If your family has decided they’re ready to put their Mickey and Minnie ears on for your upcoming vacation, the natural next question becomes which US park to choose: do you make your way west to visit Walt Disney’s original park, Disneyland in Anaheim, California, or do you flock south towards the Sunshine State to see Pluto and friends at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida?

Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Pluto all pose hands outstretched in Hawaiian print clothing
No matter what park you choose, you'll run into these characters © Kent Phillips/Disney Parks

On the surface, it might seem like the theme parks are just carbon copies of each other, situated on opposite coasts. But there are major differences between the two original Disney parks, and knowing a bit more about them can help you decide which park is right for your family.

Size differences and crowd levels

One of the most major differences between the parks is the sheer size – the Florida resort spans 43 square miles, which, for reference, is roughly the size of San Francisco and about double the size of Manhattan. Comparatively, the Disneyland resort sits on around 500 acres of land.

Tinker Bell strikes a pose with a young girl behind a large Mickey Mouse playing card
Magic Kingdom is one of the first stops for many visitors © Ryan Wendler/Disney Parks

Walt Disney World is home to four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom; two water parks: Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach, multiple golf courses and recreational activities and Disney Springs, an on-property shopping, dining and nightlife complex.

The Disneyland Resort is home to two parks: Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and Downtown Disney, the park-adjacent shopping, dining and nightlife destination.

With an increasing number of rides, attractions and new additions to the Disney parks each year, there’s always a new reason to visit. Not only does this keep the parks exciting and the offerings innovative, this often means that there’s rarely a slow time at either property. Crowd levels continue to increase year after year, with summer and major holidays and school breaks bringing crowds that often shut the parks down.

Animatronics of Mike, Sulley and Boo with guests in the foreground looking up at them
Monsters Inc makes an appearance at California's Disneyland © Scott Brinegar/Disneyland

Both coasts experience high crowds, but the crowds themselves are different. Disneyland has more local Annual Passholders, which means people will stop by for a casual visit, often during evenings and weekends; whereas Walt Disney World sees more tourists from all over the globe, in addition to local Floridians who hold an Annual Pass.

Advance planning

Another major difference between the two parks is the amount of planning you’ll likely have to do in order to hit the highlights, especially during peak seasons. A good place to start is by figuring out what each park offers and what your family would be most excited to see – if your family has major Toy Story fans, you’ll want to spend plenty of time in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, home to Toy Story Land.

Guests wander through a replica of Black Spire Outpost, a village on the planet of Batuu, at Disneyland
Both parks have identical Star Wars attractions © Joshua Sudock/Disney Parks

If you’ve got animal lovers in tow, you’ll want to get up close and personal with the hundreds of exotic species at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. For Star Wars fans, fear not – if you’re hoping to check out the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge immersive land and attractions, you can find it on both coasts, where the offerings are nearly the same.

With dining reservations opening 180 days (yes, that’s six months) out at Disney World restaurants, landing a spot at some of the most coveted table service restaurants requires setting your alarm for 6:00 in the morning EST six months out. Two of the hardest reservations to snag exist right at the Magic Kingdom: the Beauty and the Beast-themed Be Our Guest Restaurant and Cinderella’s Royal Table, inside the majestic Cinderella Castle.

Disneyland’s dining reservations open up 60 days out, so you don’t need to worry about where you’ll eat half a year away from your trip.

A replica of the ballroom from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, including high ceiling with clouds and cherubs painted on it and a sparkling chandelier
Reservations for the opulent Be Our Guest restaurant can book up six months in advance © Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World

You’ll also want to snag advance reservations for the most popular rides at Walt Disney World, or else risk waiting in extremely long lines, often in the hot sun. People staying at on-site hotels can make Fastpass+ reservations up to 60 days in advance, while day visitors and off-property guests can book theirs 30 days out.

Disneyland offers paper Fastpasses that you only get once you’re in the parks, but they do offer a $15 per day Maxpass upgrade, which allows you to book your Fastpasses through the official app, instead of physically walking to each ride to get them.

Different attractions at the parks

Both parks feature attractions chock full of incredible themes and thrills. Though there are about 20 attractions that exist on both coasts, including classics like Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, and Pirates of the Caribbean, true Disney fans love spotting the differences between them.

Artifacts from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy are stored behind glass cases in a set which resembles the film
The Guardians of the Galaxy attraction is one of the exclusive draws of Disneyland © Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

Disneyland is home to unique attractions like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, Radiator Springs Racers and more, while Disney World’s four parks feature favorites like Spaceship Earth, Mission: SPACE, Test Track, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, Kilimanjaro Safaris and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

The themes of the parks themselves differs, too. Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom don’t exist anywhere else in the world, making for a special experience, especially for first-timers.

Where to stay and what to see in the area

Disney World is home to more than 25 intricately themed resorts at three price levels: value, moderate and deluxe. There are also many nearby off-site hotels, some of which offer limited Disney perks. Each resort has plenty of activities and amenities, including pools, restaurants and entertainment, so you can enjoy some downtime after the hustle and bustle of long park days.

By contrast, Disneyland has three deluxe hotels, so staying onsite will cost you. There are several affordable off-site hotels, many of which are within walking distance to the parks, if you don’t need to experience Disney magic every waking moment of your trip.

A hotel lobby with arching windows, Africa-inspired art, floor lamps and hand-carved wooden columns
Animal Kingdom Lodge is just one of the themed hotels you can stay at in the Florida resort © Walt Disney World Resort

Due to sheer size, Disneyland is more inherently walkable – the rides are much closer together, making it less overwhelming for families with small children. It’s also easier if your trip is part of a larger visit to California, because a few days is more than enough to see the highlights.

You could spend weeks at Disney World and still not see every single thing it has to offer, so if you’re looking to plan a longer trip that includes some relaxation and recreation time, Florida might be your best bet.

Pricing is comparable for tickets, hotels, food and souvenirs at both locations, with ticket pricing varying based on peak times and days. You’re sure to have an incredible time no matter which coast you’re on, so grab those ears and get ready to enjoy the magic.

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