Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World: Which is Right for My Family?

Now that the busy holiday season has come to a close and all the decorations are put away, you may be starting to think about your family’s summer vacation plans. As an agent with an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner agency, one question I hear a lot is, “What are the differences between Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World?” People want to know which is right for their family. Obviously, the answer is not the same for everyone, but there are many factors to consider when deciding which location to visit.

How much time do you have to plan?

As you may have heard, it’s best to book a Walt Disney World vacation at least six months in advance if possible. Dining reservations can be made 180 days in advance, and certain dining locations fill up quickly. You can select Fast Pass+ experiences up to 60 days before your check-in date if staying on property, or 30 days before if staying elsewhere. While it’s certainly possible to plan a magical Walt Disney World trip less than six months in advance, this gives you the best chance of getting the room selection, dining reservations, and Fast Passes that you want.

On the other hand, a Disneyland vacation can be booked much closer to the travel date. Dining reservations can be made only 60 days in advance, and there are no advance Fast Passes to book. Once you enter the park, you can purchase Disney MaxPass on the Disneyland app in order to make Fast Pass selections using the app. MaxPass is an additional $15 per person, per day. If you decide not to purchase MaxPass, you can also get paper Fast Passes from machines near the entrances to select attractions and entertainment options.

How long will you be there?

First, consider how many days you will spend at the parks. If you only plan to spend two or three days at the parks, Disneyland Resort may be your best bet, as there are only two parks (Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park), which are literally right next to each other. Park Hopper tickets are a must at Disneyland Resort Parks, in my opinion, since it’s so easy to walk back and forth between the parks.

However, if you have at least four days to spend, I would recommend Walt Disney World, where you can spend at least one full day at each of the four parks (not including the waterparks, which are also great). Ideally, I recommend spending at least five days at Walt Disney World if possible, with two days at Magic Kingdom and one day at each of the other parks (Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom).

Many first-time Disney-goers assume that Disneyland Resort is a good place to start because there are only two parks. However, these two parks are absolutely packed full of rides and attractions and can be quite overwhelming! My family and I spent three full days at Disneyland Resort in 2019, and we still did not see and do everything. However, seeing most of what you want to see in Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios in one day is perfectly reasonable if you plan well. Because of this, I actually think many families with young children might do better exploring the more manageable, individual parks at Walt Disney World (if time permits) rather than taking on Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. Going back to your hotel for nap time can be a factor (Many kids will nap in the stroller!), but walking (or riding) back to your Disneyland Resort hotel can also take a considerable amount of time unless you are staying very close to the parks. If you have the time, I find it much more relaxing and less overwhelming to spend one full day exploring one park where you can see most everything in one day. Then move to another park the next day. Also, while the Disneyland Resort parks are magical in their own way, there’s just something special about being immersed in the magic at Walt Disney World.

Where will you stay?

Staying on property at Walt Disney World is a must if you can afford it (in my opinion). If you fly into Orlando International Airport (MCO), you can ride the complimentary Disney’s Magical Express to your resort without even stopping at baggage claim! That’s right—Disney picks up your bags for you, and they will magically appear in your resort room a few hours after arrival. This is a great perk, as you are immersed in the Disney magic the moment your plane lands in Orlando.

There are more than 25 Walt Disney World Resort hotels to choose from, including Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Deluxe Villas categories, so there is something to fit most budgets. And these resorts are full of Disney’s special touches and hospitality, including complimentary transportation to and from all of the parks and Disney Springs, and Extra Magic Hours (extra time at a selected park each day for resort guests). And, as I mentioned previously, Disney resort guests can make Fast Pass+ selections earlier than non-Disney resort guests.

The Mad Tea Party at Disneyland is a colorful classic.

In contrast, Disneyland Resort has only three Disney-owned resort hotels in which to stay, and staying at these three hotels can be quite pricey. All three hotels are within walking distance to the parks (and the Grand Californian has its own entrance into Disney California Adventure Park), which is a great perk, and they also include Extra Magic Hours on select days. These hotels are gorgeous and wonderful options if your budget allows. However, there are also almost 50 Disney Good Neighbor Hotels, which are Disney-approved hotels in close proximity (some within walking distance) to the Disneyland Resort parks that can be much more budget-friendly.

What Do You Want to See?

While both Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort have many of the same rides and attractions, there are some that are unique to each park. For example, Disney California Adventure Park has Cars Land, which can be a dream come true for avid Cars fans. In fact, my daughter’s very favorite ride from all of the Disney parks is Radiator Springs Racers, which can only be found in Cars Land. Similarly, Indiana Jones Adventure, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Incredicoaster, and many of the classic Disneyland dark rides (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, etc.) are examples of rides that can only be found at Disneyland Resort parks.

Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World is home to Toy Story Land and the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (set to open in Spring of 2020). Epcot boasts the popular Frozen Ever After ride. Animal Kingdom is in a league all its own with the Kilimanjaro Safari adventure, where no two rides are ever the same, and Pandora—the World of AVATAR. And the Magic Kingdom has the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Enchanted Tales with Belle, and the gorgeous Be Our Guest restaurant, among others.

One of my favorite things about Walt Disney World is that there are many character meals available, both at the parks and the resort hotels. My family generally books at least one character meal per day because we enjoy the nice break it gives us; they are entertaining; the food is generally better than the quick service restaurants, and we can see/get autographs from characters without having to wait in line! We always purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which can be a great deal if you plan to book a lot of character meals since these add up quickly. Disneyland Resort currently has only one character meal in the parks, as well as a few at the resorts. And the Disney Dining Plan is not available at Disneyland Resort.

If you or your kids are huge fans of a particular Disney movie or character, look into (or ask your Disney Planner!) which park has the most attractions related to your interests.

What will the weather be like?

The time of year you will be visiting the parks can be a factor in deciding which to visit. The temperatures in both cities can be comfortable year-round, but in general, Anaheim doesn’t feel as hot during the summer months as steamy Orlando. In fact, the evenings can feel cool even into the summer. The wettest months in Anaheim are typically December, January, and February, whereas the wettest months in Orlando tend to be the summer months.

Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World is ready for the holidays.

Should I wait until my kids are older?

I hear this question all the time, and my answer is no! Both of my daughters visited Walt Disney World before they turned three years old (one of them visited twice before turning three!), and we loved every minute of it and cherish those memories! Many people argue that the kids won’t remember it at such a young age, and while that may be true, it’s also true that YOU will remember it! You will remember how their faces lit up as they hugged their favorite characters in person or when Snow White came over and left a red lipstick-stained kiss on your daughter’s cheek at a character meal. You will remember their wide-eyed wonder at the sight of Cinderella Castle covered in lights for the holidays and their innocent grin throughout the entire It’s A Small World ride. YOU will remember these precious moments, whether they do or not. And the best part is that children under three years old do not need a park ticket, so you can save some money by taking your kids before they turn three!

You may be surprised to know that young children can ride most of the rides at Disney parks. Disney has designed the parks to be family-friendly, and very few rides have height restrictions. Out of the 34 attractions currently listed on the Magic Kingdom web page, only six have height restrictions, and two of those are only 32 and 35 inches.

So yes, you can and should take your young children to the Disney parks! But take my word for it and bring a stroller, even if you think your kids are too old for a stroller! You will thank me later.

So many factors go into deciding which Disney location is right for your family. However, with some research and the help of an agent from an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner agency, you can plan a magical vacation that will be etched into your memory and your heart for a lifetime.

Jill is a small-town girl at heart but has loved discovering all San Antonio has to offer since moving here in 2004. She and her husband of 18 years are proud Texas Aggies and parents to two elementary-age girls. Jill worked as an editor, writer, and 4th-grade teacher before discovering her dream job as a taxi driver (for her girls). As a stay-at-home-mom, she spends her days volunteering at her kids' school and at church, attempting to exercise, pondering how four people can accumulate so much dirty laundry, and driving her kids to numerous extracurricular activities. She has recently taken her love for all things Disney to the next level by becoming a Disney Travel Planner. Follow along on her family’s adventures in San Antonio and beyond on Instagram at @satxfamily or email her for a Disney (or Universal Studios) vacation quote and planning assistance at [email protected] Favorite Restaurant: The Melting Pot Favorite Landmark: Japanese Tea Garden Favorite San Antonio Tradition: San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo