I'm a mom of two, super-powered by a biochemistry degree from UC Irvine and a lot of firsthand experience!
East Coast vs. West Coast
Disneyland was the first Disney park ever created, opening on July 17, 1955. It remained the sole Disney park until the Magic Kingdom opened in Orlando on October 1, 1971. Since that time, more parks have been added to both locations for guests to enjoy.
Parks located in Anaheim, California include:
- Disneyland, opened in 1955
- California Adventures, opened in 2001
Parks located in Orlando, Florida include:
- Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971
- Epcot, opened in 1982
- Hollywood Studios, opened in 1989
- Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998
While both locations offer an amazing vacation and a lot of fun, there are many differences between the parks. Asking "which park is better" is difficult to answer, as each resort offers different advantages for size, wait times, immersion in theme, and cost.
Which Park Is Bigger?
Without a question, Disney World wins this showdown: With four major parks, two water parks, two miniature golf courses, and many different resort properties, Disney World is the biggest Disney theme park on the planet.
43 Square Miles
0.8 Square Miles
Number of Main Parks
Number of Rides (total for all parks)*
Number of Hotels on Property
While Disney World clearly has the advantage of size, Disneyland has far more rides per square foot than the park in Florida. Rides like Star Tours and the Star Wars land Galaxy’s Edge are all found within the main Disneyland park. In Florida, these rides are found in Hollywood Studios and not in the Magic Kingdom.
Still, the overall ride count and a park area the size of Manhattan result in Disney World winning the “bigger park” competition.
Which Park Has the Best Transportation Options?
The California property is more compact, with California Adventure and Disneyland flanking the Downtown Disney area. Many hotels are within walking distance, so few transportation options are available (or required). Trams and buses are available from the parking locations. The remaining transportation options are largely within each theme park, including the train and monorail.
Disney World, however, has an extensive transportation system. For guests staying at an on-property hotel, a free bus pick-up service exists to whisk travelers from the Orlando airport (MCO) to their resort. Luggage is handled by Disney and is placed in the guest’s room when they arrive.
The monorail in Florida is also used for actual transportation. Two separate monorail loops exist and have a main hub at the Ticket and Transportation Center near the Magic Kingdom. Guests may take the resort/Magic Kingdom loop to get to the theme park and select hotels, or may take the monorail to the Epcot theme park.
An internal bus system is also available in Orlando, and will take guests from their hotel to all of the theme parks and to Disney Springs at no charge. This is a fantastic benefit for visitors and negates the need for a rental car.
In addition to the monorail and bus systems, there is a boat system that transports guests at Magic Kingdom resorts to the theme park, and another boat system for the Epcot hotels that takes guests to the World Showcase entrance of Epcot. A boat may also be taken from Hollywood Studios to Epcot.
A new gondola system takes guests from certain on-property hotels directly to the theme park entrance, allowing these guests to literally soar over the ground transportation options.
For the transportation category, Disney World is the clear winner. Transportation around the resort is easy, plentiful, and comes in many varieties.
Which Park Requires the Least Planning?
When planning a vacation to the Orlando park, travelers should be aware there is a definite time frame required for pre-booking some attractions and restaurants. Sit-down (table service) restaurants require advance reservations, which can be made up to 180 days in advance of the vacation. Some extremely popular restaurants and shows, including character meals, are booked and may not have available reservations if a visitor waits too long to make a reservation.
Likewise, the Fast Pass Plus system at Disney World requires advance planning. Three fast passes may be selected for each day, and may be booked 30 days in advance for those staying off-site and 60 days in advance for those staying on-site or at a “good neighbor hotel.”
Disneyland does require advance reservations for popular table service restaurants, but the reservations do not need to be made 180 days in advance. In addition, there are many more high-quality quick service locations at Disneyland than at the Magic Kingdom.
The Disneyland Fast Pass system (both the paper system and the digital MaxPass) does not allow guests to pre-book fast passes. This puts all guests on equal footing the day of entrance to the park. There is absolutely no advance planning required for rides at Disneyland.
The park that wins the “easiest to plan” award is Disneyland in California.
Disneyland vs. Disney World Cost
The park hopper option for a single day ticket is surprisingly more expensive at the Disneyland California resort than at the Florida parks. Note that prices for both parks fluctuate by the time of year and will be more expensive during peak season than during the low season.
Annual passes to the California and Orlando parks have many different options, making it hard to make direct comparisons. While most would assume an annual pass to Disney World would cost more, the annual pass to both California parks is just as expensive.
Most people visiting Disneyland will need a rental car to get around the Southern California area, though often visitors to California see sites outside of the Disney parks during their vacation and a rental car would be needed, anyway.
The primary driver for cost is often the length of visit, and Disney World requires a longer stay to see all of the attractions and individual theme parks on the property. Most people spend 2-3 days at Disneyland, but it is not uncommon to see people spending 7-10 days at Disney World. With a stay that is twice as long, the cost of lodging and food causes Disney World to be the more expensive park for most guests.
Disneyland vs. Disney World Rides
Many of the same rides exist in Florida and California. The location of the rides might vary, as there are more rides per park in California. Some of the rides found in Hollywood Studios in Orlando, for example, are found in both Disneyland (Star Tours/Galaxy's Edge) and in California Adventure (Toy Story Midway Mania). There are many unique rides found on both coasts, however, and it is a reason to visit both resorts to experience them all.
|Rides Unique to Disneyland||Rides Unique to Disney World|
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Seven Dwarf Mine Train
Roger Rabbit Toontown Spin
Rock N Roller Coaster
Alice in Wonderland
Pinocchio's Daring Adventures
Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Safari in Animal Kingdom
Snow White’s Scary Adventures
Flight of Passage
Navi River Journey
Grizzly Run River Rapids
Casey Jr. Circus Train
Storybookland Canal Boats
Slinky Dog Dash
Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
Alien Swirling Saucers
Living with the Land
Radiator Springs Racers
Journey into Imagination
The Seas with Nemo and Friends
Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters
Frozen Ever After
Silly Symphony Swings
Guardians of the Galaxy Coaster*
Mary Poppins Ride*
While the Disneyland resort does appear to have a large number of unique rides, keep in mind that several of these rides are simple fair rides that may be found at almost any run-of-the-mill amusement park. Pixar Pal-a-Round is a Ferris Wheel, the Silly Symphony Swings are a traditional spinning swing ride, and Jumpin’ Jellyfish is a parachute-drop style ride. Disney World has the lead on the total number of highly themed, well designed unique rides.
There are many rides that are found in both parks, but differ slightly in the ride experience.
Best Jungle Cruise: Disney World
Lower wait times than at Disney World, largely due to the lack of a fast pass option for this ride. The ride length is 8 minutes. The Disneyland version lacks a short indoor cave portion that exists in the Florida version.
This ride often has long waits after the morning hours. Fast Pass + is available for the ride. The ride length is 10 minutes. There is an additional show scene through a cave in this version of the ride.
Best Thunder Mountain: Disneyland
Special effects have been upgraded and the track has been made smoother for the Disneyland version of the ride. Ride length: 3.5 minutes.
Older special effects and a rougher ride cause this version to be edged out by its California cousin. Ride length: 3 minutes.
Thunder Mountain in Disneyland Ride-Through
Thunder Mountain at Disney World Ride-Through
Best Space Mountain: Disneyland
A much faster and smoother ride, with music and better special effects. Riders sit in pairs rather than single file. Ride length: 5 minutes.
Riders sit single file in small rocket sleds. The ride is rougher and lacks the soundtrack that accompanies the California version. Ride length: 3 minutes.
Best Small World: Disneyland
An impressive building with an animatronic clock and outdoor segment make the California version the clear winner. The indoor portion of the ride contains scenes that do not exist at the Florida park. Ride length: 14 minutes.
A small show building in Fantasyland with a shorter ride length and fewer scenes cause the Florida version to rank behind its California counterpart. Ride length: 10 minutes.
Best Pirates of the Caribbean: Disneyland
A beautiful float through a bayou and two surprising drops in the dark give the California version the edge. This ride is nearly twice as long as the Florida version. Ride length: 15 minutes.
A shorter overall ride that lacks the water flumes and the bayou section of the California park. Ride length: 7.5 minutes.
Best Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin: Disneyland
The laser guns are detachable, giving a greater range of movement and the ability to get a higher score. Ride length: 4.5 minutes.
The laser guns are attached to the ride vehicle, reducing the range of motion and score potential. Ride length: 4.5 minutes.
Best Haunted Mansion: Disney World
The Disneyland version has a theme of an old southern Mansion. Riders enter through the front door and enter the stretching room, which is actually an elevator that takes them below ground for the ride. The ride scenes are similar to Disney World’s. Ride length: 9 minutes.
The Disney World version has a theme of the Gothic Revival style. Riders enter through the side and enter the basement of the house. The stretching room is not an elevator in this version, and the ceiling actually rises to create the effect. While the ride scenes are similar to Disneyland’s, the addition of interactive exhibits to the queue give the Florida park the edge. Ride length: 10 minutes.
Best Winnie the Pooh: Disney World
The California version has more limited motion than the Floridian ride. The queue is not nearly as themed as the one in Orlando. The ride scenes are similar to Disney World’s. Since the ride is located at the back of the park near Splash Mountain and there is no fast pass available, the standby queue wait time is generally very short. Ride length: 4 minutes.
The highly interactive queue and slightly better ride platform give the Florida ride version the edge over Disneyland. Use a Fast Pass to ride. Ride length: 4 minutes.
The Most Immersive Environment
Disneyland is located on a small 500 acres in the middle of Anaheim. The park is surrounded by “good neighbor” hotels that are not owned by Disney, but have a working relationship with the company. The small size means that the park is not buffered from the outside world as well as the park in Florida.
Disney World enjoys such a massive amount of property that the ability to insulate the parks from the hustle and bustle of everyday life is quite easy to do. The Magic Kingdom actually exists on an island, and the parking lot is not visible from anywhere near the theme park. The gift of size also means that ramshackle souvenir shops, car dealerships, and other businesses cannot intrude on the Disney bubble. Disney World has the most immersive environment.
Within the individual theme parks, the battle is harder to decide. Disney World and Disneyland will both have the highly immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land. Disney World has the extremely well themed Pandora (from the movie Avatar) at its Animal Kingdom park, with the unbelievable Flight of Passage ride. Disneyland has an exquisitely detailed Cars Land at California Adventure, with arguably one of the best Disney rides in existence: Radiator Springs Racers. For immersive theme within lands at each park, this one is a toss-up.
Which Park Can Be Toured in the Shortest Period of Time?
Disney World is massive and getting from one park to the next can take up to an hour of time, depending on the wait for the next bus or monorail. It is not feasible to do all four parks in a single day, or even in a few days. A minimum of a full week is really needed to explore the parks in Florida to the fullest, especially if the highly themed water parks are included.
Disneyland can be done in two to three days, and both theme parks are within walking distance from each other. For convenience and time efficiency, Disneyland in California is the clear winner.
Fast Pass Plus vs. MaxPass
The Fast Pass systems operate very differently at the California and Florida parks. Fast Pass Plus allows riders to pre-book three rides per day in advance (30 days for those staying off-site and 60 days for those staying onsite). The California paper Fast Pass system and the digital MaxPass does not allow any rides to be booked before the day of the actual visit. While this is an advantage for those staying at Disney World, it is a disadvantage for those who don’t know how early the popular rides must be reserved. New and popular rides are often completely out of fast passes by the time a person’s first day of a 60 day window opens, which can make this system frustrating to guests who are visiting for only one or two days.
The California system, however, comes with a fee for those who wish to use the system on their mobile phones. The California parks do not have the Magic Band system used at Disney World, and visitors may use the paper fast pass kiosks for free. For an added charge, guests may access the Fast Pass system on their phones through a system called MaxPass. New Fast Passes may be added at a faster rate using the MaxPass system when compared to the paper Fast Pass system, and users can simply book the next pass while waiting in line rather than having to physically run over to a paper Fast Pass dispensing kiosk. The added fee also gives guests access to all of their in-park photos, making the cost justifiable. For cost, the Disney World system is entirely free (though comes without photos), which gives Disney World a slight edge in cost over Disneyland.
More rides at Disney World have access to the Fast Pass system. This includes rides like the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean, which do not have Fast Pass at the California park. While it might seem like an advantage to have Fast Pass available for every attraction, the ride line waiting times are significantly higher at the Orlando parks when compared to the California park. Jungle Cruise often sees waits of over an hour in length at Disney World, while the attraction rarely exceeds 20 minutes in waiting time at the California park. Peter Pan often has wait times of 2 hours at the Orlando park standby line, and the wait times are around 45 minutes at the California park.
For the ability of every paying guest to experience Fast Pass on an equal footing and selective use of the fast pass system for specific high-volume rides, Disneyland is the winner.
Cinderella vs. Sleeping Beauty Castle
Disneyland is the first Disney park, and the castle uses forced perspective to make it look larger than it really is. The California castle is themed after Sleeping Beauty and is 77 feet tall. There is a small walk-through story-board you can experience by walking through the castle, but there is no restaurant or room to sleep in at the California version.
Disney World’s castle is themed after Cinderella’s royal home. Standing at 189 feet tall, the castle is significantly larger than the one in Anaheim. The castle features a table service restaurant where families can dine with the fairy tale princesses from Disney movies and also features a room where the ultra-wealthy (and contest winners) may spend the night.
Disney World wins the “best castle” category.
The Anaheim park does not include any water parks, so the automatic winner of this category is Disney World. The Florida park has two themed water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Both parks are well themed and heated.
Disney has made an attempt to make the wait for a ride almost as entertaining as the ride itself. At the California park, the queues to Space Mountain, Star Tours, and Indiana Jones are interactive and interesting. Unfortunately, many of the original rides in Fantasyland that have long queues do not have interactive elements and the guests simply march through switchbacks while waiting to board.
Orlando has taken the interactive queues up a notch and have interactive or immersive elements for many different rides. Honey flows down a wall near the Winnie the Pooh ride, allowing children to “write” in the honey. Guests walk through Wendy’s house and get sprinkled with fairy dust before riding Peter Pan in Orlando. The Haunted Mansion offers a playable pipe organ and the Seven Dwarf Mine Train has an interactive gem projection show in the queue. The overall winner of the themed line award goes to Disney World.
Stage Shows and Animatronic Shows
Both Disney parks have a variety of live-action and animatronic shows. While both resorts share some show attractions, like the Tiki Room and Fantasmic, there are a variety of shows unique to each park. Disney World has twice the number of main parks, which means it has a far greater number of shows available to enjoy.
Shows Unique to Disneyland and California Adventure:
- Mr. Lincoln Presents
- The Golden Horseshoe Stage Show
- Frozen: Live at the Hyperion
- Mickey and the Magical Map
- World of Color
- Storytelling at the Royal Theater
Shows unique to the Walt Disney World Resort Include:
- Hall of Presidents
- Muppets Present Great Moments in American History
- Mickey's Philharmagic
- Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor
- Festival of the Lion King
- Finding Nemo – The Musical
- Enchanted Tales with Belle
- It’s Tough to Be a Bug
- Indiana Jones Stunt Show
- Rivers of Light
- Up! A Great Bird Adventure
- Illuminations: Reflections of the Earth
- The American Adventure
- Impressions de France
- O Canada
- Reflections of China
- Beauty and the Beast, Live on Stage
- Frozen Sing-Along Celebration
- Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away
This is not a comprehensive list of shows, as there are many character dance celebrations, parades, and new shows are frequently added to the schedule.
East Coast Disney or West Coast Disney
© 2018 Leah Lefler
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 07, 2018:
We have a lot of one-day parks in various areas. The Six Flags theme parks are generally one-day parks, though I don't prefer them since the rides are not usually themed well and the draw for those parks are really big roller coasters. I love the fact that Disney rides are all well themed and the entire family can enjoy most of them. The Flight of Passage ride in Orlando is the best ride I have ever been on (you actually feel like you are flying on the back of a dragon).
Liz Westwood from UK on December 06, 2018:
You are fortunate to have the chance of visiting both locations. In the UK theme parks are smaller scale. One day and they are done although some of them have a hotel just by them if people are travelling from a distance or want to stay longer.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 06, 2018:
We go to Orlando from the East Coast of the USA (as you would expect) since it is relatively close by. The "Disney bubble" is done well in Orlando, where little of the outside world interferes with your vacation. Disneyland in California is similar to Paris in scale, though I have a fondness for it since it is where I grew up. We visit often (when visiting family) and I used to have an annual pass to the California park.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 06, 2018:
Disneyland Paris is reasonably popular. We took our 4 kids there many years ago. Although I still think most Brits aspire to go to Orlando. The Paris park was fairly small scale. We easily did it in two days. So it's possible to make a short break of it. Easter worked well for us, but I would say October to March would be a weather risk. After Brexit I'm not sure how welcome we will be over there. Orlando is a different option. More time and money is required to make the trip over to the USA.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 05, 2018:
There are so many different Disney parks now, and a lot of people aren't sure which park is which in the USA. Disneyland is the first park, and is considerably smaller in square footage, so to speak. It has nearly as many rides packed into the space, so it is still a really fun park, but different in atmosphere. Is the Disneyland Paris park popular among those living in the UK, Liz? I would think that park would be the most convenient (though probably not the park with the warmest weather)!
Liz Westwood from UK on December 05, 2018:
I used to get confused between the two. But now most people travelling from the UK head to Orlando.