Over here. Me. I’m the snob. I grew up going to Disney World. Way back in the beginning when there was only one park. I was there when Epcot opened. I was there to celebrate the “Tencennial” (a year long, and a smile wide…yes, the song is still stuck in my head), and I was front and center when Disney-MGM Studios opened (and I still occasionally slip and call it MGM). It was my home away from home. That castle was my castle. Who needed anything else? And after all, wasn’t Disney World built because Walt wasn’t happy with the way things developed in the area surrounding Disneyland? Disney World was the “better” version of Disneyland. The new and improved version. Why on earth would I need to visit Disneyland?
Then I moved away from my home state of Delaware and out to Utah. Suddenly, Florida wasn’t a quick (and relatively cheap) flight away. However, Disneyland was an easy ten hour car ride. I could leave my house after breakfast and be in Anaheim by dinner. Besides, I was married with small children, and the cost of airline tickets was prohibitive for us at that time. The mini-van was ready and waiting. So we took the plunge, and headed for Disneyland.
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I mean, I knew we would have fun. But not as much fun as we would have had in Disney World. Because, of course, Disney World is the superior resort.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Before I elaborate on the error of my ways, let me pass along two tips for the first time Disneyland visitor. Particularly if you’re that visitor who is positive that Disneyland will never quite match the wonder and excitement of a Disney World vacation.
First, don’t compare the two resorts. At all. Each one is unique and features its own special brand of Disney magic. Comparing them does a disservice to them both. Plus, you will be starting your Disneyland adventure with the wrong attitude. True confession time…I compared. Even a more horrifying confession? My first thought when I entered Disneyland and looked down Main Street at the castle? “You have got to be kidding me.” Sigh. I’m not proud of it, but there you have it.
Now, I will amend that by saying that by the end of the day, I thought that Sleeping Beauty Castle was the most sweet and charming castle I’d ever seen. I loved everything about it. Plus, you can go inside. And the diorama telling the story of Sleeping Beauty is magical. The castle is absolutely perfect for that park, and if I had continued comparing it to the more majestic and visually arresting Cinderella Castle, I would have missed that. So when you go to Disneyland, keep an open mind, and squash every thought you initially have about how it’s not the same as Disney World (although you’ll stop doing that anyway by the second day…it’s that Disney magic at work).
My second tip is that if you can possibly swing it, stay on property. Yes, Disneyland is surrounded by many lovely, perfectly acceptable hotels that are only steps away from the main gate. And your trip won’t be ruined if you stay in one of them. But it will be missing something. The magic. The bubble. The total immersion in all things Disney. And because Disneyland is smaller (much smaller) than WDW, you can truly be surrounded by all the magic, all the time, without the pesky interference of long bus rides between your resort and the parks.
Our favorite hotel is the Disneyland Hotel. In fact, it’s my all-time favorite hotel on any Disney property, hands down. It has that unique combination of nostalgia, vintage Disney, and pixie dust that is hard to beat. Besides, it’s beautiful and elegant at the same time. The new rooms are stunning, and who doesn’t want to fall asleep to a fireworks display on the headboard of your bed singing, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes?” And in the morning, a leisurely walk from the hotel, through Downtown Disney, and straight through the turnstiles of Disneyland is far more magical than a mad dash through the traffic on Harbor Boulevard.
So, with those two suggestions in mind, let’s move forward. What makes Disneyland so darn special that a die-hard WDW groupie was won over in a matter of hours?
First, I would have to say, the “Walt factor.” There is something to be said for the fact that Disneyland was Walt’s park. His fingerprints are all over it, in every little nook and cranny, in every little detail. For me, it’s not something concrete that I can point to, but more of a feeling that pervades the entire park. You can feel Walt’s spirit present there to this day…and not in a haunted “Twilight Zone” way, but simply because he poured so much of himself into its creation, that it’s impossible not to see that in everything around you. Walt designed this park with the guest experience foremost in his mind, and because of that, it’s a place that brings out happiness in everyone. It’s a place where you can feel pure joy and delight around every corner.
My favorite “Walt moment” in Disneyland has to be the light in his apartment window over the fire station. I’m sure most of you know that Walt had a small apartment where he and Lillian stayed when they were in the park. Whenever Walt was there, he would turn the lights on, and obviously, when he left, the lights would go out. Cast members would take note of this, so that they knew when the boss was in the park. After Walt’s death, the light in the window was left on to remind everyone that Walt’s spirit is still present in Disneyland. And whenever I enter the park, the first thing I do is look up at that window and smile, and when I leave, I make sure I do the same, occasionally saying, “Good night, Walt,” out loud. No matter how weird that makes me look. If you’re interested in touring Walt’s apartment, I highly recommend taking the “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour on your visit. It includes lunch, a tour of the lobby of Club 33, and two classic rides, in addition to the apartment tour. You’ll love it.
Some of the other things that made me a Disneyland convert were the attention to detail in all of the different lands. Fantasyland is simply beautiful. I could move in tomorrow. And all of the dark rides that you miss in WDW (Snow White’s Scary Adventures or Mr. Toad, anyone?) are there for you to enjoy all over again in Disneyland. And there are no words for It’s a Small World there. The exterior is gorgeous and has that wonderful retro Mary Blair feel that takes you right back in time to the 1964 World’s Fair.
And then there is New Orleans Square. It is an absolutely stunning area of the park, and even more so at night. It’s dripping with atmosphere, and is a really fun place to just hang out. Pirates of the Caribbean is here, and it’s so much better in Disneyland. I especially love the initial scene in the bayou with the fireflies twinkling as you cruise by. The Haunted Mansion is breathtaking with its stately columns and filigree work on the balconies. It fits in perfectly with the surrounding New Orleans setting, and this is another ride I prefer in Disneyland. And the holiday overlay with Jack Skellington is something you just can’t see in WDW (same for the overlay in Small World).
Fantasmic! is also something else that Disneyland does better. It seems to fit in so much better on the Rivers of America than in Hollywood Studios. It’s more intimate, and the setting adds to the show in ways that I can’t describe. You just need to experience it for yourself.
And then there’s Disney California Adventure. As if you needed another reason to head for the west coast. It is literally a hop, skip and a jump away from Disneyland’s gate. For those of you used to riding WDW transportation for a half hour or more to park hop, this will astound you. California Adventure has undergone an amazing transformation since its initial opening, and it is well worth visiting now. Buena Vista Street oozes with all the charm of old Hollywood, specifically, Walt Disney’s old Hollywood, and dinner at Carthay Circle Restaurant is something you don’t want to miss.
Cars Land. What can I say? It’s amazing. Completely immersive, full of fun, and spectacularly designed. True Disney Imagineering at its best.
The rest of the park is also full of fabulous rides, with that California flavor that makes for a wonderful atmosphere. Tower of Terror (the original) is here, as well as the California Screamin’ roller coaster, Soarin’ over California, Toy Story Midway Mania (where the line never reaches WDW proportions), and Mickey’s Wheel of Nausea…excuse me…Mickey’s Fun Wheel. I triple dog dare you to go on that Ferris wheel. It’s a nightmare. And the barf bags are there for a reason. Ugh. Never again.
And then, your amazing day at Disney California Adventure concludes with World of Color. There are no words that will do it justice. All I can offer you is a string of superlatives. Believe every one of them. And no, watching it online doesn’t even come close to experiencing it in person. You need to see it for yourself. And it will never get old.
I’ve given you only a few reasons why I love Disneyland Resort. I could go on and on about how wonderful it is (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Indiana Jones Adventure), but what you really need to do is book your own reservations and go west, young man (or woman). This is the perfect year to do it. Disneyland celebrates its 60th birthday beginning at the end of May, and from all accounts, it promises to be one heck of a party. Make your reservations immediately (as hotels are going fast), and go and see first-hand what you’ve been missing. You won’t regret it.
Disneyland Resort won this WDW fanatic over heart and soul. It is an amazing place with a charm and magic of its own. It isn’t Disney World, and it doesn’t have to be. It is exactly what it should be, and exactly what Walt intended it to be…the happiest place on earth.