When someone says they’re going to Disneyland, you expect castles, princesses, the golden age of Disney animation, classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, some mouse ears and a picture with the Big Mouse himself. And although the park has gone through changes, the vibe of the original Disneyland is much the same as it was imagined by Walt way back in 1955. Walking down Main Street USA is a delightfully nostalgic blast from the past.  

On the other side of the Disneyland resort, you have California Adventure. An ode to the state, strolling through this newer park is like a road trip from north to south, sampling everything California has to offer: the glamour of Hollywood, the state’s aviation legacy, Santa Monica’s boardwalk, the Redwoods, Wine Country, and Monterey’s Cannery Row. You’ll find an emphasis on Disney’s newer computer animated films, with Pixar Pier and Cars Land woven into the West Coast landscape. 

An adult, especially one who has never experienced the magic of Disney before, might ask which Disneyland park is the best, or which they should go to. It’s a good question and oh so tough to just choose one. Let’s compare. 

The Basics 

What, when, where, and how much?

We’ve covered the basic vibes of both parks. They’re both broken down into several distinct lands. While California Adventure takes its themes from geography and Pixar characters, Disneyland is broken down more into time period and classic characters. Fantasyland, of course, is focused on the storybook films, while Tomorrowland is futuristic with rides about Star Wars and Buzz Lightyear. 

The opening hours of the park vary season to season, day to day, park to park, but on average California Adventures closes earlier, so it has less of a nightlife buzz after dark. The price for a single day ticket to either park will be exactly the same but you have to stick to one park. You pay a good bit more for a park hopper ticket allowing you to come and go from both as you please. 

There is plenty to do in each park, especially for a first timer, but Disneyland has some edge as it’s slightly bigger and has more attractions, though California Adventure is in the running for the variety of food and attraction type. 

Food and Drink

For adults, a major draw of California Adventure is the fact that they serve alcohol. Of course, anyone inebriated and causing problems will be escorted off the premises. For the most part, though, people are very relaxed but conscientious about their consumption. There’s definitely a spectrum of the quality of alcohol, as well as price. Craft beers will set you back at least $10. Some cocktails scattered around the park are less pricey but on the weaker side, watered down with sweet mixers.  

To get bang for your buck, stop in at the Lamplight Lounge or the Carthay Circle Lounge, which have excellent cocktails that combine wonderful Disney theming with real flavor and craft. You can also try the Wine Country-inspired eateries like Mendocino or Alfresco Terrace for a glass of vino, but again, this will be on the pricey side. 

If you’re coming to Anaheim for theme park classic snacks like ice cream bars, churros, pretzels, corn dogs, cotton candy, and hot buttery popcorn, you will find carts hawking these wares all over the parks, both California Adventure and Disneyland. Eating these delicious staples is no hassle at all; in fact, you’ll have more trouble avoiding the tempting scents of the treats as you walk through the streets. 

If you’ve never had a Dole Whip but love pineapple, then Adventureland in Disneyland is the only place to find this tangy, frozen concoction (unless you head over to the Disneyland Hotel’s Coffee Bar). You won’t find it at California Adventure and although Pixar Pier has a lemon version which is quite tasty, it doesn’t merit the same cult status that Dole Whip does. 

More of a fine dining person? Carthay Circle restaurant is definitely more upscale than the fanciest restaurant in Disneyland which is the Blue Bayou. You’ll want to budget for it, however, because the bill will set you back. 

Overall, the food in California Adventure is on the more adventurous, interesting side. Whether or not it’s “better” is up for personal debate, but you can always find something tasty and a little off-the-wall, whereas Disneyland food tends to stick to tried-and-true classics. 

Rides

In terms of rides, California Adventure and Disneyland pull up about even. Things to take into consideration when choosing the best Disneyland rides for adults include scare factor, speed, theme, and more. There might be more for thrill-seekers at California Adventure, which has:

  • The Incredicoaster
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!
  • Radiator Springs Racers
  • Grizzly River Run
  • Soarin’ Around the World
  • Goofy’s Sky School
  • Silly Symphony Swings

However, Disneyland holds its own in that category, with:

  • Space Mountain
  • Splash Mountain
  • Star Tours -The Adventures Continue
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Indiana Jones: Temple of the Forbidden Eye
  • Matterhorn

Fans of the classic animated films will find themselves in heaven at Disneyland, with rides dedicated to Mickey and Friends, Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad, Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, Song of the South, and more, as well as the storybook walk-through of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Fantasyland is especially picturesque for that quaint European village vibe. 

If you’re more of a Pixar person, stick with California Adventure. Although Disneyland does have Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, there is an entire Pixar Pier at California Adventure, as well as Cars Land. Princess lovers, never fear, you’ll find a Little Mermaid ride and the Frozen musical show over at DCA as well. 

For those who are worried that going to California Adventure will lack Disney magic, there is absolutely nothing to be worried about. Imagineers are the Disneyland equivalent of movie set designers. In addition to designing the visual features of rides, they choose everything from color schemes to Hidden Mickeys, and are especially good at theming an area to include as many delightful details as possible. 

The way that attraction waiting lines try to immerse you in the world of the ride is a great example of this, and that commitment to detail stays strong across both parks. (This is especially true for lines for Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Soarin’ Around the World, Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, and Jungle Cruise, which have some adorable and hilarious hidden jokes.)

Shows and Characters

California Adventure and Disneyland both have a water-based nighttime spectacular show, World of Color and Fantasmic!, and both are exactly that: spectacular. It would be even harder to pick which show is better than it is to pick which park to go to (Oh My Disney does a great job comparing the two here). 

They both incorporate fire and water elements with projections of Disney films. Combined with familiar, swelling Disney melodies and orchestration, it is a spine-tingling sight and sound. Fantasmic! makes great use of the boats on Rivers of America, World of Color accomplishes amazing feats with, well, color. You really can’t go wrong with whichever you pick (some nights in peak season you may be able to catch both with a park hopper ticket, if the show schedules work out right). 

The famous firework show happens at Disneyland, from Sleeping Beauty Castle, so obviously you’ll get the best views the closer you are to the castle. The nice thing about fireworks is that they’re highly visible from a wide radius. If you have chosen California Adventure, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fireworks. 

There’s a more than decent view of them from the outside seating at Carthay Circle, if you’re able to time a reservation to coincide with the show, or you could pop outside the gates to the Esplanade (the stretch between the two parks’ entrances) to catch from there. Some people even watch from the top of Mickey and Friends parking structure! 

Meet and Greets at Disney are definitely more geared towards kids but if you want to meet a favorite princess, you go for it! Sometimes you’ll be lucky and just stumble upon a character walking around (this happens more for the less famous characters such as Chip and Dale, Clarabelle the Cow, or minor film characters). 

For the big-ticket characters, like princesses or Mickey and friends, there are specific places you’ll be headed if you want a hug and a photo. Princess Tiana can often be found in her hometown, New Orleans Square, for instance. Fantasy Faire in Fantasyland hosts a majority of the princesses, but Anna, Elsa, and Olafare all the way over in California Adventure’s Hollywood

Special Events

Timing your visit to special events will definitely impact which park you should visit. If you are a Star Wars fan visiting post-summer of 2019, then skipping California Adventure in order to go to the newly opened Star Wars Land is probably your best bet. It has a huge amount of hype surrounding it, so expect crowds for several months after its opening, but it’s a must-do if you love the franchise. 

On the other hand, if farm-to-table local foods are your thing, California Adventure has the Food and Wine Festival in early spring every year, with even more options for delicious eats and drinks. The festival highlights the bounty of California’s agricultural resources and is well worth any foodie’s time. 

Check on Disneyland’s website for more events like After Dark late nights or holiday specials.

Which One?

It’s a tough call. Nostalgia or adventure? Southern California cool or cozy European village? Tongue-in-cheek 50s retro or French Quarter elegance? State fair favorites or gourmet palate pleasers? 

In a perfect world, you would choose both. And it’s easy to do so, if you’re willing to stretch your budget a little further and plan your day carefully. The parks are less than a five minute walk away from each other, and you can go between the two as often as you’d like. You could get the fairytale atmosphere and the movie-set magic all in one day.  

Of course, money is tight or you prefer to focus on one area, either park will be a fantastic day out. But if you absolutely HAD to pick one, we recommend…

California Adventure

Unless you’ve have your heart set on a picture in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, California Adventure really is the grown-up version of Disneyland. It has all the magic of the original park, top-notch details and ambience, and clever theming, while taking the level of food, rides, and experience to a whole other level. 

Where else can you enjoy a glass of Napa wine in the SoCal sunshine before taking a picture with Mickey, getting sprayed by white water rapids, or riding a race car through the desert?  It takes the best of what California has to offer, mixes it with some real movie magic, and voila! A park that’s great for kids of all ages, even the ones who are old enough for cocktails. 

Whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed. Disney parks have a way of making you want to come back, again and again, to revisit old memories and to make new ones. 

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