There are 6 worldwide Disney Parks & Resorts complexes, which are made up of theme parks, hotels, and entertainment complexes. Recently, we’ve been thinking about how these resort complexes rank as vacation destinations unto themselves, and thought we’d highlight the pros and cons of each in this post.
We won’t be fixating on the parks in these rankings, as that’s something we’ve already done in our Updated 2018 Disney Parks Power Rankings. Obviously, the quality of each resort’s theme park offerings factors heavily into the rankings below, as most people probably wouldn’t be going to any of these places in the first place but for the parks.
The major cities around each of these parks is also something upon which we won’t fixate…nor will we take that variable into consideration in the rankings. Since they are not part of the Disney resorts, that might seem like an obvious move. When it comes to choosing a vacation destination, it’s probably something that should be taken into account, but we think that is too much of a complicating factor.
Unless you have no intention of visiting any real world locations on your trip, the major cities near each complex do factor heavily into the overall calculus. For what it’s worth, my city rankings would be: 6) Orlando, 5) Shanghai, 4) Hong Kong, 3) Tokyo, 2) Los Angeles, 1) Paris. The top 3 would also all be on a list of my top 5 cities in the world.
6. Hong Kong Disneyland
Despite having three hotels, Hong Kong Disneyland does not feel like a destination resort. The intimate atmosphere of the park amplifies this, and makes it feel a lot like Disneyland in Anaheim would have pre-2001.
Someday, we expect that to change. Hong Kong Disneyland is masterplanned in a way that will allow it to grow into a fully-fledged resort, and already some trappings of this are visible today in the walkways and streets. With neither a second gate or entertainment district on the horizon for a long time, we don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
It’s not that Hong Kong Disneyland is an unsatisfying destination–we think it’s an underrated park with a trio of solid hotels–it’s just a place more conducive to day trips or 1-2 night stays.
5. Shanghai Disneyland
Being the newest of the bunch, Shanghai Disneyland evokes the same type of “it’s too soon” reaction as Hong Kong Disneyland. As with that, we think Shanghai Disneyland has been masterplanned nicely, and will grow into its own someday.
In the here and now, Shanghai Disneyland has one big advantage despite having one fewer hotel: Disneytown. This shopping and entertainment district provides a counterweight to the parks, and while it’s not a ton, it’s something. Although even without Disneytown, we are tempted to rank Hong Kong Disneyland higher if only because we prefer its hotels to Shanghai’s.
4. Disneyland Paris
One of the reasons I’m most excited about the upcoming investments in Disneyland Paris is because I think there is so much potential for it as a resort. The layout of the two parks, hotels, and Disney Village around Lake Disney is lovely, and the entire resort complex is walkable.
Disneyland Paris is already a pretty enjoyable place to spend time outside of the parks, but the hotels and Disney Village definitely need more substance to make them compelling for visitors. If these investments go according to plan and really improve Walt Disney Studios Park along with several of the resorts, Disneyland Paris could be a top-notch standalone vacation destination worthy of a long stay.
In the here and now, there are flickers of brilliance, but a ton of squandered potential. This is most evident in the resorts, several of which have been neglected for well over a decade; it’s also apparent with Disney Village, which is almost a caricature of the 1990s at this point. Then there’s the second gate, which is not so much a matter of squandered potential as it was dead on arrival. Even without the huge capital investments on the horizon, improvements in the place-making of Disney Village and the resort hotel restaurants would really go a long way.
Disneyland Resort is an example of making lemonade out of lemons. Although we’ve criticized Disneyland recently for its reticence at building out infrastructure that will be necessary once the crushing crowds arrive for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, it’s still fairly impressive how this has gone from a single park around which a surplus of latchers-on sprung up, into a resort destination.
The high points of this expansion have been the Grand Californian Hotel, and additions to Disneyland Hotel (like Trader Sam’s) have strengthened that. Disney California Adventure has also come into its own as a solid second gate, which has helped Disneyland Resort work as both a local’s hangout and a tourist destination.
There’s still a ton of room for improvement, especially with Downtown Disney and Paradise Pier Hotel. With the new luxury hotel about to significantly expand the on-site room inventory, we anticipate Disneyland’s quality as an actual resort complex continuing to grow (likely at the expense of that “local’s park” reputation). Improvements to Downtown Disney will come with this, and change seems inevitable at Paradise Pier Hotel given the whole “Pixar Pier” thing.
2. Tokyo Disney Resort
If going by theme parks alone, I’d take Japan’s two over those at any other resort destination in the world, and that includes the four at Walt Disney World. Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea are an unparalleled one-two punch, and have an incredible amount of repeatability thanks to their strong lineup of seasonal events that feature refreshed entertainment, special menus, and cool decorations.
Outside of the parks is where Tokyo Disney Resort stumbles. Ikspiari is its version of Downtown Disney, but it’s a non-Disney concept. We think Ikspiari does not get enough credit–there’s some great dining and decent shopping there–but this is also understandable because it’s ultimately just another mall. The same thinking applies to the on-property hotels clustered around the Bayside Station monorail stop. Most are very nice and some have good restaurants…but through the Disney prism it’s tough to get too excited about a Hilton or Sheraton.
On the other hand, Tokyo has three of the best Disney hotels in the world, including the best, Hotel MiraCosta. Each of these are interesting places to visit with solid dining options. Those hotels, plus excellent monorail service, and those incredible parks locks Tokyo Disney Resort into the #2 spot, but we still wonder ‘what could have been?’ if OLC and Disney were more collaborative on developing this Tokyo Bay site into a wholly Disney resort complex. (Then again, we probably couldn’t afford to stay on-site if that were the case, so maybe we’re fine with things as-is!)
1. Walt Disney World
We have plenty of quibbles with Walt Disney World’s parks, but it feels like they are reaching a turning point after over a decade of underinvestment and resting upon their laurels. We’re still at least three years away from seeing the peak of the investments currently being made, but the parks are trending the right direction. The hotels are more of a mixed bag, as efforts to make them more broadly appealing have stripped away some character, even as additions and enhancements like the Skyliner strike us as positives that will make several hotels more accessible.
Ultimately, the reason Walt Disney World tops this list is not because it has “double” the number of theme parks as California, Japan, or France. As we’ve noted, we’d take Tokyo’s two parks over Florida’s four…and it’s a closer call than it should be with Anaheim’s parks versus Orlando’s. While there are definitely some bright spots in Florida’s parks, they are not the strong suit of Walt Disney World. At least, not today.
Instead, Walt Disney World ranks #1 here because of everything outside of the parks. No other location on this list has the sheer quantity of exceptional resort hotels like Walt Disney World. There are over a dozen hotels that we love in Florida, and these sprawling resorts are great places to spend time, dine, and relax while not in the parks. Crescent Lake, Polynesian Village & Grand Floridian, Fort Wilderness & Wilderness Lodge, the Port Orleans Resorts–the list goes on and on. Then there’s Disney Springs, which is by far the best Disney shopping and entertainment district in the world.
The cumulative effect of this is the best Disney vacation destination in the world, and by a pretty wide margin. There’s a reason its old moniker was the “Vacation Kingdom of the World,” and it’s still apt after all these years: Walt Disney World is the only place on this list where we think a 10+ day trip is possible.
Then again, part of that is out of necessity, as it’s also the only Disney Parks complex on this list that is not located within close proximity of a world city. Still, Walt Disney World’s strengths make it easy to see why it’s a destination so many people visit and revisit, and it has such an advantage over Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Resort, and Disneyland Paris that the “lead” is pretty much insurmountable at this point.
How would you rank the Disney Parks resort complexes you’ve visited? Do you give much weight to the resort hotels or shopping/entertainment districts, or is your interest in each destination solely the theme parks? Do you think I mis-ranked any resort complexes, or made any poor choices? We love hearing from readers, so please share any your own rankings or questions you have in the comments below!