Many Disney fans who have only been to one of the U.S. parks are often surprised to find out just how different Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts actually are. If you are used to Walt Disney World and are now planning a Disneyland visit, don’t assume you know it all. Conversely, if you are a Disneyland veteran venturing to Walt Disney World for the first time, you need to change up your planning and preparation too!
Living in Southern CA for me always meant Disneyland in CA. My best friend and I would go to Disneyland on Fridays when we didn’t have any classes. After moving to the east coast my Husband and I would visit family in CA and going to DL was a must, especially when our son was born. When our son turned 5 we decided it was time to change things up and go to Disney World and boy was I shocked to see some big differences.
Disney World vs. Disneyland: Key Differences
1) Size & Scale
You probably already know that Walt Disney World in Orlando is a much, much larger resort. Compare Walt Disney World’s 4 theme parks and 2 water parks to the 2 theme parks at Disneyland. The acreage difference, however, is what is truly astounding; compare about 30,000 acres of Disney-owned property at Walt Disney World to 510 acres at Disneyland.
The size and scope of Walt Disney World affects all aspects of a vacation there, from hotel choice to transportation options to just how early you have to get out of bed to make rope drop. The small size of Disneyland is a game changer for Walt Disney World veterans because many of those considerations are non-issues at Disneyland. Disneyland veterans, of course, need to be prepared to plan for new logistical challenges on a Disney World vacation simply due to its size.
2) Best Hotel Options
I’m a firm believer in the value of staying on property at Walt Disney World. The perks and proximity offered by Disney properties are simply too great to ignore if you want to experience all that Walt Disney World has to offer. Those perks include Extra Magic Hours (early entry and late night hours), priority Fastpass+ booking, access to Magical Express, free parking at the parks, and more. Because Disney offers a number of properties at nearly every price point, even budget travelers can often afford to stay on-property.
At Disneyland, my calculation changes and so should yours. There are no “value” resorts at Disneyland and the perks of on-property access are not as great. Early entry is the only real perk of significance but you can get 1 day of early entry into Disneyland park with a 3 or more day park hopper ticket even staying off-property. Since Disneyland is so much smaller, there are many reasonably priced hotels within steps of the main park entrance that afford all of the proximity benefits at a fraction of the price.
3) Air Travel
When flying to Walt Disney World there is pretty much only one airport choice that makes sense: Orlando International (MCO). Those brave enough to fly Allegiant can also use Orlando’s Sanford airport (SFB). Tampa is an 80 mile drive, but its airport (TPA) is rarely cheaper and could present traffic hassles.
A trip to Anaheim affords travelers a lot more air travel options, in my humble opinion. LAX is by far the largest airport in the region and the one that many travelers coming from the East Coast or South will need to use it to get the best deals. For travelers flying in from other places (especially up and down the West Coast), however, there are some airport choices that are excellent alternatives that are closer and easier: John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA) and Long Beach (LGB). You can get from both airports to the Disneyland main gate in 20 minutes.
My family chooses to fly into SNA for nearly all of our trips, as it is closer to family and Disneyland.
4) Transportation & Getting Around the Parks
The bus, ferry, and monorail system at Walt Disney World rivals the transit systems of some major cities, connecting dozens of hotels to theme parks and more. Getting the most out of your Walt Disney World vacation without wasting time in transit requires getting to know that system well.
In contrast, there really is not a transit system at Disneyland. There is a short monorail from Downtown Disney near the Disneyland Hotel that drops guests into Tomorrowland, but it isn’t that much faster than walking. There is also a shuttle system operated by the city of Anaheim to local area hotels too far to walk. My advice for Disneyland is to stay within walking distance and use your own two feet as transit while you are there. It’s liberating not waiting for shuttles.
5) Fastpass & Fastpass+
If you follow Disney, you probably already know about the Fastpass+ system at Walt Disney World utilizing the Magic Bands system. This system requires booking Fastpasses 60 days in advance to have access to the more popular attractions. It also limits you to three advance reservations a day in a single park (after you use up the three you can book one more at a time).
Disneyland, however, still offers something akin to the “old” Fastpass system that you can only access in the parks on the day of your trip. There is no need (yet) to pre-book Fastpasses at Disneyland so those planning last minute trips won’t find themselves out of Fastpass luck.
And now with the addition of MaxPass that allows Disneyland guests to book Fastpasses on their smartphones (for an additional $10 per person per day), the Disneyland system is even more convenient.
6) The Ease of Park Hopping
Walt Disney World and Disneyland tickets cost about the same, but a big price differential is the park hopper option. Many families forego park hopper tickets to save money. At Walt Disney World, this is often a wise choice because of the distance between parks and the transportation time required to park hop. At Disneyland, however, the two parks are right across from each other, making hopping easy and a great way to ride more and snag extra Fastpasses.
7) Effect of local visitors
Both Disneyland and Disney World offer discount annual passes to locals. Given the huge population of the Los Angeles area and the relative small size of Disneyland, however, the local crowds can affect Disneyland much more than the locals in Orlando do.
What does this mean for out-of-towners? Check Southern California holidays and school schedules before planning your Disneyland vacation to make sure the park won’t be flooded with locals if you are planning a once-in-a-lifetime Disneyland vacation.
8) “New” Rides
Disneyland has a few attractions that will be “new” to Walt Disney World veterans. Some of my favorites in Disneyland park include Matterhorn and Indiana Jones. California Adventure has Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, Goofy’s Sky School, and many more. Finally, don’t miss some Disneyland originals in Fantasyland (especially if you have little ones): Casey Junior Circus Train, Storybook Canals, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (which used to be in Disney World but closed years ago).
For Disneyland veterans heading to Walt Disney World, there are a lot of rides that will be new to you (too many to list!). The ones making headlines the past few years are the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, Frozen Ever After in Epcot, and the new Slinky Dog Dash in Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
But don’t miss these other favorites: Expedition Everest and Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom), Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios), and Test Track (EPCOT).
9) Attraction Variations
If you have experienced an attraction at Walt Disney World that has a counterpart at Disneyland, it very well may be new to you too! Some of the rides may have the same name in both parks, but that doesn’t mean the rides are the same. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, is a substantially longer (and in my humble opinion, better) ride in Disneyland. Space Mountain’s cars seat two passengers side-by-side in Disneyland, whereas the Walt Disney World ride has bobsled style vehicles where passengers sit by themselves in single file. Experiencing and exploring the variations is part of the fun of trying a new Disney park.
Dining choices abound at Walt Disney World simply because of its size. It would take months to try all the restaurant options! Disneyland has less variety but has several excellent restaurants in its own right too. For a nice Disneyland meal, try Napa Rose, Carthay Circle, Steakhouse 55, or Blue Bayou.
If having a dining plan is something you value, it’s important to remember that dining plans are just not available at Disneyland.