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Disneyland Main Street

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!

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

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.

Image: Disney

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...

Image: Disney

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! 

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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... 

 
 
 
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