Summer is here, which means it’s time to plan your vacation. For many vacationing people in the US, this means traveling to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ Disneyland, or Walt Disney World.
Many will argue that one park is superior to the other, and refuse to give the other a visit. But what if both parks have their own strengths? Why should we quarrel? Why not get the most out of life, and see the awesomeness that lies in both places?
For this piece, I’ve teamed up with Floridian Kelly Verdeckto take a peek at what gives Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom their own unique sparkle. Both parks have their merits, and if you’re an avid Disney fan, perhaps this will psych you up for a day at the park.
Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and SoCal at a Glance
Disneyland opened its doors in July 1955. Walt was inspired by visits to places like Fairyland in Oakland, California, and Republic of Children in Argentina. He began drawing up plans for the park in the late 1940s. It is said that Walt Disney wanted to create a place that lookedlike ‘nothing else in the world.’ While smaller than its WDW counterpart, Disneyland features 58 attractions.
Walt spent plenty of time on the grounds with his family, even keeping an apartment above the fire station on Main Street. A light still shines out from a window from his apartment, signifying Walt’s presence on the premises. More, stars like Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Pixar’s John Lasseter all got their start at Disneyland. If you want to journey to a place where the magic of Disney began, this is the place to start.
Disney California Adventure opened its doors to the public in 2001, and expanded from 2007-2012. As you stroll through the gates, you are treated to a re-creationof 1920s-era Burbank and Hollywood, when Walt Disney landed in California with his brother, Roy. Like Disneyland, Disney California Adventure features eight different themed ‘lands’ in its 72-acre park. This includes Paradise Pier, a space that pays homage to boardwalks and piers that dot California’s coastline, and Cars Land, a 12-acre space devoted to the Cars franchise. I highly recommend a visit to DCA, particularly if you’re averse to crowds, or you have small children that don’t care for long lines.
If you desire a little bit of retail therapy after the parks close, or simply wish to catch a show and a meal, head over to the shops and eateries at Downtown Disney, or duck into Disney’s Grand Californian hotel, which feature several restaurants of their own. For a non-Disney day all-together, consider taking advantage of the many things the Greater Los Angeles area has to offer. California has 840 miles of glorious coastline, and some of the best beaches are only 30 minutes away. Hollywood is 40 minutes away; Griffith Park (where Walt Disney was inspired to create “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” and home of the Hollywood sign) is just a few miles eastward. Fantastic history museums, art museums, amphitheaters and concert halls all beckon to resident and tourist alike. Observatories and mountains invite you to escape to the land beyond. Last, but not least, travelers are invited to immerse themselves in the rich, diverse culture that a metropolis of eighteen million people has to offer. You will need a car, but the world is your playground when you have wheels in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
Walt Disney World and Orlando at a Glance
While Anaheim has the history of being first and the gift of Walt’s personal touch, The Florida Project, as WDW was known when it was just a glimmer in Walt’s eye, has what Walt couldn’t get in California: space. Where Disneyland is surrounded by an asphalt jungle of hotels and souvenir shops, Walt Disney World is practically a country unto itself, a San-Francisco-sized nature preserve that happens to contain four of the world’s most-visited theme parks.
After the Magic Kingdom, in1982 came EPCOT Center (now just Epcot), which is a sort of permanent World’s Fair: half the park is dedicated to corporate-sponsored showcases of mankind’s technological achievement, and the other half is an assortment of pavilions intended to give a taste of the culture of the eleven countries they represent–perhaps the only place on Earth where one can walk from Mexico to the United Kingdom and pass through Japan and France along the way. The Disney/MGM Studios Park followed Epcot in 1989, now simply called Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park opened in 1998. Hollywood Studios is a mix of thrill rides and movie magic, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom is essentially a zoo, with added Disney-style rides and attractions. The 40 square miles of Walt Disney World also contain two water parks, two championship golf courses plus a couple mini-golf courses, lots of hotels, a campground, and the Downtown Disney complex of shops, restaurants and entertainment. Each of WDW’s four parks has their must-see attractions and their filler, and volumes can be and have been written about each.
While Disney World strives to be an all-encompassing vacation destination, the Orlando area offers plenty outside Disney’s gates. In addition to the various world-class theme parks, there is International Drive (known to locals as I-Drive), a thoroughfare lined with tourist attractions, amusement parks, shops and outlet malls. Further afield there’s the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center on the east coast and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay to the west, each about an hour’s drive from Walt Disney World. If nature is your thing, you can find it in spades as well, from a variety of Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico beaches, to quiet forest hikes, to natural spring-fed pools and rivers.
Getting to the Heart of Magic: Magic Kingdom versus Disneyland
Since they invite the most direct comparison, let us take a closer look at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the original Disneyland Park. If you want to experience the magic that Walt Disney imagined in the beginning, these two parks are where it all began. While Walt died years before Magic Kingdom opened, he still had high aspirations for the planned resort.
The design of Magic Kingdom isn’t much different from Disneyland: Main Street USA leads up to the central Castle, with the themed lands arrayed in the classic spoke-and-hub pattern Disneyland pioneered. In other words, there’s not much difference navigating the two parks. There is a good deal of overlap between the attractions at Disneyland and those at the Magic Kingdom, which might lead some to think the parks are somehow carbon copies–but each park has attractions not found at the other, and even the rides which appear at both parks offer an interesting degree of variety.
First time visitors to Disneyland should check out the following unique attractions:
Main Street, USA
- Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln is a stage show featuring audio-animatronic feature that made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair.
- Main Street Cinema plays Disney shorts on six separate screens.
- Big Thunder Ranch features a petting zoo, and walk through cabins and a restaurant. Two turkeys that were given the presidential pardon in 2008 make this place their home. You might even get to meet Woody from Toy Story here.
- Golden Horseshoe Saloon has a restaurant and variety show. This was Walt’s favorite spot in all of Disneyland.
- Sailing Ship Columbia is a full-scale replica of Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. You can stand on deck, listen to the tale as you sail the Rivers of America, or head below to tour the nautical museum.
- Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is one of the original 1955 rides. It is based on the story, “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame, which was adapted in the Disney feature, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.”
- Alice in Wonderland is a dark ride based on Disney’s classic animated feature from 1951.
- Matterhorn Bobsleds debuted in 1959. It’s the very first tubular steel coaster, which means that if you’re a thrill seeking steel coaster fan, riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds is a must.
- Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage was originally Submarine Voyage, a ride that opened in 1959. Marlin and Dory search once again for Nemo, who is lost. This ride is currently undergoing refurbishment and will open again in September.
First time visitors to Magic Kingdom should check out the following unique attractions:
Magic Carpets of Aladdin is a spinner ride similar to Dumbo the Flying Elephant.
- Carousel of Progress offers a dated but still fascinating rotating theater featuring an audio-animatronic family progressing through generations of technological progress. It shows its age, but it still has a magic—and good luck getting the theme song out of your head!
- Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor is a comic show featuring the characters from the Pixar film. Kids may get a kick out of it, but the jokes tend to be real groaners for adults.
- Stitch’s Great Escape may quite possibly too intense for kids. Featuring the adorable blue alien, this attraction began its life as the more frightening ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, and it still shows.
- Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover offers a sedate and serene elevated journey through Tomorrowland, including a darkened turn around the perimeter of Space Mountain. It’s a great way to cool off and relax for some quieter moments.
- The Hall of Presidents This is Magic Kingdom’s answer to Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. An animatronic show, the Hall of Presidents showcases lifelike figures of all 44 American Presidents and is updated with each new officeholder.
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is Magic Kingdom’s newest feature in the recently expanded Fantasyland. This summer try out this thrilling dark ride, but don’t forget your fastpass.
- Barnstormer Recently renovated, the Barnstormer is a short roller coaster suitable for kids as well as adults.
After you’ve had the chance to visit these unique attractions, why not compare and contrast some of the others? You might find distinct differences between rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain. Try out the more docile version of Snow White’s Scary Adventures (Magic Kingdom’s was too scary to remain open), or watch the Country Bear Jamboree, which now only runs at Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disney. International travelers may spot differences from their overseas counterparts as well.
Tips for travel
If you’ve made the decision to take yourself or your family to either Disneyland or Walt Disney World, we recommend a few things to make your visit a fun one.
- Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World experience high traffic in the summer months, so be prepared. If you have young children, consider bringing (or renting) a stroller, because there is a lot of walking, and a lot of waiting during high season. Wear comfortable shoes, because blisters on your feet in the “Happiest Place” suck.
- Consider downloading an app for your phone to monitor wait times on rides. There are several decent apps for Disneyland and DCA available for Android and iPhone users. The best part is that they are free.
- If there’s a ride that you really want to ride with a long wait time at Disneyland and DCA, consider using the Fastpass option. For more info, read about it here. Disney World has recently launched their Fastpass+ program, which allows for advance reservations on some rides.
- Keep hydrated. If you have young children, sippy cups can be brought into the parks. Adults can request a cup for water at any of the restaurants, and should you have your own bottle, there are refilling stations throughout both parks.
- Consider layers. Orlando tends to be very humid, and subject to sudden afternoon thunderstorms in the summer months. Anaheim is very dry, and can get very cool at night. If you aren’t used to either climate, you can find yourself running very hot or very cold by the end of the day. If you don’t like carrying a jacket with you, lockers are available for rental in all parks. That extra jacket may also prove useful in the event you get soaked on rides like Splash Mountain.
- If you’re averse to crowds, consider ducking in for a show. Or if you have a Park Hopper pass, head over to a less crowded park for a while. Need downtime for a nap or refresher at a hotel? Get a stamp on the way out for easy re-entry later in the day.
Speaking of hotels, is it worth it to complete the Disney experience by staying at a hotel?
At Walt Disney World, Disney guests are highly encouraged to spend their entire visit on-property, and for the most part they make it worthwhile to do so. For efficient access to Magic Kingdom, consider staying at the Contemporary Resort, which is within easy walking distance of the park. Grand Floridian or Polynesian resort hotels have dedicated monorail stops, which will take you to the Magic Kingdom. Otherwise, prepare to drive to the Transportation and Ticket Center and catch the monorail or ferry to the Magic Kingdom. The latter will take approximately 30 minutes.
While this may seem arduous, the intention was to enhance the separation of the park from the “real” world. That’s fine—for the first visit or two. After that it can definitely feel like a chore. The silver lining is that the other Walt Disney World parks are much simpler to reach by car.
Meanwhile at Disneyland, there are three official Disney hotels to choose from. Each hotel features one restaurant with “Character Dining,” resort pools, arcades, shops, and lounges. Everything here is exquisitely detailed, from the décor to the waffles served at breakfast. All Disney Resort hotels are within walking distance of parks, Downtown Disney, and the monorail. While staying there offers a fantastic experience, it isn’t light on the pocketbook.
If you’re looking for a no-frills more affordable place to stay nearby, consider booking a night at one of the designated “Good Neighbor” hotels. Good Neighbor hotels are near the resort that have partnered with Disneyland to make your stay a good one.
In conclusion, we hope that regardless of which park you will visit that this mini guide was helpful to you. You can’t go wrong with either coast, but hopefully we’ve helped to show that they most definitely are not interchangeable. Now grab your mouse ears and go!
Kelly was born and raised in Central Florida, on the doorstep of Walt Disney World, and has spent a fair amount of time there over the years. In fact, he considers himself something of a geek when it comes to WDW, fascinated by the design and history of the place. He finally made it out to the left coast to check out Disneyland earlier this year. His favorite rides are the Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror. A part-time professional photographer, Kelly’s website is here.
Jill lived in Colorado until moving to California in 2003, but she experienced the magic of Disneyland for the first time years before at Disneyland’s Magic Music Days. Now a card carrying Disney pass holder, her favorite Disney rides are Space Mountain, Radiator Springs Racers, and any ride that makes her daughter smile. She anticipates a multi day excursion to Walt Disney World in the not too distant future. Jill maintains PianissAmma.
Photo credits: Kelly Verdeck, and Tejaswi Kasturi.