“Disney World incorporates some lessons learned in the original gold mine called Disneyland that opened 16 years ago at Anaheim, California. Some changes are minor. At Orlando the vinyl leaves on the Swiss Family Robinson Tree are draped with live Spanish moss. No such decoration at Anaheim. Disney World’s 18-story Cinderella Castle is more than twice as high as its Anaheim counterpart and houses a lavish restaurant. Anaheim has only one President, an animated Mr. Lincoln, but Disney World’s Hall of Presidents offers all 36 of them- in costume, in motion, and getting along famously.”
This quote is from Life magazine’s cover story of Walt Disney World’s opening, published October 15, 1971. The article makes Disney World out to be the vacation kingdom of the world- and it is! But as I read this, I thought of old Disneyland. No spanish moss, no castle restaurant, no presidents besides Honest Abe… But somehow, during my recent trip out west, Disneyland stole my heart from Walt Disney World, and I don’t know if it will ever get it back.
An essential part of the Magic Kingdom experience on both coasts is Main Street U.S.A. It’s the first part of the theme park you experience, and it sets up your expectations for the rest of the park. Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. understands its objective. It doesn’t try to be the place for Disney merchandise because that’s what the neighboring World of Disney store in Downtown Disney strives for. Instead, Main Street U.S.A. features smaller stores with unique identities that keep crowds flowing up the street towards the main attraction. Main Street U.S.A. also takes advantage of its theming to incorporate Disney stories that otherwise couldn’t fit in the park, but rightfully belong, such as Mary Poppins and The Happiest Millionaire. In the evening, Main Street U.S.A.’s objective changes slightly from a warm welcome to a tender goodbye. At Walt Disney World, leaving the Magic Kingdom is often a nightmare caused by the evening parade and the chaotic stores, but at Disneyland, it is calm and charming; the Disneyland guest can relax on the curb to castle-gaze, a luxurious freedom granted nowhere else within American borders. You’re given a true choice of staying for a float and some shopping or leaving to dream about a surreal day now passed.
Special freedoms are not only for the guests of Disneyland. The characters seem to actually live there. They are citizens of Disneyland instead of distant celebrities constantly guarded by self-important character watchmen. Alice and the Mad Hatter can play with guests, Br’er Bear can frolic around Critter Country, and Hans and Otto can climb to the Matterhorn’s peak. Because the characters here are granted more freedom, guests can liberate themselves to a higher level where they, too, begin to see Disneyland as their imagination’s playground. When everyone else is able to act on this same level, Disney’s main objective of authenticity is brought to the outermost rim of reality.
Authenticity is achieved when any contradictory elements are removed or hidden. Disneyland’s execution of the Rivers of America illustrates this precisely. The river is a part of New Orleans Square, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Critter Country, and integrates elements of each land without contradicting any guest’s view. There are so many types of boats on the river: a sailing ship, a steam-powered riverboat, rafts, and canoes. They make this river feel real, important, and natural. Each boat offers a different perspective of the river. It’s more than landscape, more than an effective transition; it has multiple attractions that each hold value.
Along the Rivers of America sits a land Walt Disney World has never known: New Orleans Square. This land is imaginative and colorful. The feeling of magic and fantasy here is on a whole other level compared to Walt Disney World’s counterpart, Liberty Square. New Orleans Square is full of high energy from its winding streets to its live entertainment. It’s a place you want to explore, and it features two of the greatest attractions of all time: Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion.
In addition to the variety of attractions, Disneyland has longer rides than Walt Disney World does. When an attraction is longer (or even if it just seems longer), it is more immersive. The deeper you’re immersed, the greater affect the ride has on you. That is a vital part of how memorable an attraction is. Naturally, if you love an attraction, you will probably come back to experience it again. A direct comparison between Disneyland and Walt Disney World is found in Pirates of the Caribbean. Disneyland’s version is 16-minutes long, with more stories, imagery, and drops that make it the hands-down winner when compared to Walt Disney World’s version. Another example that parallels length and quality is Indiana Jones Adventure. This attraction’s queue extends deep into Adventureland, and the ride itself has enough suspense and thrill to drive an entire film.
Although the entire park is a gem, Disneyland’s crowning jewel is Fantasyland. It has a perfect balance of charm and whimsy. Its approach to fantasy is a classic one, focusing on original, timeless Disney stories. Guests of all ages can thoroughly enjoy it because everyone knows the stories of Snow White, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Pinocchio. Disneyland’s Fantasyland is pure and immersive; it encompasses enough space so that when you’re there, it feels like Fantasyland is the only place in the world. Although every attraction here is golden, there is one that stands out, visually and emotionally: the Matterhorn. In this attraction, instead of witnessing your favorite stories come alive, you create your very own story. As you board your bobsled and Hans and Otto climb the mountain’s peak, you feel wholeheartedly that the fantasies of your wildest imagination are finally reality.
There is a unique feeling you get when you enter Disneyland. A little voice tells you, “Walt was here,” and when you leave, that voice says, “He’s still here.” This is something only Disneyland can do. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are so different, and even if they tried, one could never be exactly like the other. But that’s okay. They don’t have to be the same, and they shouldn’t strive to be. Disneyland doesn’t have Epcot or Disney’s Animal Kingdom, just as Walt Disney World doesn’t have Storybookland Canal Boats or the Matterhorn. Neither resort is better, only different, and it all comes down to personal preference. For now, I prefer Disneyland, but nothing is for certain in our ever-changing world. The only thing I do know for certain is where my mind goes when it wanders, and I wrote this essay with only one objective: to find out why.