20 ways Disneyland and Disney World are completely different places

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To the casual observer, there's no real difference between Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Sure, Walt Disney World has four parks to Disneyland's two parks, but at the end of the day, they both have castles and churros and Mickey Mouse. You could really go to either park and have the same vacation, right? Wrong. While both coasts do have Mickey-shaped snacks and Space Mountain, there are notable differences between the two vacation destinations that you need to know about.

Photo Courtesy of Joshua Sudock/Disneyland

The two resorts have a major size difference

The No. 1 difference between Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida is size. Walt Disney World Resort is a massive property, with four theme parks, dozens of hotels and other experiences spanning across about 30,000 acres. Meanwhile, Disneyland Resort has two theme parks and three hotels, all within about 500 acres.

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Walt Disney World features two water parks

Walt Disney World features four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom), but those aren't the only park experiences on property. Walt Disney World also has two water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Meanwhile, if you want to spend a day in the water at Disneyland, you'll have to take a dip in your hotel pool.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Preston Mack, photographer

Walt Disney World has so much more to do

The theme parks and water parks only tell part of the story about all of the things there are to do at Walt Disney World. The resort also has four golf courses, two mini-golf courses, boats for rent, trails for hiking, a game-filled boardwalk for strolling and so many more things you can do without even buying a Disney theme park ticket.

Photo Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

Disneyland is in the middle of a city

One park secret Disney doesn't want you to know: Walt Disney World is its own city with its own small government, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. That means when you're in Walt Disney World, you're not just in Orlando, you are in Disney-owned property for as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile, Disneyland is in the very center of bustling Anaheim, California. You don't have to drive very far to reach non-Disney hotels, restaurants or other fun non-Disney things to do in California.

Photo Courtesy of Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

Accommodations are very different

Disney owns just three hotels at Disneyland: Paradise Pier, the Disneyland Hotel and the Grand Californian. So, chances are, if you're spending a few days at Disneyland, you're staying at one of the many, many motels nearby in downtown Anaheim. But, once again, Walt Disney World has the gift of size with over 20 distinctive hotels (and more on the way). The themes of the Disney World hotels are markedly unique. Hotel concepts include Disney animation (Art of Animation), New Orleans (Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter), the savanna (Animal Kingdom Lodge) and the Pacific Northwest (Wilderness Lodge).

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Matt Stroshane, photographer

The shopping districts are totally different

Walt Disney World and Disneyland each have shopping districts, with Disney-themed stores, other popular retail outlets (think Sephora, the LEGO Store and Pandora) and dining options. But like everything else at Walt Disney World, Disney Springs in Florida is much, much larger than Downtown Disney in California. While Downtown Disney has just a handful of shops and restaurants, Disney Springs is so big it's separated into four different districts, each with its own theming and personality.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/David Roark, photographer

Getting around is much easier at Disneyland

Because Walt Disney World is so expansive, it takes time and some know-how to get from place to place, and there are a lot of options to get from your hotel to a theme park to Disney Springs or wherever else you want to go. You can travel by bus, boat, car, Lyft or the air bucket-style system dubbed the Skyliner (open in September 2019). Meanwhile, Disneyland is so compact, you can just walk wherever you want to go. Even if you're riding Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin at the very back of Disneyland, you can make it to the Incredicoaster at the far end of Disney California Adventure in less than 20 minutes on foot. Downtown Disney, with all of the dining and Disney-themed shopping options you could want, is also just steps away from the parks' gates.

Photo Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Disneyland has rich history

Walt Disney World is no spring chicken; the Florida resort will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2021. But Disneyland has a much longer and richer history. It opened on July 17, 1955, and was designed and built under the supervision of Walt Disney himself. Some of the original 1955 attractions are still running today, including Autopia, the Disneyland Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Snow White's Scary Adventures, Storybook Land Canal Boats and more. It may sound funny, but Disneyland is one of the most historic places to visit in America.

Photo Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Disneyland Park has more attractions than Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World may have more acreage than Disneyland Park, but it actually has fewer rides. Disneyland is a dense park; look no further than Fantasyland, where the Alice in Wonderland dark ride sits on top of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Additionally, the two castle parks share some of the same rides (Space Mountain, It's a Small World, Dumbo, etc.), but Disneyland Park has Pinnocchio's Daring Journey, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and more, which are some of the most unique Disney rides in the world.

Photo Courtesy of Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

The Fastpass processes are different

Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World offer Fastpasses to guests, which allow you to skip the line on select attractions for free, but they work very differently. At Walt Disney World, Disney hotel guests can book three Fastpasses 60 days before the first day of their trip using the My Disney Experience app. Non-hotel guests book their three Fastpasses 30 days before they go to the parks. This system is called Fastpass+. Meanwhile, Disneyland has a paper Fastpass system, where you go to a Fastpass machine near the ride you want to go on, scan your ticket and get a return time; these reservations are done day-of.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Matt Stroshane, photographer

Walt Disney World has Magic Bands

Disneyland is a classic theme park, and the tickets reflect that; you buy a paper ticket that you use for park entry and to redeem your Fastpasses. (However, you can also scan your ticket into the Disneyland app and use your smartphone.) Meanwhile, Walt Disney World has Magic Bands. These bands are linked to your My Disney Experience app and serve as your theme park ticket, Fastpass, hotel room key and restaurant reservation holder during your trip. You can also link your credit card to your Magic Band and have anything you purchase on your vacation charged through it.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Matt Stroshane, photographer

Walt Disney World requires much more forward planning

At Walt Disney World, you can make restaurant reservations 180 days before you dine. And if you're staying at a Disney-owned or affiliated hotel, Fastpass reservations are made 60 days before your trip begins. That's a lot of forward thinking and planning, and that doesn't even count all the work you put in to knowing how to budget for your Disney vacation! Meanwhile, at Disneyland, dining reservations open up 60 days out and you make other Fastpass plans while you are in the theme parks themselves. It's much easier to plan a last-minute trip to California and still have the vacation of your dreams than it is to just drop into Disney World.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Gene Duncan, photographer

You need much more time at Walt Disney World

Disneyland Park may have more attractions, and Disney California Adventure has its fair share of thrills, delights and bites too, but if you really know how to plan, you can accomplish everything that you want to in Anaheim over a long weekend. Meanwhile, one of the tips Walt Disney World regulars will tell you is that you simply cannot do it all, even in a 10-day trip. There are so many restaurants, rides and places to explore that you'll find new things to do every time you visit.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Matt Stroshane, photographer

The food and restaurants are completely different

If you want to find the best Disney food in America, you're going to have to bounce from coast to coast. Because of its history, a lot of the food at Disneyland Park is classic and comforting. You'll find bread bowls filled with hearty stews, hand-battered and fried corn dogs and grilled cheese on the West Coast. Meanwhile, Walt Disney World has its own distinctive dining culture; look no further than the 20-plus restaurants at Epcot, featuring cuisine from 11 different countries. Both coasts also have elevated experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. At Disneyland, you can eat at the Blue Bayou restaurant, which is inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction or you can sit pierside at the Lamplight Lounge at Disney California Adventure. Magic Kingdom features Cinderella's Royal Table, where you can eat inside the castle. While there are endless differences between the two coasts' foods, luckily both theme parks have identical versions of Mickey-shaped pretzels, classic pineapple Dole Whip and the other most iconic Disney theme park snacks.

Photo Courtesy of Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

Both resorts have unique attractions

You'll find Soarin', Dumbo, Mickey's Philharmagic, Star Tours and more bucket list Disney rides on each coast. But Disneyland and Walt Disney World both have attractions unique to their own parks. You won't find a ride quite like Disney California Adventure's Incredicoaster or Disneyland's Pixar Pal-Around at any other Disney theme park in the world. Meanwhile, Walt Disney World has its own fair share of one-of-a-kind rides, such as Flight of Passage, Spaceship Earth, Slinky Dog Dash and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/Matt Stroshane, photographer

Even the 'same' rides have notable differences

Some of the best attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are the same. Both coasts have Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World, for instance. And while these rides have the same general themes and characters, the way they are laid out and the guest experiences are markedly different. For instance, the Pirates of the Caribbean in California is nearly twice the length of the East Coast attraction and features one more hill and an extended storyline about the spooky skeleton pirates. And that's just the beginning of the differences between the rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Photo Courtesy of Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

More of Disneyland's attractions are outdoors

"It never rains in Southern California," or so they say, but it rains in Florida all the time. Because the weather in Anaheim is usually sunny and pleasant year-round, much of Disneyland was built to be experienced outdoors. Most of the ride queues are outside at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and even rides that are similar on both coasts have differences in surroundings. For instance, all of It's a Small World on the East Coast is indoors, but the West Coast version's queue and the first portion of the ride are outside. Similarly, Mad Tea Party is covered in Florida, but the spinning teacups are underneath trees at Disneyland.

Photo Courtesy of Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

Nighttime shows and fireworks vary

The rides aren't the only theme park experiences that are different at the two American Disney resorts. The shows and parades are unique as well. For instance, the Magic Kingdom has the nightly fireworks show Happily Ever After and Disneyland Park has Disneyland Forever. The two shows have their own soundtracks, projections and pyrotechnics and fireworks. Disney California Adventure also has the nighttime water show World of Color, while Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Epcot have their own distinctive nightly spectaculars.

Photo Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

The castles are very, very different

Both Disneyland Park and the Magic Kingdom are so-called "castle parks," meaning their signature icon is a stunning castle based on a Disney princess. Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty Castle, a charming, 77-foot-tall pink and purple castle that you need to walk down Main Street U.S.A. to see. Meanwhile, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World has the towering, 189-foot Cinderella Castle, which can be seen far beyond the park's boundaries.

Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World/David Roark, photographer

Disneyland has a distinctive charm

The smaller castle and 60-year-old dark rides mean one thing: Disneyland is distinctively charming. Once you walk through the gates, you can just feel the old-fashioned wonder. Is it the trees with the twinkling lights? The horses clopping down the street? Mickey Mouse and friends greeting visitors right behind the gates? Whatever it is, the magic at Disneyland is undeniable. And while the Magic Kingdom and the rest of Walt Disney World has its charm and wonder, confusing it with Disneyland is one of the biggest Disney park rookie mistakes you can make.

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Photo Courtesy of Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort
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