(Last Edited October 2012)
Walt Disney World fans are surprised of the differences between it and Walt's original park, Disneyland. Traveling to Anaheim definitely takes a different game plan. There are MANY differences...too many for one article. This article will concentrate on the parks themselves (rides and attractions), exposing more of Disneyland than WDW (since more people have been to Walt Disney World). Look for eBay Guides on Dining and Pin Trading comparisons as well.
Disneyland is NOT WDW (but that's not bad)
I'm not suggesting that Disneyland is less of a vacation spot than WDW...they both have their plusses and minuses. But there ARE differences and many Florida vacationers are shocked when they show up in Anaheim.
While Walt Disney World's property is 43 square miles large, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure (DCA) are much more compact and are landlocked by hotels surrounding the property on all sides. Regulars to Florida may see Disneyland as cramped...but the trade-off is that Disneyland is an intimate park, some of which was personally designed and envisioned by Walt Disney himself.
There's a Disneyland monorail system, but it is shorter than at WDW and travels to Downtown Disney or to the Disneyland Hotel. The monorail's windows open and the cars are smaller. It's a fun ride to Downtown Disney and back. And whereas a family might expect to stay a full week at Walt Disney World and not see everything, a family should have quite their fill of Disneyland and DCA in 2-3 days. Disney understands this and so they offer shorter-term passes to the parks; in addition, Disneyland is part of a 7-day package that can be purchased, giving vacationers access to such places as Knott's Berry Farm and the San Diego Zoo as well as the Disneyland Resort parks.
Major Differences in Strategy for Vacationers
If you think Walt Disney World when planning your California Disneyland trip, you're going to be confused and surprised.
- At Walt Disney World, the smart tip is to always stay on property. Not so at Disneyland. Disneyland is encircled by every hotel chain you could imagine, and many quality independent hotels as well. A lot of them (especially on Harbor Blvd.) are within a block or two of Disneyland's front gate. We stayed at the Cortona Inn, several blocks away but directly across from Disney's Toy Story parking lot...though in the Summer the rules may be different, we were told it was fine to walk the half block to the busses there to be transported directly to the park (a REAL convenience!). Off-property hotels are up to 60-70% off the price of Disneyland hotels.
- Times to Vacation. Although the Summer months and during holidays are still the worst time to go to Disneyland, it is made even worse than at WDW due to the smaller size of the parks. And while Saturday is a travel day for people going to and from WDW, it's the most crowded day at Disneyland...Friday night is even worse! That said, in off-season times, Disneyland limits its fireworks, Fantasmic and even some shows. Be sure to check the daily calendar before you leave on vacation, and even while you're there; we were shocked to find even Muppet 3D closed down on certain days!
- Just because the attraction is named the same doesn't mean it's the same attraction. Yes, you'll find many of the same rides in Anaheim that you also find in Florida, but just because the name's the same doesn't mean it's the same ride. Peter Pan's Flight is better at Disneyland, but Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is larger and more detailed at WDW's Magic Kingdom. Pirates of the Caribbean is much longer and better at Disneyland, and the Disneyland Railroad still has Walt Disney's beautiful Grand Canyon diorama and scenes of dinosaurs. Other differences may be more subtle: For instance, in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, the stretching room is an elevator where Guests actually are lowered; in the Magic Kingdom, the ceiling rises to create the illusion. Even nighttime shows like Fantasmic are different...we really enjoyed Disneyland's show, with a battle between Peter Pan and Capt. Hook!
- Disneyland has rides and attractions exclusive to that park. Of course, there are more attractions in Walt Disney World; there's more room. But Disneyland has its own list of exclusive rides, including the Finding Nemo Submarine Ride, Alice In Wonderland, Storybook Land canal boats, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Casey Jr.'s Circus Train, Monsters Inc. dark ride, Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin, Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, the must-see Aladdin show in DCA and more. Tom Sawyer's Island is themed with a Pirate's Lair (that WDW's Magic Kingdom doesn't yet have). Since California Adventure has gone through major rehab, there's even more California-exclusive rides, including the Cars section. Meanwhile, at WDW, the Fantasyland expansion has provided additional Florida-exclusive opportunties. The animators section of DCA is better designed than WDW's, though there's no backlot tour. Also, at Halloween, DisneyLAND re-themes the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain whereas WDW does not.
- Dining Issues: I'll deal with dining in more detail in a separate article, but I will tell you that we feel Walt Disney World has Disneyland beat hands down, simply because they have more room for variety. We also found the quality of food (with the exception of fruit trays) better at Walt Disney World. For both places, getting into the sit-down restaurants during summer months is very tough without a reservation in advance. In September, we were able to get seating fairly easily inside Disneyland. Walt Disney World is a dining paradise with over 100 restaurants...Disneyland simply isn't.
- Using Guidebook Touring Plans: In Walt Disney World, there is so much room inside a park that we found using Sehlinger's "Unofficial Guide to WDW" tour plan effective but extremely taxing on the feet. We would recommend using Sehlinger's guide for Disneyland in the Summer, however, as getting from one section of the park to the other is much easier. He has really researched traffic patterns; we found our wait times greatly cut using Sehlinger's plan. There are now also some great apps you can get which show wait times around the parks.
Must See Disneyland Attractions and Shows
Though we're committed WDW fans, we enjoyed our visits to Disneyland and California Adventure, and would encourage you to take advantage of the following attractions...
- Main Street USA - The Disneyland Railroad is special, not only because it is better than at WDW, but because Walt Disney was such a fan of trains; you understand his love of trains better as you take this journey. Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln is interesting for a nostalgic look at an early Disney animatronic.
- Adventureland - Indiana Jones Adventure (if you're into thrills). Enchanted Tiki Room, only because it was one of Walt's most ambitious animatronic endeavors (it's long and seems infantile to those of us raised on Star Wars, but see it for the historical value. Jungle Cruise is shorter than WDW but has a few differences.
- New Orleans Square - The newly updated Pirates of the Caribbean is far better than at WDW...a must see. And the Haunted Mansion should be seen just to note the differences in the rides.
- Frontierland - The evening Fantasmic is different than WDW's and we were glad we fought the crowds to see it; though some elements are the same, we felt Disneyland's was far better.
- Critter Country - This land is out of the way...some folks don't make it back there. But we were pleasantly surprised by The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh...the ride was longer and nicer than at Walt Disney World, though the track didn't have some of the special effects of WDW's ride.
- Fantasyland - Any of the Dark rides (Alice in Wonderland, for instance) and any of the other rides not found in WDW. It is in these rides that you'll really see Walt Disney's hand in the creation of the park. Simplistic rides, but charming. Even "It's a Small World" has been updated and has Disney characters inserted (unlike at WDW). The Matterhorn Bobsleds is "okay," but we certainly prefer Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom for a visit with the yeti.
- Tomorrowland - We liked the ability to hold the shooters at Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters.
- Toontown - Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin was cute, but only on an empty stomach.
- Remember: Dreams Come True fireworks - Any Disney fireworks display is going to be spectacular, but we really enjoyed Disneyland's. For one thing, Tinker Bell plays a more pivotal role there, flying around the Castle and rising and falling above the crowd. The show incorporated less fireworks than at WDW, we felt, but the special effects made up for it. As with WDW, be sure you're IN FRONT of the Castle and not behind for better viewing.
Disney's California Adventure
Grizzle River Run is not Kali River Rapids, but not bad. Tower of Terror seemed faster at Disneyland and had some different special effects, so it's worth checking out. Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular - is NOT to be missed...it's a full musical stage show in the tradition of Festival of the Lion King or Finding Nemo at WDW. Also, for dark rides, The Little Mermaid - Ariel's Undersea Adventure, and Monsters Inc. - Mike & Sulley to the Rescue are both more extensive than what you would expect in a dark ride like Snow White or Peter Pan.
World of Color - We were, let's say, skeptical of this show...you have to stand for hours to get a decent place (to continue to STAND for the show) and there are no fireworks. Was it worth the trouble? ABSOLUTELY. DO NOT miss this show. Hundreds of fountains, fire, lasers, lights and projections made this the highlight of our Disneyland vacation. Be careful to not stand on the wharf area of the spectator area, or you WILL get wet.
Cars Land has become a huge success for Disney, as the major expansion raises the quality of DCA. The Radiator Springs race (a dueling Test Track-like ride between cars) has some of the most complex animatronics out there (though the Beauty and the Beast attraction in WDW's expanded Fantasyland is equally amazing!).
In all, we really enjoyed our time at Disneyland. We're still huge Walt Disney World fans and continue to believe it to be a better vacation spot, overall...but we will hold a special place in out hearts for the visits we've had to Walt's "original dream." If you've only been to Florida's Disney vacation spot and get the chance to go to Disneyland, we would encourage it.