5 Major Differences Between Disneyland and Walt Disney World
The most common question I got asked by family and friends when we were planning our first trip to Disneyland: "But.... why? Don't you guys go to Disney... like... all the time?" In case you haven't been keeping up, we drank the Disney kool-aid a long time ago, and if we ever hit a major lottery jackpot one of the first things we're going to do is have an around-the-world trip to see ALL the Disney parks. None of the parks are the same. Sure, on the surface it's similar: castles, princesses, Mickey Mouse, rides. We got so many conflicting opinions: You're going to love Disneyland more than WDW! You're going to hate Disneyland, it's so small! More than anything, we were eager to see for ourselves what a DIFFERENT Disney felt like (and probably the only park at which we'll be able to afford attempting that comparison).
We went hard for three days at Disneyland. We did almost everything (other than nighttime entertainment). Beyond the obvious differences (DL has Matterhorn, WDW doesn't, WDW has 4 parks, DL has 2, etc.), there's an overall different VIBE between the parks. I've been stewing on it for a while, and I wanted to cover what I feel like are the 5 major things that separate the coasts' parks from one another when it comes to a visitor experience.
1- The Crowds
We are Annual Passholder-spoiled; we hate crowds and we know how to avoid them. Yet with a child now enrolled in the public school system, our options as far as "when to visit" DL were limited. I tried researching crowd calendars and "times of year" to visit DL, but I kept getting unclear information. Beyond the same obvious directive of avoiding holidays, I just kept reading that the annual passholder community in California made up for a much larger percentage of attendees, so look at their schedules. We had a 4-day school holiday weekend in October, so we jumped on it. October is, after all, a GREAT time to visit WDW (weather has a chance to be mild, crowds are very low). No holidays, no special RunDisney events or conventions in town. Plus, we'd get a chance to see some of the Halloween offerings in the park. Felt REALLY good about that decision.
Our first day at DL, Saturday in mid October, was the only "extra magic hour" option we had with our park hopper, and we took it (getting into the park an hour early). And thank goodness. It was basically the only hour the park was in operation that didn't feel like pure insanity. We managed to knock out 90% of Fantasyland (the non FastPass offerings) in that hour, and thought we'd be able to get Pirates later in the day (I mean, Pirates at WDW always has lulls throughout the day when you can catch an under 30 minute wait). As the day progressed, the park just became filled with a sea of people. The line for Pirates easily reached 3 hours and was wrapped haphazardly all around New Orleans Square.
Crowded afternoons at WDW? No problem. We always have our little things we can escape to: Tiki Room, Country Bears, People Mover, etc. Here's a tip for you if you're planning to have a leisurely escape to the Tiki Room at DL: You won't. The tiki room was packed. Every showing. All day every day. Even Monday (we had to get into the line and wait like everybody else). Maybe if I was a passholder at DL, I'd have figured out the best "escape the crowd" spots, but it didn't happen in our 3 days.
In the end I don't think it's so much the number of people in the park as it is the way that DL vs WDW is laid out to HANDLE numbers. So many people kept warning us that DL was small, and it is, but in this much smaller amount of space, they have jammed in almost as many offerings as the Magic Kingdom. The difference is THERE IS NOWHERE FOR PEOPLE TO GO. The line queue for Pirates is a great example and it's indicative of basically every queue at DL: most aren't built to handle a capacity beyond maybe 30 minutes. 60 on some of the newer offerings. This random Saturday in October FELT like a day at Magic Kingdom between Christmas and New Year's (AKA Hell Week).
Yes, Monday was more manageable than Saturday, but it was still not what I would say could come close to comparing to a "light" crowd day at WDW. DCA is a bit more spread out, so it didn't necessarily FEEL as crowded (unless you tried to get food or a drink, then you saw the crowds).
So the bottom line, this factor perhaps more than any other made me really appreciate what we have at WDW. I've been at Magic Kingdom during phased capacity closings, but there's always something you can escape to, a quiet space you can find, something you can do with a limited wait. I cannot fathom what a capacity closure would look like at DL.
2- THE FOOD
I'd say this was the number 1 thing I was told about that proved to be totally true: the food in the parks at Disneyland is just completely superior to WDW. I'm not talking the 4 star resort restaurants, I'm talking the in-park offerings. Everything from the corn dog at the food cart to the sit-down restaurants: it's all so. much. BETTER. There's also such a larger VARIETY of options. For example, we wanted to grab breakfast so we went to counter service in Tomorrowland one day, and there were just so many different THINGS you could order. You could get Tamales and street tacos in DCA, Gumbo in a Bread Bowl at a walk-up counter in New Orleans Square. We only treated ourselves to one table service meal on our trip: Café Orleans in New Orleans Square. Not character dining or even premium dining, the financial equivalent of the Plaza restaurant at WDW. The shrimp and grits I got were on par with the best I've had ANYWHERE. The garlic fries with remoulade for dipping? Sweet mercy. That meal was SO good. But so was EVERYTHING we ate at both parks. I suspect that WDW sort of dumbs down their offerings since they have to cater more to tourists and the pickiest eaters on the planet: kids. Still, my kid LOVED all her food, too.
3- The Cast Members
I can certainly acknowledge that in only 3 days of attending DL, I surely did not encounter EVERY CM that works in the parks. However, as an observation of the majority, I can definitely come to the following conclusion: DL is WAYYYYYY more laid back than WDW. It's not a complaint, it's not a criticism, it's not praise, it's just so.... glaringly noticeable for someone who's used to the staff culture at WDW. Allow me to elaborate...
WDW CM's tend to take park rules and safety VERY seriously. Climb on a garbage can? You'll have somebody at WDW (gently, and with a huge smile) waving you off in seconds. Stand on a wall? Nope. Put your feet off the curb when a parade is coming through? Nyet. Poke out under the rope for a parade. Nah. Kids climbing on a statue? HECK TO THE NAW. There's ALWAYS a CM there, and they will stop you. At DL? Not so much. Ropes were suggestions. Walls were built for additional seating. Queue dividers were built for swinging and climbing. But the absolute BIGGEST "WTF" moment for us at the parks came in Toon Town. There was a photopass CM in Toon Town at this cute truck you could sit in to take a picture. Here's ours.
See that big gold thing on the back of the truck? There was a big group of adults getting a picture at the truck. Two of the adults proceeded to CLIMB ON TOP OF THE GOLD THING. For the picture. Ian and I were staring, just waiting for the Photopass to say ANYTHING to them. Know what happened? The photopass asked them to scrunch down a little so they'd still be in the picture. I think my jaw hit the pavement.
Lots of other little things were noticeable: there was a PAC CM in Fantasyland wrangling parade guests who had a full bushy mustache (uhhh that ain't Disney look). The CM at the Guardians ride loading us in was loudly complaining TO US about how rundown and tired she was at her job. None of these things bother me, if anything I found it all sort of amusing. BUT what I found to be the difference as a visitor... When you go to WDW you feel like you've escaped to a whole other planet. The real world is gone, and you're living in a place of magic and fantasy, and the CM's are the pillars that hold up that experience. It's what sets apart WDW from Universal and every other theme park I've ever attended. The more casual attitude of the CM's at DL definitely made the parks feel less... escapist. Less... immersive maybe. Again, this isn't a criticism, just a noticeable difference in cast culture.
See we got to benefit positively from this more laid back culture: on Monday we ran into a CM that was more than happy to give us hints on when would be a good time to come visit pixie hollow to catch a fairy friend. This is something that just would NOT happen at WDW. Like I said, not a complaint, it's just different.
4- Character Interaction Culture
That casual CM environment at DL carries over to the character culture as well. At WDW, visiting a princess or Mickey Mouse are planned events during a FastPass window, there's a character attendant and a photopass, there's another attendant herding and managing the line. Schedules are printed and adhered to, otherwise WDW would feel the wrath of the guests. If a character is at WDW, there is a line. You won't ever see Princess Aurora hanging out at a wall, chilling, just waiting for somebody to come talk to her (the one POTENTIAL exception could be pop up sets at Epcot, but even those have gotten pretty popular).
Meanwhile at DL we walked right by Pocahontas just chilling at Rivers of America. No attendant. No line. No visitors. She was just standing there. Painting with the colors of the wind in her mind, I guess? Same with Jack Sparrow. Every now and then you'll see the Mad Hatter and Alice strolling through Fantasyland with a small group of people gathered around them (also with no attendants).
Right around the corner, I watched Peter Pan and Captain Hook playing tag in and out of the line queue for the Storybook boat ride. It was such a trip. And the characters themselves feel... liberated maybe? Empowered? We hung out with Dr Facilier for a few minutes, and we got to watch him throw shady comments at passing guests, give our friend Mellie a dancing lesson... nobody stood around looking impatient. Everything was... chill.
5- DL caters to AP's, WDW caters to Visiting Guests
Aguably, this is the factor that trickles down and affects everything else. All four above differences could be attributed to this at least in part. More than half of DL's visitors are annual passholders of some kind, whereas AP's at WDW are a much smaller percentage. WDW is a destination: families from around the world plan months and months in advance to have a vacation at WDW, and it's set up to be a destination where all these things can be planned and accessible to you right there. Hotels, transportation, restaurants, entertainment, it's all RIGHT there on property, a short bus ride away.
This is particularly evident when you compare the FastPass systems at the two parks: WDW's FastPass system offers MAJOR booking benefits to hotel guests, with larger booking windows. If you're an AP and trying to get a FastPass for the 7 Dwarfs Mine Train? Good luck. But the same-day old-school "paper" FastPass system at DL puts every person who visits on equal footing. Even the new MaxPass they offer doesn't give you a benefit until you actually step foot in the park. We found this pretty awesome, since we had no problem in the morning being able to get FastPass for all the biggest-ticket items at DL or DCA. Can you imagine a family of 8 showing up for their WDW vacation they'd been planning for months and being unable to ever get a Fastpass for the Mine Train? Or being able to figure out the "paper" Fastpass system on site (I researched and asked tons of questions, but still wasn't 100% clear about it until I'd used it for a day)?
Other items like ride overlays and special AP offerings can go over fine at DL, but WDW has to cater to tourists who might have this be their only visit ever to WDW, so WHAT DO YOU MEAN, SPACE MOUNTAIN ISN'T SPACE MOUNTAIN RIGHT NOW? I get it. I don't like it, but I get it. Also DL can cater it's entertainment offerings around certain days of the week (shows like Fantasmic and Mickey & the Magical Map are only offered certain days). Can you imagine if a family has booked a trip to WDW only to find out there was NO Fantasmic during their trip? ESCANDALO!
BUT EMILY, WHICH IS BETTER?
Ok that's totally subjective. I can't begin to tell you what you'd prefer. With that said one of the first responses I had to fellow WDW Ohana was, "It makes me appreciate even more what we have at WDW." DL has better food. DL's Fastpass system lets casual visitors have better access to all the rides. Wandering characters are fantastic. But... I wouldn't trade it for an empty Saturday in January at WDW. I wouldn't trade it for Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot. I wouldn't trade for the options and flexibility I have. I can't imagine trying to be an AP mom in California to a kid who's in school, only being able to go to those crowded parks on the weekends, smashed in with so many people. I. Wouldn't. Trade.
I'll visit Disneyland, though, you betcha.