I grew up visiting Walt Disney World as a child, took part in the Disney college program at Walt Disney World, and after graduating college, I moved to Central Florida, and the parks became my home away from home – in other words, I know Walt Disney World like the back of my hand. So when we first visited Disneyland in 2007, I figured it would be pretty much the same thing, just on the west coast. Boy, was I wrong! Walt Disney World and Disneyland are two completely different properties and I discovered the hard way that being an expert in one does NOT make you an expert in the other! So I thought I’d walk you through some of the major differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and why the differences matter so much when you’re planning a trip to one of the parks.
1. The size
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: A property covering more than 25,000 acres (that’s about the same size as San Francisco!) encompassing 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping and dining district, and more than 25 resort hotels – in other words, the place is HUGE! It takes time just to get from your resort to the parks, and a good chunk of your day needs to be allocated to just moving around the resort. Seeing it all in one day is impossible, seeing it all in a week is a bit of a stretch, and even a seasoned visitor will find new things to see and do on each trip.
What you’ll find at Disneyland: A fraction of the size, Disneyland in California sits on around 500 acres, with just 2 theme parks, a shopping and dining district, and 3 resort hotels. You can easily walk all over the property, and it’s perfectly reasonable to see a lot of what the resort has to offer in just a couple of days.
Why the differences matter: The main reason that the size differences matters comes down to planning your time. Generally speaking, a day or two at Walt Disney World isn’t even going to scratch the surface of what there is to see and do – I mean, if that’s all the time you can manage, then it’s better than not going at all, but I would strongly suggest coming for longer if all at possible. Getting between parks also adds so much time to the trip that park hopping isn’t always practical, especially with young kids. I would say that a week long trip is the perfect balance to see a good chunk of Walt Disney World without feeling rushed or getting burnt out. Conversely, our trips to Disneyland have typically been a over a long weekend, and we’ve found that to be plenty of time to explore the parks comfortably. Being able to walk from park to park in a matter of minutes means you can see a lot more in a shorter space of time.
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: Walt Disney World changed their FastPass system a few years back, and now uses what’s known as FastPass+. This system allows you to book up to three FastPasses online ahead of your trip, so you can rest assured that you will be able to ride your favorite rides with a minimum wait. Once you’ve used your three original FastPasses, you can book more, one at a time. This does mean quite a bit of pre-planning is involved since you’ll need to choose which park you want to attend on any given day in order to select your FastPasses, and if circumstances change, you’ll need to change your FastPasses. FastPasses for popular rides can fill up way in advance (Walt Disney World resort hotel guests get to book their FastPasses 60 days in advance, whereas everyone else books anywhere from 30 days out to day-of) and if you need to change things around, the rides you want may already be gone. For a more thorough understand of how this works, check out this Ultimate Guide to FastPass+ by the lovely people over at Disney Tourist Blog.
What you’ll find at Disneyland: Disneyland still uses what a lot of people call the old ‘paper Fastpass’ system. This system allows you to collect paper FastPasses from each attraction you want to ride by picking them up from the ride entrance itself. The plus to this is that it can be done on the spur of the moment, with little pre-planning needed, and you can hold more than one FastPass at a time. The downside of course is that you don’t get to choose your return time, and all of the paper FastPasses may be gone for a particular ride early on. I honestly prefer this system, since it requires little advance planning and is more flexible (which is much needed with young kids!) and miss the days Walt Disney World used to use this system!
Why the differences matter: This very much matters when planning a trip. If you’re visiting Walt Disney World, you’ll need to choose which park you want to visit ahead of time in order to book your FastPasses. A little research will also need to be done on the tier system that some of the parks use (for example at Epcot, you can pick only one of their most popular rides) and find out which rides really don’t need a FastPass. Once you have your FastPasses secured, you can sit back and relax knowing that you are covered. When visiting Disneyland, you might need to be prepared to be up and at the parks early to secure some of the harder to get FastPasses, and keep your schedule loose so that you can be back at the ride at whatever time your return window covers.
3. Magic Bands
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: Magic Bands are wrist bands that basically hold the key to your entire vacation! Magic Bands are complimentary with a Walt Disney World resort hotel stay, or can be purchased in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and themes. They are linked to your My Disney Experience account, which is what you’ll use to keep track of everything on your vacation, from park tickets to dining reservations. The band can also be linked to a credit card that sits on file at your Walt Disney World resort hotel, and even used to open your hotel room door. The upside to this is that you could literally leave your purse at home and just carry your Magic Band (I would never actually recommend this in case the computer system crashes and your Magic Band is now useless – yep, that has happened!) and it makes everything incredibly convenient. The downside is that relying on technology can sometimes be risky (Magic Bands can be temperamental and it’s not fun being locked out of your room at 11pm with exhausted kids) and some people struggle with the security aspect.
What you’ll find at Disneyland: Magic Bands don’t exist at Disneyland, so you’ll be opening your hotel room door with a good old key card and paying for things the old fashioned way. The My Disney Experience app is also missing, meaning everything isn’t all linked together.
Why the differences matter: If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, you can go to the My Disney Experience app and choose your Magic Band color ahead of time, and then it will be mailed to you before you leave for your vacation. Once your band is linked, everything will be stored on there, so you’ll just need to remember to bring it with you. At Disneyland, you don’t need to worry about any of this in advance – but remember to bring your purse to the parks!
4. Dining reservations
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: At Walt Disney World you can book dining reservations up to 180 days in advance – that means choosing where and when you would like to eat a whopping six months before your vacation! Some of the most popular restaurants really do fill up right at that time, including ones like Cinderella’s Royal Table and Be Our Guest. If you make no dining reservations you may find that, especially on crowded park days, literally every restaurant is fully booked before the park even opens – this means you’re stuck with quick service, potentially long lines, and not so great food choices. Additionally, every dining reservation needs to be guaranteed with a credit card (so you use a credit card to actually hold the reservation when you make it) and if you cancel the reservation with less than a days notice, or don’t show up at all, you’ll be charged $10 per person on the reservation. This means that if your party of five decides last minute not to have dinner at a restaurant you’ve made a reservation at, it will cost you $50!
What you’ll find at Disneyland: Dining reservations can be made at Disneyland 60 days in advance, so just a couple of months ahead of time. While reservations are recommended for the more popular restaurants, we’ve had little trouble getting reservations a week or even a few days ahead of time for some fantastic dining options. We’ve even been able to eat at popular restaurants with little to no wait just be walking up on slower days.
Why the differences matter: Again, this comes down to pre-planning. If you know your little one desperately wants to eat inside the castle at Walt Disney World, you’ll need to be up early six months ahead of your trip to snag that reservation – and try not to change your plans because chances are, another time or date probably won’t work after that. Also make sure you really want to eat at those places, because changing your mind at the last minute might get pricey. When visiting to Disneyland, I would still suggest making reservations in advance for absolute must-do restaurants, but most choices can be made at the last minute or even not made at all until you’re in the park.
5. The hotels
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: A huge variety of resort hotels, from the value resorts to the campgrounds, from the home away from home Disney Vacation Club properties to the deluxe resorts. There’s something to fit almost any budget as long as you shop around a bit, and something for almost every taste. Only a handful of the resorts are walking distance to any of the parks, and most require some form of transportation to get there. The great variety is fantastic as there is generally going to be something almost everyone will like, and even during the busiest times, generally there are still rooms available. Take a look at my Copper Creek Villas review to learn more about my favorite Walt Disney World property!
What you’ll find at Disneyland: Just three resort hotels, all within walking distance to the theme parks. Not as many rooms and not as many choices, although prices do vary, and one of the resorts, The Grand Californian, does have an option with villas.
Why the differences matter: The larger selection at Walt Disney World means you might want to research in advance to find which resort is going to be right for you. It might be a bit overwhelming, and the sheer number of choices and discounts can take some weeding through. But chances are, you’ll find something that will work. Disneyland requires a little bit less research, although with less rooms to fill, you might want to consider booking further in advance.
6. Character interactions
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: Character interactions at Walt Disney World are carefully orchestrated affairs; popular characters can be found at themed, predetermined locations, often indoors to beat the Florida heat, and always with a character handler nearby. They are usually set up with Photopass photographers, and you’ll often find their sets are for a certain time period, meaning you might want to plan your visits in advance. There are a huge number of character meals, meaning you can see a group of characters in one location without having to wait in line.
What you’ll find at Disneyland: Characters roaming around the parks are way more common at Disneyland. You might stumble across Goofy taking a stroll, where he’ll happily stop and pose for a photo, or run into Captain Hook doing an impromptu set in Frontierland. While there are preset locations to meet certain characters, and a few character meals exist, the whole feel of meeting a character at Disneyland is much more laid back.
Why the differences matter: I generally recommend character meals for people wanting to see certain characters at Walt Disney World, especially the Disney Princesses. It’s a good idea to book these as far in advance as you can, and then take a look online at the times guides to see when and where your other must-see characters can be found. I would still suggest doing something similar at Disneyland, but be on the lookout for characters walking around the parks as you explore as well.
What you’ll find at Walt Disney World: It’s impossible to visit Walt Disney World without using some form of transportation. Whether you bring your own car or use Walt Disney World complimentary transportation, you’ll need to use something to get around. Only four of the resort hotels allow you to walk to a park, and no hotel allows you to walk to all of them. Buses, boats, and monorails are available to get you around the resort, and opinions on them vary. I love the boats, as the waterways are often scenic, and are usually not too overcrowded. The monorails are a bit on the risky side, with breakdowns and interruptions to service happening a little more often that most guests would like. Buses can be hit or miss; sometimes they’re reliable and you only have to wait a few minutes for one, and other times you might be waiting a while, or find yourself crammed on with lots of other guests.
What you’ll find at Disneyland: The Disneyland resort is totally walkable, with a few minutes walk between the theme parks, Downtown Disney, and the resort hotels. You can even walk from some of the offsite hotels! There is a monorail that runs from Downtown Disney to within the Disneyland park, but it more of a ride than actual necessary transportation.
Why the differences matter: Timing is where this will be important. If you visit Walt Disney World and are planning to do a couple of different parks in one day, maybe with a stop back at your resort in the middle, then time needs to be planned to get around. In general, Walt Disney World recommends leaving at least 90 minutes when using Disney transportation to get to a dining reservation, and while this will almost always get you there with time to spare, sometimes it really can take that long – or even longer – to get around. In the middle of summer when temperatures are pushing 100 degrees, just getting from one park to another can be exhausting! In Disneyland things take much less time, and it’s easier to stop back at your hotel for a while, or just hop over to the other park.
So those are the major differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland. When planning a trip, the overlying theme is that Walt Disney World requires a whole lot more pre-planning than Disneyland, so that is something to take into account. Each resort is truly a magical experience, but both need some research and not always in the same places.
Do you have any other differences to add, or any other tips that might be helpful? Let me know in the comments!