Updated April 6, 2018
In the summer of 2014, I took a 2 week trip to south Florida where we visited Disney World and the Florida Keys. It was super awesome, exhausting, and worth every bit of effort we put into it.
So…..many have asked which destination I like better and how I would compare the two.
Here we go!
In this article
A quick recap of details: My husband had a conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, so we tagged along to enjoy the parks. My sister and BFF, Caroline, joined us. We had 5 day park hoppers and visited WDW Tuesday – Saturday. My husband joined us on Saturday when he finished with his work.
We had two dining reservations upon arrival and plans for specific counter service destinations, but we were very flexible with our itinerary. I did my research, but we went with the flow….and accommodated the needs of our kids and my sister, who has some medical challenges that supersede any obsessive planning I might put in place.
We flew in on a Monday, which is an all day venture from San Diego to Orlando. Arrived Monday night at 7pm and then started the next morning at Animal Kingdom. After finishing Saturday late at Magic Kingdom, we spent our last night in Orlando and then headed south to the Florida Keys.
We stayed three days in Key Largo at the ocean front Hampton Inn and enjoyed lots of snorkeling and adventure at John Pennekamp State Park. I highly recommend a snorkeling excursion here, which was phenomenal and quite affordable compared to most with our total for 5 people coming in at $160, which included 2 adult equipment rentals (we own gear for the kids and brought it along) and 2.5 hours with 1.5 actual snorkeling time.
Next, we island hopped and landed finally in fabulous Key West and stayed at the uber fabulous Waldorf Astoria Casa Marina. This is a splurge for us, as we try to keep hotels reasonable and modest so that we can afford more travel. We enjoyed the Hemingway House and Mallory Square in town, plus the Southern Most Point of the U.S. marker. I also had professional photos taken of my family while there, which is something we often do when we travel in lieu of souvenirs. I’m sure my children will spend plenty of time in therapy for that later on, but I feel comfortable with our decision.
I could write for days on side-trips to Disney travel, including San Diego, Orange County Beaches and Los Angeles for Disneyland. But, now we will return to our regularly scheduled program: Disney World.
I’ve spent weeks on Disneyland trips, so I remain committed to the feeling that you get what you put into your planning. As with DLR, a WDW visit requires work and it pays off at the parks.
WDW takes more time than DLR, of course, because there’s twice the amount of parks, 2 water parks and many resorts to consider. We stayed off site, so my planning structure was different from many WDW visitors. I would have had more to do had we stayed on-site.
My biggest recommendation for knowledgeable DLR fans visiting WDW is to get to know the parks before you arrive. Study attractions, lands and the general layout of each park. I could likely draw a map of Disneyland free-hand with details on attractions, bathrooms and dining if I needed to. So, not knowing every part of the four parks was tough for me. But, what I studied before helped ease my anxiety.
This part really needs no explaining, as most know that DLR is a fraction of the size of WDW. But, I really gained perspective driving to each of the parks rather than walking across the lobby from Disneyland to California Adventure.
As we drove, my mind wandered and I imagined excited young children in station wagons looking for signs for each exit and then bursting with joy when they saw their intended park. That part of the journey was unexpected for me and felt very Griswold-esque in nature.
I thought it would be a headache to travel from park to park, but it’s really quite easy and the anticipation between the destinations was fun. I didn’t care for the hour it took between destinations, but it’s part of the deal at WDW. Whether by car, monorail, bus, boat, etc……it took us about an hour to go from point A to point B.
Disneyland consists of about 500 acres. Disney World covers 20,000 acres, or essentially the same space San Francisco takes up. It’s ENORMOUS and truly a city of its own.
Park Impressions (in order from favorite to least favorite)
Magic Kingdom: Pure, perfect, harmonious Disney magic – precisely how I feel about my beloved Disneyland. It felt like home…..warm and welcoming and exactly as I had hoped. Disney World Main Street was the strong, muscular, proud big brother to its familiar little sister, Disneyland Main Street, and it felt good to see so many special touches that we know and love about Disneyland. As with DLR, I teared up walking through it.
Liberty Square was our favorite ‘land’. So cute in so many ways and it held the Disneyland old school feeling we adore. We thought Fantasyland attraction signs looked like circus facades and felt totally different than Fantasyland in DLR. The ones at WDW were charming and unusual and I enjoyed that.
We preferred WDW Tomorrowland over DLR’s version, as predicted. And, the Electric Light Parade was the most magical thing ever. Of course, nothing beat seeing it at Disneyland when it retired. But, I was happy to see it at Disney World, too.
The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique was darling and similar to our experience at Disneyland’s BBB. We chose the castle location over Downtown Disney for convenience. The Fairy Godmother was just outside the castle as my “Cinderella” finished her makeover, so it was the perfect opportunity for a photo.
Epcot: I was totally impressed with Epcot. I knew what to expect and wanted a big focus on World Showcase, but I had not anticipated how absolutely beautiful that park is. In addition to the Disney-designed elements and buildings, the grounds were gorgeous with impressive landscaping, water, bridges and small hills here and there. I wish I had more time at Epcot.
I didn’t care for the front part of Epcot nearly as much as I did the back – World Showcase. The street performers and authentic, international cast members added to the magic. We loved visiting with so many people from so many places. I could walk this part of Disney World for weeks and never get bored.
Hollywood Studios: This park was cool and felt a lot like California Adventure to us. It rained the day we attended, so that put a slight damper on things, but we didn’t let it get us down.
(Since I originally wrote this post, I’ve visited a few more times and have come to not like Hollywood Studios all that much. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The theming lacks consistency and it still feels like California Adventure did many years ago, before the huge restructuring in 2012. This park will eventually come together, but I don’t care for it as it is now.)
Animal Kingdom: Animal Kingdom was our least favorite, but don’t hate me for it. Here is why: We live less than an hour from the world famous San Diego Zoo. We are pass holders and go quite often. So, perhaps we already have our fill of animals.
However, it was beautifully laid out, the Tree of Life was awesome and we enjoyed several attractions. Side note: Why do animal parks ALWAYS feel hot? Hotter than it already is outside. (We encounter this at the San Diego Zoo, too.)
We had favorites at each park, for sure.
Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train was super impressive. Carousel of Progress = all my nerdy dreams come true. Haunted Mansion was a nice twist from our favorite at DLR and equally as impressive. We rode Pirates of the Caribbean twice after being told it was a sad excuse for Disneyland’s. It was condensed, yes. But, we still enjoyed it a lot.
Epcot: Spaceship Earth was awesome. Mission Space nearly killed me. Mostly, we enjoyed walking through World Showcase. Epcot felt less about rides and more about exploring. We had a magical run in with Mary Poppins which made the day so special.
Hollywood Studios: The Great Movie Ride was our favorite. Loved the Wizard of Oz part! Also enjoyed Walt Disney – One Man’s Dream. I totally enjoyed that look back through time. Kids? Not so much. Update: I think everything I loved about this park is now closed. Oh, well.
Animal Kingdom: No arguing with how good Expedition Everest was. It’s my favorite ride in any Disney park! My kids rode it twice with the single rider line option. Also loved Dinosaur.
Disney World was everything I wanted it to be. Yes, the weather was hot, but we were having too much fun to notice. We took a break each day in the afternoon and it helped a lot. We used Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads, Misting/Drinking Bottles and Cooling Scarves. We stayed hydrated. And, I honestly don’t recall anyone complaining about the heat, other than at Animal Kingdom.
I’m not a huge fan of Downtown Disney in Disneyland and Disney World’s version felt very much like it. I think it’s a great option for your first evening’s “Disney” experience without buying a ticket into the park or for your last day’s shopping excursion, but otherwise it feels very retail-focused and it’s just not my thing.
I enjoyed the venture out into the great unknown and loved exploring new parks since we know so much about Disneyland and DCA. I thought the cast members were friendly and helpful, although, we have had better experiences at Disneyland.
The first cast member we encountered at Magic Kingdom told us he had a headache. And, several others at Hollywood Studios led us down paths to stores that were already closed for the evening. Beyond that bit of frustration (which can be found at Disneyland, too), our visit was superb.
My sister and I discussed at length the cast member difference between the two parks because we were told that WDW cast members are more friendly than DLR due to so many college programs bringing kids in to work, who are enthusiastic about their jobs rather than doing them for income, which can be the case at Disneyland since it’s so immersed in the city of Anaheim. We’ve had good and bad experiences at both parks and for the most part, WDW cast members were super helpful, so we left with no hard feelings due to a few bad apples.
How to Choose: Disneyland or Disney World
A few people have told me that Disney World is a destination and Disneyland is a theme park. I take a bit offense to that because it feels slightly insulting to Disneyland, even though it may not be intended that way. I do agree that WDW can be an all-inclusive, entirely Disney focused trip, where as Disneyland does not have to be. (And, that might appeal to some.)
So, if you’re deciding between the two, here are my recommendations:
Disney World: If you want the entire Disney experience from arrival at the airport to your Disney hotel to never leaving the Disney bubble, WDW is for you. You’ll have more to choose from with hotels, parks, dining and even water parks.
You will spend more money and more time and that’s not always a bad thing – you’ll get a more thorough experience than you will at Disneyland. Prepare for the heat and rain, but both are manageable.
Disneyland: If you want a solid Disney experience with less effort and less expense, Disneyland is your choice. You can enjoy the parks in fewer days because there’s fewer of them. Staying off-site is super common. Simply put, it’s a more laid back Disney experience. It also can be more historical in nature because Walt’s presence is significant.
You can focus more on what to do around Disneyland, such as visiting the gorgeous SoCal beaches and seeing Legoland, San Diego and other cities that can be full destinations in themselves. Also, major bonus: the weather. Disneyland is blessed with almost no rain, perfect 70 degree days and chilly nights that are a nice end to a busy park experience.
Bonus, Non-Essential Information:
- I trained for 4 months prior to my trip and lost 25 pounds and 3 sizes in preparation. My aim was less vanity focused and more so in hopes of not dying in the middle of Orlando heat since we’re accustomed to near perfect temps in Southern California. It was worth the effort.
- My husband, who is known for his favorite ride at Disneyland being the tram back to the car at the end of the day, loved this trip as I had predicted…..even though he wasn’t a big fan of the planning commitment or expense involved. Why does he ever question me?
Final Wrap Up
I’m in serious Disney depression writing this post. Disney planning feels a bit like wedding planning and my big day has come and gone. I’m now the sad mother of the bride, feeling left behind and without a purpose in life. Might be time for some intensive therapy. I’ll be back at Disneyland soon, but I’m feeling super sad that my WDW planning is over. The struggle is real, friends.
And, my “only Disney World trip ever” might just turn into another. I have always suggested we had no reason to fly across the nation to Disney World when we live an hour from Disneyland. But, the parks were just so impressive and I want to do it all again since I’m more familiar with each. Time will tell!
This post feels like forever ago. Originally written in July of 2014, so much has changed since then! I’ve visited Disney World four times since this post was published and have also been on a Disney Cruise.
I’ll be back at Disney World in June of 2018 with my family and then November, too, with girlfriends!
WHO HAVE I BECOME?
Stay tuned for more.