A tale of two Disneys: What to expect at Disney World vs Disneyland
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It took over a year, but both Disney parks on U.S. soil — Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Anaheim, California — are open.
Disney faithful know that the two properties have always had their differences, even in non-pandemic times. It should come as no surprise that new differences have emerged in 2021, largely due to the very divergent ways Florida and California have approached the pandemic and are currently regulating businesses.
Disney World has had a significant reopening head start on its California cousin. Disney World unlocked its gates in July 2020 and has been operating continuously ever since. In contrast, Disneyland just reopened on April 30, 2021. Naturally, Disneyland has quite a bit of catching up to do in terms of more fully reopening and scaling up, once it is fully permitted to play catch up under state rules.
Disneyland, with its tighter 1950’s era walkways and queues, has unique challenges in an era of social distancing that will continue to play a role in perpetuating some differences even once the state guidelines eventually become less disparate.
For now at least, here are the major distinctions between visiting Disney World and Disneyland as the summer 2021 travel season starts.
Even after about a year of its reopening process, most — though not all — Disney World resort hotels have reopened.
Properties such as Port Orleans, All-Star Movies, All-Star Sports and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge – Jambo House remain closed. On many weekends, holidays, popular summer travel dates and around the park’s 50th-anniversary celebration that begins in October, there will be far more Disney resort hotels showing as sold out than there still are available.
While there are some discounts available at select Disney World resorts, for the most part, despite some amenities and services still being suspended, guests are paying roughly the same rates they were for Disney World resorts as before the pandemic — if not even higher in some cases.
To put this another way, a stay at Disney’s Yacht Club doesn’t yet come with nightly housekeeping and amenities such as the arcade and spa are still closed, but it will routinely set you back $400 – $500 per night.
Disneyland always has a much smaller number of on-property hotels but resort availability in California is extremely limited at the moment. There is currently only one Disney on-property hotel open, Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa, which reopened with the parks at the end of April.
The next of the three Disney-owned resorts to reopen will be Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, scheduled for June 15, 2021. The namesake Disneyland Hotel is scheduled to reopen on July 2. So far, the open rooms have not been selling out on most dates, so the supply is sufficient for the current demand, but prices are on the high side with the most budget-friendly of the three, Paradise Pier, starting at $400 on many summer nights and Grand Californian frequently starting at over $700 per night for a standard room.
Amenities and dining at the Disneyland on-property hotels are few and far between, even though the hotels are commanding full price.
Outside of location, the only advantage these hotels have for now is that they give guests access to a separate bucket of theme park reservations with close to wide-open availability (much more so than the on-property reservations calendar at Walt Disney World).
For last-minute planners, this benefit is significant. For those who can plan ahead and secure theme park reservations through the regular channels, off-property hotels offer better values.
Related: Where to stay at Disneyland
When Disney World reopened in summer 2020 it introduced the need for Disney Park Pass reservations made in advance of visiting the parks. While this wasn’t a huge hurdle when demand was still low, it has become more of an issue as demand has returned. In fact, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has been selling out of Park Pass reservations almost two months in advance. Epcot is generally the most available of the four Disney World theme parks.
There are different availability buckets depending on if you have an annual pass, an on-property resort reservation or just individual park tickets. While it wasn’t always this way, currently those with an annual pass have access to the best availability.
Like at Walt Disney World, Disneyland requires daily theme park reservations in addition to a park ticket for admission. Reservations help keep the parks capacity-controlled each day. While Walt Disney World travelers can book reservations all the way into 2023, the Disneyland reservations calendar is only open 120 days in advance.
The speed at which reservations “sell-out” at Disneyland varies quite a bit. Disneyland park books up quickly (often over a month in advance), while Disney California Adventure park often takes a few additional weeks to fill. With so many Southern California locals attending initially, weekends were the first to book up. With summer dates approaching and more guests coming from farther away for longer trips, demand is now spread more evenly throughout the week.
As Florida is fully reopened, Disney World is open to anyone who can get there with no state residency requirements.
The park has steadily been increasing park capacity, decreasing social distancing buffers and eliminating some of the precautions it took earlier in the pandemic. For example, on most attractions, the park now fills all of the rows of shows and rides. The requirements for temperature taking when entering the park or restaurants has also ceased.
Masks are no longer required for the fully vaccinated while indoors or outdoors at Disney World unless you are on Disney buses, monorails, or the Skyline. Nearby, Universal Orlando has dropped its mask requirements for vaccinated guests entirely (no verification of vaccination).
While Florida is wide open to all travelers, the state of California still has a COVID-19 travel advisory in place for anyone coming from out of state. For this reason, Disneyland currently only permits California residents to visit. However, this will change on June 15, 2021, when out-of-state guests will again be welcome.
Other COVID-19 precautions at the California parks are strict but mostly of the to-be-expected kind.
The parks conduct temperature checks right before the security checkpoints to enter Downtown Disney. Masks are required everywhere, except when actively eating and drinking while stationary. While Disney World has relaxed its mask rule outdoors, Disneyland is not able to do so yet.
The Disneyland parks had been operating at no more than 25% capacity while Orange County was assigned to the state’s orange tier. However, Orange County’s COVID-19 statistics continued to improve and the county is now in the yellow tier where 35% theme park capacity is permitted. Operating at 35% brings its operations more in line with what Disney World offered for the last few months.
Disneyland also must operate under significant restrictions on the time guests spend indoors. All ride queues are outdoors and most dining is as well. Thankfully, Southern California’s heat isn’t quite as oppressive as Florida’s because AC breaks are few and far between. Most of these state-mandated capacity and queuing restrictions disappear on June 15, but it remains to be seen how Disneyland will further modify its operations in response, if at all.
While Disney World ride vehicles aren’t back to full occupancy, they are getting close. Single rider lines to pack every square inch of a row have not yet returned, but generally speaking, each row of a vehicle will be full. There is often plexiglass added between rows on vehicles such as the indoor boat rides. You’ll also find lots of plexiglass in the queues that twist and turn on themselves.
Only Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance within Galaxy’s Edge is using a virtual queue, but otherwise all of the waiting for an attraction is done the old-fashioned way — in the usual lines that can stretch inside or outside. There is no FastPass+ or Extra Magic Hours available.
Some attractions that traditionally have pretty packed preshow rooms — such as at the Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror are skipping that part of the normal experience.
While Walt Disney World is now packing its rides, current ride modifications at Disneyland still look much like how Disney World first operated during its reopening in the summer of 2020.
With California requiring six feet of distancing, queues are very stretched out. Unlike at Walt Disney World where many queues make use of space inside unused show buildings, the queues at Disneyland must be entirely outdoors due to state regulations.
Attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean that usually have indoor queues have substantial modifications. The line for Pirates now stretches all over the terraces of New Orleans Square. Disneyland has also started offering a virtual queue for Indiana Jones some of the time to limit chokepoints caused by excessively long queues.
This brings the total number of virtual queues in use at Disneyland to three — Rise of the Resistance, WEB SLINGERS and Indiana Jones.
Also impacting operations is that ride vehicles at Disneyland are filled to only a fraction of their capacity. Larger boat rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and it’s a small world seat only two rows. Roller coasters are spaced one party per car, often resulting in two empty rows between smaller parties on attractions like Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain.
Other rides look more like their Walt Disney World equivalents. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, for example, has plexiglass between the two rows of the eight-seater ride vehicle, just like Florida added last fall.
There is only one ride at Disneyland that has arguably fewer COVID-19 safety modifications than its Walt Disney World equivalent: Haunted Mansion. While guests walk through and skip the traditional show in the stretching room in Orlando, the ride’s layout at Disneyland makes skipping it entirely impossible.
Instead, Disneyland loads a very limited number of parties in each corner of the room as it descends.
Food & beverage modifications
Like with the Disney World hotel resorts, while many Disney World restaurants have reopened, some are still shuttered. And those that have reopened may still have more limited menus than normal or not yet back be back to full staffing levels. This means that there is decent competition to snag a booking at one of the top reopened spots.
You can again dine with characters at a few Disney World spots such as Topolino’s Terrace, Garden Grill and Chef Mickey’s. The characters keep their distance, but they have returned to a few restaurants.
Advance dining reservations are available 60 days in advance instead of the usual 180 and popular spots do book up.
If you prefer a grab-and-go meal, know that the counter service restaurants pretty much require you to order and pay using the My Disney Experience app.
During busy days, the time to come back and pick up your order can be an hour or two from when you make your purchase, so you may want to plan in advance and order your lunch and its return time before your morning coffee fully wears off.
Like at Walt Disney World, the food and restaurant options have been reduced quite a bit at Disneyland. Because Disneyland is still in the early phases of calling cast members back to work, its dining operations lag behind where Disney World is now. Plans to open more restaurants and expand menus are taking shape quickly.
Much more of the dining at Disneyland is of the counter service variety. With indoor operations limited more than in Florida, very few table service restaurants are open for now. In fact, there are only three open at each park at the moment.
When it comes to counter-service restaurants at Disneyland, mobile ordering is a must. Return windows at peak meal times book up early, so guests need to mobile order well in advance to be able to eat at their time and restaurant of choice.
There are still no fireworks, no nighttime shows, no FastPass+, no scheduled parades and most tours or special events are still suspended at Disney World.
However, there are unannounced mini-parades (aka cavalcades) that frequently take place throughout the Disney World parks. These can include music, characters, floats and dancers — just like the longer parades, but shorter.
And while there hasn’t been any formal word yet on the return of fireworks or FastPass+, Disney World did recently announce a Halloween-themed after-hours Boo Bash event that will begin in August and run through October. This is the first event of that type to return to Disney World.
It was also just recently announced that Disney Club Level will return to some of the Disney World resort hotels beginning in September.
And while it isn’t all back to normal, live entertainment shows have started to return. Just recently, the popular Festival of the Lion King show returned to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.
The many amenities and extras of a typical Disneyland vacation are very much on pause in 2021.
All the tricks and shortcuts to dodge long lines, from Fastpass to MaxPass to single rider, are on hiatus. Thankfully, the lines for most rides aren’t that long at the moment, making this absence not quite as painful.
Fireworks and all nighttime spectaculars remain closed as well. There are no parades or shows with live performers just yet either, although two indoor theater attractions — the Tiki Room and Mickey’s Philharmagic — are open to guests.
Character sightings at Disneyland are modified as well. Like at Walt Disney World, there are a number of distanced character meet and greets and photo opportunities. In fact, Disneyland seems to have a greater number of these per park square foot than Walt Disney World. And the new Avengers Campus is just teeming with character experiences.
What Disneyland lacks, however, is the two other character opportunities Walt Disney World offers: character dining and character cavalcades. The tighter walkways and parade routes of Disneyland likely would make cavalcades (which are essentially mini-parades without published schedules) a bigger challenge.
Park hopping restrictions
After remaining on hiatus throughout last year, park-hopping returned to Disney World at the beginning of 2021. If you have an eligible (pricier) park hopping ticket, you can go to the park you have made your advance reservation for in the morning and then hop to a second park without a reservation to that park beginning at 2 p.m.
After visiting your first designated park, you can hop around as much as you want starting at 2 p.m. as long as there is availability in each subsequent park.
Just like at Walt Disney World, park hopping is alive and well at Disneyland.
Guests at Disneyland are able to hop an hour earlier at 1:00 p.m. daily. So far at least, there has not been a problem with either park reaching capacity, resulting in park-hopping guests being turned away or made to wait.
Because there are only two parks in California in close proximity to one another, the movement of guests is a bit less even at Disneyland. More guests move from California Adventure to Disneyland park than make the opposite switch, resulting in noticeably higher (although still mostly manageable) crowds in Disneyland for a few hours in the afternoon.
The recent opening of Avengers Campus in California Adventure provides a bit more balance in park-hopping demand, although it creates new operational challenges all its own.
While neither park is back to true normal, Walt Disney World has more open and operating right now than Disneyland, with fewer COVID-19 restrictions in place.
But Disneyland has the temporary advantage of somewhat lower crowds and shorter ride lines. The situation at both parks likely will evolve rapidly this summer, with more offerings opening up and more guests returning to both resorts. We are also at an inflection point where pandemic-related precautions and requirements are rapidly evolving on both coasts.
Right now, if you want a more normalized theme park experience with the options of character dining, mini-parades, no required masks, some live entertainment and more filled ride vehicles, Disney World is the better bet.
If you want access to a more capacity-controlled environment, are most comfortable with more stringent mask and distancing requirements or simply want to ride Disney’s newest ride — WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure — then Disneyland is the current park for you.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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