Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort do a lot for Christmas. From entertainment to decorations to attraction overlays and more, it’s a great time of year to be in the parks. In fact, it’s our absolute favorite time to visit both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Given that, and since we’ve already spent some time on both coasts this Christmas season, we thought we’d compare and contrast the strengths of each in an ultimate battle…TO THE DEATH. (Just kidding…obviously.)
A lot of people will tell you that posts like this are stupid. That the ‘winner’ is always a result of fan bias towards their home resort. That it’s an apples to oranges comparison, and you should be able to enjoy both Disneyland and Walt Disney World for their differences.
Well…guess what? If anything that was stupid wasn’t online, 99% of the internet wouldn’t exist. We are Disneyland locals who consider Walt Disney World our “home” resort for nostalgic reasons who try to check our bias at the door. We agree that it’s not an even comparison. With all of that said, we still think that it’s not only a fun discussion, but also potentially helpful for those Disney fans wondering which coast they should choose for a Christmas vacation.
In fact, after reading our Ultimate Disneyland Christmas Guide and Ultimate WDW Christmas Guide, many readers have told us they felt overwhelmed, and just wondered “which one they should visit for Christmas.” For most people, that’s going to be dictated by the same overriding consideration that dictates every Disney vacation: whether they live on the West Coast or East Coast.
However, for Disney diehards who are willing to travel to either, we hope this will help answer that question. For everyone else, this should (hopefully?) be a fun comparison. Remember, although there is undoubtedly a friendly fan rivalry between Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the emphasis should be on friendly and not on rivalry. 🙂
Castle Park Entertainment – Without question, the stars of the Christmas season at the respective resorts are Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. Given that these are the flagship parks on each coast, it makes sense to compare them to one another in isolation.
Let’s start with the parades. In Florida, there’s Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade. In California, there’s A Christmas Fantasy Parade. Both of these are getting a little long in the tooth, but I think Magic Kingdom’s recent refreshes and entertainers give it the slight edge. Admittedly, I might be biased a bit by my nostalgia for the Magic Kingdom parade, but even trying to set that aside, I think it’s superior.
Then there are the fireworks. This is really no contest, as Holiday Wishes has a catchy soundtrack, clever pyro, and a bombastic finale. By contrast, Believe… In Holiday Magic feels like a new age-y relic of the late 1990s, and while I still enjoy it…it’s no Holiday Wishes. An easy win for Florida.
Then there’s the stage shows. Over in California, there is no stage show. Florida does have a stage show, meaning that this would have to be a Stitch’s Great Escape level stinker for California to pull off the win (the ole “addition by subtraction” bit). Fortunately for Walt Disney World guests, the new Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration is no such stinker. This new show is really fun, and features some great character use and excellent songs, save for the first one.
The winner should be facially obvious to anyone tallying this all up…OR SHOULD IT?! Twist ending: you can walk into Disneyland any day, not just during the busiest week of the Christmas season, and enjoy all of this entertainment without paying an extra $80+ per head. Even with Disneyland’s offerings being substantively inferior by a slight margin, they are not $80+ per person inferior. Winner: Disneyland Resort.
Second+ Gate Entertainment – With 3 other parks, this is a category you’d think Walt Disney World would dominate with ease. However, when you look beyond Magic Kingdom, you see virtually nothing at Animal Kingdom and a single “fireworks” show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The burden thus falls to Epcot, and it’s Holidays Around the World festivities. There, you have Storytellers and the IllumiNations: Peace on Earth tag. Those two things, plus Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! are the non-Magic Kingdom heavy-hitters this Christmas at Walt Disney World.
Holidays Around the World is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, and we always have fun snacking and watching the Storytellers. However, this can get old quickly, especially on a hot afternoon. By contrast, Festival of Holidays at DCA has a better mix of entertainment between its musical acts and Viva Navidad (honestly, an ideal slate would be a mix of storytellers and bands–the best of both worlds) and more food. Head to head, there’s a slight advantage here for DCA, but not a decisive one.
In a battle that is eerily similar (okay, not really) to Iron Man fighting Bucky and Captain America, World of Color – Season of Light is left to battle Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! and the Peace on Earth tag. Unlike Iron Man, Disney California Adventure rises to the occasion, with World of Color – Season of Light, flexing its muscles as the best new Christmas entertainment in ages, and a worthy foe for two nighttime offerings at Walt Disney World.
This isn’t to say Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! and Peace on Earth are weak. Well…actually, it is to say that about Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! But Peace on Earth is awesome. In any case, it’s more about how excellent Season of Light is. If Peace on Earth were an entire show instead of a tag–or even still featured Walter Cronkite’s narration–that might tip the scales in the other direction, but as it stands… Winner: Disneyland Resort.
Attraction Overlays – Haunted Mansion Holiday. ‘it’s a small world’ Happy Holidays. Hyperspace Mountain…okay, I guess the release of Rogue One is not a national holiday. Jingle Cruise exists on both coasts and is okay, but no matter what you think of that, it’s a push.
Disneyland has two attraction overlays for the holiday season that Walt Disney World does not, and these overlays are both exceptional. Like, so good that our first visit to Disneyland for Christmas was inspired by a desire to see these, and we know others who have done the same. That’s because they are worth it.
The sad thing here is that Walt Disney World has the trump card literally sitting in storage, with the Country Bear Christmas overlay, which ceased being shown in 2005. Orlando management, I know how much bragging rights gleaned from random blog posts means to you; I am fully prepared to flip this one in your favor–all you have to do is run Country Bear Christmas again.
Short of that…this one is no contest. It’s a decisive victory for the Left Coast. Winner: Disneyland.
Christmas Trees – With Disneyland Resort sweeping the in-park entertainment and attraction battles, Walt Disney World fans might be getting a bit nervous. Fear not, as Walt Disney World has not been mathematically eliminated from victory yet (probably because I’m awful at math).
At Disneyland, the Christmas tree at the end of Main Street is beautiful as ever, and sure puts to shame that garish thing in the Magic Kingdom that looks like it was thrown up on by the Christmas Popcorn Monster, circa 1987. (Editor’s note: Christmas Popcorn Monster is copyright Tom Bricker, all rights reserved. No adaptations of this character in motion pictures, literature, or theme park without express written consent.) The Buena Vista Street Christmas tree is also beautiful.
However, that’s where things start and end for Disneyland. Even though Disneyland and DCA win over Magic Kingdom and Epcot in terms of trees, Walt Disney World still has two other parks. Animal Kingdom has an exceptional tree and Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a pretty good one, and those would propel the Florida parks to victory here. We’ll save the resort hotel trees for the next section… Winner: Walt Disney World Resort.
Lights & Decorations – This one plays out a lot like the Christmas tree comparison. Disneyland is put over the top by decorations in New Orleans Square (a land Walt Disney World doesn’t have) as compared to Magic Kingdom. In the head to head battle of Disney California Adventure v. Epcot, World Showcase turns the tables and gives the Florida park an advantage.
That leaves Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom as gravy. Both of these parks have actually stepped up their decorations game in recent years, particularly Animal Kingdom. That park is now a bit of an unheralded gem in terms of its unique and ingenious ‘recycled’ decorations, which promise only to get better next year once Pandora keeps the park open even later.
Again, this is without even counting the decorations outside the parks, as those will be accounted for in the next category. Still, the champion is obvious. Winner: Walt Disney World.
Resort Hotels – All three Disneyland Resort hotels get into the Christmas spirit (yes, even Paradise Pier Hotel!) with solid trees and decorations. If you look at our Hotels of Disneyland Christmas Tour post, you can see just how nice they look. Impressive, right?
Well, maybe…if you haven’t looked at our Free Self-Guided Yuletide Tour of Walt Disney World Hotels. You could argue that the Grand Californian beats out Wilderness Lodge (I’d agree), Disneyland Hotel gives Grand Floridian a run for its money (while still falling short), and Paradise Pier Hotel maybe beats Port Orleans Riverside (an odd comparison, but go with it).
That still leaves something like 4 other ‘excellent’ and 3 more ‘very good’ hotels at Walt Disney World to which Disneyland has no answer. This one is easy: Florida trounces California. Winner: Walt Disney World.
Christmas Food – For as long as we’ve been visiting Disneyland, the California parks have prided themselves on releasing seasonal menus that highlight the desserts and meals that can be found throughout the parks for any holiday. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, the offerings have decreased and been far less inspired.
There are a few standout items like the Plaza Inn Yule Log, and Festival of Holidays is fun if you’re being bankrolled by the McDuck Empire, but this is one of the few ways Disneyland has declined for the Christmas season–and it used to be an area where Disneyland had a clear advantage.
On the other hand, Walt Disney World does not publicize its holiday foods beyond the new Holidays Around the World booths at Epcot, but there are numerous treats throughout the parks and in counter service restaurants & bakeries in the resorts. From gingerbread cupcakes to seasonal cocktails at the bars of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, there’s a lot that flies under the radar at Walt Disney World. It also seems (to us, at least) that Walt Disney World has quietly added more seasonal foods over the last few years that have been unadvertised.
We could probably call this one a push and be justified with that, but given the trajectories of each resort and the understated nature of Walt Disney World’s seasonal foods, we think it’s likely that Florida has now surpassed its California counterpart. Winner: Walt Disney World.
Downtown Disney…Springs – Although the Christmas Tree Trail unveiled this year at Disney Springs was underwhelming, the drone show is something that no one has ever seen before. Moreover, Disney Springs has a lot of decorations and roaming entertainment, and feels festive during the holiday season.
Contrast that with Downtown Disney at Disneyland Resort, which has carolers occasionally pass through and an ice skating rink (which has not yet returned this year, but I assume it will).
This one is really no contest. Disney Springs is an actual holiday destination for both locals and tourists. Downtown Disney is a place that locals will pass through on the way to the parking structure, and tourists will pass through on the way to their hotel or Starbucks. Winner: Walt Disney World.
Overall – If you tally things up, Walt Disney World wins 5 to 3. It’s not that simple, as the 3 categories that Disneyland Resort wins probably carry more weight for most guests. On the other hand, Walt Disney World’s victories were far more decisive, with it winning a couple of blowouts while Disneyland claimed an edge in a couple of nail-biters.
So…what’s the outcome? We could say “it depends,” but that’s a pretty lame cop-out after forcing you to read 2,000+ words. It does depend, but that’s only to a degree. For example, if you only have a 3-day weekend to do one or the other, we think Disneyland’s victories are more meaningful. There, you have two “Christmas-dense” parks that will offer a jam-packed 3-day slate of holiday fun. By comparison, the spread out nature of Christmas at Walt Disney World means you miss a lot of what there is to see over the course of a long weekend, and don’t see as much in the parks you do visit.
However, that spread out nature is ultimately why we crown Walt Disney World the ultimate victor. There is more to see and do during the Christmas season at Walt Disney World, and most people are not taking 3-day vacations. Even though Disneyland edges it in several regards, Walt Disney World handily beats it in terms of hours of Christmas entertainment (probably by a 2:1 margin). You could spend an entire week at Walt Disney World being immersed in Christmas, which would be more difficult to manage at Disneyland.
At the end of the day, we love both. If we had to choose, though, we would choose Christmas at Walt Disney World over Christmas at Disneyland. That is, unless you’re willing to fly to Tokyo Disneyland where you can see those glorious Country Bears and have the best Christmas experience of all. What do you think…which coast is your winner?