Disneyland and Magic Kingdom: The Best of Both Worlds

by Laura Gilbreath
ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

This article first appeared in the
March 15, 2005, Issue #286 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

I've been going to Disneyland since I was a child, so it's the park I grew up with. I didn't make my first visit to the Magic Kingdom until I was 27. I will say up front that although there are a lot of things I like about Magic Kingdom, when it comes to the individual parks I prefer Disneyland.

Of course there are a lot of differences between the two parks, but in the interests of making this article of reasonable length, I can't possibly address all of them. So I'm going to concentrate on the things that I think are important differences. Those "Wow, that's really different!" differences. Or the "Why didn't they do that HERE?" differences. Or the "What were they thinking?" differences. But seriously… hopefully by the end of this article you'll have an idea of some of the things that really set Disneyland apart from Magic Kingdom, and vice versa.

So let's start with… size. Disneyland is a lot smaller than Magic Kingdom — 85 acres as opposed to 107 acres. I especially notice the size difference when walking around Main Street and the hub area — Disneyland seems like it's one-half to two-thirds the size. I think that the smaller size gives Disneyland's Main Street more of the "small town" feel that Walt Disney was trying to simulate, although it's Magic Kingdom's Main Street where you still have the opportunity to get your hair cut at the Harmony Barber Shop — and maybe even be serenaded by the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet at the same time.

But Disneyland's Main Street has managed to avoid turning into one big plush shop and still retains some uniq ue shops and attractions — the Magic Shop, 20th Century Music Company, and Disneyana are still there. You'll also find the Main Street Cinema, where they still show vintage Disney cartoons like Steamboat Willie, and in the Main Street Opera House is Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. This theatrical presentation includes a movie and 3-D sound, but the highlight is the "performance" of the life-like audio-animatronic figure of President Lincoln. The original show premiered at the 1964 New York World's Fair with Disney's first life-size audio-animatronic figure, and came to Disneyland in 1966, though the current "Mr. Lincoln" is far more technologically advanced than the original.

As you walk down Main Street at Disneyland there may be something that you don't notice… and that's the castle. Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle is only 77 feet tall — you can't even see it very well until you get to the hub. If you're used to seeing Magic Kingdom's Cinderella Castle it's quite a disappointment — it's just so… SMALL. When I think about "fairytale castles" it's something like Cinderella Castle that comes to my mind. At 189 feet tall, that soaring architectural fantasy dominates the Magic Kingdom's skyline. (N.B. Sleeping Beauty Castle has recently received a very extensive makeover in preparation for Disneyland's 50th anniversary, and is much more detailed and visually interesting than ever before — but it's still short.)

Disneyland has its own landmark feature, though — Matterhorn Mountain. It's more than 140 feet high — tall enough that you can see it from the nearby freeway. As kids, my brother and I each tried to be the first one to spot it. Oh, who am I kidding? I STILL look for it when I'm driving by Disneyland on Interstate 5!

The Matterhorn is also the setting for an attraction unique to Disneyland: the Matterhorn Bobsleds. It's a roller coaster ride up, down, and through Matterhorn Mountain. There are two different tracks, and if the timing is right you can "race" the bobsled next to you. Inside the mountain you'll have several encounters with the Abominable Snowman — never mind that he's supposed to be from the Himalayas rather than the Swiss Alps. The ride is quite jerky and rough with lots of sudden turns — this is definitely not a smooth modern roller coaster.

This "fantastic mountain" lies at the edge of Fantasyland. And Disneyland's Fantasyland truly IS a fantasy — the buildings look like they came right out of a fairytale storybook. No flat, painted facades here — the buildings are meticulously detailed and filled wit h old-world charm. Toad Hall is a wonderful re-creation of an old English brick manor house and Snow White's Scary Adventures is housed in an authentic-looking medieval castle. Watch the window above the entrance — the Evil Queen appears regularly! Or look at the Storybook Land Canal Boats — Magic Kingdom doesn't have anything as fantastic as sailing into the mouth of a whale and then past miniature scenes from Disney movies. All of the vegetation is miniature, too — it's a wonderful exhibition of the art of Bonsai.

I'm not a fan of "it's a small world" (and anyone who knows me knows what an understatement THAT is), but the building at Disneyland is practically an attraction in and of itself. There's a magical clock tower with a musical "children's march of nations" every 15 minutes. And the grounds around the building feature a veritable zoo of topiary animals. Unless the Magic Kingdom attraction's recent rehab has made exterior changes, too, Disneyland's version is far superior.

When you walk from Disneyland's Fantasyland to Tomorrowland, you may see a monorail zoom right over you on its way to the Tomorrowland monorail station. That's right — at Disneyland the monorail is actually an attraction inside the park, and requires Disneyland admission to ride. To board at the Downtown Disney monorail station at the other end, you must pass through security and present valid admission at the turnstile. There can be quite a long line since the Disneyland monorails are much smaller and there are not as many of them. There's also no standing allowed — though the monorails are short enough that you wouldn't want to!

Disneyland's Tomorrowland was refurbished in the 1990s with a Jules Verne "Tomorrow That Never Was" look — I must admit that it was colorful, with all the bronze and rust and greenish "copper patina," but I was never really a fan. My favorite is actually Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland — it has kitschy "futuristic" touches that remind me of something out of The Jetsons, like the metal palm trees and the robot paperboy. And I prefer the cleaner, more contemporary (no, not the hotel) look. At Disneyland you can't ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority and be reminded to "keep all forward-facing tentacles inside the vehicle." (In preparation for the 50th anniversary, Disneyland's Tomorrowland is in the process of getting a makeover — the roof of Space Mountain no longer sports the "Jules Verne" look and is back to the original white, and a number of other buildings are undergoing some cosmetic changes as well. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters opens this spring, and Space Mountain w ill come out of its LONG rehab this summer.)

I think that a lot of the appeal of Disneyland is in the "little things," as our friend and ALL EARS® columnist Zamgwar would put it. Take Disneyland's Toontown, for instance. Toontown at Disneyland is a fun and whimsical place with a number of surprises — try opening the door on the mailbox or standing on the manhole cover! The buildings are very brightly colored with lots of interesting details, such as the Mickey clock on top of Toontown City Hall, which puts on a little performance each hour. Magic Kingdom's Toontown is quite a disappointment to me — it seems like a big character greeting area and not much else. Disneyland's Toontown is also home to an attraction you won't find in the Magic Kingdom — Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin. Take a taxi on a tour of the dark back alleys of Toontown and spin yourself silly — but watch out for weasels!

Despite its smaller size, Disneyland actually has more attractions than Magic Kingdom. The numbers vary depending on your definition of "attraction," so we won't get into that, but trust me, there's more at Disneyland. And a number of them are unique attractions that aren't found in any other Disney park.

One of these is what I believe to be THE best attraction at either Disneyland or Walt Disney World: The Indiana Jones Adventure. "Indy" is (believe it or not) located in Adventureland. It begins with a long but VERY well-themed queue, where you seem to be walking underground in an old temple. There are tree roots, bats, stalactites, cryptic inscriptions on the walls, and let's not forget booby traps! Eventually you reach the loading area where your 12-passenger "jeep" (actually a mobile motion simulator, cleverly d isguised as a jeep) awaits and you start your tour of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Of course something goes wrong (you HAD to look!), and you experience a much more… er… "extensive" tour of the temple. The jeep bounces, jolts, stutters, stops, and makes lots of sharp turns — this is not a ride for those with back and neck problems. It's also not for those who might be disturbed by dark places, skeletons, spiders, rats, snakes (snakes, why did it have to be snakes?), and other creepy-crawlies. There are some encounters with Indy himself, in the form of several very sophisticated audio-animatronics, before your successful return to the boarding area. It's really an amazing experience — Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom, even though it shares the same ride technology, really can't compare to the Indiana Jones Adventure.

Although both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom have the "hub-and-spoke" la yout, some of the lands are placed differently. If you're familiar with Magic Kingdom, you may find when visiting Disneyland that Frontierland is not where you expect it to be… and vice versa. Frontierland at Disneyland is in the area occupied by Liberty Square in Magic Kingdom. When I visit Magic Kingdom I still think that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Haunted Mansion are in the "wrong" places.

Splash Mountain is located in about the same place at both parks, but at Disneyland that area has an additional "land" called Critter Country. I find Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain to be quite an improvement over the version at Disneyland. In addition to telling a much more coherent story, the interior lighting is much brighter and there are some fun touches, like the "jumping fountains" in the "washtub" room. But ewww… that mildew smell in the ride vehicles is awful!

Another Magic Kingdom attraction that has been transplanted to Disneyland's Critter Country is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which replaced Disneyland's Country Bear Playhouse. (Let's see… Pooh evicted Mr. Toad at Magic Kingdom and the Bears at Disneyland — guess who got the better end of THAT deal… neener, neener, neener!) Again, I like the Magic Kingdom version better — it's longer, the ceilings are higher, and the hunnypots bounce with Tigger, an effect that is missing at Disneyland. There's more time to sing along in the psychedelic heffalumps and woozles room, too. (Though the hot-pink-with-neon-stripes Tigger at Disneyland is a sight to be seen!) I also like the way the Magic Kingdom attraction uses pages from the book to transition between many of the rooms.

An additional "land" you won't find at Magic Kingdom is New Orleans Square. I believe that New Orleans Square in Disneyland is the best themed of any of the lands at either park. It's not very big, but there's a lot of detail — the narrow streets and wrought-iron railings really do look like they came straight out of the French Quarter — without the smell. There are some interesting shops and restaurants and nooks and crannies. Le Bat en Rouge (the Villains shop) is one of my favorites, and there are several rather quiet out-of-the-way courtyards. The ambience in the Blue Bayou restaurant is really well done, especially the firefly effect and the "song of the swamp." (Unfortunately the food doesn't measure up to the atmosphere.) And then there's private Club 33 — the Members Only club that's located above the Blue Bayou, and the only place inside Disneyland that serves alcohol. Most people don't even know it's there.

Disneyland's Pirates of the Car ibbean is located in New Orleans Square rather than in Adventureland. The Disneyland version of "Pirates" is longer and features several additional scenes with skeletal pirates that aren't in the Magic Kingdom version. "Dead Men Tell No Tales," you know. Alas, Disneyland's "Pirates" has also been "politically corrected" with kinder, gentler pirates that flee in terror from women with rolling pins. Or maybe the women are just upset that none of the pirates look like Johnny Depp.

This year there are a lot of changes being made at both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom in preparation for Disneyland's 50th birthday — everything from new attractions and updates to old attractions to new shows and parades. Walt Disney said, "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." I think this year's celebration sh ows us that this applies to ALL Disney parks.

I hope that you'll have the opportunity to visit Disneyland during its 50th birthday celebration — and after reading this article I hope you'll still WANT to.

In the spirit of Disney tram drivers and Jungle Cruise skippers at both theme parks, I offer the following in conclusion: If you enjoyed this article then it was written by Laura Gilbreath, if not, then it was written by Debra Martin Koma.


Laura Gilbreath lives in southern California where she is a Disneyland Annual Passholder — but she actually spends more days per year at Walt Disney World, where s he also holds an Annual Pass. She and her husband Lee, with their faithful companions Tigger and Stitch, enjoy traveling and maintain a web site of their adventures, Disney and otherwise, at http://www.travelswithtigger.com.

Related Links:

Disneyland's 50th Anniversary Celebration

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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