I like to consider myself something of a Disney expert. I’ve been going to Walt Disney World for decades, after all, and even spent a short time working at the Disney/MGM Studios a long time ago, but up until recently I had never visited any of the other Disney parks. It wasn’t until this past November that I finally traveled to the park that started it all, Disneyland. So, of course, I spent a lot of time (intentionally or not) comparing the two parks.
Note: I’m comparing just the Disneyland park to its direct counterpart in Florida–Magic Kingdom.
To start, Disneyland is considerably smaller. This means that in most cases everything is just closer together and the walkways are narrower. I sort of expected it to feel crowded, and in many ways it did and there were a few annoying bottlenecks. At the same time, though, the whole park felt like a more intimate experience, and there are some creative uses of the available space (like the Railroad going through the facade of “it’s a small world”). Magic Kingdom was designed to have lots of space, so there are fairly large areas between attractions and it’s all much more spread out, but in Disneyland everything just feel like it’s right there. When you’re walking around it seems like there’s always something to stop and see, and at no point did we feel like we were just walking through an empty space. Disney’s California Adventure, on the other hand, was built much later and has a lot of room between everything. After the intimacy of Disneyland we actually found it a bit annoying to have to walk through large areas of basically nothing to get from around. Disneyland’s close quarters meant that we never felt like we had downtime, and we didn’t feel like we were “wasting time” as we walked from one attraction to another, whether we were heading to the next ride over or one across the park.
On a guest level, Disneyland has a much higher number of local annual passholders coming to the park on a daily basis. Imagineer Jason Surrell once mentioned (in some random video that I saw) that Disneyland is about seventy percent locals and only thirty percent tourists, whereas Magic Kingdom is the reverse. As such, Disneyland just seemed less ‘touristy’ than Magic Kingdom. What exactly does that mean? Well, think of it like this: imagine it being your first time at a big place like Walt Disney World. You don’t know where you’re going, so maybe you’re stopping to look at a map more instead of knowing exactly where you’re headed. You’re trying to see everything, instead of just your favorite attractions. You’re asking a lot more questions, and maybe you’re even frustrated at times. So when I say that Walt Disney World is touristy I’m thinking of the thousands of people, from all over the world, acting like that at the same time. At Disneyland, though, there’s a much higher number of frequent guests: people who know where everything is and exactly what they want to see. How these different types of Disney guests carry themselves and how they act in the park is very different, and if you’re very familiar with one it’s weird to find yourself surrounded by the other.
We found, because of this, that while Photopass photographers were out and about–though there seemed to be fewer overall than we’ve seen at Magic Kingdom–there was rarely a line or crowd around one (like there often is at the Florida park). In fact, on more than one occasion a roving Photopass photographer would walk with us and take multiple pictures of us in several different spots around a particular location. It was a pretty cool personal touch to the experience. Magic Kingdom photographers in my experience have definitely been friendly and taken multiple shots, but the impression I got was that the ones at Disneyland just had less to do and therefore had more time to spend with guests who had Photopasses. I know that some levels of annual passes do include Photopass photos, but it seemed like the locals just weren’t as into getting their photos as tourists (like us) would be. I also noticed way less pin trading around Disneyland, which I actually found a bit odd. I’d think that it would actually be more of a thing among these frequent guests, I guess it just seems to me like the sort of thing that someone who loves Disney enough to buy an annual pass and visit a lot would do, but while I definitely saw some lanyards (and plenty of pins for sale) I didn’t see either in nearly the quantities that I do at Walt Disney World. I also noticed that in every restaurant and shop we were asked by the cashiers if we were passholders, as they get a discount. Walt Disney World passholders do at the Florida parks as well–at some restaurants, anyway–but I’ve never been asked about it. It’s simply not as as big a thing there, and there’s more of an assumption that you would be at Disneyland.
Annual passholders keep going back to Disneyland because they love being there, and we had very pleasant conversations with more than one of them who were thrilled to talk Disney with like-minded folks. We saw several people “Disneybounding” (dressing up in clothing that suggests Disney characters) which is something I haven’t really noticed at Magic Kingdom. In Florida, so many of the guests are vacationers from around the world and many of them are there for the first time, so it’s a different atmosphere than in California where so many of them are there a lot. Both are fun and interesting in their own way, but very different. There was a sense of community at Disneyland that you don’t feel at the Magic Kingdom.
Disneyland did seem… lower tech than Magic Kingdom. The lack of MagicBands, the paper Fastpasses, wait time signs with numbers changed by hand (rather than a digital display), and more just made the experience feel more quaint than a day at Magic Kingdom. This was a bit jarring at first, but it also wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Disneyland has a sort of old-school charm that Magic Kingdom just doesn’t have anymore, and it reminded me of the days before the technology really took over there. Not that I mind the tech, but it does make for a different sort of experience. Even the lines showed a difference in the thought processes between the two parks: Magic Kingdom has had a big push towards interactive queues, and a lot of effort has been spent on hiding lines, whereas Disneyland often had long lines plainly visible in front of an attraction. Obviously, Florida has a lot more space to play with, but in comparing the two parks you could tell that Imagineers learned a lot about things like this from the creation of Disneyland and applied that knowledge when building Magic Kingdom.
I found there to be a subtle difference in the cast members at Disneyland versus those at Magic Kingdom. At Magic Kingdom, they’re extremely friendly and helpful and they embody the incredibly high level of guest service that Disney is known for. At Disneyland, that’s mostly the same. But there were some instances where it seemed to not be the case. Not that they were ever rude or disrespectful, just that they seemed to be held to a lower standard than that of their Florida counterparts. Admittedly, as a former Walt Disney World cast member myself I may be a bit hyper-sensitive to this, but it’s the impression that I got. There were also times where a cast member from one area (say, Tomorrowland) could be seen cutting through Fantasyland. Of course, Disneyland doesn’t have the network of tunnels beneath the park like Magic Kingdom does, allowing cast members to traverse the park and remain hidden when not actively working, but it was weird to me that this happened. A guest we were chatting with also mentioned seeing a cast member, in costume with her nametag on, off property at a nearby coffee shop, which is something that would never happen at Walt Disney World. It was all a little jarring to me, just being used to a particular way of doing things. At the same time, that sense of guest community at Disneyland often extended to the cast members as well. Guests and cast members knew each other, either from outside or just from the guests’ frequent visits to the parks, which contributed to the difference in atmosphere between Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
There were differences in some rides between the two parks. Obviously, each park has rides that aren’t at the other, but even the ones that they share had variations. Some were subtle differences, while others were pretty drastic. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, is considerably longer at Disneyland–and features two waterfalls, rather than one–and is frankly the better version. Splash Mountain was a bit rougher at Disneyland, with more small hills in the track (and the Disneyland Railroad passes through the ride, much like the PeopleMover at Magic Kingdom does with Space Mountain). The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh featured different scenes, and didn’t have Tigger’s “bounce” segment. They weren’t necessarily better or worse (other than Pirates), but to someone who knows the Magic Kingdom rides so well it was interesting to see the differences. As a side note, one thing is definitely the same at both parks: the insane wait times for Peter Pan’s Flight. So while we would have loved to see what differences the Disneyland version had as compared to the Magic Kingdom one, we never did simply because we didn’t want to wait upwards of forty-five minutes.
Maybe I’ve just been to Magic Kingdom so much that I don’t notice the details anymore, but it seemed to me that there were many more random little kinetic moments at Disneyland. Things like the Evil Queen opening the curtains and peering out from a window above Snow White’s Scary Adventure, or Figaro (the cat from Pinocchio) on a windowsill moving his head. Monstro the whale, part of the Storybook Canal Boat ride, blinked his eye and occasionally sprayed mist from his blowhole. These random moments added to the magic of the experience and they’re something that I think is missing from the Florida park. Magic Kingdom certainly has some cool things happening that Disneyland doesn’t, like the interactive games Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom and the Pirate’s Adventure, but these are things that you’re actively engaged in rather than just special moments that you can find along your way.
There’s also, it seems, more of a connection to Walt himself at Disneyland. The California park was the first one and the only one he actually set foot in, and while it’s possible that some of what we saw that included him (like the fireworks, or World of Color at Disney’s California Adventure) were specially created for the Diamond Celebration, but it just felt like we were visiting his park. This feeling was heightened, of course, when we took the Walk in Walt’s Footsteps tour–my writeup of that experience can be found here–but even in just walking around you could see that this was his park.
I think that I went to California expecting basically the same experience that I’m used to in Florida, and while many things were similar it turned out to be quite different in a lot of ways. In fact, in rereading this post it sounds like I’m all about explaining how Disneyland is better than Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. I can’t stress enough, though, that this is simply not the case. They’re both amazing and special in their own ways, but I did find them surprisingly different. I liken it to a favorite movie that has a special edition release–the newer version may have cooler effects and more content and in many ways be very much improved, but there’s a special nostalgic charm about the original as well.
That basic Disney experience is essentially the same, and it’s that experience that I love regardless of which park I’m in. I can’t wait to go back to Walt Disney World, but now I can’t wait to someday go back to Disneyland as well.
Now, of course, I need to go and check out the other Disney parks around the world and compare those…