The Walt Disney World versus Disneyland debate has raged among fans for years, with each swearing allegiance to their “home park” and declaring it superior. As the phased reopening continues in California and Florida, normalcy slowly returns, and pent-up demand fuels crowds and price increases, we thought it’d be worth taking a fresh look at the topic.
For starters, we think the contrived fan rivalry between the two is a bit silly given that they’re owned by the same company. Having lived in both Florida and California–and the respective Orange Counties that Disney’s theme parks call home–our view is that each have their own pros & cons.
Beyond that, our general attitude is why not both? Seriously, it doesn’t need to be “Walt Disney World v. Disneyland.” Each has its own strengths, will appeal to different types of visitors, lengths of stays, and varying types of trips. Moreover, the calculus can differ from year to year…
To that last point, we think it’s worth emphasizing the specific strengths of Disneyland in 2022. For one, this blog’s audience definitely has a Walt Disney World bias. In general, WDW-centric fans often overlook the resort in California with “only” two parks and the “toy castle.” While we think this is a huge mistake, it’s also one we made ourselves until seeing the error of our ways years ago.
Rather than having this post be a rehash of the common comparison with pros & cons of each, we’re going to focus on five advantages Disneyland offers this year. To be clear, this is not comprehensive–it overlooks a lot that makes Walt Disney World great, like unique transportation, a vast array of dining, the debut of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, and even the 50th Anniversary as a whole. (In other words, it’s not really a “versus” comparison.)
In so doing, we’ll discuss the glacial return to normalcy, what has changed since each have reopened, and also address how Disneyland is the ‘antidote’ to common reader complaints about Walt Disney World…
5. More Normalcy
Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland are still in the midst of their respective “phased reopenings” nearly two years after their temporary closures. In the case of California, that lasted over a year–Disneyland’s post-reopening still amounts to less time than the closure itself. By contrast, Florida’s parks were closed for a few months and the the reopening has been drawn out over the course of the year-plus since.
Despite this, the comeback of Disneyland Resort has occurred at a more accelerated pace. A new land, character dining, all hotels, parades, regular events, and more all returned to the California property first. Free-roaming superheroes are out and about in Avengers Campus, and other atmospheric acts have returned, too.
Nighttime spectaculars are also back at Disneyland Resort, with World of Color, Disneyland Forever, and Main Street Electrical Parade now performing. Next up is Fantasmic, which returns Memorial Day weekend. That leaves only Magic Happens Parade, Mickey and the Magical Map, and Frozen – Live at the Hyperion as the big question marks–and those last two are probably gone for good.
Similarly, Walt Disney World has announced entertainment returning in 2022. This includes Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Finding Nemo: the Musical at Animal Kingdom, both of which will return sometime this summer (hopefully).
However, there’s also a lot still missing, including but not limited to Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Jedi Training Academy, Star Wars Launch Bay, Star Wars: Galactic Spectacular, plus numerous atmospheric entertainment acts, restaurants, dinner shows, and other experiences.
The respective lists may not seem that different, but our (subjective) take is that Walt Disney World feels further from “normal” than Disneyland. The degree to which the guest experience differs as compared to pre-closure is far less pronounced at Disneyland than Walt Disney World.
In fairness, Disney’s presence in Florida is a sprawling complex with far more moving parts and things to do, and that’s true even with less normalcy. Disneyland is smaller scale and undoubtedly easier to get back up and running. So there is that, too. But if we’re comparing on the basis of each coast’s version of normal–and assuming you’d want to visit both Walt Disney World and Disneyland at some point in the near-term–the California parks are currently closer to their 100% and will be doing even better when the aforementioned entertainment returns in Spring 2022.
4. Disneyland Is Easier, Less Stressful, More “Vacation-y”
Walt Disney World is often praised for its “blessing of size,” a phrase Walt Disney used when pitching his Florida Project. As intimated above, it’s true that there’s absolutely more to do at Walt Disney World than Disneyland. However, referring to the scale and scope as an unconditional “blessing” is disingenuous.
Sure, if you’re going to take a 2 week vacation, immersing yourself in nothing but Disney, then Walt Disney World is the unequivocal winner. If you only have a few days, the size and scale of Walt Disney World can be both a blessing and a curse. You’ll lose hours just to getting around, whereas you can easily walk everywhere at Disneyland Resort.
There’s also the comparative complexity of Walt Disney World. If you can master visiting Walt Disney World, you can travel anywhere on earth. Without question, Walt Disney World is the most complicated destination we’ve ever visited–it makes navigating byzantine railroad networks or overcoming language barriers feel like a cakewalk. With Walt Disney World, there’s so much to know and do in preparing for a trip–a lot of which regulars take for granted as “common knowledge” because it’s become second-nature to them.
Disneyland is less stressful, more laid-back, and allows for greater spontaneity. The comparative ease of planning a trip to Disneyland is really worth stressing…er, reiterating. In general, the more free-flowing nature of the California parks makes it easier to slow down and enjoy atmospheric entertainment and simply appreciate being there.
The overwhelming majority of the time we visit Disneyland, we don’t make any plans (beyond park reservations) until we arrive. No clue where we’re going to eat, which rides we’re going to do, or how our days will unfold. If you love to plan, there’s still room for that, but it’s less essential, with far more room for spontaneity.
As an illustrative point, one common complaint we’re seeing more and more is that the Genie+ start time of 7 am at Walt Disney World forces families to get up too early. At Disneyland, Genie+ selections cannot be made until guests enter the park.
This might seem similarly stressful, but it’s really not. Guests staying in Anaheim off-site hotels can leave their room less than an hour before official park opening time, walk over to Disneyland, buy and book Genie+ selections, and be among the first guests to rope drop the standby-only Fantasyland dark rides. (That sentence should illustrate several ways Disneyland is easier and more laid back.)
There’s also the reality that if you live east of Nevada, the time change and your body’s natural clock will be in your favor. That can also be a double-edged sword on nights when Disneyland is open until 11 pm or midnight (did we mention that the California parks are back to their normal operating hours?), but that’s a good problem to have!
3. Cheaper Walking Distance Hotels
One of the most common impediments we hear with regard to visiting Disneyland is that airfare from [insert location in the Midwest] is more expensive to Los Angeles or Orange County than it is to Orlando. We’ll concede that this is mostly true. (By waiting and watching for deals, we seldom pay over $250 roundtrip, which is not too far off from airfare pricing from the Midwest to MCO.)
However, it’s pretty easy to make up that cost difference in other areas of the trip budget, particularly hotels and food. There are about a dozen hotels on Harbor Boulevard that are as long of a walk to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure as the Contemporary is to Magic Kingdom. It’s impossible to compare these “real world” hotels to on-site options at Walt Disney World. Suffice to say, each have their pros & cons–and a lot of WDW diehards are going to find the “Disney Bubble” punctured this year, regardless.
The pricing of hotels at Disneyland v. Walt Disney World is a bigger point in Disneyland’s favor than ever before, as Walt Disney World resort discounts are scarce. Right now, there are several options from the top of our Disneyland Area Hotel Reviews & Rankingsthat are priced under $150 per night in May 2022. Even the new JW Marriott and Westin Anaheim luxury hotels are under $250 per night for many dates. Those are real world nice, not just Disney nice.
During that same timeframe, availability and prices on-site at Walt Disney World are all over the place. There are some nights when the All Stars are available at a discounted rate of $122 per night or Pop Century is an option at $168. The problem arises when trying to book multiple consecutive nights (you know, as one does when booking a vacation as opposed to a single night stay).
You might luck out with those same resorts having availability at those prices, or might find only multi-bedroom villas and suites priced at $700 and up are options. Walt Disney World availability and pricing for your travel dates will largely dictate how this comparison shakes out for you–if I could book Pop Century for $168/night for my vacation, I’d jump on that. (I remember the days of paying under $100/night for Pop Century, but those days are gone. Hotels are more expensive–everywhere. Plus, Pop Century has added the Skyliner, which is an absolute game-changer for its value proposition. But I digress.)
Regardless, the point stands that Disneyland has cheaper walking distance hotels. In addition to that, good real world restaurants can be reached in under 15 minutes by foot. Same goes for CVS and Walgreen’s for groceries and other things. Many Disneyland-area hotels also have very good free breakfast buffets, so that’s one meal you won’t need to buy.
At Walt Disney World, you pay a significant premium for convenient locations that make the trip easier. Beyond hotel locations, there are also countless scenarios where you’re buying your way out of inconvenience. Aside from Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, that’s not really a thing at Disneyland. The bottom line is that it is usually much cheaper to do a convenient trip to Disneyland–even taking into account the more expensive flights.
2. Genie+ Is Better…and You’ll Spend Less!
If you’ve been following our park reports and countless posts about Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, you’ve seen the trials and tribulations of the system at Walt Disney World. We’ve tested it many times over the course of several months at Walt Disney World, having inconsistent experiences, to put it mildly. Judging by reader comments, that’s charitable, as others have had far frustrations and problems with Genie+ at Walt Disney World. This isn’t to say the system is broken or unworkable, but it can be a challenge.
Based on those experiences with Genie+ at Walt Disney World, we “budgeted” a lot of time with Genie+ at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. It was totally unnecessary. By the end of our first day using Genie+ and Lightning Lanes in the California parks, it was obvious the system is simple and smoother–not nearly the same level of strategy or planning resources would be necessary.
Even though it costs $20 per day at Disneyland v. $16 at Walt Disney World, you will–without a doubt–get more done with Genie+ at Disneyland, making the per attraction cost far lower. (Genie+ also includes PhotoPass at Disneyland, which is a nice value-add.) As a result, you almost certainly won’t need to purchase as many days of Genie+ at Disneyland, making the total amount you spend on Genie+ lower.
As for the whole 4 parks v. 2 thing? The argument could be made that Disneyland Resort’s 2-park attraction lineup is superior to, or at least on par with, Walt Disney World’s. (This is in large part why Genie+ is easier at Disneyland Resort–a higher per park ride count.) It’s not an argument that I’d personally make, but I do think the gap is far more narrow than most WDW diehards would realize. Walt Disney World certainly does not have double the number of compelling attractions–not even close to it.
1. Fun in the Sun/Snow/Sand for Everyone!
Orlando is the theme park capital of the world. There’s little disputing that. Beyond that, Central Florida offers up the Space Coast, manatees, and…uh…outlet malls? There are a several state parks, farmer’s markets, shopping areas, and downtown districts–but nothing I’d describe as destination-worthy.
To each their own, but our perspective is that Southern California beats Central Florida in terms of fun things to do for visitors. If your singular focus is theme parks, Orlando is the hands-down winner. If you want a well-rounded vacation, with a range of world-class points of interest, there’s arguably nowhere in the world that offers up as much variety as Southern California.
In California, you can surf and ski in the same day, visiting craggy cliffs, beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, and (dry?) deserts in between. There’s the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, diverse culture (and food!) of Los Angeles, and sleepy shoreline of Laguna Beach. Plus, several U.S. National Parks, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Newport, Pasadena, and more all within driving distance.
Most importantly, you can do many of these things on a budget. California has a wealth of low cost tourist attractions. Spend one day at the Getty and Getty Villa, two of the top free museums in the US, before heading to the picturesque El Matador Beach in Malibu. Drive out to Palm Springs to do a self-guided walking tour of America’s best architecture, followed by an afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park, which is also perfect stargazing and seeing the Milky Way.
If all of that isn’t enough to tip the scales in California’s favor, the nearest In-N-Out Burger is 980 miles away from Walt Disney World. There are two within 10 minutes of Disneyland. 😉
Overall, you can have a great time at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. While we think the latter offers the specific aforementioned advantages this year, there’s nothing to say you can’t choose to have a more laid-back and spontaneous trip at Walt Disney World. The Florida parks also have a lot going for them in 2022, from the 50th Anniversary to new additions–but we highlight Walt Disney World and its offerings on a daily basis.
Our aim here is not to proclaim Disneyland as the definitively superior experience and California as the better vacation destination. That’s simply not going to be the case for everyone. Rather, our goal is to convince those of you who may be averse to the idea of visiting Disneyland due to your preconceptions–or who have simply become alienated by Walt Disney World for the reasons identified above–to give the California parks a look. You will have a blast, and 2022 is arguably a good year to take off from Walt Disney World if you’re waiting for things to normalize.
Have you visited both Disneyland and Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Which do you consider the superior destination for your vacation style? Do you think each have their strengths and weaknesses? Is one or the other definitively better? Any questions? 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!