Trip Planning: Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World

I don’t know how many of you grew up coast hopping from Disneyland to Disney World like I did or still haven’t gotten your 1st visit button, but every time I think about planning a trip to Disney it is new and exciting. If you haven’t been to the parks before or haven’t been in a while there are some significant differences between planning a trip to the 1955 original and WDW.
I’ve put together a list of my top areas to consider to put you ahead of the curve while planning your Disney experience.
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Location/Weather
For anyone who just got here, Disneyland is in California and Walt Disney World (WDW) is in Florida. Although they both are warmish most of the year, there are periods of cooler weather and some hot, humid, sweltering times a well. However, if while in WDW you insisted a poncho was unnecessary only to be down-poured on while waiting in the FastPass return line for Splash Mountain you know Florida weather can be unpredictable (read wet). Also hurricanes. California’s weather tends to be more stable with less rainy days. It was a lot easier to get wet on Splash Mountain when I was already soaked, though.
While weather can make a big difference in the mood of your trip #soggysneakers, maybe how you get there ultimately makes the decision. My friend and I drove to Disneyland from Colorado between semesters of physical therapy school with.out.stopping. If you can drive to Disney in a few hundred dollars worth of gas it could save you money that you can put toward a better hotel or more trip goodies. This strategy would work well for larger families or last minute vacations.
Size of the park for Disney is directly related to its location. And size means either more time spent on transportation or more steps for your pedometer. Disneyland was built on a quarter square mile of orange groves. Thus, Disneyland Resort has two parks (Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure), Downtown Disney, and three hotels. WDW has four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios), two major water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), 27 Disney resort hotels and about a dozen non-Disney hotels, a campground, four golf courses, plus the Disney Springs shopping and dining encompassing 43 square miles of sprawling Florida swampland. Most sources say you can between 6-8 miles per day, some up to 10-12 miles. I’ll update that number later after our trip.
Photo Credit: Disney Tourist Blog
History
Built in 1955 in about 1 year, Disneyland is the true original creation. It now sits in the middle of
Anaheim and after more than 60 years there is a lot of history in the park. Particularly because it has Walt Disney’s actual touch and presence, it has a special place for many Disney fans. The original versions of many rides can be found at Disneyland including Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain, Jungle Cruise, and Splash Mountain. Many unique stories can be told about the design and construction of the park. Details such as miss matched brick, a red and white light bulb, and the names of various Imagineers can be spotted during a stroll down Main Street. For example, most people think that Main Street U.S.A. represents Marceline, Missouri where Walt Disney lived for a time as a child and considered it to be an idyllic setting. The Imagineer who actually designed it, Harper Goff, based the look of the buildings on his own home town of Fort Collins, Colorado. Despite its nostalgia, Disneyland has experienced quite a few updates with the addition of Disney’s California Adventure and its update with Pixar Pier, Mission Breakout replacing Tower of Terror, and the new Star War’s Galaxy Edge opening ahead of WDW’s version this year.
While Walt Disney never walked through Magic Kingdom, dying in 1966, his brother and business partner, Roy Disney, completed the plans for the ambitious Florida project. Other Imagineers carried on the legacy to expand WDW after Roy Disney’s death. This means that WDW is larger with more rides, intellectual properties, and experiences you can’t find at Disneyland.
Dapper Day at Disneyland will be a unique combination of history and fashion with a sprinkle of pixie dust.
Sleeping Beauty Castle under construction '55
Transportation
So you’ve decided to fly have you? One complication I have run into when planning trips is which
airport to choose. WDW is a no-brainer – just fly into Orlando International Airport and enjoy the benefits of the Disney Magical Express straight to the resort (more on that below). Disneyland, on the other gloved hand, poses a more interesting discussion: fly into LAX which is larger, is serviced by more airlines, and probably has more options for flights or the smaller, and much, closer John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA). What I am about the say makes me feel like an old woman. I hate long commutes between airport and hotel. I hate crappy shuttles. I hate most airlines right now. I am willing to pay more to fly Southwest (seriously guys if you haven’t tried them they are the best), and have a 20 minute Uber from SNA to any of the Disneyland resorts than spend 45 min on the highway from LAX praying for decent traffic. I mean have you ever seen the traffic in California? Consider what will be less stressful for you and your family - that is the most valuable option in my opinion.
The decision to drive or to get a rental car while at Disney is worth mentioning for (insert Jaws theme) parking fees. Self parking in standard lots is $25 per day across both resorts. Disneyland has self-parking fees for resorts guests of $25 per day. WDW now has on-site parking fees for Disney Value Resorts at $15 per night, Disney Moderate Resorts at $20 per night, and Disney Deluxe and Deluxe Villa Resorts at $25 per night. That is going to be a sizable impact on your budget if staying more than a few days.
Accommodations
Each resort has on-property hotels. Each has hotels nearby. Off-property will probably save you
money, especially at Disneyland as those hotels run $300-$700 a night. Most off-property hotels are within walking distance of Disneyland which cuts a lot on time spent getting to the magic. When I drove with a friend we stayed at a hotel within driving distance. We drove in, parked in the lot, took a shuttle a few miles and were at the park quite early - pretty easy even if you are not within walking distance. The same cannot be said of off-site hotels near WDW. Off-property hotels will offer shuttle services but the drive will be longer, and you’ll have to get up earlier if you want to make it to rope drop or beat any of the crowds.
There are also some great benefits of staying on-property for the extra cash. One of my favorite benefits was package delivery. Souvenirs can be sent back to your hotel for you and you won’t have to carry them around the park. You don’t have to carry a t-shirt around all day or wait until the end of day to buy it, risking your size going out of stock. It will be waiting for you in your hotel room by the end of your day. We used it at WDW while staying at Port Orleans Riverside and it was perfect.
Another great benefit of staying on a Disney property is access to Extra Magic Hours. Disneyland resort guests have Magic Mornings with a 3+ day ticket receiving early admission into Disneyland or DCA for one full hour before the park opens to the general public. WDW has Extra Magic Hours either one hour in the morning or an extra hour in the evening in different parks on different days. Check the schedule for which parks have extra hours before planning. You may want to plan your wake-up times and park destinations around these extra hours, but you may want to avoid certain parks on specific days as extra magic hours will usually increase park crowds, especially in WDW.
Port Orleans Resort from the river
If you want to get the most out of your trip, FastPass+ and MaxPass are the way to do it. FastPass allows guests to schedule an available return time for specific rides and skip the stand-by line, dramatically decreasing wait times. WDW guests are able to make FastPass+ reservations 60 days out compared to 30 days for non-resort guests as the benefit is included with the cost of theme park admission. Disneyland resorts guests can pay $15 per day per ticket for MaxPass which allows them to make FastPass reservations from the Disneyland App – avoiding running back and forth between attractions to get paper reminder tickets. It also gives them access to PhotoPass where more professional pictures can be taken and downloaded straight to your Disneyland App at select dining locations, attractions, character greetings, and Disney PhotoPass Photographers (perfect castle photo, anyone?). A big difference between the two programs is how many FastPasses you can get in a day. At WDW you can only schedule three FastPasses before entering the park and cannot schedule more until you have used one. At Disneyland, you cannot schedule ANY FastPasses until you enter the park and can only schedule another one if it has been 1.5 hours since the last one or you have used your first FastPass. For savvy park goers this means you could stack your FastPasses between available rides for 7 or 8 in a day compared to 3 to 5 at WDW. A big benefit!
Magic Bands… as a benefit of being an on-property guest a WDW you get free magic bands for everyone in your family. They are watch-like bands with sensors that function as your room key, credit card, park ticket, FastPass, confirmed hotel reservation, Disney Dining Program (keep scrolling for this one), and access to Magical Express which takes you directly from Orlando International Airport to your hotel in a specially chartered Mickey themed bus. This was one of my favorite aspects of staying on-property. It minimized what I carried around, everything was organized, and I didn’t have to keep track of paper tickets or cards. No bags or purses required for traveling as a couple or small group of adults. It also minimizes what to carry in your park bag for families. More on my park bag in another post! Disneyland ticket and FastPass organization is through the Disneyland App on your phone and credit cards can be attached to your hotel room key (Key to the Magic).
Magic is all around you when you stay in a Disney resort – a great benefit if you love themed hotels or if you have young children. Or if you’re me and just love Disney. On property hotels with have added touches of magic like light up headboards, hidden secrets, movie themed rooms, and extra kid/family friendly activities. For example the August 2019 Port Orleans activity page includes a “Beignet” Fun Run, painting, pool parties, tie-dye t-shirt decoration, movie screenings, evening camp fires with s’mores, and scavenger hunts. That means that your trip doesn’t have to be squeezing in every second of park action. There is plenty of fun to be had while taking time away from the crowd for you and your kids! A tip given by my friend who recently came back from Disneyland with her husband and two young boys – give them kids downtime in the middle of the day. Disney has great ways to keep them engaged in Disney magic in the park or at the hotel.
Price
The all mighty dollar. Between hotel prices, ticket prices, food, souvenirs, and the cost of getting there it can seem like a Disney trip is a sink hole for your wallet. And while it probably won’t be a bargain trip (check out our post of budget trips and 1-Day trips) there are some major cost differences between resorts and way to minimize the damage to your bank account.
Like I mentioned earlier, Disneyland on property hotels tend to be in the deluxe to high moderate price range. WDW has many more options for budgeting families. Value Resorts have all the Disney magic at a reasonable price usually less than $200 per night. The newest Art of Animation hotel with themed rooms and family suites prices around $200 per night. In fall 2019, Art of Animation and Disney’s Pop Century hotel (also a value resort) will have a new benefit of transportation via the Skyliner Gondolas directly to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
Some partner hotels in the Disney Springs area of WDW have the same benefits of Disney-owned properties but with lower prices, some even less than $100 per night with special packages and discounts (I’m looking at you Best Western). These hotels will still have FastPass+ and Early Magic Hours benefits and transportation via property buses and boats.
Ticket prices vary between parks and discounts can get scored from various sites and travel vendors. Straight from Disney tickets are cheaper at WDW when purchasing online and for short stays with a 1 day ticket costing $109 (5 days is $83 per day). Disneyland’s prices significantly improve from $149 for a one day ticket to $68 per day for 5 days. Keep in mind Disneyland has easier park access due to size of the resort and it is closer to other area amenities when planning for short trips.
Food tends to be a little cheaper at Disneyland but there are less options and restaurants compared to WDW. One special price related detail at WDW is the option for Disney Dining Plan (DDP). If you stay on-property you can choose from one of three dining programs which are linked to your hotel stay and allow you pay upfront and charge points versus dollars with your magic band. The only caveat here is that Disney knows what it’s doing – they aren’t going to give you a huge discount for paying up front. Generally if you’re a foodie without allergies or special diet restrictions, like to have dessert and don’t mind an alcoholic beverage (new in 2018), you’ll get your money worth from the DDP. If you’re a light eater or on a diet you will probably be better served paying per meal. In 2015 when we were at WDW with another couple we both chose the DDP. I loved having everything paid up front and planning our meals and dining reservations well in advance. No big bill at the end of our stay. I will say that going for the most expensive meal on each menu to ensure we were getting the most out of our dining credits resulted in some great steaks coming to our table!
Souvenirs tend to be similar; one savvy tip is to purchase items from the Disney store or online, pack away in suitcases and get them out for kiddos once at the hotel. You can take advantage of sales and free shipping often online for authentic park merchandise.
Food
WDW has a huge following related to food. They are constantly coming up with unique and delicious #bananajokes).
eats to encourage visitors to buy, try, and Instagram! From a huge variety of dole whips, special cupcakes, savory snacks, popcorn buckets, and the ultimate foodie experience at WDW festivals (read more below) WDW is the place to travel for your taste buds. Disneyland is not far behind, however. They also offer continually changing specials, Downtown Disney and DCA restaurants with great menus for adults and kids, and special dining packages for shows or experiences. Both resorts offer character meals which is a great way for your kiddo (you too!) to meet their favorite character or Princess without waiting in line during your valuable park time. You can expect to see many more posts about Disney food so keep your eyes peeled (#bananajokes).
Special Events
Almost any trip to Disney will include some kind of special event. When we visited in 2015 it was Flower and Garden Festival time in Epcot – amazing flowers, butterfly tents, and special food stalls at World Showcase made my DDP snack credits and overall experience really valuable. WDW hosts multiple Marathons, food and art festivals, holiday specials, conservation events, Star Wars specials, water park parties, and concerts. Disneyland has similar events but they tend to be on a smaller scale due to space. 
Consider whether you want to visit during a holiday overlay like Halloween or Christmas or experience a special after hours party such as Sweethearts' Nite, 90s Nite, and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Both parks also offer special dessert and dining packages to increase the magic during fireworks with prime viewing and delicious treats. Some of these special events have limited hours and extra ticket costs. Dapper Day, however, is not run by Disney and doesn't have extra costs associated with it. If you're on a budget or the festival days don’t line up with your plans, smaller events like Chinese New Year, Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras or Gay Days will offer special merchandise, costumed characters, parades and food items which could be the highlight of your trip.
 
Time/Purpose
Whether you are planning a last minute weekend couples/romantic getaway or a week+ long family reunion trip it will have an impact on your plan. When we took Hubby for the first time I felt WDW would give us the greatest number of options to experience what Disney has to offer. I assumed he would love Hollywood Studios with the Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. To my surprise he loved World Showcase at Epcot! He loved sampling the food, seeing the different countries, and atmosphere.
However, if you’re on a first trip it is never wrong to take someone to Walt’s original Disneyland. I
think Disneyland has some unique spots such as Walt Disney’s apartment, The Little Man of Disneyland leprechaun tree, and the Blue Bayou restaurant where you can eat at the river’s edge of Pirates of the Caribbean (so cool and the BEST salmon I’ve ever had). Disneyland is also a more compact experience and won’t be as overwhelming for more than one Disney newbie. In November for Dapper Day we will be spending 2.5 days on property at Disneyland which should give us a chance to see almost all of it. And, you know, there’s this new Star Wars place he’s excited about. Something about make your own light saber.
Photo Credit: Caitlin Marie Miles
Disneyland is best suited to a day trip or as part of a larger California vacation for a 2-3 day experience due to its size and narrower scope. WDW is ideal for longer trips - 5 days to a week - as it has so much to see and do it cannot possibly be tackled in a day unless you really only want to visit one park. It would be hard for me to go to WDW without at least going to Magic Kingdom and Epcot, however. Hubby has mentioned we should try out the Fantasia mini golf course the next time we are at WDW.
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Hopefully these insights have given you a jump start to planning your next trip. I’m looking forward to expanding a lot of these topics and providing more detail about Disney snacks, history, and events!
What are your pro tips for planning a Disney Parks trip? What is your favorite park, hotel, or ride? Comment below! Can't wait to see you sometime soon at the Happiest Place on Earth!
- Megan

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