Many people use the names Disneyland and Disney World interchangeably and while both have obvious similarities (like being theme park properties owned by the Walt Disney company for instance) they actually have very little in common. For one thing, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is composed of the original Disneyland Park alongside the new Disney’s California Adventure Park with a Downtown Disney dining and shopping complex, a parking pavilion, and a few nearby resorts all crammed between Anaheim motels and LA-area freeways. Disney World is sprawling and located among nature-preserved central Florida forest. It includes the Magic Kingdom park, modeled after Disneyland, along with three other parks, Disney Springs shopping and dining (the former Downtown Disney), water parks, a bazillion resort hotels, golfing, a sports complex, a racetrack, and even some honest-to-goodness towns and home communities.
When you ask to compare Disneyland to “Disney World” what you really want to compare is Disneyland to Magic Kingdom park. Although, to be fair, California Adventure has a few similarities to bits and pieces of the other Disney World parks including iconic rides like Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror, Muppet Vision, and Toy Story Mania, Epcot’s Soarin, and an Animal Kingdom-esque river rapids ride.
Most importantly, however, is the comparison of Disneyland to Magic Kingdom. First the similarities. Both have most of the same themed lands surrounding a castle. Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street USA exist in both parks in the same basic position on the map. Since Disneyland opened first, many of their iconic rides came first. Pirates of the Caribbean (better at Disneyland) and Haunted Mansion (better at Magic Kingdom) exist in both places. As do Disney World originals Splash Mountain (better at Magic Kingdom), Space Mountain (better at Disneyland,) and Star Tours (toss up.) Rounding out the pantheon of duplicated rides are It’s A Small World (better at Magic Kingdom), Peter Pan’s Flight, Jungle Cruise, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mad Tea Party, Carousel, and Astro Orbiter (almost the same in both cases, although Dumbo has the better queue in Florida.) The Enchanted Tiki Room, a “shoot-em-up” Buzz Lightyear ride, a kiddie coaster, the railroad, a treehouse, a riverboat, Speedway, and Tom Sawyer Island exist in both parks but differ enough from each other that they call all be considered distinct attractions.
Size is the other major difference. Disneyland has way more “stuff” crammed into far less space than the Magic Kingdom. While Magic Kingdom lands are separated from the castle “hub” by lawns and water features, Disneyland merely demarks the transition from hub to land with a big overhead sign. For instance, Disneyland’s Star Tours in Tomorrowland is only a few steps from the castle hub while one would need to walk a path through a courtyard, across a large bridge, and then past the side of two buildings to reach the entrance of an attraction in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. The sheer number of attractions also separates the two parks. While there is plenty to see and do at Magic Kingdom, enough that two full days of park touring can sometimes not be enough to see it all, Disneyland makes up for its lack of size with so much to keep you occupied, that it would take days to see it all. The small park seems even smaller still when rides and attractions are stacked close together throughout the park as they are in Disneyland.
Plus some of Disneyland’s rides can seem to a Disney World veteran to be two rides pushed together. For instance, Disneyland’s monorail is a ride that can be taken from inside the park. The railroad contains animatronic scenes including a random trip through a dinosaur world (that will look a lot like Ellen’s Energy Adventure from Epcot.) Disneyland has Fantasmic, only it takes place on Tom Sawyer Island in the Rivers of America instead of in its own theater. The Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show is on Main Street USA and has some facets of Epcot’s American Adventure and Hollywood Studios’ One Man’s Dream mixed in. The Casey Jr. Circus Train and Storybookland Canal Boats are literally the same ride, only with one looking at sites from a train that the other views from a boat.
There are plenty of other smaller differences that won’t make much difference to the average guest but are worth noting. Many rides board outside instead of inside, allowed by California’s milder weather, including It’s A Small World that not only boards outside but on boats that float in a flume chute instead of seemingly independently through a river like at Magic Kingdom. Disneyland’s Mad Tea Party also takes place entirely outside in the open.
Finally there are the things that Disneyland has that Walt Disney World does not. In addition to the aforementioned Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarines still exist in California as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and former Magic Kingdom acid trip Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride still sends riders to hell at Disneyland (seriously). The following attractions also exist at Disneyland and Disneyland only: The Matterhorn bobsled roller coaster, Indiana Jones Adventure, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Snow White’s Scary Adventures (another former MK ride,) Alice in Wonderland, Sailing Ship Columbia, and the aforementioned Casey Junior Circus Train and Storybookland Canal Boats. Disneyland also has two lands that Magic Kingdom does not: Critter Country, an offshoot of Frontierland that includes Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, Winnie the Pooh, and Davy Crockett Canoes, and more importantly Mickey’s Toontown, a fully realized land in California that includes nothing that can be found in Florida. Toontown attractions include Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s houses, Chip ‘n Dale’s Treehouse playground and nearby Gadget’s Go Coaster (and yes fellow late 80’s kids, those are based on the Rescue Rangers,) as well as Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Goofy’s Playhouse, and Donald’s Boat.
For comparison’s sake, Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland expansion cannot be found in California, with the exception of Under The Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid (its at California Adventure,) this includes Enchanted Tales with Belle, Be Our Guest restaurant, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The following Magic Kingdom attractions also cannot be found in California: Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Stitch’s Great Escape, TTA Peoplemover, and Carousel of Progress. Lastly, the only attractions we haven’t mentioned that exist in both California and Florida, are the 3D movie It’s Tough to be a Bug, Disney Junior Live on Stage, and Turtle Talk with Crush, all at Disney’s California Adventure.
No doubt there are many things familiar to both parks and many things that can only be found in one and not the other. Is one better than the other? That’s for each individual guest to decide. I grew up on Walt Disney World. Magic Kingdom is the first park I’d ever been to, it is where I proposed to my wife, it is where I dream of taking my future children throughout their lives. Visiting Disneyland was one of the most amazing days of my life. I walked in the shadow of Walt, rode the original rides that inspired the theme park empire that shaped my childhood and I’ve devoted my adult life to. If you must have a bottom line answer as to which is better, I’ll give you this cop out. As an overall vacation destination, Walt Disney World gets the nod since it is bigger and has so much variety. As a one day, one park choice, it is definitely Disneyland since there is so much to see and so much history behind it too.