I love Disneyland. Clearly, it’s in my name.
So when I ventured to Walt Disney World for the first time in 20 years with my family last week, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. After all, the internet is full of stories from Disney fans who say the team at Walt Disney World does poorly at upkeep, that it’s a nightmare to navigate, and on and on. Besides, Disneyland was Walt’s park. It’s where Walt slept in that apartment over the garage and walked around. Walt’s spirit lives at the original Disneyland.
But here I am, four days after returning from Orlando, and I can’t stop thinking about my time at Walt Disney World. I was stunned at how much it had changed since my last visit, the sheer vastness of everything (in spite of knowing all of this as a former Cast Member), and even more–I was shocked at the things Walt Disney World got right in ways that Disneyland hasn’t. In my nine days exploring the four theme parks, resorts, miniature golf, and transportation of Disney’s enterprise in central Florida, I discovered so many things that I fell in love with–that I wish Disneyland could do.
To be clear: some of what makes experiences at Walt Disney World better has everything to do with size. Because Walt leveraged everything he had to build Disneyland, he couldn’t purchase all the land he wanted, a mistake he didn’t make again in Florida. Because the entire property is twice the size of the island of Manhattan, there are things that Walt Disney World can do that Disneyland just can’t.
Here are Five Things Walt Disney World does better than Disneyland:
5. Cast Members. I have to be honest, the Disney employees in Florida, for the most part,
outshone their California counterparts. Whether it was the cashiers at quick service restaurants, the guest service host in our hotel lobby who did card tricks and told us jokes while we waited for our room, the transportation driver who turned our leaving items in our hotel room into a one-of-a-kind experience, the gal who assured us we hadn’t missed our Mickey’s Magical Express bus to the airport, or the retired Navy guy who piloted our water taxi to and from Disney Springs, the cast members at Walt Disney World were uniformly excellent. So good, in fact, that I tweeted their names constantly during my stay to be sure their bosses knew just how incredible they were. Friendly, kind, attentive, polite, good-natured. These are hallmarks of a Disney Cast Member, and the ones in Florida really lived out that Disney ideal. I’ll never forget Bertie, the older gentleman at our resort who clearly loved his primary job: handing out Mickey Mouse stickers to everyone who walked by him. Or “Patch,” the pirate host of an unforgettable night of fireworks and fun, who teased me with great humor for nearly three hours. Cast Members like these were the rule, not the exception. As a former Cast Member myself, this love of bringing “Disney” to life was impressive and inspiring.
4. Resorts. We frequently stay at the resorts at Disneyland, and we love them. There is something magical about the Disneyland Hotel, the closeness to the parks, the ease of going back and forth during the day. But having so much room really makes the various hotels at Walt Disney World really feel like you’re escaping into another world. We stayed at the Port Orleans Riverside, which never felt like a huge hotel. With waterways, huge trees, crickets chirping in the bayou, an abundance of “quiet” pools, water taxis ferrying guests to and from Disney Springs, and prompt guest service (when I mentioned my bathroom wasn’t up to par on our first night, housekeeping sent someone over immediately–and she cleaned the entire bathroom from top to bottom), with lots of fun things to do, the resorts we explored (we visited several) just showed us why Walt was right: more space made a better experience for everyone–adults and kids.
3. Technology. The marriage of Magic Bands to FastPass+ to the Walt Disney World app on my phone to resort reservations and Photo Pass with resort-wide wifi was simply stunning. I know the Magic Band technology has been costly, and sometimes it’s been a PR nightmare because of privacy concerns. But holy cow, it was amazing. Not having to carry credit cards or room keys or a Photo Pass card was great. Even better, the technology allowed some very specific moments to occur–from CM’s wishing kids a happy birthday as they entered an attraction (without seeing a button) to ride photographs showing up without having to fight a queue of people all trying to grab their photo. In addition, the way it all tied into the My Disney Experience app was even better. A photo with a cast member, and less than 10 minutes later, I was able to download it and update my Facebook profile. This is something Disneyland just doesn’t have. And the fact that the wifi worked everywhere was amazing. At Disneyland, I can’t even get my laptop to stay connected in my room. I was at the top of Expedition Everest, posting a photo of my son and I before the ride careened backwards–and I was on free wifi. Impressive.
2. Character Interactions. Disneyland has certainly upped its game recently, with some nice character moments and experiences at the Princess Fantasy Faire or the new Star Wars Launch Bay. But Walt Disney World is a dream come true for anyone wanting to meet the famous Disney family of characters. A huge variety of character interactions, at every single park, makes it easy for families to get photos with the Fab Five, or even more obscure characters like Baymax (from Big Hero 6) or Pocahontas. In addition, nearly every interaction is private, meaning you aren’t fighting twenty other people for a photo on Main Street with Donald. You can get Fast Passes for many of the interactions, meaning you are guaranteed your moment with Mickey. And I’m saving the incredible Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage (where my kids got to play with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee) for another post. I don’t like taking photos with characters at Disneyland because it’s such a hassle. At Walt Disney World, I couldn’t wait.
1. Queues. This may sound like a funny thing to put as my top way Walt Disney World does it better than Disneyland, but anyone who has stood in the queue for California Screamin’ or Soarin’ or Toy Story Midway Mania or The Haunted Mansion or Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin or–you get the idea. The queues at Disneyland are lines with chains. Many of the queues at Walt Disney World share that quality, especially some of the older attractions. But then you get in line for Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and you forget that you’re standing in line. The attention to detail and things to grab your attention don’t stop. The queue for the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion comes to life as you interact with it–I loved when the organ blew dust in my face and the bookshelf came to life. The queue for Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom was everything a queue should be: interesting, beautifully detailed, and it helped get the story for the attraction underway long before you climbed aboard. Is every queue perfect? No way, but there are small things in the lines at Walt Disney World I would love to see come to life at Disneyland.
Disneyland will always have my heart. It’s where I spent nearly three days a week as a college student. It’s where my wife and I were married, and where we have loved watching our kids grow up. But Walt’s incredible world in Florida is something entirely different, something spectacular that I can’t wait to experience again.
The Disneyland Dad says: I haven’t felt this way about coming home from vacation in a long time. I haven’t taken off my Magic Band yet. I’m still listening to every bit of music from Walt Disney World that I can, and am always looking for an excuse to talk about my experience or find ways to bring what I experienced there into my everyday life, where I work, etc. That’s why this is the first in a series of non-Disneyland posts we will be calling “Walt Disney World Wednesday.” Stick around, because I have a lot more to share.