Disneyland is home to two (and only two) great resorts: Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (GCH) and Disneyland Hotel (DLH). This head-to-head comparison weighs the pros & cons of each, picking a “winner” in theme, restaurants, location, pools, cost, and other categories.
This marks the first (and last) entry into our ongoing Disney Hotel Comparison Series, which otherwise addresses difficult dilemmas you might face when trying to choose the right resort at Walt Disney World. There are a lot of close calls or cheaper counterparts there, whereas there are only 3 on-site hotels at Disneyland Resort, and one of those isn’t worthy of consideration.
Conversely, the argument could be made that either of these are Disneyland Resort’s flagship hotel. There’s Disneyland Hotel, which is the original and has the crown jewel castle park right in its name. The case can also be made for Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, which is more lavish and luxurious, has a private entrance directly into Disney California Adventure, and is usually more expensive.
In addition to these all-stars, Disneyland Resort is also home to Paradise Pier Hotel aka Pixar Place Hotel (not to be confused with the superior Hyatt Place Hotel down the street) aka Hotel Dino-Rama (minus the dinosaurs). If you enjoy construction, inefficient elevators, or wasting money for no discernible reason, PPH is right for you! For everyone else, there are 38 hotels that outperform it on our Disneyland Area Hotel Rankings & Reviews.
As for the Disneyland Hotel vs. Grand Californian comparison, it’s an incredibly close call. While we will draw our own conclusions as to which is better, we’ll also explain our reasoning along the way, so you can form your own opinions. Since so much of this is a matter of subjective, personal preference, that’s the best way to approach these comparisons. Plus, it would be a pretty short blog post if we didn’t offer explanatory text along with the winner of each element.
Theme: It Depends – Theme is such a tricky subject since so much of it is predicated in personal preference. Rather than making a value judgment about which theme is inherently “better,” we approach this from their respective execution of their styles.
Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is no doubt the most elegant and refined hotel at Disneyland Resort. It is, as the name suggests, grand. From the soaring lobby to the ornate woodwork to the gorgeous stained glass, Grand Californian is sophisticated and upscale in a way that Disneyland Hotel simply is not.
It’s also misunderstood. Some might use the words “rustic” and “outdoorsy” to describe GCH, but in reality, the hotel has more in common with a luxury resort than it does a lodge in the countryside. This might be more pronounced in the Disney fan community, as there are a lot of superficial similarities between the Grand Californian and Wilderness Lodge, leading to the (erroneous) conclusion that GCH is also primarily inspired by the iconic U.S. National Park Lodges of the early 20th Century in the American West.
That’s true to a certain degree. Both Wilderness Lodge and the GCH were designed by the same architect, and share bloodlines. There are also some stylistic similarities between the Grand Cal and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. However, it’s probably fairer to say that the Ahwahnee and Grand Californian both feature California Craftsman style.
Rather than looking to Northern California to find inspiration for the Grand Californian, Disney looked mostly to the nearby city of Pasadena, home to many masterpieces of the Arts & Crafts movement by architects Charles and Henry Greene. The most obvious source of inspiration is the Gamble House, which is the crown jewel of the California Craftsman style.
DLH is a much more straightforward hotel, and its theme is literally “Disneyland.” Above all else, the hotel is a self-referential love letter to Walt Disney and his original magic kingdom in pretty ordinary package. These are standard hotel towers that, at least upon first impression, aren’t all that different from what you’d find throughout Anaheim or Los Angeles.
That’s overly reductionist, though. Disneyland Hotel’s towers each have their own theme: Fantasyland, Adventureland, or Frontierland. (Plus the new DVC tower, which is inspired by “Blandland,” I guess.) Again, this is accomplished via tributes rather than true theme, but it’s done in an incredibly loving and thorough way. There are models in the lobbies, posters, and great depth of detail. Each tower has its own distinct personality, and enough nods that it feels like you’re immersed in the hotel version of the respective lands.
Disneyland Hotel also incorporates mid-century modern design into its towers and common areas, giving it greater personality and a sense that it’s truly a tribute to Walt Disney’s park. In other places, DLH weaves together both tiki culture and contemporary style and amenities, while keeping its self-referential charm front and center. It’s truly impressive how it manages to successfully balance all of these elements, and never does it feel like a cheap attempt to tug at the heartstrings of Disney fans.
The whole of DLH is like a mashup of the Polynesian and Contemporary Resorts at Walt Disney World, plus maybe a dash of Coronado Springs. At odd comparison, but at the end of the day, Disneyland Hotel just works. It’s not a thematic exemplar like the Grand Californian, but for many Disney fans, it’s going to “click” better and be more appealing.
For that reason, we’ll call this one an “it depends.” Personally, we’d be inclined to give victory to the Grand Californian (and by a wide margin) but not everyone is going to agree. In fact, there was a time when even we would not agree with that assessment, as discussed in the verdict at the conclusion of the comparison.
Rooms: Grand Californian – Both hotels have rooms that were recently updated, but the Grand Californian rooms were fully redone, whereas the Disneyland Hotel rooms were superficially refreshed. The room reimagining at GCH brightened up the rooms, toned down a bit of the (arguably) dated themed design, and injected fun Disney details and historic nods.
Note: Disney Vacation Club rooms at the Grand Californian have not been updated, and likely won’t be until 2024 or 2025. There’s a certain charm to them, but they are definitely showing their age in both form and function. They also look absolutely nothing like what’s pictured here. Just something to consider if you’re planning on renting DVC points to save money on a stay at the VGC. (I’d still go that route, as the cost difference is significant.)
The defining feature of the rooms at the Disneyland Hotel is the “goodnight kiss” switch that lights up the fiber optics in the headboard and plays “When You Wish Upon a Star,” music box style. Whoever thought up this feature is a genius, because it’s always the first thing mentioned when discussing the rooms at Disneyland Hotel. If you have kids, they’ll love this. If you are an adult who is unduly impressed with things that light up and make sound, like me, you will want to leave this on all night.
The other memorable feature of the guest rooms at Disneyland Hotel is the fireworks-infused (I guess?) carpet, which looks explosively good. There are also historic photos of Walt Disney, and (if you’re lucky) ephemera in the room you can take home. Otherwise, the rooms are highly variable in layout and size, and wholly forgettable. But you will not forget that headboard (or the carpet), and that alone might be the trump card that helps surpass Grand Californian, despite its rooms being otherwise objectively superior in every way.
Oh, and the Disneyland Hotel rooms don’t have balconies, whereas Grand Californian rooms do. Some of the rooms at Disneyland Hotel already feel a bit cramped, and that only exacerbates the issue. (Also, this is Southern California, not Central Florida–sitting outside on the balcony in the morning or at night is lovely.) But what Disneyland Hotel lacks in balcony space, some might argue it makes up in light-up headboards…
Dining: Grand Californian – Both of these resorts have several strong dining options that serve different purposes. If you consult our List of the 23 Best Restaurants at Disneyland Resort, you’ll find that 3 locations on there are at Disneyland Hotel, and another 3 spots are at the Grand Californian. So it should be a draw, right?
On paper, this comparison might seem close. In reality, it’s not at all. The Grand Californian is home to the restaurants at which we dine most in all of Disneyland Resort, GCH Craftsman Bar & Grill. These sister spots (bar outside by the pool, counter service grill inside) offer fantastic and deep menus that far surpass Tangaroa Terrace at Disneyland.
On the character dining front, Goofy’s Kitchen at Disneyland Hotel gets the edge over Storytellers Cafe at the Grand Californian, but both are really good. (Goofy’s Kitchen is goofier and more fun, getting the nod for that and its flagship character meal status.) Trader Sam’s is in a league of its own as a themed bar, but don’t underestimate Hearthstone Lounge–it’s more relaxed and has better everything edible.
Where things really fall apart for Disneyland Hotel is on the table service front. Following the closure of Steakhouse 55, it doesn’t have a standard table service restaurant (sans characters). The lack of fine dining options is a big misstep for a resort of this caliber, especially when contrasted against the top-tier Napa Rose at the Grand Californian.
Location: Grand Californian – Objectively, this is an easy one. Disneyland Hotel is located on the other side of Downtown Disney, meaning that you have to walk through that shopping and dining district at least partially to access Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. It’s either a few minutes to the monorail station or about 10-12 minutes all the way through.
By contrast, the Grand Californian Hotel was built with Disney California Adventure, has a private entrance directly into the park, and overlooks Grizzly Peak and portions of Paradise/Pixar Pier. It’s 0 minutes from DCA and only ~5 minutes from Disneyland.
How much this matters depends on the degree to which you want to reduce your daily steps and also when you’d be walking through Downtown Disney. First thing in the morning or late at night after park closing, Downtown Disney is blissfully uncrowded. It’s a leisurely stroll in a nice setting with fun music. During peak hours, Downtown Disney is crowded and unpleasant, and navigating it can be a chore.
Once you do the private entrance of GCH, it’s difficult to go back to Disneyland Hotel. It may seem like a slight difference, but it opens up a world of possibilities. You can use your room as a locker, grabbing snacks, drinks, or coats when the sun goes down. You can ride (and inevitably get soaked on) Grizzly River Run before returning for a change of clothes. You can stay Club Level and breeze up to the lounge whenever you’re hungry, never needing to bother with Mobile Order or table service meals in the parks. In our view, the Grand Californian’s location is a game-changer.
Pools: Disneyland Hotel – This one is probably demographic-dependent. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel boasts 3 pools—the Fountain, Redwood, and Mariposa–in its central courtyard, one of which features a water slide extending from a redwood tree trunk. Radiating from around these pools are lovely lounge chairs, some of the most comfortable you’ll find at any pool.
There’s also the adjacent GCH Craftsman Bar, which is incredibly convenient to the pool for grabbing drinks or a midday bite to eat. It also offers up live music on certain days and evenings, which amps up the atmosphere. Speaking of which, the design of the pool area is excellent, with tree-laden grounds, stone walls, rocky boulders, stained glass lamps, critter fountains and more all adding to a sense of serenity. Both pools can get busy and crowded, but we’ve always managed to find a sense of seclusion and calm away from the Redwood Pool at GCH.
Then there’s Disneyland Hotel, where the massive 4,800-square-foot E-Ticket Pool lives up to its name. This features 2 winding waterslides, both feature replicas of the original Mark 1 Monorail trains. There’s the 25-foot-high, 180-foot-long Red Monorail slide or the 13-foot-high, 80-foot-long Yellow Monorail slide (the latter is comparable to the Redwood Pool Slide at GCH).
There’s also a 2-lane mini slide for smaller children with pop jets, fountains, and a waterfall add to the fun. This nostalgic water play area is topped by a “Disneyland” sign reminiscent of the park’s classic years. This entire pool area is top-notch; it’s larger and has more fun on offer than its counterpart at GCH. If you have kids of any age, there’s little doubt that they’ll prefer the pools at Disneyland Hotel.
We’re going to give DLH the win since that’ll be the consensus, but honestly, we prefer the pools at the Grand Californian. The vibe is more mellow, and that’s what we’re looking for when taking time away from the parks to relax and decompress. Children will disagree, but couples might give the edge to GCH’s pools.
Cost: Disneyland Hotel – These are the two most expensive hotels on average at Disneyland Resort. Both routinely start in the $400 or $500 range, and that’s with a discount. On the high end, rack rates exceeding $1,000 is not uncommon.
Prices vary by season and room category, but you can expect to pay about 20% to 25% more for a comparable room at the Grand Californian on average. There are times when the rates are inexplicably lower at GCH, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. (And usually due to standard rooms being unable at DLH.)
Club Level: Grand Californian – If $500+ per night is simply too cheap for your tastes, you can always upgrade to Club Level for another couple hundred dollars or so per night! Disneyland Hotel’s Club Level is the E-Ticket Lounge, which is located on the top floor of the Adventure Tower, and offers elevated views of Downtown Disney (it’s currently overlooking the construction zone to expand the district). It’s a decent view of the fireworks at Disneyland in the distance, and the evening atmosphere of Downtown Disney can be enjoyable.
Grand Californian’s Club Level is the Veranda, which offers indoor seating and an outdoor terrace. This lounge is larger, more modern, and has significantly better variety (and higher quality) food and drink spreads. If you’re interested in a comprehensive look at several days’ worth of what we ate here, see our Review: Veranda Club Level at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
The E-Ticket Lounge is fine. It could use an update and the food spreads aren’t nearly as impressive, especially after having access to the superlative Veranda Club Level at the Grand Californian. (I’ll level with you: the only reason I included this section was because I don’t feel like writing a standalone review of the E-Ticket Lounge. “It’s fine” is pretty much the extent of my thoughts.)
Verdict: Grand Californian – Families with small children will probably prefer the Disneyland Hotel itself for the superior pool and greater level of whimsy to the rooms and property as a whole. Even then, the proximity to the parks, superior dining options, and better overall rooms with balconies might make GCH win out.
Couples or those with old kids will probably prefer Grand Californian for its more sophisticated and adult sensibilities, as well as all of the above. Even then, diehard Disney fans might favor the nostalgia, fun of Trader Sam’s, and other ways that DLH just “oozes” all things Walt Disney and Disneyland. It’s a really close call and there’s no one size fits all answer for everyone. Heck, the very same people might favor DLH at some points and GCH at other times. Which brings things full circle to our experiences with both hotels of Disneyland Resort…
For us, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is the winner in a landslide. However, that has not always been the case. When we first started visiting the California parks, we immediately fell in love with Disneyland Hotel. As huge fans of the history and legacy of Walt Disney, the hotel won us over instantly and completely–much like the park itself.
Disneyland Hotel felt like an extension of the eponymous park, and we absolutely couldn’t get enough of Disneyland. Returning to the resort and visiting Trader Sam’s after watching “Remember… Dreams Come True” was just a pitch-perfect nostalgia overload. The mid-century modern stylization was also a winner (this was during the peak of Mad Men) and unlike anything we had back “home” at Walt Disney World.
On the other hand, the Grand Californian was admittedly a bit confusing. There were aspects of it that blew us away, but also some weird stuff. Aspects of the design struck us as dark, dreary, and dated. Like a National Park Lodge, but trying a bit too hard to be both fancy and rustic, and feeling tired. (This was almost 15 years ago–way before the new rooms.) All in all, it felt like an odd early-aughts imitation of Wilderness Lodge.
That was a very surface level assessment, colored by a fondness for Wilderness Lodge, incomplete knowledge of DCA’s shortcomings, and spending too little time actually exploring the Grand Californian. It wasn’t until our next visit that we spent more time at the GCH and started to understand what it was doing differently from Wilderness Lodge.
Honestly, though, it wasn’t until we spent time in Pasadena, including a tour of the Gamble House along with other homes in the historic district there that it really “clicked” for us. (If you’re able to pair a stay at GCH with a day in Pasadena, we highly recommend it. See our 1-Day Pasadena, California Itinerary on TravelCaffeine.com.)
Since then, our fondness for the Arts & Crafts style has only increased, and the same is true for the Grand Californian. We’ve stayed at the hotel several times and visited (literally) hundreds since then, and we still see new details and design quirks with each visit. Our appreciation of the Grand Californian keeps growing deeper. I now love it as much as I love Wilderness Lodge, which is really saying something.
We share this to add context but also a caveat. It literally took us years to get to this point with the Grand Californian. Although it has far surpassed Disneyland Hotel for us, that’s not how the story began. For us, it was love at first stay with Disneyland Hotel…and more like apprehensive appreciation with the Grand Californian. Perhaps you’re more sophisticated than us, and the appeal of the GCH and distinctions from Wilderness Lodge will be immediately apparent for you, but there’s a good chance fellow Disney fans will experience a similar reaction. Since this is a comparison aimed at your first stay rather than your 14th, it seemed like a relevant story to include.
Still not sure which hotel at Disneyland Resort is right for you? Get professional help for free from an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner (Disney’s term for a travel agent). They receive commission from Disney, so most authorized planners will not charge you for booking the vacation package and planning services. The fee-free Authorized Disney Vacation Planner that we recommend is Be Our Guest Vacations. Their services don’t cost extra, they’ll help choose the right resort for you, book your vacation, help you with dining reservations and itineraries, and apply the best discounts to your reservation.
Which of these two good hotels at Disneyland Resort is the better one, in your opinion? Does cost, rooms, location, pools, dining, or something else matter most to you? Is there anything you can think of to make Disneyland Hotel the better pick? Are we missing a key variable that could, potentially tilt the scales? Do you agree or disagree with our picks? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!