My wife Lacey and I experienced Walt Disney World for the first time in September of 2012 as part of our honeymoon. Being the humble Disney aficionados we were (and are), and having been Disneyland pass holders at the time, we had very high expectations. Thankfully, we loved it as much we’d hoped we would and, now nearly seven years later, we’ve just finished our fourth trip, bringing along our 4-year-old aficionado-in-training, Asher.
So here’s the thing. We’ve been hearing rumblings, little birdies chirping in our ears (HUGE bonus points for whoever can guess that reference without googling it): which is better? Disneyland or Walt Disney World? The answer, my friends, is yes.
If that answer leaves you a little unsatisfied, I guess we can talk about the differences and similarities.
Now, by no means is this account meant to be exhaustive. In the first place, that would require writing a book. Secondly, I am not so arrogant as to think I could cover in content the entirety of two very intricately designed theme parks. Just take it as the ramblings of a dad who has no intention of forfeiting his inner child (ever). Lastly, just as a side note, when I say Disneyland, I also mean Disney California Adventure.
Okay, so first, the food.
Disneyland food wins, hands down. Bias, you say? I’m just saying that because I’m a California native, you say? Well, maybe. But it’s hard to have any other opinion when you are traversing the streets of Magic Kingdom in desperate search of a good ol’ fashioned Monte Cristo. Now, for those of you who have yet to experience one of these little beauties (another reference for my fellow Disneyphiles), a Disneyland Monte Cristo is basically a large, deep-fried donut filled with ham and cheese, cut in half and dusted with powdered sugar, served alongside maple syrup and a ramekin of fruit. Disneyland serves them at Blue Bayou and Cafe Orleans. And my friends, if you order it at the latter, do yourself a solid and include an order of Pom Frittes. You. Will. Die. In the best way possible, of course.
We also can’t talk about Disneyland food without mentioning Carnation Cafe, where you can get a tasty country-fried steak and potatoes that will give you the protein and starch jumpstart you need to power through your Disney day like a champion. The Grey Stuff at the Red Rose Taverne truly is delicious, and the Darth by Chocolate parfait from the Galactic Grill will bring your chocolate-loving taste buds to their knees. Other great places to eat can be found in California Adventure, namely Carthay Circle Lounge (pricey, but worth a splurge) and Wine Country Trattoria (not as pricey, and excellent desserts). Sad to say, there hasn’t been much at Walt Disney World in terms of food that’s turned our heads (nor our stomachs, though, but that’s not much of an endorsement, I know).
The notable exception, however, is the World Showcase at Epcot. There are quite a few goodies as you make your way through each country, but we generally can’t do without the fish and chips at Yorkshire County Fish Shop in England. Other highlights for us have been the Troll Horn at Kringla Bakeri og Kafe in Norway, and just about anything from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie in France. So though our California hearts do prefer the Disneyland fare, we cannot deny that Walt Disney World can bring it when it comes to some of their cuisine. Keep in mind, y’all, we are
the parents of a 4-year-old, so a lot of what we choose to ride is subject to his height limitations (yes, we know about ride swapping, we’re not those parents). So yeah, we love us some Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which is located at both parks. Other notable rides you can find at both locations are It’s A Small World, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Railroad, and quite a few others, but let’s talk about the rides you can only experience at one location.
And Now, The Rides
One of Disneyland’s crowning jewels is Storybook Land. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. What’s so cool about a slow moving ride where a cast member sits there and tells you stories of Disney movies you know by heart? Do not be fooled, my friends. Coolness there is, for the young at heart. Well, more like fun. Aside from drifting into Monstro the Whale’s mouth at the commencement of the ride, it’s pretty nuts to see how intricately detailed each castle, village, etc. is, and you almost want to just pull over, and admire each display for a while. Not to mention the calm tranquility of the ride is a nice break from all the hubbub.
There is also Indiana Jones Adventure, which is pretty ridiculously fun. I won’t give away too much, but if you’ve seen all (or even one) of the movies, you won’t be disappointed. For that matter, you’ll have a blast if you haven’t seen any of them. There is, again, a lot of attention to detail, and though it’s partly a slow-moving ride, it definitely speeds up, gives you some bumps, and it swings you around a pretty good amount.
And of course, Radiator Springs Racers. For all you Cars fans, this is a must do, even if you need to wait an hour or so in line (if you can get fast passes for this one, DO IT). And seriously, you need to experience the Pixar Pal-A-Round at least once. We haven’t experienced too much of Pixar Pier since it got revamped, but even just walking through there and seeing the sights is pretty fun.
As for the rides that are exclusive to Disney World, there are quite a few gems as well. Some might compare Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom to Disneyland’s Matterhorn, but this is foolishness. Yes, they’re both tall, snowy mountains, but that’s mostly it for the similarities. Expedition is smoother, faster, a little creepier (which is awesome), and you don’t feel like your head has been in a pinball machine when it’s over (sorry-not-sorry, Matterhorn).
Another cool ride is Frozen Ever After in Epcot. I have to confess, I definitely got burned out on all the Frozen mania over the past 6ish years, but even so, I thought the ride was fun, and in some ways next-level. My burned-outness may prevent me from indulging again any time soon, but you never know—I may just take my anti-Frozen attitude and let it go (wink). And at risk of sounding overly kid-friendly, The Magic Carpets of Aladdin in Magic Kingdom. If you’ve been on Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Disneyland, same concept. But who, having watched Disney’s Aladdin (animated—I haven’t seen the live action version yet), wouldn’t want some QT on a magic carpet ride?
Lastly, and probably our favorite part of both parks, the shows. Again, you can find some great ones at both parks, like the interactive Turtle Talk with Crush (be one of the cool kids and shout, “Dude!” any time he says, “You so totally rock!”), the Enchanted Tiki Room, parades and fireworks shows, but each park definitely has its particularly charming collection of thespian arts. Let’s start with Disneyland.
At California Adventure, you can pretty much find a role-playing cast member just about anywhere you look on Buena Vista Street. You’ll know them by their vintage garbs and animated gestures. But then, depending on what time you’re there, you might also find Five & Dime performing an upbeat, jazzy 1920s-esque diddy in their snazzy jalopy, or the Red Car Trolley News Boys singing about coming to California with a suitcase and a dream. And then, may just get your mind blown by World of Color, a lights and water production that plays most nights.
One of our favorites, though, has to be Storytelling at Royal Theatre at Disneyland (specifically in Fantasyland, but you probably guessed that). It’s basically a cast of players telling the story of Beauty and the Beast or Tangled, again, depending on what time you arrive, in the mode of a Shakespearean comedy, but of course adding some clever modern colloquialisms to keep us all engaged and happy. Some of those performers are lousy with talent (see what I did there?) and I think you’d have a hard time walking away without a smile on your face.
But then, there are Walt Disney World shows, which, I gotta say, take top prize in our house. There are some good ones, like the interactive Enchanted Tales with Belle and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. And then there are great ones, one of which being Festival of the Lion King in Animal Kingdom. Giant animatronic characters? Check. Audience participation? Check. Beloved songs sung by world-class performers? Check. Acrobatic men in monkey suits (not tuxes, literal monkey suits)? Double check. I suppose the only thing that could make the experience better would be designated after-show photo time with Simba, but that’s just my inner tourist talking.
And so, we come to THE show, and the reason my family and I will be lifelong Walt Disney World patrons, forever. My friends, I give you Finding Nemo the Musical, also compliments of Animal Kingdom. Girded with the production design of Michael Curry (whose claims to fame include The Lion King on Broadway) and songs by husband and wife songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez (who wrote the songs for Frozen), the stage show rarely ceases to bring me to tears.
The songs and production sensibilities are of course top notch, but the performers here are also quite impressive. It’s also pretty amazing to realize, after watching the show close to a half dozen times at this point, how slight variations in character representation from one actor to another can really affect one’s emotional response. I recommend going at the beginning of your Disney stay—you may end up wanting to see it again before your trip is over.
So there it is. Again, by no means a comprehensive account of the most magical places on earth, but hopefully something to whet your adventurer appetite and give you some points of reference should you choose to indulge. Be warned, though, when visiting either park, you may find yourself getting hooked, your inhibitions may flounder, and you might end up needing to spend quite a bit more time in this whole new world.