Disneyland for First Time Visitors: Key Differences From Walt Disney World

If you have never visited Disneyland in Anaheim, California—even if you are a seasoned Walt Disney World traveler—you may be unaware of some key differences from the Orlando location. This post will share essential information to ensure a great trip to Disneyland for first time visitors.

{If you need some packing tips before you go, be sure to check out How To Pack For Any Adventure.}

Pictures of Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck against a background of flowers and an ornate building.


Location, Location, Location

The biggest difference is that Disneyland is a theme park in the middle of a town, not a separate, magical universe like Walt Disney World. Although common knowledge, it is still somewhat jarring to witness it for yourself, especially if you are used to the cocoon of WDW. Once inside the parks, it is Disney vibes all the way; however, your arrival is definitely a different experience. 

In contrast to WDW—with its four main parks, two water parks, boardwalk, golf courses, and Disney Springs—Disneyland consists of just two main parks—Disneyland Park and California Adventure—and a much more condensed downtown area {which is still simply called Downtown Disney}. Overall it has more of a small town, nostalgic feel and is not nearly as overwhelming. 

Where To Stay?

While WDW maintains myriad on-site options, only three “on property” resorts exist at Disneyland. They are all within walking distance of the parks, but very expensive and thus not a reasonable choice of accommodations for most. 

Luckily there are “good neighbor” hotels just outside the gate on Harbor Boulevard or nearby. You can find dozens of excellent hotel options within a mile or so, many of which offer shuttles. 

I have personally stayed at four such hotels, and would wholeheartedly recommend two in particular: the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort {Marriott} and the Candy Cane Inn {independently owned}.

Winnie the Pooh Topiary holding a red balloon and popping up out of some flowers.

Unique Lands and Experiences

When you visit, you will definitely want to check out the attractions not available at WDW. Some of our favorites include Alice in Wonderland, Indiana Jones Adventure, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Toon Town remains a part of Disneyland Park as well.

{Spoiler alert: The castle at Disneyland Park is much smaller. And pinker.} 

Also keep in mind that even the rides that are “the same” are not exactly the same. You’ll find noticeable variations on Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World, for instance.

California Adventure houses both Cars Land and Pixar Pier, with numerous attractions and amenities not available at WDW. There is also a huge play area {Redwood Creek} where children under 12 can use a mini zip-line.

{Truth: I actually enjoy the attractions at California Adventure more than those Disneyland Park, especially the Guardians of the Galaxy update to the former Tower of Terror and the entire “Radiator Springs” area.}

Do I Really Need MaxPass?

MaxPass allows you to get FastPasses on your phone, rather than going directly to the ride and using the kiosk. It also entitles you to download any PhotoPass photos taken that day. 

Many people will insist you need MaxPass for your trip, but you most definitely do not.

The current price is $15 {per day, per ticket}, which can end up being prohibitively expensive for large parties. For example, for our family of five on a typical three-day trip we would spend $75 a day, or $225 total, simply for the convenience of not walking to a FastPass kiosk and the possibility of getting a few decent photos.

{Spoiler alert: The PhotoPass photo opportunities are not as interesting or varied as at WDW.}

I think where a lot of people get confused is they erroneously believe you must have MaxPass in order to book FastPasses—the way you pay for express ride access at some other theme parks. The truth is, you can still get the same number of FastPasses either way, whether you book them on your phone or walk over and get a paper reminder.

The one advantage would be if you have a park-hopper pass you can book FastPasses for the opposite park {the one you are not currently in} from your phone, but without MaxPass you would have to physically walk to that park. 


Character Meet and Greets

We have certainly met many characters at Disneyland that we have never witnessed out at WDW, including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Groot. However, the character meet and greets are not organized the same way. 

At WDW, if you are in line for a character, you will see that character. A cast member may cut off the line at some point, but if you have a place in line, you will get your hug, autograph, photo, whatever. 

At Disneyland, the meet and greets frequently “end” without much warning. When this happens, usually the character will exit by coming down the line and giving a high-five or hug to the remaining guests.

The cast members are usually good about keeping you updated, but sometimes you might be standing in line for five or ten minutes and then suddenly hear, “okay, this is Mickey’s last family; he’ll be coming down the line to say hello real quick on his way out.” It used to be disappointing, but now we kind of expect it. 

What About Meals?

There is no pre-paid dining plan, so everything is out-of-pocket on the go. They do offer restaurant discounts for annual pass holders and DVC members. As in WDW, the discount only applies at “inside” restaurants, not kiosks or food carts. Personally the lack of dining plans does not make me too sad, as we have recently concluded the ones at WDW are simply not worth it for our party any longer. 

Unlike WDW where you can plan your meal reservations 180 days out, bookings for table service dining can only be made 60 days in advance. Character meals are also more limited; only five available at last count {including both parks and the three on-site hotels}.

While it would be impossible to go through every single difference between the two establishments, I wanted to elaborate on several key disparities. Hopefully this will assist you in your planning, or at least provide some food for thought when considering a first trip to Disneyland.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Really interesting, I have always wanted to visit both Disney land and Disney World. Your article just brings back my desire to life. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Valerie

      Thank you so much for stopping by. Yes, definitely go! They are both so much fun in different ways. We’ve visited Disneyland more lately because we live in southern CA, but we always miss WDW.

  2. Avatar

    Disneyland is definitely on my list if I ever get out to California. Is it possible to see most, if not all, of Disneyland in one day, or do you need a few days to really ride everything?

    1. Valerie

      Possible if you are up for a VERY long day, yes! I would say one full day per park would be ideal. Three days total if you want to spend some time in the downtown area and enjoying the hotel amenities or breaking for an afternoon swim. The good thing is the parks {and downtown} are literally steps from each other, so park hopping is way easier than at WDW.

  3. Avatar

    Super awesome read! I grew up in Orlando going to Disney World all the time, but have never been to Disney Land! I never knew it was in the middle of a town! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Valerie

      So many things surprised us on our first visit! Now that I have made multiple trips to both, I’m not sure if I have a favorite. They are each unique in their own way.

  4. Avatar

    There are some breed so many hotel options, and I have heard great things about the Candy Cane Inn! I will have to check it out next time I am in DL!

    1. Valerie

      Definitely one of our favorites! I especially like that they offer free breakfast {most places do not} and have free parking {expect to pay ~$20 a day at most other hotels}.

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