You know you want to take your kids on a Disney vacation - maybe they’ve been begging and pleading for years, or maybe you loved it as a kid and want to share the magic with them. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Anaheim, California are the two most popular choices for Disney vacations. What’s the difference? How do you choose? We have the lowdown on all the facts you need to know to pick the best Disney vacation experience for your family’s needs!
Disneyland Park is the place that started it all - Walt Disney’s original vision for a Disney-themed amusement park. All of the rides and attractions that you’re familiar with are here, including Sleeping Beauty’s castle, it’s a small world, Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Space Mountain and much more. Kilometre for kilometre, Disneyland Park is way more densely packed with rides than any other Disney park, so if rides are the main attraction for your family, you can get to more of them here faster than at Walt Disney World.
The theming is really remarkable at Disneyland Park - the area that you first enter when you come in the gates, Main Street USA, has been designed to smell faintly of vanilla and the angles chosen to make the buildings all look larger than they really are. Absolutely everything in the park is carefully chosen and designed to make you feel like you’re really in a magical kingdom. Its manageable size means that many rides are changed to reflect the seasons; the Haunted Mansion, for example, becomes a Nightmare Before Christmas ride between October and January. There are multiple parades every day and two free shows every night, which change depending on the season.
Just a short walk across the plaza is California Adventure, which is a park we don’t really hear about very much. It had some challenges when it first opened, but after its total redesign a few years ago, it’s become really exceptional. California Adventure features many of the rides present at Walt Disney World, including the Tower of Terror. There’s also an excellent roller coaster, a really immersive virtual-reality glider ride and many Pixar-themed attractions. Unlike Disneyland Park, alcohol is allowed at California Adventure, so there are several excellent restaurants for more ‘grown-up’ tastes.
When people think of Walt Disney World, they often picture it as being the same as Disneyland in California. It’s not! Walt Disney World is truly a vacation resort. You can have an entire weeklong vacation inside Disney World and never step outside Disney property. There are dozens of hotels, four full theme parks, nightly shows and fireworks, two water parks, incredible golf courses, a full-sized sports centre and speedway (you can drive a NASCAR!) and even a large ‘downtown’ area with shopping and dining.
Walt Disney World is massive - about 125 square kilometres. Disneyland Resort, even with California Adventure and all the hotels included, is a fraction of that size with a total area of around 30 kilometres. In fact, Disneyland Park is duplicated almost completely in just one of the parks at Walt Disney World - the Magic Kingdom. However, we found the Magic Kingdom much more crowded than Disneyland Park, as it’s the most popular of the attractions at Walt Disney World. Your mileage may vary!
Disneyland Park is big, but easily doable over the course of a couple of days - maybe three or four, if you want to fully explore California Adventure as well. It can be tempting to go from sunup to sundown to try to fit everything in, but we found the best strategy was to come as soon as the park opens (you can get in an hour earlier if you’re staying at a hotel on-site,) take a break in the mid-afternoon to enjoy the hotel, eat and nap, and then return in the later evening as the crowds begin to thin out a bit. There is a small monorail system that leads from Downtown Disney (a shopping district outside the hotels) into the park, which saves a bit of walking if you have a multi-day pass.
Because Walt Disney World is impossible to traverse on foot due to its size and layout, free bus, boat and monorail transportation is available to get you from your hotel to the various parks. Only the three most expensive hotels are connected to the monorail system, and the boats don’t go everywhere, so generally speaking, you’ll be taking the bus back and forth from your hotel. The bus trips range in length from about five to 20 minutes, depending on how far your hotel is from the park you visited that day. You’ll want to bring your walking shoes, since you’ll probably be walking between five and 10 kilometres a day. There are mobility scooters widely available for those who need them.
Another big difference between the two resorts is location. Walt Disney World is located near Orlando, but is very self-contained. If you want to visit any of Orlando’s other world-class attractions, you’ll probably find it easiest to check out of your hotel at Walt Disney World and stay somewhere closer. Disneyland Resort is located in Anaheim, which is more or less a suburb of Los Angeles - you can easily rent a car and enjoy a day shopping or exploring.
Disneyland Resort makes a great short holiday or stop while you’re on vacation in California - Walt Disney World is your vacation destination.
There are many princesses in Disneyland Park, but the lines to see them can be extreme. It’s expensive, but we recommend one of the character breakfasts in the park as your best bet to get a picture with a princess without having to wait in line in the park. The characters circulate around the tables, give out autographs and have conversations with your children while you eat breakfast. Goofy’s Kitchen is our recommendation, located in the Disneyland Hotel. You do not have to stay at the hotel to get a reservation, but you will definitely need to book ahead! If possible, reserve your breakfast as soon as you finalize the details of your trip.
Walt Disney World has a higher number of Disney characters that are out wandering around at any one time, but the larger scale of the park means that they can be hard to find at times. Like at Disneyland, there are specific areas where princesses are always available, but the lines can be hours long in high humidity and heat. Walt Disney World, specifically the Magic Kingdom, has many more restaurants that feature characters than Disneyland does - you won’t have to work too hard to find at least one meal you can share with some of your child’s favorites. Book well ahead anyway.
Anna and Elsa are in incredibly high demand, and as far as I am aware, they don’t appear anywhere except in shows and the Princess Fairytale Hall (at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom) and Anna and Elsa’s Royal Welcome (at Disneyland Resort’s California Adventure). Honestly, unless you’re committed to waiting three hours to meet them, it may be best not to mention that this is an option at all.
Walt Disney World offers a ‘dining plan’for those staying in a hotel on-site. There are different tiers available but, basically, your dining plan provides a set number of entrees, snacks and drinks per day at varying levels of service. Occasionally, dining plans are offered free with your hotel booking. This is not available at Disneyland Resort, which also has far fewer restaurants on offer. The natural advantage of Disneyland is that you can easily leave the resort and eat somewhere in town, or even bring groceries back to your room to prepare sandwiches for the next day.
Regardless of where you choose to go, the food is fairly unremarkable and is tailored to the pickiest and least adventurous of eaters. Anticipate eating lots of pizza, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs. If you’d like more interesting dining options, Epcot’s World Showcase at Walt Disney World has many restaurants offering food from from around the world.
Prices for fun, kid-friendly themed hotels (including free transportation to the parks and to/from the airport) at Walt Disney World start at $85 USD per night. Depending on when you book, your room may include cheaper park tickets or a free meal plan. It’s more or less mandatory to stay at Walt Disney World, as parking and transportation can be tricky and time-consuming if you’re driving in every day. The meal plans can save money if you have big eaters in your family, but if you have kids who just like to pick off of your plate, plan to buy one or two meal plans instead of one meal plan per person.
Disneyland Resort has only three hotels on-site (which start at around $270 USD per night), although there are many hotels outside the resort of varying quality. If you’re hoping to do something in Los Angeles or Orlando, it’s better to stay off-site, as most of the hotels in the surrounding area have shuttles, which will take you directly to the park anyway. If you want to splurge on a really special vacation, the hotels on-site are absolutely beautiful and allow you to get into the park an hour earlier every day.
No matter where you go, we recommend booking through a travel agent. They often have access to special deals, know when the quietest times of the year are and can tell you the best time to book.
The final word
Disneyland Resort is a great option for pretty much everybody. Whether you want to spend a single day checking out a few iconic rides or if you want to spend a full week enjoying the whole resort and venturing out into Los Angeles, it’s a great choice for families of mixed ages. If you have a thrill-seeker on your hands, though, they may be disappointed in the intensity of the rides. Most of them (except for a few exceptions in California Adventure) are low-impact and low-speed rides, which are more about immersion and atmosphere than thrill. Visit between mid-October and mid-January for seasonal touches that make for a really special vacation.
Walt Disney World is great for families with children over eight years old who are patient with long lines, hot temperatures, lots of walking and large crowds. Allow at least five days for your vacation, and don’t expect to see everything! Walt Disney World has something to offer absolutely any taste or age, but does require a little bit more careful planning to make sure you don’t miss anything. For maximum enjoyment, we highly recommend picking a time in the ‘low’season to visit - the temperatures and crowds are much more manageable, and you can get some amazing deals.
Tips and Tricks for Making the Most of your Disney Vacation
Use your FastPass - Disneyland offers FastPass service, which lets you jump ahead in line for a ride if you return at a later time. Use this feature to spend less time in line, and more time enjoying the rides! Disney World offers FastPass+ through your MagicBand. Every day, you can book three rides you’d like to jump ahead in line for. All you have to do is book a time to ride and arrive during your allotted time. You can book these well in advance, so plan accordingly!
Money matters - Discuss your budget with your kids ahead of time. Suggest that they can pick one special item from any gift shop they like, but not until the end of the vacation. Come prepared with a princess dress (borrow one if you can!) or other special costume for daywear and a light-up wand, bubble blower or glowsticks for the evenings. Avoid impulse purchases and give your kids something special to look forward to!
Enjoy a siesta - We strongly recommend arriving very early to enjoy whatever park you’re in that day, leaving for a few hours in the mid-afternoon to relax and have a nap, and returning in the later afternoon as crowds begin to die down. The temperature in California and Florida is often much, much higher than we are used to here, and can be exhausting and even dangerous. Stay out of the sun as much as possible, and don’t skimp on the sunscreen!
Call it a day - Once you and your kids are tired, don’t be afraid to retreat back to the hotel. Embrace the fact that you won’t get to see everything in one trip! The aim of the game is to create good memories, not to go on every single ride. Pace yourself.
Explore - Avoid the temptation to rush to wait in line for the most popular rides! Disneyland and Walt Disney World are both full of quieter rides that are hidden gems. Use your FastPass for the crowded rides, and spend the rest of your day enjoying everything else.
Memories - A Disney vacation is an investment. Make sure that your kids are old enough to remember the trip! We recommend ages six and up for Disneyland Resort, and ages eight and up for Walt Disney World. Take lots of photographs and video while you’re there!
Allie is a teacher, an Educational Docent at Heritage Park Historical Village, and the Web and Social Media Manager at Calgary’s Child Magazine.
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