Ever since I was a child, I have had to bear people telling me why Disney World is better than Disneyland. More often than not, these people have been to Disney World once, maybe twice. More often still, these people have not been to Disneyland. So, I would just like to make my case.
(I do want to note, though: I love both of these parks. Disney World is wonderful and I would love, love, love to go back. I also grew up going to Disneyland twice a year, a fact that has likely colored my view of both of these parks.)
As a vacation destination, Disney World is better than Disneyland. That's just a fact. It is far larger than Disneyland, has way more to do, and is built for tourism, especially for families with children. If you want to meet characters, eat good food, and absolutely invest in experiencing Disney, Disney World really is the better option. Disneyland is built to last you a day, maybe two. It's surrounded by Los Angeles and the beaches of Southern California, but if you are going on vacation specifically for Disney, Disney World is a far better bet.
However, outside of the world of tourism and vacationers, simply looking at these two parks as Disney Parks, Disneyland outshines its East Coast counterpart by a mile. There are some obvious, surface-level reasons: Disney World is full of tourists while Disneyland is mainly locals, Disneyland is normally less crowded and more leisurely, it's in California and isn't rained out by Florida Mood Swings half the day, etc. But there is one thing I think it all really comes down to: each park's priorities.
Disney World is what its name suggests: a world dedicated to the creations of the Walt Disney Company. It is all about indulging in the Disney brand, making Disney properties a reality, and deep diving into the films of Disney. And that's all well and good, but that's not why Disney Parks were originally created. In fact, when Disneyland opened in 1955, Disney's animation studio as we think of it had barely taken off. Only four out of the seventeen attractions on opening day were inspired by existing Disney films. In fact, Sleeping Beauty wouldn't even come out until 1959, four years after Disneyland opened with Sleeping Beauty's castle as its centerpiece. So, why did Disneyland exist if not to celebrate the Disney brand?
The story is fairly well known: Walt Disney regularly sat on a bench in Griffith Park and watched his daughters enjoy the carousel, and as he found himself relegated to the bench every day he began to come up with a place where people of all ages could embrace their inner child and the wild imagination that comes with being a kid. He also really wanted to build a small town for his passion for large-scale model trains, but that's for another time. The important thing is that Disneyland was born, mostly from a man's want to craft a world in which a child-like imagination was the name of the game, and from there, Disneyland's dedication to that idea made it a staple of innovation and invention, creating everything from the first audio-animatronics to the first Dorito. The park was even a staple of the 1964 New York World's Fair, taking inspiration from the newest technology and presenting some of its own, a trade-off that lent the park the tech it needed to create even more original story-driven staples like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
So, Disneyland becomes a product of a deep want to imagine and invent, each land representing the past, future, and fantasy we entertain in our minds, especially as children. And the modern Disneyland, over 60 years down the line, has embraced this history. Opening day attractions and the original attractions of subsequent years are almost all still in operation. The park works hard to preserve the feeling of the Disneyland of 1955 and honor the spirit of creativity it was built on, so walking into the park often feels like entering another world entirely. It aims to inspire nostalgia, child-like leaps of imagination, and a want to create. There are rides inspired by Disney properties, sure, but that has never been the focus of it. Disneyland is all about its history.
Disney World, on the other hand, does not have that history. Orlando's version of the park was a business idea, a way to expand the success of Disneyland and the Disney Company to the East Coast. Those ideas that originally made Disney World unique, like EPCOT, fell apart in construction or were reworked long after Walt Disney passed away. So, because it was not built on the same ideals, or any sort of solid ideals for that matter, the park does not have the same loyalty to the creativity that bore it.
Without that solid footing that Disneyland has in its history, Disney World came to rely on the idea that "bigger is better." Its castle is far grander than Disneyland's. Its rides are often longer, larger, and filled with the newest technology. The park itself is much larger than Disneyland and continues to build and build, pulling from Disney properties, including Disneyland itself, for inspiration. It is all about the new, the big, and the flashy.
Years down the line, this has deeply affected the priorities of each of these parks -- and the fireworks shows currently running at each park illustrate that perfectly. Disney World's new "Happily Ever After" fireworks are entirely clips from the newest Disney movies projected on the castle while pop covers of Disney classics play. Fireworks go off occasionally, but it is mainly a show of the newest special effects and how many Disney movies that can cover twenty minutes. Disneyland's "Remember...Dreams Come True" fireworks, on the other hand, are hardly concerned with Disney movies at all. Their fireworks begin with a couple audio clips of wishes of Disney characters, just as Disney World's did once upon a time, but then they shift completely. Walt Disney's opening day speech on the values of Disneyland plays, followed by a montage of fireworks set perfectly not only to the music, but the sound effects and aesthetics of Disneyland's attractions, shifting from land to land in a show that is built to emphasize the fact that its audience is standing within the product of a truly wild dreamscape. It ends asking that its audience take a hard look at their dreams, compare them to the enormity that is Disneyland, and ask, "Is my dream really that impossible?"
The focus of Disney World is immersing you in a world, not inspiring one. Disney World wants to envelop you in the magic of Disney. Disneyland would rather use its inherent nostalgia and history of innovation to encourage the next Walt Disney, meaning its guests not only experience that magic within the park but leave with it, too. And that is why Disneyland will always be the better park.