When I was a kid I wanted to go to Disneyland and Walt Disney World so badly that I would frequently watch the free Disney Vacation Guide VHS you could request. I never made it to either resort as a child, but have been lucky enough to go to Disneyland and Disney World in adulthood.
Friends, family, and acquaintances looking to take a magical Disney vacation often ask me which theme park is better. I have been asked this question so many times over text or Instagram messages that I have a short reply saved in a note on my phone that I can quickly copy and paste. If I am asked in person, I give them this more lengthy breakdown:
While Disney World and Disneyland are often considered one theme park, they are actually made up of multiple entities. Disney World has four theme parks, whereas Disneyland has just two theme parks. For some, the smaller, within walking distance neighbor parks of Disneyland are more appealing, for others the doubled park options of Walt Disney World are better.
Both parks also have free areas with restaurants and souvenir shops. The Downtown Disney District is Disneyland’s free walking area and Disney Springs is Disney World’s.
Disneyland is the original Disney theme park. The gates first opened on July 15, 1955. The second Disneyland theme park, Disney California Adventure Park, opened decades later. The theme parks are so close together that the turnstiles where guests enter each park are only a few hundred yards apart. This makes Disneyland more intimate than Disney World.
You can choose to buy a ticket to just one of the parks, though most guests will visit both during a trip.
Disneyland is recognizable as the home of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle. When people think of Disney, they often think of this castle. Beyond the grand castle, Disneyland offers the quintessential Disney theme park experience. The most well known rides, treats, and experiences take place at Disneyland.
Disneyland is comprised of nine themed subareas. Each smaller land has rides, restaurants, food stands, and gift shops that stylistically fit the theme of the area. Every land has things to do for all ages, as well as plenty of areas to sit down and rest for a bit. Some lands lend themselves more to a certain demographics than others by nature of what they offer though.
Fantasyland has the most nostalgic and some of the oldest rides in the park. This area is also considered the most family friendly because none of the rides have a height requirement. Fantasyland can be entered from multiple points, but the most magical entrance is through the castle. This makes it a busy area that is also a popular location for pictures.
Another land of note is Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. This land had a brief opening before Covid-19 shut Disneyland down for more than a year. Because of this it still feels new despite being open for nearly three years. This part of Disneyland is a huge draw for Star Wars fans, but doesn’t have to be a deciding factor between Disneyland and Disney World as both parks opened Star Wars lands around the same time.
Overall Disneyland is what many think of when they think of a Disney vacation. The castle, Disney movie themed rides, Mickey shaped treats, and feel good atmosphere make Disneyland many people’s favorite Disney park.
Disney California Adventure Park
Disney California Adventure (DCA) is the edgier sibling to Disneyland in my opinion. It is newer, having opened in 2001. Despite its youth, there have been multiple changes and additions since it first opened. Disneyland Resort’s second park tends to get a wrap as less child-friendly than Disneyland, though I think that characterization is unfair.
Like Disneyland, DCA is made up of smaller subareas. Pixar Pier, Cars Land, and Avenger’s Campus are the two most notable areas.
DCA is smaller than Disneyland and has less rides as a result. Of the rides they offer, fewer have no height requirements when compared to Disneyland. This is the main reason that Disney California Adventure often gets labeled as a teenager or adult park. That being said, Cars Land and Pixar Pier are both appealing to young families even though all of the rides aren’t available to guests of all ages.
Even with less options, my toddler’s favorite areas of Disneyland Resort are all in DCA. The Toy Story rides, outdoor play area of Grizzly Peaks, and the smaller carnival type rides could keep him entertained all day long. Throw in my unverified claim that there seem to be more churro carts per square foot in DCA than in Disneyland and he never wants to leave.
All in all Disneyland and California Adventure provide a well rounded vacation experience. Because Disneyland is smaller than Walt Disney World it is possible to do both Disneyland parks in one very long day if you utilize Genie+ and don’t plan on taking very many breaks.
Before having children it was common for my husband and I to drive to California after work on a Friday, do one long day at both Disneyland Resort parks on Saturday, and do the five and a half hour drive home on Sunday.
If you have a shorter amount of time for vacation and want to make sure you see all there is to see, visit Disneyland park.
Walt Disney World Resort
Disney World’s sprawling 27,000 acres compared to Disneyland’s 500 means there is much more to do. These acres support four amusement parks, two water parks, and so much more.
Disneyland park and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom are similar. So much so that it seems as if Walt Disney did a simple copy paste when building Magic Kingdom. If you are deciding between the Disney World and Disneyland, then these two parks will not weigh heavily in your comparison as they are so similar.
There are some differences in rides and restaurants that might sway you toward one park or the other, but overall they have similar offerings and ambiance. The largest difference being that Magic Kingdom is bigger and therefore offers more.
I have a hard time comparing Magic Kingdom to Disneyland because they are both favorites of mine for different reasons. Disneyland is more sentimental for me since we live much closer and visit it more often. Objectively, Magic Kingdom has more restaurant options, more rides, and more character meet and greet opportunities though.
Magic Kingdom also has more fine dining options if you consider yourself a foodie. My favorite meal in any Disney park I have been to is at the Be Our Guest restaurant. Not only do they serve one of the best steaks I have ever eaten, you get to enjoy it in Belle’s Castle with appearances from Beauty and the Beast characters. Cinderella’s Table is similar, but in the actual Cinderella Castle at the heart of Magic Kingdom.
Magic Kingdom is aptly named, as it is the most magical element of Disney World for many visitors.
EPCOT is a truly unique Disney World experience. On top of some of my favorite rides, EPCOT has an international array of 11 countries from around the world. Each country has architecture fitting of the land it represents, food, and some have gift shops with foreign goods.
The food is the largest draw of EPCOT for many. The first vacation I ever took with my husband’s family was to Disney World. His family members kept saying they were excited to, “eat their way through EPCOT.” I had no clue what that meant…until we got to the park. There are countless delicious food options at every country in the World Showcase. EPCOT is also usually hosting a food and wine festival at most points throughout the year, which just adds more delicious options to this park.
EPCOT is also home to a few new rides that make the park exciting. The Frozen ride is a delightful river journey ride with no height requirements. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is the newest EPCOT addition. This is a thrill ride based around the Marvel movies.
Disneyland does not have anything comparable to EPCOT at either of its parks. There are known to be food and wine festivals at California Adventure a few times a year, but they are still lacking in the awe-inspiring amount of diverse food options that are available at EPCOT.
If food is a must for your Disney trip, EPCOT will give Walt Disney World another point for you.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is similar in many ways to Disneyland Resort’s California Adventure. They both have Toy Story theming in some areas, though Hollywood Studios has an entire Toy Story land. Both also have areas with a Hollywood theme. Similar to Disney’s California Adventure, Hollywood Studios is also seen as a less family friendly park despite the offerings they do have for young kids.
One of the highlights of Hollywood Studios for me are the high quality shows. The Beauty and the Beast production is truncated, but still full of entertainment and talent. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is thrilling, funny, and enjoyable. There are other small shows throughout the park as well. I have a hard time taking a break in Disneyland and Disney World alike, so I appreciate the shows that let me sit down for a bit, but also don’t make me feel like I’m wasting expensive time.
Another fun aspect of Hollywood Studios is the themed eating establishments. Every Disney park has good food and fun theming, but Hollywood Studios has some uncommon options, such as their 50’s Prime Time Cafe, Brown Derby, and Sci-Fi Dine In Theater.
Hollywood Studios is also the home to Disney World’s version of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. Both parks’ Star Wars lands have nearly the same layout and identical offerings. Star Wars fans will find a dazzling experience no matter the park they choose.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Similar to EPCOT, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is different than anything offered at Disneyland. One of the highlights of Animal Kingdom is the safari experience. As you are driven on a tour of the grounds you will see lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, and more.
Another popular feature of Animal Kingdom is the Avatar land. This area is particularly enchanting at night when the paths and plant life glow in the dark like they do on Pandora. There are two Avatar themed rides–one is an all ages river cruise similar to the Frozen ride or Pirates of the Caribbean. This ride features more glowing plant life and is quite beautiful.
The other ride has a height requirement, but is the favorite of many who are tall enough to ride it. This ride uses a screen and other elements to create a 4D experience for riders on a mission to help the Na’vi people. It is unlike any other ride Disney has in any of their parks.
As to be expected in any Disney park, Animal Kingdom has more budget friendly eating options as well as some distinctive African and East Asian restaurants.
If you have an animal lover in your family then Animal Kingdom will not disappoint and could very well be the reason you might choose Disney World over Disneyland.
Disneyland does not have any water parks, where Disney World does; Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach offer a break from the busy lines and long walks of the Disney World parks. Full disclosure, I have never visited the water parks, though I do hope to someday when my kids are older. I imagine it is nice to break up your trip with a slower day or two at the water parks.
All Disneyland and Disney World resort hotels have themed pools so both theme parks do have at least a pool option. A room key is required to enter the pools so this is a feature that can only be enjoyed if you are staying on property.
Star wars: Galactic Starcruiser
Disney World built a brand new Star Wars hotel that is only available if you book the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser package. You stay in a themed hotel, attend Star Wars training courses, eat cuisine from across the galaxy, get to visit Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (but not all of Hollywood Studios), and have an immersive two night Resistance or First Order experience.
This experience is not included with the purchase of theme park tickets and is quite expensive. If you are wanting to add this to a Disney World trip it is definitely possible, but go in knowing that you will have to find another hotel for the nights you aren’t doing the two day Star Wars experience and that access to the Disney World parks will be an additional fee.
Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort both offer more entertainment than can possibly be digested in one trip. There are different offerings between each park, but also some things that are identical.
Shows and Parades
Disneyland and Disney World have extremely well done performances, holiday decorations and parties, parades, water displays, and nightly fireworks and light shows. The few I mentioned above were not exhaustive. While Disney World has more total show and parade options, Disneyland still provides more than the average person will probably be able to see in one trip.
You can’t go wrong with either resort when it comes to entertainment. Some of my favorites are Disneyland’s World of Color, Avenger’s Campus super hero demonstrations, and Tale of the Lion King. In Disney World I love all of the Hollywood Studios offerings as well as the short movie in Canada at EPCOT, and the character experience at the Be our Guest restaurant.
Both locations have astounding fireworks and light projection shows that are worth staying late for.
There is a reason that Disney is a multibillion dollar company and it is because they have a way of making you spend more money than you should. You can take a trip to both Disneyland and Disney World and only do what is included in your ticket and still have a phenomenal time. That being said, there are some paid extras that add magic if you have the budget.
The Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique has varying makeover packages. I won’t lie, I am jealous I never made it to Disney World or Disneyland as a child to get one of these makeovers. You can do a simple hairstyle with glitter or do an entire makeover complete with an outfit.
Both parks have artists who will hand cut a profile of your face and create a silhouette piece.
Close by are stylists who will give you a haircut as well. Some people will try and get their child’s first haircut at the park. These spots are coveted and can be difficult to get.
If you have ever seen a celebrity at Disneyland or Disney World there is a decent chance that you saw someone in a plaid vest accompanying them. Anyone, regardless of celebrity status can pay for a guided tour of the park. The advantages are that you also get to skip the ride lines, get meal reservations at places such as Blue Bayou, and learn tips throughout your tour. These VIP tours are private and capped at 10 people.
Because both Disney resorts have similar paid extras you will likely get the same experience no matter which theme park you choose for your Disney vacation.
If you want to spend part of your trip doing things that aren’t Disney related, then Florida and California both have tourist destinations that will continue the fun outside of Disney’s gates.
Other Theme Parks
Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort are both near Universal Studios locations. If you don’t get tired of theme parks then spending a day or two at Universal Studios Orlando or Universal Studios Hollywood is a great way to add onto your Disney vacation.
Similar to Disneyland, the California Universal Studios park is considerably smaller than the Florida version. If you have Disney lovers and Harry Potter lovers in your family and anticipate going to both theme parks, then Florida is your best bet. The Orlando Universal Studios is better than the Hollywood one, no contest.
Disneyland and Disney World are also both near Legoland and Sea World parks. Disneyland has a slight advantage if you want to really go hard on the theme parks, as they are also somewhat near a Six Flags, Knott’s Berry Farm, and the new Sesame Street theme park.
If you want sheer quantity, then Disneyland has more theme parks near it than Disney World does. If you want quality, then Disney World has better neighboring theme parks.
California and Florida are both popular beach vacation destinations. A nice relaxing day on the beach is a great follow up to a busy day at Disney World or Disneyland.
The warm water currents around Florida make the beaches more appealing than the chilly beaches of California. Even in the warmest months, the Pacific Ocean on California’s shores can be too cold to be enjoyable.
Both locations have clean, fun beaches that provide entertainment beyond just swimming. Chartered boat tours, volleyball nets, and fire pits make a beach stop fun no matter the water temperature. That being said, if you want to incorporate a lot of in the water time into your trip then a Disney World vacation is your best option.
If you want something other than a beach or theme park added to your Disneyland or Disney World trip both locations won’t disappoint. There are cultural, historical, and zany attractions in both areas of the country.
Some highlights of Orange County are the Getty Villa Museum, the hike to the Hollywood Sign, live recordings of game shows, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, a drive along the Pacific Coast, Balboa Island, and so much more.
The Orlando area is also home to NASA, airboat rides, Gatorland, and multiple museums and art galleries.
A trip to either Disney World or Disneyland can very easily be an entire vacation in and of itself, but if you are hoping to fit in more than that both locations have a variety of entertaining options. I personally am drawn more to the non-theme park offerings of Southern California, but Orlando has its merits as well.
I grew up in Iowa and Minnesota, and as such both parks were far away from me. As an adult I live in Arizona and am a relatively short drive from Disneyland. This heavily impacts my decision on which park to visit. If you are considerably closer to one park it is worth factoring that into your trip decision equation. Airline tickets and gas prices are prohibitively expensive.
As I have said, both Disneyland and Disney World are wonderful parks with exceptional experiences. If you can slash transportation costs because you are geographically closer to one location, then personally I would do that.
There isn’t a way to sugarcoat it, because this isn’t a churro, Disney vacations are not cheap. There are some factors though that can make a trip to either park slightly cheaper all in all.
The price of single day and multi-day tickets for Disney World and Disneyland are comparable, but Disney World is typically cheaper. The price point is close enough that I wouldn’t base my trip on the cost of tickets though.
If you want to stay close to the action then Disney World or Disneyland resort hotels are the way to go. They are typically more expensive than other hotels of similar quality due to the demand of staying close to the parks.
Disneyland only has three on property hotels: Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Because there are not a lot of options, the Disneyland on property hotels are all on the expensive side. There are perks to staying on property, including early park admission, designated park entrances, and delivery of your purchased goods to your room, but they do come at a premium.
Disney World boasts more than two dozen on property hotels. Because of this there is a wide range of price points, with the cheapest rooms being less than $200 a night during the week. Staying at one of the Disney World hotels has similar perks to staying on property at Disneyland, but at a more affordable price point if you don’t stay at one of the Walt Disney World Resort deluxe hotel options, such as Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort or Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
The Orlando area has abundant Airbnb and VRBO options that are economical as well. Even if you factor in the daily parking fee or taking an Uber you can still save a lot of money and have more space if you stay in a vacation rental property.
Anaheim and the surrounding area don’t have as high of an inventory of vacation rental properties and the prices are more expensive due to the higher cost of living. Even if you don’t stay on property at Disneyland, it is advisable to find a different hotel as opposed to an Airbnb because of the price difference.
No matter which way you cut it, Disney World has lower accommodation fees across the board. If you are planning on traveling with a larger group you can definitely save quite a bit of money with Disney World’s cheaper lodging costs.
Parking on Disney Property costs a pretty penny. If you are planning on driving to any of the Disney theme parks or any Disney hotels, you will pay $25-$45 a day.
Other transportation options vary more. Ride shares are typically cheaper in Orlando area than Anaheim, as are taxi services.
Getting from the Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World is rather easy. There are multiple options that vary in cost and time. If you want to save money it is possible to get from the airport to Disney World quite cheaply.
There are also shuttle options on buses that don’t require carseats in the Orlando area and that is not true in Orange County.
There are more airports to fly into near Disneyland and less transportation options. You will usually have to rely on a taxi or ride share app that will be more expensive in most cases.
Rentals cars and gas are also typically cheaper in Orlando than in Southern California.
Transportation costs can be expensive either way, but you are more likely to save a little bit of money on getting to the parks if you go to Walt Disney World over Disneyland.
Disneyland vs Disney World
It is difficult for me to definitively say which park is better. I won’t be dramatic and say it is like picking which of my children is my favorite, but it is pitting two of my favorite places against each other.
Putting aside my geographic proximity and nostalgic bias, Disney World offers more than Disneyland does. Both theme parks are worth visiting if it is possible in your lifetime, but if you are only planning on taking one Disney trip it should be to Disney World.