There’s an overwhelming amount of information to consider when planning your first Disney trip. How long is your stay? How skilled are you when it comes to navigating multiple forms of transportation? What’s your hotel budget? Are you planning on having any fancy meals or mostly pretzels and churros? Do you prefer adrenaline-inducing roller coasters or more mellow rides? What about everyone else in your family or travel party?
Deep breaths. We’ve outlined the myriad differences between Disneyland (DL) and Walt Disney World (WDW) to help you make sense of the seemingly infinite options—and to highlight some of the more practical factors to review.
Disneyland Resort (about 500 acres) includes two theme parks (Disneyland, California Adventure), three hotels (Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa, Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel), and the Downtown Disney District shopping center.
Walt Disney World Resort (about 25,000 acres, which is the size of San Francisco or twice the size of Manhattan island) includes four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom), two water parks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon), more than 30 hotels and villas, and the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex.
Making your way between parks and hotels in Disneyland Resort is easy because almost everything is walkable. The ticketing gates between the two theme parks are all of 300 feet apart, and Downtown Disney is less than a five-minute walk from the ticketing plaza. All three hotels are walking distance from the parks (the Grand Californian even has a dedicated entrance to California Adventure), although there is a Downtown Disney monorail station outside the Disneyland Hotel that will drop guests off between Autopia and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in Tomorrowland.
Transportation within Walt Disney World Resort is much more challenging. As one theme park journalist phrased it: Going park to park is a commute. In most cases, you’ll need to plan a route via monorail, bus, boat, or the new Skyliner gondolas. (If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, you’ll need to account for drive time to the Transport and Ticket Center [TTC] and use one of the aforementioned forms of transportation from there.) On the bright side, all of these transit systems are free, and buses are available at all WDW theme parks and hotels. But getting from one place to another can be extremely time-consuming. The monorail is speedy but limited—there are only stations at the following locations (and even so, you may need to transfer lines to reach your final destination):
- Transport and Ticket Center
- Magic Kingdom
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Resort
Disney’s Contemporary Resort is also walking distance from Magic Kingdom, and a select few Disney resorts are walking distance from Epcot (BoardWalk Inn, Yacht Club, Beach Club). Several Disney hotels have ports for water transportation that takes guests to Epcot, Hollywood Studios, the Magic Kingdom, and Disney Springs. This method and the Skyliner are the most scenic ways to get from Point A to Point B. Hotels that will have Skyliner access beginning September 29 are:
- Disney’s Caribbean Resort
- Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
- Disney’s Pop Century Resort
- Disney’s Riviera Resort (opens December 2019)
When it comes to getting from the airport to the resorts, Disneyland and Walt Disney World have much more in common. By car, Disneyland Resort is approximately 30 minutes from John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA), depending on traffic. The drive time between Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Walt Disney World Resort is similar. The Disneyland Resort Express in California is a shuttle bus service that costs as little as $35 per person round-trip, and the Mears Shuttle in Florida costs a fraction of what a cab will run you (but can take upwards of an hour to arrive at your destination because of multiple stops for other passengers along the way).
Disneyland Resort in Anaheim only has three on-property hotels (Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa, Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel) but recommends close to 50 “good neighbor” hotels nearby. Off-property hotels are usually much less expensive than the Disney properties, which have starting rates between $339 and $586 per night. Many of the good neighbor hotels are less than a mile from the ticketing plaza, making them both convenient and cost-effective.
Staying off-property when visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando is more of a gamble, due to the transportation concerns listed above. (That said, Walt Disney World recommends 15 good neighbor hotels in case staying off property is more practical for your trip.) However, the on-property options in WDW are much more varied than in Disneyland. Different tiers appeal to multiple price points with commensurate amenities: Value resorts start at $99 per night, moderate resorts start at $198 per night, and the deluxe hotels are closer in price to DL properties with nightly rates starting at $339. Click here for a full breakdown on WDW hotel prices, themes, and transportation options.
Tickets and pricing
In both California and Florida, the more days you spend at the park(s), the cheaper each day becomes. From there, you’ll need to decide whether you want a Single Park ticket, a Park Hopper, or a multi-day ticket that grants you access to one theme park per day. That last option means a two-day ticket would get you into Disneyland one day and California Adventure the next day in Anaheim, or Magic Kingdom one day and Hollywood Studios the next day in Orlando. Park Hoppers allow access to all parks throughout your visit.
In Disneyland Resort, single-day ticket prices vary by day, depending on whether the Disney calendar has deemed the date to be Value (a Tuesday in January), Regular (any Saturday), or Peak (Christmas Day). This demand-based pricing does not apply to Walt Disney World Resort. However, in WDW, there’s a Park Hopper Plus option that also includes entrance to the two water parks, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Oak Trail Golf Course, and two miniature golf courses. For both locations, keep in mind that tickets can always be upgraded but never downgraded or refunded.
One more note about tickets: In Walt Disney World, guests have the option to consolidate all their trip necessities into a MagicBand, which is essentially a waterproof bracelet that reduces the number of things visitors need to carry with them. The MagicBand can be scanned to enter theme parks, unlock your hotel room, use FastPasses, and pay for meals and merchandise. MagicBands are not available or usable at Disneyland.
There are tons of options in Disneyland and even more in Walt Disney World, but the biggest difference when planning your trip is the fact that WDW offers dining plans. For a daily rate, these packages grant credits for snacks, buffets, quick-service dishes, and even sit-down table service meals. The price per day ranges from $23.78 to $43.49 for kids, $52.50 to $116.25 for adults. But read the fine print on the dining plans before purchasing—depending on how much you eat or where you tend to go for snacks, you may be better off skipping the credits system and paying as you go.
Disney Springs in Orlando also has far more high-end culinary offerings than Downtown Disney in Anaheim. Since some of the fancier establishments don’t accept dining plan credits, you may be persuaded to bypass the package.
We’ve already established that everything is bigger in WDW, and the same goes for the rides. Roller-coaster drops are steeper, indoor dark rides are longer, 3D simulations are more immersive—the attractions are more extreme all around. Here are eight rides you can find in Walt Disney World but not in Disneyland, in order of most to least intense:
- Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios: While you can find the same 13-story drop in other Disney Parks, scream-seekers can enjoy a 15-minute ride in WDW, whereas the California Adventure counterpart only clocked in at about six minutes.
- Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, Hollywood Studios: Jam to some tasty beats as this coaster revs up to a top speed of 57 miles per hour, takes rockers through three inversions, and plummets down an 80-foot drop.
- Expedition Everest, Animal Kingdom: Often cited as a fan favorite, this roller coaster includes an 80-foot drop and a backwards fall away from tracks seemingly demolished by a mythical yeti.
- Slinky Dog Dash, Hollywood Studios: Located in the relatively new Toy Story Land (opened summer 2018), this fine-for-kids roller coaster is great for guests who want a little speed and a little action but nothing heart-stopping.
- Avatar Flight of Passage, Animal Kingdom: Based on wait times that can last four to six hours (yes, hours), this is one of the most popular rides in WDW. The simulated ride on a flying beast takes riders through vibrant forests and caves in the fictional land of Pandora.
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Magic Kingdom: The newest addition to the Magic Kingdom combines the charm of a storybook dark room ride with the excitement of a smooth, kid-friendly roller coaster.
- Kilimanjaro Safaris, Animal Kingdom: Forget the Jungle Cruise, this 30-minute drive around a 110-acre nature reserve features real animals! Each ride is different because some animals only make an appearance at certain times of day.
- Spaceship Earth, Epcot: Housed inside what many refer to as a giant golf ball, this is basically an animatronic-led history lesson with some light sci-fi elements. While it’s by no means a high-speed ride, it’s still considered a quintessential Walt Disney World attraction.
Walt Disney World may boast more electrifying thrills, but Disneyland is home to several classic and adventurous rides that can’t be found in WDW. Here are eight, in order of most to least adventurous:
- Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!, California Adventure: Formerly a condensed version of Tower of Terror, this reskinned ride blasts old-school tunes like the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” while jostling passengers through a randomized drop sequence.
- Incredicoaster, California Adventure: This boardwalk coaster gets some extra oomph from The Incredibles theming, launching riders from zero to 55 mph in less than five seconds as the family of superheroes tries to catch its youngest member.
- Hyperspace Mountain, Disneyland: Yes, this is more or less Space Mountain, which is in Walt Disney World. But the narrative of the Hyperspace version throws riders in the middle of a Star Wars space battle, giving it a much different vibe than simply galavanting among the stars.
- Indiana Jones Adventure, Disneyland: Brace yourself for a rocky ride when trying to escape the Temple of the Forbidden Eye in this thrashing jeep ride. With the help of everyone’s favorite archaeologist/adventurer, you’ll escape fiery pits of despair, skeletal threats, and even a giant boulder.
- Matterhorn Bobsleds, Disneyland: While this ride is probably too tame to call a roller coaster, the gradual introduction of an ice-shattering yeti makes for some truly creepy and jump-worthy moments. This is a great option for people who enjoy speedy rides but not big drops.
- Radiator Springs Racers, California Adventure: This kids’ ride quickly became one of the most popular attractions in the entire park when it opened in 2012—seven years later, visitors still wait upwards of two hours for their chance to drive through the world of Cars and race against other riders.
- Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Disneyland: Formerly a more basic submarine ride, this underwater journey uses brilliant animations and clever technology to show passengers coral reefs, sunken ships, enormous sharks, and familiar faces from Finding Nemo.
- Alice in Wonderland, Disneyland: Although there are many, many dark rides in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland is the only place where guests can find Alice in a storybook attraction. Updates in recent years have rejuvenated the visuals, combining both practical effects and projections for a more delightfully surreal experience.
Are you going to Disney, or are you going all out on Disney? If you raised your hand for the latter, Walt Disney World is where you want to go. While there are endless enchanting experiences to be had at Disneyland, WDW offers animal encounters such as scuba diving in a 5.6 million-gallon aquarium and a behind-the-scenes look at the care for elephants at the Animal Kingdom. Adults can also get character-inspired makeovers in Walt Disney World, whereas Disneyland only allows children ages three to 12 to get the “royal treatment” at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. All of these add-ons come with extra fees, of course, but who among us hasn’t been a little extra at some point?
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