Disneyland vs. Disney World: How to choose which resort is right for you

Mickey Mouse and friends at Magic Kingdom
Disney/Matt Stroshane

A Disney vacation finds its way onto most travel bucket lists at some point, and if you’re ready to start planning yours, you’ll probably be faced with one big decision upfront: Disneyland vs. Disney World.

Unless you live very close to either the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, or Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, you’ll want to check out all that’s unique about both destinations before choosing where to head for your Disney trip.

Depending on your interests — Do you love Star Wars, Marvel or Pixar? Is a great pool or immersive hotel your top priority? — one of America’s two Disney destinations may clearly be a better choice for you. Here’s how to decide which House of Mouse is best for your big trip.

Disneyland vs. Disney World: Visit Disneyland if …

You’re Short on Time

With two theme parks — Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure — just a stone’s throw apart and the Downtown Disney District and Disneyland Resort’s three hotels all within walking distance, you can get a lot more done in a hurry at Disneyland without wasting time on transportation.

MORE: 16 (actually) free things at Disney World

To really maximize your time, get Park Hopper Tickets (which allow you to move freely between the two parks each day) and purchase Disney Genie+. The latter feature is Disney’s replacement for the old FastPass+ and MaxPass services, and gives you Lightning Lane access and the opportunity to bypass the standby lines on many of Disneyland’s most popular rides.

Brooke McDonald

You’re a Disney History Buff

A cultural icon since it opened on July 17, 1955, Disneyland isn’t just a vacation destination, it’s a piece of modern American history.

Take a nostalgic stroll past Walt Disney’s apartment, which sits above the fire station where a lamp still shines in the window for the park’s beloved founder, then meander back in time down turn-of-the-century Main Street, U.S.A. Ride iconic opening-day attractions like Jungle Cruise, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight, classic boat rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World, and the park’s most famous thrill rides, like Matterhorn Bobsleds, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain.

Brooke Geiger McDonald/Simplemost

You Love Seeing Characters

Once the hallmark of a Disney vacation, character meet-and-greets have been some of the slowest offerings to return to normal operations at Disney’s theme parks during the COVID-19 era. Although you still can’t get as close to your favorite characters as you used to, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure both take the cake over Walt Disney World when it comes to the plethora of character appearances that happen all day long throughout both parks.

While you can’t get those hugs or autographs you might remember, you can still interact with characters — including many unique and rare favorites — and they’ll pose for plenty of photos with you (only slightly distanced).

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You’re a Marvel Fan

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is your jam, Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure is the place to assemble. Opened in June 2021, this new land buzzes with energy (and that iconic Avengers soundtrack) and teems with characters and entertainment. Aspiring superheroes can get training tips from the Dora Milaje warriors from “Black Panther,” watch Spidey soar through the air in a spectacular stunt show, visit Dr. Strange’s mysterious Ancient Sanctum and spot countless other MCU characters.

Rides include the new all-ages Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure and the fan-favorite Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout. You can also grab a bite at Pym Test Kitchen (warning, parts of your meal may be super-sized or super-small, depending on how Hank Pym’s experiments are going!).

Brooke McDonald

You Love Pixar Movies — Especially ‘Cars’

Disney California Adventure Park is home to one of Disney’s most impressive and immersive lands at any Disney theme park in the world. Cars Land so perfectly recreates Radiator Springs, the setting for the first of Pixar’s “Cars” films, you’ll swear you’ve stepped into the film. You can meet Lightning McQueen and Mater, chow down on Chicken “Fenders” at Flo’s V8 Cafe and ride Radiator Springs Racers, one of the most impressive rides Disney has ever imagineered.

Around the corner from Cars Land, Pixar Pier is another spot at Disney California Adventure for lovers of the beloved studio. Ride the thrilling Incredicoaster, play 3D carnival games on Toy Story Midway Mania or take an aerial spin on the Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind and enjoy a meal at Lamplight Lounge. The Pixar-themed restaurant serves great food and Pixar-themed cocktails and is packed with Easter eggs from the movies at every turn.

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Disneyland vs. Disney World: Visit Walt Disney World if…

You’re a Planner

With four theme parks, two water parks, more than 25 Disney resort hotels and countless restaurants and experiences to choose from, planning a trip to Walt Disney World means making a lot more decisions. But, if you’re a planner at heart, that’s part of the fun! In fact, research has shown that the process of planning a vacation can actually boost your mental health.

Disney World’s Disney Park Pass reservation system requires guests to book a reservation for the first park they plan to visit each day, and dining reservations open up 60 days in advance, so you’ll have lots of decisions and plans to make long before your plane touches down in Orlando. Note: Disneyland also requires theme park reservations and dining reservations are also highly recommended, but with fewer hotels, restaurants and theme parks to manage, there are far fewer factors to consider there.

Brooke Geiger McDonald/Simplemost

You Want to Stay Immersed All Trip Long

At roughly 40 square miles — nearly the size of San Francisco! — Walt Disney World is one massive, magical playground. From the moment you pass under the resort’s iconic gates, you’re “on property” and very firmly on vacation. In stark contrast to Disneyland — where moments after leaving the park gates you can find yourself staring down chain restaurants, liquor stores and urban hubbub — you could travel for miles after leaving Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Park and remain in the Disney World bubble.

And with so many hotels, restaurants and entertainment options on Walt Disney World’s property, you truly don’t need to leave until it’s time to go home. Palm trees, beautiful grounds and resorts, consistent signage and diligent theming all help to solidify the feeling that you’re in a special place, far removed from the stifling atmosphere of the everyday.

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You Want to Stay at a Themed Disney Hotel

This is a big one for travelers on a budget. While Disneyland Resort does have three official Disney hotels, each with its own immersive theming, even the lowest-tier Disneyland option, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, is liable to break the bank at most times of year. On the flip side, Walt Disney World boasts more than eight times as many hotels, with options for every budget.

Choose from Value-, Moderate- or Deluxe-tier resorts, all with their own elaborate theming and plenty of Disney touches, from the Pop Century Resort and Art of Animation Resort at the Value level, to the Port Orleans Resort and Caribbean Beach Resort at the Moderate level, to the Polynesian Village Resort, Riviera Resort and Wilderness Lodge at the Deluxe tier. Every Disney World resort features themed pools and dining options and includes transportation to and from the parks.

Disney's Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World

You Love Star Wars

If you’ve always dreamed of traveling to a galaxy far, far away, this is the vacation destination you’re looking for. Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World are home to the epically immersive new land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and Disney’s most ambitious attraction ever created, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. But diehard fans will want to take their experience truly out of this world by adding a two-night experience aboard Disney World’s Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.

Way more than a simple hotel, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser gives guests the illusion that they’re on a “space cruise” on the Halcyon starcruiser. Guests blast off on their adventure to a galaxy far, far away via a “launch pod” and will spend two days and two nights channeling their inner Light or Dark Side as they rub shoulders with members of the Resistance and First Order. The immersive itinerary includes live entertainment, lightsaber training, role playing, elaborate themed dining and a special excursion to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios park.

You Want to Visit Truly Unique Parks

While Disney parks around the globe feature their own versions of the Magic Kingdom, with its castle centerpiece and iconic themed lands, two of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks, EPCOT and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, offer experiences you won’t find at any other Disney resort.

EPCOT’s World Showcase takes guests on a trip around the world, with immersive pavilions representing different countries and cultures through architecture, food and drinks, entertainment and even rides like the brand new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in EPCOT’s France pavilion.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, meanwhile, is one of Disney’s most beautiful theme parks, with breathtaking areas representing Asia, Africa, the mythical Pandora from “Avatar” and more. Animal lovers can’t miss Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open-air excursion on an African savanna packed with real animals. This is the closest you’ll get to an African safari without needing a passport.

Brooke McDonald

You Want to Do More Than Just Visit Theme Parks

Walt Disney World has so much to offer beyond the resort’s four theme parks that you could easily fill a vacation with activities without ever setting foot in a theme park. Walt Disney World is home to four stunning golf courses, including one, Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, that backs right up to two of Disney World’s Deluxe resorts, Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and Disney’s Old Key West Resort, so hardcore golfers may want to consider a stay at one of those. You can also practice your putts at Fantasia Gardens and Fairways Miniature Golf and Winter Summerland Miniature Golf.

To beat the Florida heat while logging theme park-level thrills, guests can visit one of Disney World’s two elaborately themed water parks, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park and Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park. Guests can ride a chairlift up the “mountain” before plunging down Summit Plummit at Blizzard Beach or hone their surfing skills in North America’s largest wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon. The all-ages water parks feature numerous family-friendly water slides and other attractions to keep everyone cool and happy.

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You’re Into Long-Distance Running

Whether you’re a hardcore runner or just want something to train for, runDisney offers four action-packed race weekends at Walt Disney World. Featuring events ranging from a 5K to a full marathon, there’s a distance for every athlete. Themed races feature music, entertainment and character stops along the way and participants get bragworthy race shirts and finisher medals.

You could easily plan a trip to the resort around one of the races, giving you a great, built-in way to celebrate your achievement in a meaningful way.

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Which is your favorite in the age-old debate of Disneyland vs. Disney World?

About the Author
Brooke McDonald

Brooke is a Chicago native and Northwestern University grad who spent a decade away from home in NYC at O Magazine and Shape and in London for grad school in Victorian British lit then a career in book publishing. Back home in Chicago, she's outnumbered by her husband and two boys, and the four of them are certifiable Disney fanatics. Other obsessions include Charles Dickens and pizza, which go together better than you'd think. More.