Disneyland v. Disney World: 2020 Edition

Walt Disney World v. Disneyland is hardly a new or unique topic. However, now that both coasts have Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Rise of the Resistance is the most popular attraction in both California and Florida, there are two new angles to this: which is better for Star Wars stuff, and does Disneyland Resort suffer from the same common complaints as WDW?

This article was actually inspired by a light-hearted jab I made at the end of our Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance Disneyland Strategy Guide, which offered the tongue in cheek, half-joking sentiment that California is better. Since so many readers indicated they’d like to know more, I thought it would be worth elaborating with a full post.

Plus, even though our main Walt Disney World v. Disneyland post has been updated several times, it was originally written while we still lived in the Midwest. Having since lived in both California and Florida, vacationed on both coasts, and experienced both versions of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, I think we’re uniquely situated to offer a new 2020 edition of this comparison with as little bias as possible…

For starters, we enjoy vacationing at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Each have their own strengths, and will appeal to different types of visitors, lengths of stays, and varying types of trips. The fan rivalry between the two is a bit silly given that they’re owned by the same company, and our general attitude to that is why not both?

With that said, we think it’s worth emphasizing the specific strengths of Disneyland. 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.

To that end, 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. In so doing, we’ll emphasize Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and also address how Disneyland is the ‘antidote’ to common reader complaints about Walt Disney World…

5. Later Opening Time

Opening later may not seem like a selling point. Yet, for many readers it will be. When it comes to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Walt Disney World, the most common complaint we’re seeing is that Disney’s Hollywood Studios opens too early for families. Park hours being extended to opening times of 7 am (or 6 am during peak seasons) has been the norm thus far.

In order to arrive at Disney’s Hollywood Studios before 6:30 am, which is currently what’s necessary to be inside the park in time for official opening time, most families need to leave their on-site resort room before 6 am. Even earlier if they have to gamble on Walt Disney World bus transportation. The norm right now seems to be around 5:30 am, which means waking up before 5 am.

There’s reason to believe these last-minute extensions will be Walt Disney World’s go-to plan for the foreseeable future. At some point, the ‘average’ opening will probably be moved back to 8 am, but that’s still a wake up call before 6 am, and that doesn’t exactly scream “vacation” for a lot of people.

By contrast, Disneyland typically opens later and stays open later. Guests staying in Anaheim off-site hotels can leave their hotel after 8 am and still walk over to Disneyland well before the normal 9 am weekday opening time. In fact, one day I got dressed at ~8:05 am, walked over from the Best Western Plus Anaheim Inn, entered Disneyland at ~8:25 am, left to get Starbucks in DCA, and was back in my room for the boarding pass dash by 9 am.

If you live east of Nevada, you’ll also have the time change and your body’s natural clock in your favor. For the first several days we were in California, I was waking up naturally by 5 am. Most mornings, I had ample time to get work done for a couple hours, get ready, and then make the leisurely stroll over to Disneyland in plenty of time before park opening.

Beyond the time difference, we found the whole process to be smoother and less stressful at Disneyland (at least on weekdays–as we wrote in our recent trip report, there’s a huge chasm between weekdays and weekends due to the local audience). Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance still hasn’t hit its stride in California like it has in Florida, but even so, the morning boarding pass dash is less stressful and headache-inducing at Disneyland.

4. More Laid Back and Spontaneous

The above illustrates the more laid back approach with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which is fairly reflective of Disneyland as a whole. Given that another common reader complaint here is how there’s too much stress and planning involved with visiting Walt Disney World, the spontaneity Disneyland affords is worth stressing…er, reiterating.

At Disneyland, you’ll interact with free-roaming characters, ride attractions on a whim without reservations made over a month ago, and dine at your leisure. The more free-flowing nature of the California parks makes it easier to slow down and enjoy atmospheric entertainment (there’s a ton of it) and simply appreciate being there.

Over 95% of the time we go to Disneyland, we don’t make any plans whatsoever until we arrive. No clue where we’re going to eat, which rides we’re going to do, or even which park we’ll visit. (That last one is deceptive because the answer is always “both.”)

While it can be a good idea to make dining reservations for some Disneyland restaurants at least a few days in advance, there’s none of that 180 day nonsense. Planning which attractions you’ll do 2 months in advance? Also not a thing. Disneyland uses legacy paper FastPass and digital MaxPass, both of which are day-of only. If you love to plan, there’s still room for that, but it’s still a far less stressful process with far more room for spontaneity.

3. Convenience at Disneyland is Cheaper

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 $225 RT, 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 are as long of a walk to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure as the Contemporary is to Magic Kingdom. Good real world restaurants can be reached in under 15 minutes by foot. So can CVS and Walgreen’s for groceries and other things. Many hotels have very good free breakfast buffets.

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 (Minnie Vans, fireworks dessert parties, hard ticket events). Aside from MaxPass, this ease and convenience is mostly part of the normal cost at Disneyland. In short, it is significantly cheaper to do a convenient trip to Disneyland–even taking into account the more expensive flights.

2. Disneyland > Disney’s Hollywood Studios

This seems like a very odd and unfair comparison to make, but these are the two parks where Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is located. Everyone has their favorite castle park, and a few people might even rank Magic Kingdom ahead of Disneyland. However, I don’t think there’s a rational person on earth who has been to both who would rank DHS above Disneyland.

This is significant because, while you’re waiting around for your Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance boarding group to be called, you have to find other things to do. If it’s your first-ever time visiting DHS, this is no problem. If you’ve been once or twice, you might struggle filling a day–let alone a second day if you want to rope drop Rise of the Resistance again. Sure, you could walk over to Epcot, but that can be inconvenient and that park is a construction zone right now.

By contrast, Disneyland has two full days of worthwhile (and repeatable!) attractions, and Disney California Adventure is a literal stone’s throw away. You could do a 4-day trip to Disneyland Resort and attempt to get a Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance boarding pass every single day without feeling that it impedes the rest of your trip. The same is simply not true of rope dropping DHS for that many days during a Walt Disney World trip. It would absolutely negatively impact the rest of your vacation.

Oh, and 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. 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.

1. California > Florida

Orlando has Southern California beat in terms of the Space Coast, manatees, and other theme parks, but not much beyond that. Don’t get us wrong, it’s still a great place to visit…but pretty much every top thing to do is not cheap. Which brings us to our final reader complaint about Walt Disney World: its cost compared to various real world vacation destinations.

This is a big reason why a shorter, more efficient trip to Disneyland might be appealing. 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, 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 dime. 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 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, it’s worth pointing out that the nearest In-N-Out Burger is 980 miles away from Walt Disney World. There are two within 10 minutes of Disneyland. 😉

If you’re planning a Southern California vacation beyond Disneyland and want other ideas, you’re in luck! We give away a free eBook: 101 Things to Do in Southern California on our non-Disney blog, TravelCaffeine. There, we also have a ton of resources dedicated to visiting the state, including a series of blog posts about California points of interest and our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles.

Overall, you can have a great time at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. While we think the latter offers several of the aforementioned strategic advantages, there’s nothing to say you can’t choose to have a more laid-back and spontaneous trip at Walt Disney World. You can also arrive at DHS later on a weekday and roll the dice with a backup boarding group for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

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’ll have a blast.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

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!

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