Which Land of Disney Is Best: Disneyland or Disney World?

By Lisa McElroy

My nine-year-old daughter is having a very serious conversation with Ariel. I'm not exactly sure what they're talking about, but it looks like it might have something to do with swimming, dancing, and the eating the truly excellent chocolate lava cake we're all enjoying over lunch. Whatever they're talking about, my little princess couldn't be happier – the big grin on her face makes me awfully glad that we've flown 3000 miles for a family vacation at Disneyland.

We've visited Ariel and her fellow princesses at their Florida home on several occasions, but this is our first visit to their California outpost. To tell the truth, given that Orlando is much closer than Anaheim to our Pennsylvania home base, I'm not sure we ever would have headed west had a meeting not taken us there. Still, we're so glad to be in sunny southern California, and not just because we love princesses and all things "Mouse" – it's also because Disneyland has its own charm, its own fun, its own style that suits us just fine.

Speaking of style, we've decided to do it up. We've checked into Disney's Grand Californian hotel, a beautiful Arts & Crafts style lodge that's reminiscent of a forest. Even though we've chosen the most-budget friendly room, it's huge and comfortable, with a day bed perfect for a child who's expecting a nighttime visit from Tinkerbell. As we'll find out on the Sunday tour of the property that describes its history and explains the artistry that went into it, the hotel is themed in the most subtle of ways, beautiful in its own right, but calling to mind Bambi and the other classic Disney animal stories. Even our shower curtain has Bambi and friends painted in an art deco style.

We quickly discover that Disneyland is easier than Walt Disney World to navigate in more ways than one. For example, you don't necessarily have to call months ahead to get seating at a character meal, even with the princesses; our trip was somewhat spur of the moment, and we had no problems getting (or adjusting the time for) our princess lunch in Ariel's Grotto. When we get up early one morning and head downstairs to the Grand Californian's Storyteller's Café, we walk right into breakfast with Chip and Dale. And while character greeting locations around the parks are easy to find, characters don't stroll around like they do at Disney World, making it easy to prevent my older daughter's "fear-of-characters" meltdowns and dashes for the bushes.

The park isn't nearly as big as the Disney World parks, either. Some might call that a downside to California vs. Florida, but I disagree – we manage to do most of the fun stuff at Disneyland's two theme parks in a long weekend, whereas a week has never allowed us to even make a dent in Disney World's many offerings. Getting back to the hotel for a nap or a swim takes five minutes, not forty-five, and it's all walkable. And the two parks are located about 300 yards apart, making "park-hopping" much easier and more frequent.

Even the super-popular rides seem to have shorter lines in California than they do in Florida. My daughter would ride Soarin' ten times in a row if I'd let her; she settles for seven rides over three days, with a total of less than an hour spent in line. My personal favorite is Space Mountain, and, with Fast Passes, I don't spend more than five minutes waiting for any of my five or six whooshes through space. True, we arrived on a off-season Thursday, so we might expect shorter lines before the weekend starts; even so, the giant convention in town (a common occurrence for Disney) doesn't seem to make things unbearable in the parks, and the weekend days are only marginally more crowded.

And when my daughter begs to have her hair done at the Bippity Boppity Boutique, I'm actually able to make an appointment for about two hours later. Even better? Showing my hotel key gets me a discount. My little princess is not only smiling ear to ear (Get it? Ears?) but she's doing it with glitter and style.

One huge plus to the California location? The food is fit for a king (or a queen, as the case may be). At the princess lunch at Ariel's Grotto, we're passing bites of lasagna and steak back and forth, and we can't decide which one is better. When the chocolate lava cake arrives, it's so good that we beg our server for more. Luckily, she says "yes" – otherwise, one little princess might get a little glum. Our picnic lunch for World of Color (the amazing evening fountain and light show) is gourmet, with fried chicken, antipasto, and passion fruit mousse. Yum! And the Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney has such a great array of offerings that we head back twice, once for dinner and once for breakfast.

While there aren't as many shows at Disneyland as there are at Disney World, the Aladdin show, World of Color, and the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty's castle more than meet our entertainment needs over our three-day stay. My daughter especially loves Aladdin's genie and his "carpet," played by a young woman with the biggest smile ever and the ability to move her body with expression and humor.

Yes, there are downsides to the California location. For my daughter, the biggest disappointment is that almost no one trades pins there, especially at the Disneyland park. At California Adventure, we find a few cast members up for a good trade, but not many. She manages to round out her Tinkerbell pin collection, but it takes all weekend. Another downside? No Epcot (our favorite WDW park), and no water parks. Last but not least? The main drag in California Adventure turns into a TRON nightclub in the early evening, making it tough for kids who want to check out attractions in the general area (like Muppet Vision 3D).

Still, for my princess-loving nine year-old, it's all about beauty and glamour, rides and junk food. On the flight home, she wonders, "Do you think Aladdin rides his carpet everywhere, or does he ever take a plane?" Next time we're at Disneyland, I promise, we'll find out.

If You Go:

  • Consider your many hotel options. While we loved the Grand Californian and got a great deal, for our next trip, we'll check out Hilton's Homewood Suites, just outside the park gates and very economical.
  • Try out a Disney travel agent. Our agent was able to get us a fourth night free, plus book our shuttle to and from the hotel. Disney agents are specially trained to find the best rates and recommend travel dates that are less crowded and less expensive.
  • Check your calendar. As with most theme parks, lines are shorter during the week and when kids are in school. Still, because you can enjoy most of Disneyland's activities in three days, a mid-week break or a long weekend might work out fine.
  • Remember that shuttles are limited. Because we did not see the need for a car (and in fact never left the resort), we shuttled our way to and from the airports. With our flight schedule from the East Coast, however, we traveled early in the morning and late at night, when the resort shuttles were not available. We ended up on Super Shuttle, a good but not perfect option; for example, to accommodate the passengers it was picking up all over Anaheim, we left for the airport at 3:30 a.m.
  • Dress for theme park success. Even in the winter months, California is sunny and warm. Bring sun hats, sunscreen, and lots of layers. If your little princesses want to wear glass slippers, don them just before character greeting – convince her that sparkly sneakers work better for the nine to ten (!) miles you're likely to walk each day.
  • Get in the naps. The World of Color and evening fireworks shows take place after most kids' bedtimes. My daughter was snoozing on my shoulder until she was woken by a big fireworks "bang."
  • Head to both Disney destinations at some point. What they say is true: they're both magical. Don't miss the fun.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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