Home » “Done With Disney World”? Give Disneyland a Chance! Here’s Why It’s Worth a Try…

“Done With Disney World”? Give Disneyland a Chance! Here’s Why It’s Worth a Try…

Like most Disney Parks fans born East of the Mississippi, I grew up at Walt Disney World. Of course my family would choose the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” with its four theme parks, two water parks, and two dozen resort hotels over a flight across the continent to little Disneyland, sitting all by itself in the middle of urban sprawl. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I first stepped into Disneyland – complete with “DCA 1.0” – to see what the big deal was. What I found there shocked me and changed my perspective forever… and if you’re one of a quarter of Theme Park Tourist readers who say that vanishing perks and increasing upcharges mean you’ll never go back to Walt Disney World, and this time you mean it, then maybe I’ve got a chance to sway you, too…

If you – like me – have spent a lifetime in the San Francisco-sized wonderland that is Walt Disney World, you may have some very good reasons to believe that Disneyland isn’t worth the flight! But if you’re as fed up with Walt Disney World’s burst bubble as we are, at least consider what “The Happiest Place on Earth” might do for you. Trust me – I’ll be careful to avoid eye-rolling emotional cliches like “Walt walked here!” and “It’s cozy!” in my attempt to get you to at least consider switching your next vacation to that mysterious, distant West Coast cousin… 

1. Yes, it’s small… but that’s great!

The prologue to any Disneyland history is a reminder that – just like Walt Disney World! – when Walt and company arrived, little Anaheim was nothing but orange and strawberry groves on either side of construction crews building then-brand-new I-5 interstate. Walt literally purchased two city blocks of farmland hemmed in by Katella Ave., Walnut Street., Ball Rd., and Harbor Blvd. – a rectacular lot except for a corner sliced through by highway. About half became the park, and half became a parking lot. Period.

You know the story: real estate around Disneyland was quickly gobbled up by private developers, transforming the area into a jungle of utility poles, honking traffic, gaudy motels, restaurants, neon signs, and other urban sprawl. Walt hated it and decided in his next project, he’d need lots of land to work with, hence “The Florida Project.” But the story doesn’t end there.

Of course, Disneyland is still small! Including its two theme parks, Downtown Disney, parking lots, and three on-site hotels, the entire Disneyland Resort comes in at just over 400 acres, meaning the full complex could fit inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But today’s Disneyland Resort and Anaheim as a whole is much more mature. Over the last six decades, the company has acquired more land and filled in lots of space, while the city has rezoned surrounding neighborhoods as a “Resort District” of manicured gardens, matching signs, palm-lined paths, and twinkle lights…

And that is part of the beauty of it. If you’ve been to Universal Orlando, you get the gist: Disneyland Resort is perfectly, beautifully self-contained and entirely walkable. Unlike the sprawling Disney World connected by ad-hoc highways, bus transfers, seemingly-randomly-placed parks, and 100-acre blacktop parking lots that developed with competing visions over consecutive decades, everything at Disneyland is master-planned from its all-at-once expansion to a resort in 2001. Ironically, Disneyland ended up being closer to a 21st century urban design aesthetic than Disney World did, given that it’s a pedestrian-friendly paradise with walkable hotels, parks, shops, restaurants, and more all self-contained in a secure little zone… But don’t misunderstand Disneyland’s size as a lack of quality or of quantity… After all… 

2. It’s got more rides… No, seriously…

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we try really, really hard to avoid “Disneyland vs. Disney World” arguments. At the end of the day, your allegiance to one resort over another is part geography, part familiarity, and part experience. Emotional appeals about history or authenticity or artistry aren’t likely to convince most people to abandon a place they know and love and try something close to – but very different from – it. So we won’t bother with trying to capture the “personalities” of the parks or how Disneyland is “cozy” and “quaint” and “charming.” 

Instead, trust the numbers. While the staggering statistics behind Walt Disney World are as well-known as Disneyland’s diminuitive size, that doesn’t mean comparing the two resorts is as simple as “big” and “small.” By the numbers, the two parks of the Disneyland Resort contain more rides than all four of Walt Disney World’s combined. Think about that! Not only does Disneyland’s ride count blow Magic Kingdom’s out of the water, but California Adventure contains more rides than any of Walt Disney World’s “other three.”

3. It’s how you remember “the good ole days” of Disney World…

Remember the days before FastPass+? When dinner plans for summer didn’t have to be reserved in the winter? When characters freely walked the park? When you could book FastPasses throughout the day? When quick service meals were plentiful? When you could relax a little? Welcome to Disneyland! 

In the 2010s, Disney World launched a 21st century guest service initiative called MyMagic+. The billion dollar undertaking was famously meant to unite all of Walt Disney World’s San Francisco-sized property and its equally vast communication and ticketing systems, shifting vacation planning to weeks or months ahead of arrival. Arguably, it kinda failed. Disney World famously spent the 2010s as one of the hardest vacations to plan, requiring 7AM wake-ups six months, two months, and one month out. Multi-hour waits on the phone were not uncommon, as ticket, FastPass, dining, hotel, AP, and Dining Plan systems all tried to communicate in a tangled mess of pre-iPhone technology.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a hard reset of Walt Disney World’s exhausting processes and lack of spontenaity. Genie+ isn’t just a way to make money for a formerly-included service; it’s a response to guests’ frustrations with pre-planning. Likewise, the Dining Reservation window has (for now) been changed from six months out to two.

But Disneyland never bought into MyMagic+ to begin with, maintaining a very cool “SoCal” culture of laid-back touring reflecting the resort’s “lifestyling” culture. (Until Covid-19, locals were known to secure SoCal Annual Passes letting them pop into the parks after work for dinner and a show every night). With “Park Reservations” now controversially built into every Disneyland Magic Key – even the $1,400 one – spontenaity has become a lot harder for locals. But for visitors, Disneyland is still the place where you can flow between parks, grab walk-up reservations, ride the Tea Cups with Alice on board, see Mickey and Minnie waltzing down Main Street, walk 10 minutes to and from your hotel for afternoon breaks, and grab snacks and quick service to your heart’s delight. 

And thanks to that “local and vocal” audience of generations-long loyalists who frequent the park, the culture of Disneyland is one of reverence and respect for the past, which we’ll detail on the next page… 

4. Disneyland is a low-stakes, low-key, locals’ park

Entertainment writer and “Disney Dish” podcast host Jim Hill often calls Disneyland “the world’s most famous regional theme park.” That’s a perfect way to describe it, and to capture what makes it feel so different from a trip to Walt Disney World.

If you ask insiders, the whole point of California Adventure was to finally transform Disneyland into an international destination in its own right, where guests would spend multiple days (and hotel nights) on Disney property without feeling the need to see the rest of California. Arguably, that failed… and arguably, for the better. Disneyland is a locals’ park. It belongs to the people of the region, many of whom have had the park passed down through generations. Locals feel ownership of Disneyland as a Southern Californian institution, the way you might feel ownership of a local sports team… Everyone knows someone whose grandma met Walt Disney at the park. Tourists largely stop in for a day or two, then rush off to see the rest of the Golden State. It’s just that easy.

At least until the COVID-19 pandemic, the end of the Annual Pass program, and the launch of “Park Reservations,” Disneyland’s daily attendance tended to be mostly people from Southern California and the surrounding states, and SoCal AP-holders were known to flood into the parks after work just to grab a bite to eat and catch a show or two. That culture of Disneyland is so essential to what it is – a low-stakes, low-key park totally drained of the go-go-go, one-park-per-day, gotta-get-the-rides-checked-off madness that can often accompany Disney World’s hurried, tourist-based tempo.

The result is that while Disney World blogs are alight with debates about “Childless Millennials” in the parks, Disneyland is a local hangout where twenty-somethings wear spirit jerseys and Mouse ears just to grab dinner with friends. Most days, it feels like there are more Millennials and Gen X’ers than children in the parks. While “Park Reservations” have definitely limited locals’ access, Disneyland’s culture of laid back, low-stakes visits is integral to the park’s identity.

You also have Disneyland’s local-ness to thank for its extravagent holiday offerings. It’s precisely because the resort caters to multi-generational local audiences that it can offer annual holiday overlays like Haunted Mansion Holiday, World of Color – Villainous, “it’s a small world holiday,” Coco’s Plaza de Familia, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Monsters After Dark. (By comparison, Disney World caters to once-in-a-lifetime audiences who want to see the real Haunted Mansion, not a Nightmare Before Christmas version.) That exceptional focus on keeping already-frequent visitors engaged also explains California Adventure’s Oogie Boogie Bash, where meet-and-greets with Agatha (from WandaVision), Sid (from Toy Story), Oogie Boogie himself, and even Marvel’s What If…?‘s zombie Captain America have Floridians flabbergasted on social media.

5. Disneyland celebrates its history and nostalgia!

Anyone who’s been attentively watching Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration has probably noticed something interesting: there’s practically zero mention of… well… Walt Disney World… Unlike Disneyland’s nostalgic, golden “Homecoming” 50th in 2005, Disney World appears to actively avoid mentioning the resort’s past, instead focusing its celebration on animated films from the last decade. Frankly, that’s par for the course. Disney World has a way of quickly burying its history and (increasingly) bulldozing classics to make way for IP-focused rides and attractions.

Disneyland is different. Yes, it’s partly because of that whole “Walt Disney stepped here” thing. But moreover, consider that just the first domino in a chain reaction that makes Disneyland different. Like, because Walt personally oversaw the first decade of Disneyland’s life, it’s earned some amount of “historical landmark” status both within and outside of the company and industry. And because of that, many Imagineers cite Disneyland as their “home park” and are very selective and thoughtful about what breaches its berm. If a bad idea slips through, that “local and vocal” guard of guests then goes to work themselves!

Disneyland isn’t a museum… but it is a historic place where the conventions of the modern theme park were invented, and where Walt Disney himself oversaw the design of a mid-century pop culture landmark that’s as American as apple pie and baseball. 

At Disneyland, those local guests outright refused to buy merchandise staged in the Main Street Cinema… and within a week, it reverted to a t-shirt-free movie theater. Classics like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Snow White’s (Not-So-Scary) Adventures are preserved. Disneyland would never have let “New Management” overtake their Tiki Room, because Southern Californians would’ve set fire to it themselves. Disneyland is a park steeped in tradition, filled with history, and defended by both guests and Imagineers in a way that Disney World isn’t. That’s a shame, because if Disney World did embrace its history and empower its guests to do the same, we have a 50th Anniversary marked by refreshed classics, throwback marketing, nostalgic nighttime spectaculars, and an EPCOT reborn very differently.

6. Yes, it IS different enough!

One of the most common rebuttals I hear after recommending Disneyland to loyal Walt Disney World-ers is, “But is it actually different enough from Disney World?”

Again, it’s a very good question to ask! After all, Disneyland and Magic Kingdom are definitely the anchors of their respective resorts, and they’re obviously “sisters” in many ways. The original two “Castle Parks” have nearly identical “lands” and share most of their E-Tickets… but not all of them. In fact, we dedicated a whole feature to looking at how the “Castle Parks” compare and the exclusive rides at each. We also explored 16 Disneyland Exclusives that are worth the flight, carefully leaving out abstract cliches like “Walt walked there!”. So basically, Disneyland itself is different enough from Magic Kingdom to warrant a visit.

Then there’s the elephant in the room… the other park at Disneyland. Here’s the thing: we dedicated an entire two-part special feature to the full story of Disney California Adventure – one of the most controversial theme parks ever. It’s true that “DCA” was an embarassment with too few rides, too few characters, and too little for families. But two billion and two decades later, that’s long gone. California Adventure is probably one of the best “non-Castle Parks” on Earth… including arguably being a more complete, fun, or cohesive park than some of your Disney World faves…

And though some rides are repeats of Disney World installs (Soarin’, Mermaid, and Midway Mania), you won’t find anything quite like Cars Land, Pixar Pier, Buena Vista Street, Grizzly Peak, Pacific Wharf, or Avengers Campus in Orlando.

Even in a head-to-head battle of E-Tickets, the Disneyland Resort comes out on top with more headlining attractions than Walt Disney World. That exclusive collection includes anchors like Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, Incredicoaster, Grizzly River Run, Radiator Springs Racers, Web-Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, Matterhorn, and Indiana Jones Adventure… So before you decry “tiny” Disneyland as not being worth your time, keep in mind that technically it has not just more rides, but more E-Tickets than its Floridian sister, not to mention a one-of-a-kind second gate and a whole different spirit.

7. Yes, there’s still a “Disney bubble”!

We can totally understand why anyone considering a jump from Walt Disney World to Disneyland Resort would be worried about missing out on the “Disney bubble.” It’s true that unlike the vast expanse of Disney-owned land in Orlando, Disneyland’s size makes for a much smaller bubble… and one you’re less likely to stay within.

Disneyland Resort has three on-site hotels, but the cheapest – Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel – would still rank as a “Moderate” using Disney World pricing. (It’s a pretty standard tower hotel acquired and rebranded by Disney in a land expansion rather than built from-scratch). That’s because Disney doesn’t have much to gain by competing in the “Value” category – the entire rest of Anaheim has that covered! In fact, many $100-a-night hotels along Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave. are just a 10 to 15 minute walk to the parks – closer than the official Disneyland Hotel; the kind of proximity guests around Disney World’s Crescent Lake are willing to pay $600 a night for.

For better or worse, at Disneyland, most guests stay off-site or drive-in for a day. But honestly, we might even argue that Disneyland’s “Disney Bubble” is stronger than Disney World’s since there’s no rental car to worry about; no highways to drive; no busses to get from place to place. Even staying off-site, you’re likely to find yourself in a classic California motel from the ’60s, meandering the “Anaheim Resort District” of palm-lined, twinkle-light paths to get to the resort. Ironically, Disneyland ended up being closer to a 21st century urban design aesthetic than Disney World did, given that it’s a pedestrian-friendly paradise with walkable destinations, shops, restaurants, and more all self-contained in a secure little zone. 

Worth a try

It’s not good news for Walt Disney World executives that – at least right now – Disney’s most loyal visitors seem to be fed up with the declining perks, new upcharges, and lackluster investment at the resort. The 50th Anniversary is certainly not the year Disney expected a quarter of Theme Park Tourist readers to declare that they’ll never return to Walt Disney World, and this time they mean it. Frankly, we all know how this ends – most people who are claiming that they’ll never give Disney World another dollar… well… will. 

But if you’re serious about giving another Disney Resort a shot at making magic for you, we can’t say enough good things about Disneyland Resort… So add it to your bucket list… and don’t be afraid to give it a try.