Which Disney park (or resort complex) is the most worthwhile to visit?
I hate to start a column with an admission of a weakness, but I just haven’t been to either of the Chinese parks (Hong Kong or Shanghai), so I am simply going to have to rely on the readers here to supply insight and judgment. I recognize my commentary has that gap, so I rely on the readers/responders to chime in. Grain of salt and all, of course.
That said, let’s explore my experiences. I have been to Anaheim (about 2,000 visits), Orlando (about 1,500 visits), Paris (about 20 visits), and Tokyo (about 13 visits), where “visit” means a turnstile click into a park as a Guest.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Yes, I have been to Tokyo and Paris far less than Anaheim and Orlando. Yes, I agree, that means it’s more likely I will view those international parks with some rose-colored glasses. The old adage tells us that familiarity breeds contempt, so we need to apply the other wisdom about “grain of salt” with any comparative analysis.
With that out of the way, let’s make one thing clear from the start: nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the level of theming and immersiveness of Tokyo DisneySea (TDS). I grew up breathing Disneyland in Anaheim, and worked there from my teens to late 20s, and so I certainly knew what a “Disney” experience was supposed to look and feel like. After all, that was the park Walt created.
What I think impressed me the most when I first saw TDS was how much “more” it was. It took the lessons of Disneyland and amplified them many times, took them to the nth degree, and extrapolated the principles outward. It works a little bit in the American Waterfront and Cape Cod sections (exotic for Japanese, of course), a touch in Port Discovery (think Tomorrowland), a bit better in Lost River Delta (think Indiana Jones), the Mediterranean Harbor, and Arabian Coast (I’m a huge fan of the IASW type ride Sindbad here), and takes things a step higher in Mermaid Lagoon, an enclosed facility that will challenge any stateside fan to say that have as integrated a facility.
And then we come to Mysterious Island. I’m sorry, but if you haven’t been here in person, you literally cannot weigh in on this section of the park. Please don’t try.
I’m about as jaded as they come with Disney parks, and my jaw was on the floor with this section of the park. There is a FREAKING MOUNTAIN around you in this part of the park. It’s made out of concrete, but you’d never know. The illusion is complete. It literally looks like they built a theme park around this natural formation of a volcano.
There are details aplenty. Sitting there in the caldera, jaw agape, you will marvel at the steam hissing from various spots. You will wonder at the sound effects in the embedded restaurant as they add to the realism. Looking around you, you will find it hard to stop snapping photos at the level of detail they added to the burned shrubs, the dried lava flow, and the still-spinning drilling machine that pokes out into the caldera.
Simply put, TDS is a transcendent experience for a Disney parks fan, especially in Mysterious Island. Tokyo Disneyland is a more natural progression (it feels like a land stuck in 1983 for aesthetics, but with some modern animatronics added).
So how do Paris, Anaheim, and Orlando add up? Let’s tackle Paris first. The second park added, the Walt Disney Studios Paris, has the reputation of being a half-day park. I don’t wish to mince words: it really is. There isn’t that much here of note. You’ve got Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (in some weird universe where these rockers are now roller coaster designers), the outperforming Ratatouille ride, and the superb Crush Coaster. After that, it’s all smaller experiences.
Disneyland Paris, in the meantime, is a stunning park from the point of view of its curb appeal. Tony Baxter was the lead designer here, and it shows. The park is beautiful from beginning to end, and it’s my clear favorite for aesthetics for any Magic Kingdom type park. It’s not tiny like Disneyland, and it doesn’t overwhelm in its scale like the Magic Kingdom. It truly feels middle of the road, and also feels more authentic. The Africa/Middle East sections feel more authentic. The “Tomorrowland” equivalent, a Jules Verne-themed Discoveryland, is more immersive and realistic for what it is. The Fantasyland feels more like you’ve fallen into a film festival of Disney animated features. Overall, the whole thing is more convincing.
Disneyland is, of course, the original, and as such it’s the benchmark. In many ways, it’s hard to beat Disneyland. Whereas other resort complexes spread out the signature rides, so many of them are in Disneyland proper (yes, DCA is starting to get a roster of significant ones now, too). The two parks are relatively small from an acreage point of view, and thus have some over-crowding issues, but the density of the rides is also an unexpected selling point.
To me, DCA feels a lot like Epcot or other Orlando parks, just from the perspective of vibe. It’s got good placemaking but it lacks the essential je ne sais quoi that Disneyland Park simply oozes. It’s a cliche to say that Disneyland is charming because Walt made it that way and it is the only park that had his touch, but I still feel it to be true.
The clear advantage to Walt Disney World is its size. There are four parks and two water parks, and each one of them is a sprawling experience that contrasts sharply with Disneyland Resort and its two parks. It may feel more commercial than many of the other parks; most areas of WDW lack the customary warmth you can find in the other parks, partly because everything is so large. Tony Baxter once said the Magic Kingdom was about “spectacle” rather than Disneyland’s “charm.”
But there certainly are a lot of attractions and varied experiences at Disney World, and of all the worldwide destinations, it seems to be the place that infrequent visitors could spend the longest exploring, since there’s just so much of it. There are also way more Disney hotels here than in other places. In Walt’s planning before his death, he wisely saw the need to lock in just a ton of land. He called it the blessing of size, and with it came a buffer around the parks so that Disney World felt like its own magical place, not part of the outside urban jungle.
If I had to pick ONE, for me the answer is Tokyo Disney Resort, just because its details are so magical. But I’ve lived near WDW since 2004, so I wouldn’t make that my vacation one. And I lived near Disneyland for 30 years before that, so that one also isn’t going to be MY choice for a vacation.
For those who don’t know the parks, or barely know them, I think Disneyland might be the best call for a vacation. It’s got more “magic.” There’s nothing wrong with Orlando, but it’s a bit more commercialized, and the magic, when you find it, is more visible in fits and bursts.