Glad I took the time to read your article and took notes of the various differences. Just hope we can see it all in one day, unfortunately we're going to by pass DCA since we believe it will be rather crowded with the new Cars Land.

Chris:

Love both parks, hard to pick a favorite. My all time favorite attraction is at Disneyland- Indiana Jones (no mention above?!). Best themed queue in all of Disney in my opinion (although have not seen any of the DCA makeover yet).

My perfect Pirates attraction would combine the queue of Disney World and attraction of Disneyland.

[Gary adds: I agree with you on both counts.

First, the California Indy ride is great! Rumour has it that the track for WDW's Dinosaur ride is identical but we much prefer the Disneyland Indy experience.

Second, never thought about it but the WDW Pirates queue and the Disneyland Pirates ride would be awesome! ]

Daisy:

Great article.

I appreciated everything you had to say about both parks and your honesty. You really can't compare the two. You have to immerse yourself in the heritage of Disneyland and think "it's the only Dland park Walt walked on"; and appreciate the awesome real estate of WDW and what is done to that enormous space.

There is magic in both and lots of Disney adventures await you on each coast...THAT is a good thing.

BMW:

Hi; fun blog.

I'm an ex DL cast member (14 years), so it's nice to see Anaheim get some love.

In the old days, Christmas was not visible in the Park until Thanksgiving Day, then would come down immediately after the first weekend following the New Year.

Haunted Mansion Holiday goes in about the first two weeks of September following Labor Day, and the ride re-opens by the end of the month. BTW, my husband painted all those props you showcased in your exterior photo, plus he also painted the interior Mansion Holiday props as well as the Small World Holiday for both DL and Tokyo DL (we had glitter trailing into our house for weeks when he was working on the World overlays).

To be on the safe side and make sure that your readers get to see all of the Christmas decorations, I'd wait until mid November to see everything.

Decorating gets things done sooner since Ron Dominguez retired back in the 90's. His family owned the land that Walt Disney bought for Disneyland, and it was his thing to hold off on the holiday decorations until the holidays were actually upon us. You mentioned that DL is in an urban area, but if you look at some of the historical photos of Anaheim in the 50s, it was barely suburban at the time. The Dominguez land was orange groves. No one knew how popular DL would become, and there weren't any controls at the time to prevent other businesses from building as close to the Park as possible and theming their own business to try to tie into DL. Walt solved that issue by buying so much land in Florida, and if you ever get the opportunity to visit DL Paris, you'll see the same thing, although the two gates of the Magic Kingdom and the Studio are within walking distance of each other. We had a lot of pride working for DL, especially back in the day.

In the old days, it was hard to get a job there. We were all conscious that were were the best of the best and that the guests had high expectations from us. Now DL barely pays above minimum wage and they do little to ensure that the best of the best stay on, but there are still some dedicated souls, who love what they do, in Anaheim.

Penny from Vermont:

We are (North)East Coasters so have been to WDW countless times, but Disneyland was my brother's and my first exposure to the Magic when we were 3 and 10.

We went back 8 years later (family in CA who love Disney) and still loved it. As a matter of fact my bro and his family are there right now and I was there for 2 days in April.

Now we love WDW and will keep on going there forever, but we will always love Disneyland for what it is, and who and what it represents.

Disneyland was our first love, and you never forget that!

Jane Boeck:

What a great article Gary!!!!

We could never figure out how to explain to our California friends how much better WDW was over DL. (I hit DL as a kid many times and have been to WDW a boatload of times as an adult.).

It isn't necessarily BETTER, just DIFFERENT. True Disney diehards will always hold DL in their hearts. And while DL is the only finished park Walt walked in, he did walk on the land that became WDW and I think those left behind when he passed, did a fine job of carrying on what Walt had in mind.

Thanks for straightening us all out Gary!!!! See you at the Fort this fall.

Deborah:

I am a DL annual passholder and frequent visitor. The Halloween decorations are spectacular and will be up in mid-September.

Another recommendation for 1st time visitors is to take the "Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour. You will get great insight into Walt's dreams for the park and much of the history.

Finally, Carsland will blow you away!

Heidi:

Great blog!!!

I live in Washington state and my Mom, daughter and I have been to both parks several times (my daughter would like to work for Disney one day)

Whenever I’m asked about the two and if they have little ones I always suggest Disneyland as a first time experience just because there’s not as much walking so the kids (and the parents) don’t get as tired out as quickly.

Beyond that I always ask how much time they have to spend there. If they only have a couple days I also recommend Disneyland again just because you can cover a lot of ground in a shorter amount of time. If they have at least a week or more (I prefer two weeks) I highly suggest Disney World.

We love them both but for us Disney World is a complete escape. Like it says above it’s it’s own city so even when you leave the gates you’re still surrounded by the Disney feel plus there’s just so much more to see and do outside the park gates (like parasailing on the lake which is my favorite – and choose the higher flight) where as with Disneyland once you leave the gates unless you’re lucky enough to be able to stay at one of the three Disney resorts you walk back out to the “real world” every night.

Also because Disney World is so spread out it doesn’t feel as crowded even on the busiest of days.

Also we notice a HUGE difference in the friendliness of the workers -- based on one of the comments above it makes a little more sense as to why. As for us, we’ll be heading down to Disneyland for three nights at the end of September and are VERY excited to see the new revamped DCA!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 29, 2012 8:50 AM.

The previous post in this blog was These Are A Few Of My Favourite Disney Things.

The next post in this blog is Dining in Paradise at Disney's Aulani Resort.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.