Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Comparing Disney World, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris

Having now visited three of the soon to be six castle parks of the world, I thought that it would be interesting to write a formal comparison of the parks, based on both general observations as well as more analysis of the urban plan strategy.

So to do this, I have decided on 10 qualities that I see as important. For each, I'll give some thoughts about how each park measures and decide on a winner.

Without getting into the analysis, my prediction is that the results will show that Disneyland is the most well rounded castle park, Magic Kingdom is the largest castle park, and Disneyland Paris is the best designed and most beautiful castle park. We will see if the below breakdown shows the same idea.

The Size and Scale of the Park

This category is to analyze not just the physical size of the park, but how well the park design responded to that size in the scale of its public spaces, buildings, and features.

Comparing the size of these three castle parks, they are actually not as drastically different as expected. Yes Disneyland is the smallest and most compact, but the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris are just a little bit bigger, with Magic Kingdom as the largest based on my drawings. This honestly surprised me before I checked because Disneyland has a reputation for being so small. It appears however, that this misnomer comes from the extreme density Disneyland has because of it's
 years of constant expansion versus the Magic Kingdoms relative slower pace of additions and Disneyland Paris's unfortunate lack of real expansions. This density has ramifications in many other categories below.

So with the actual physical size of the park not a huge differentiation between the three, we can turn to scale to set some comparisons.

Again, there is some reputation here. Disneyland has smaller buildings, which this time is a true fact. Both the Magic Kingdom and Paris have a larger scale, but it is much more noticeable in Orlando. I am specifically thinking about Main Street and the Castles of each park, because they are most directly comparable, but the lesson applied to the design of the whole park. All Main Streets technically feel realistically scaled by the evidence of their existence, but Disneyland most feels like real buildings in a real town, which helps with the immersive theme. Likewise with the castles, only one of them feels proper in scale to me. I grew up with Cinderella's Castle, so that was my ideal of a castle, but now after seeing the others it appears to be obviously over sized for the sake of being big, where as the others are more representative of reality. I see it as an issue with suspension of disbelief. Both Sleeping Beauty Castles are smaller, so to me, appear as if they could actually be real. But Cinderella's Castle is now so large and impressive that it reads as fake in comparison.

The scale of castles is also an issue because of their need to function both up close and far away, and again, this idea of scale having to work on multiple levels applies to the whole park. My specific thought is how each castle has to be iconic on the front facade yet not overpowering on the castle courtyard size. This is a challenge that only one succeeds at in my opinion. Cinderella's Castle succeeds at the front facade, but not the rear. Disneyland's is perfect as a castle courtyard facade, but is maybe a tad small on the front. But the castle of Paris had a bizarre and impressive effect to be iconically large to the front but much smaller to the rear. It works as the perfect scale in my opinion, so I see it as the most successful of the three.

These observations of scale apply to the philosophy of the whole park. Many elements of the Magic Kingdom feel larger in order to be larger, even if it doesn't help, such as the Rivers of America versus Disneyland's version. The positive of this is that the public spaces and walkway widths are much more reasonable for a functioning theme park, a major positive. However, Disneyland Paris also has these better planned public spaces without the oversized scale.

I think this category may end as a three way tie, for different positives of each park, but that is ok since this is a pretty big first category. Disneyland's size and scale may be smaller, but since it was first, uniformally feels the most natural. The Magic Kingdom is the largest, which means it has the largest and most impressive buildings and well structured crowd flow. Finally, Disneyland Paris has the best of both. Makes sense, as it was built from the knowledge of three previous parks and was able to improve, and possibly perfect, the size and scale issues of a castle park.

The Detail of the Park

Building on the idea of scale, this category looks at the level of detail found in the design of the park and is very dependent on the detail of the story lines and theme that define the areas of the parks.

All three parks are fairly successful here, but again Disneyland benefits from its density and origin and Paris benefits from its predecessors, while Magic Kingdom is just a bit behind, but improving. Detail is important because it creates the illusion of life, separating an obvious set from the illusion of the real world.

I see this as a question of the richness of decoration and depth of theme that creates the lands. It also happens to be a question of age, because many older areas of each park just do not have the same level of detail as a modern designed area. Less rigorous themeing was sufficient, such as original Fantasyland of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.

Disneyland has been improved so as to move past many of these rudimentary areas, but unfortunately Magic Kingdom still has many, such as Fantasyland with the tents and parts of Tomorrowland that are basically just white buildings. Disneyland Paris benefited from not really ever having these issues of underdeveloped areas and was always designed with a higher level of realism.

A separate part of detail comes from the thoroughness of theme that creates a land. Main Streets have always been very detailed because they are recreating a once real world, based on a real place with real life. Other lands didn't originally have this detail because they were merely a generalized impression of an environment, such as the jungle or the old west. At Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, this was quickly changed as added details artificially created the world of the land. Disneyland Paris took this a step farther with highly detailed themes for the land, in some cases actual stories, that defined many of the design choices.

Maybe it is something that not everyone notices, but this attention to detail in worldbulding at Disneyland Paris really ties the park together into a series of cohesive and immersive environments. Therefore, I give the detail category to Paris, but Disneyland is close behind.

The Beauty of the Park

Similar to the detail of the park, the beauty of the park is closely tied to the visual design of the themed spaces.

This is an easy one. Of course all three are beautiful parks, as they are flagship Disney theme parks. I am considering more than just the baseline beauty and upkeep of a Disney quality theme park, but some kind of innate beauty in the total design. Disneyland has alot of special moments that are beautiful, as well as the Magic Kingdom in a few spaces, but the obvious winner is Disneyland Paris. This ties into the scale and the detail I just discussed.

It might also be the European audience of the park. Many times, I've heard commentary about how the park had to be extra beautiful to match with a continent of real castles and the worlds best architecture. It worked. This is a pretty personal opinion category, so you may disagree. And I could believe Disneyland as the answer here too I guess. Disneyland gets a lot of beauty from its age and nostalgia. The grown in vegetation, the compact architecture, the iconic sights, all come together for some special areas.

But as a picturesque park, Disneyland Paris is my personal favorite.

The Urban Planning

This category looks at a bigger picture idea of the urban plan for the park, specifically the arrangement and flow of public spaces.

This is the category that brings the original Disneyland down for me. Though it was a revolutionary design that created the modern theme park, it was an experiment and always has had crowd flow issues. Many pathways are just not wide enough and there still exists many pinch points that become miserable with even moderate crowd. The highlight of the urban plan however is the success of the visual icons and hub and spoke system, which carried over to the other parks. That system creates some special moments of visual structure that are not found in other parks. I also have to admit that the smaller scale of paths is also a positive, because it feels more realistic and less formally planned.

Alternately, the Magic Kingdom was designed to be big enough for real crowds, so the paths are much better spaced out while still having the benefits of the visual structure. The problem is the super wide stretches of concrete, specifically the path of Frontierland, which is extra wide for the parade. It just does not seem realistic or in theme. As an urban planning analysis though, it is not that big of a problem.

Similarly, Disneyland Paris has proper spacing and sizing for crowds, and actually is quite generous because the crowd level is unfortunately the lightest. There might also be less awkward, obvious planned moments here, likely because of the use of much more organic vegetation and water elements, like Fantasyland, which does not have large open stretches of concrete.

Here, Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris tie just because they were planned large enough so that they can be enjoyed in a crowd.

The Overall Attractions

The next few describe the attractions of the parks, and this on in particular looks at them as an overall park wide collection of experiences.

As a general statement about the amount of attractions of each park, I would have to say that Disneyland is exceptional, Magic Kingdom is sufficient, and Paris is relatively lacking. That's unsurprising, based on a lot of the factors I have already talked about.

I don't want to only mention quantity, but quality is a more subjective idea.

Each of the three parks have a solid set of headliners and a collection of great supporting attractions. All three have many of the iconic attractions that define the idea of a Disney parks, though Paris lacks a few of them, such as the Jungle Cruise. The lack of the iconic headliners was disappointing, but the total reworking of the park makes it understandable, and other attractions step up to be highlights.

In the specific case of a few attractions at Paris, there are a few attractions that are total re imaginings of the original, which is really appealing for someone traveling to all three. Without yet making a quality judgement of the changes, just the fact that it is different, not just a copy, is a big positive. Luckily, a few of those re worked attractions are actually better than the rest, like Big Thunder and Space Mountain, which are among the best of the type.

The attractions of Disneyland are the best maintained and are generally the most frequently updated, which is very valuable. The Magic Kingdom attractions are known to have more issues and additions are rare events, just like at Paris. Thats a major plus for Disneyland. But again that is a necessity for the type of audience at Disneyland.

I also wanted to consider variety. Variety automatically comes with quantity, so this may end up going for Disneyland. All three parks have the basic requirements of family friendly dark rides, flat rides, higher thrill rides, and media based rides.

In my view, Disneyland has more simple dark rides and classic family friendly attractions, Magic Kingdom has an even balance between types, and Paris has more thrill attractions.

If I try to think about the total impression of the attractions, I try to separate the numbers, but I think it automatically biases me to saying Disneyland has the most successful roster of overall attractions, even if the other two parks are plenty good for different reasons.

The Unique Attractions

This category specifically looks at the attractions that make each park unique because of their weird, unexpected, or cool design.

This category was honestly included so as to give credit to the weird little experiences that don't get much credit but I see as special to the total experience of the park. There are a few big examples of this in each park. At Disneyland, the variety of transportation attractions and the few originals from opening day. At Magic Kingdom, some old school attractions only found here. And at Disneyland Paris, the selection of fantastic environmental walkthrough attractions.

Disneyland's unique attractions are some of the unheralded opening day or early park attractions that are purely transportation systems. Walt's original park was a collection of transportation systems shaped into theme park attractions. The steam trains, the Mark Twain and the Columbia, the Autopia, the Horse-drawn Carriages and Main Street Vehicles, the canoes. All are attractions that are not big name draws but add alot to the park, specifically kinetic motion and activity. Of course some of those were copied to the other two parks, but they are unique here because they are the original, before they were seen as part of the expected castle park roster and became theme park attractions. At Disneyland, they were real life transportation.

The Magic Kingdom honestly does not have that many unique attractions. But what it does have is a few older attractions that no other park has: the Peoplemover, The Country Bears, and The Carousel of Progress. I would say these are cult attractions whose fan bases really appreciate their history and their unique place in the development of theme parks. Many other unique attractions have been forced out for cuts or for things anticipated to be more popular, such as Alien Encounter or the Timekeeper, which are among the most in-theme of all past and present Tomorrowland attractions. The other parks of course have cult attractions but not like these.

At Disneyland Paris, there actually are a good number of attractions that no other park has and they are even more unique because they are walk throughs, which most other parks have abandoned. The Dragon's Crypt and the Nautilus are the best examples, because they have the production quality and story of full fledged attractions, but are reshaped into totally immersive environments. Walkthroughs are often impractical, but it creates a more effective experience, I think because we no longer have to suspend disbelief due to a ride system or a queue. It is a real world that we are able to stand in and explore in all reality. There is a more authentic connection, and makes these unique attractions really special.

I believe that this is the attractions category where Paris finally wins. I just love those walkthroughs too much.

The Lands of the Park

The next two categories get more specific into the best individual elements of each park. This category compares what I think is the best example of each land type.

At Disneyland, as I mentioned, I think is the best example of the Main Street type, likely because of its history and scale. This is the land that most feels like walking right through a real small town in turn of the century America. Both lands in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris at times feel like reconstructions of the original, which is exactly what they are. That doesn't mean they are bad, but Disneyland is the prime example.

The Magic Kingdom has what I think is the best Adventureland. To really show the mystery of the jungle, the land needs to be constricting, but endless, as if it just keeps on going. The land is the Magic Kingdom does this far better than the too small Adventureland in Disneyland or the very large and open Adventureland of Paris. I like the winding path through the multiple sub areas at the Magic Kingdom.

Disneyland Paris has the best Frontierland, because of its size and detailed theme. It feels like a complete world, compared to the other two which are either very small at Disneyland, or a little misguided at Magic Kingdom. The detailed storyline that ties into every attraction, store, and restaurant is unique among castle park lands, and it really works well here.

Equating Liberty Square and New Orleans Square, the Disneyland version is likely better due to its size, history, and attractions. Liberty Square is an under appreciated land, but does not compare to the original example of highly immersive land building.

Fantasyland is a difficult decision between Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. Disneyland Paris is far more beautiful, has strong attractions, and is the ideal vision of fantasy, but Disneyland has an innate history that give its strength. Both far surpass Magic Kingdom, though the recent expansion helps. The rest of the areas of this land though read as old and under developed, such as the remaining tent facades and the lack of a Small World facade. I think I may give it to Disneyland for history, but both are valid decisions in my view.

Finally, the Tomorrowland/Discoveryland combination. If all are seen as equal, Discoveryland is the far superior version because of the unified (mostly) theme and the strong consistent design. However, I think thats not fair to the other two since the lands have different thematic goals. Therefore, I have to see the Magic Kingdom as the best Tomorrowland, and that is again because of the attempted visual consistency versus Disneyland which is a little bit of a mess. Plus it still has the Peoplemover, so easy decision.

Based on those decisions, it appears as if the best of the best are actually distributed pretty well, which is not surprising as these are three high quality parks.

The Attractions of the Park

Similarly, this category compares some of the best attractions in each park.

To be fair, I am going to cover the attractions that are both consistent to all three yet not exact copies from park to park. I decided on a group of four big ones: Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Small World.

Space Mountain is drastically different at the three, specifically in level of intensity which makes a big difference. My decision is split. I think that Paris is the best themed while Disneyland is the best coaster. The Discoveryland visual style and the exterior launch are very cool elements of the Paris attraction which make it a real iconic element. The design at Disneyland is not as unique, but the coaster is smoother and more fun, which is important. Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom is far behind the others, but still fun. Space Mountain is an important comparative attraction because it is really the quintessential Disney coaster. It's nature of being enclose and in the dark gives it some legend. I think the quality of the three reflect their audience as well. Magic Kingdom is the tamest because it has the status of many's first real coaster at a more family friendly park. At Disneyland, the local dynamic requires it to be a bit more developed. And at Paris, Europeans are used to more thrills from their rides.

The Haunted Mansion is much more similar, using the same track and many similar elements across the three. Here, it is pretty uniformly agreed that Magic Kingdom has the best Mansion, though Phantom Manor is quite unique and the Hatbox Ghost is very cool. The Mansion at the Magic Kingdom just feels the best maintained and the most clear of the original intent, a surreal environmental trip through the world of ghosts. I also only was able to see the Disneyland version with its overlay, which I expected to enjoy but actually didn't that much. It just feels like the original attractions is at such a high level that it doesn't need to be reworked or overlayed. Original is best.

Pirates of the Caribbean is the same way. The original at Disneyland is mostly the best, because it was the original vision, is the longest, and is in the best land for it. The Magic Kingdom version is an obvious cut down, but is still good enough. The Paris version however tried something different, which I give it credit for. The restructured ride flow kept my attention and put me more into the action of the ride. Plus it is the last without Jack, for now at least. I think there are a good deal of attractions with this same case. The original at Disneyland set the quality bar. The Magic Kingdom version either cut it down or failed to improve on it. And then the Paris version tried something different.

Last, Small World is obviously lacking at one location. The lack of facade at Magic Kingdom is incredibly disappointing after seeing the versions at the other two parks. The attractions inside are basically the same, so no need to comment there. The Paris version also seemed to be better integrated into Fantasyland versus Disneyland where is almost has its own unique area.

So like the last category, I think this shows that there is actually a good distribution of quality through the parks, even if some other factors relating to attractions are not even.

The Night-time Entertainment and Environment

Finally, this category looks at the character of the park at night including the night time entertainment of each park.

This is my excuse to comment on how far behind the Magic Kingdom is with its night events. In my opinion, Disneyland has the best parade, Paint the Night, and Paris has the best fireworks, Disney Dreams. Both Magic Kingdom attempts are out of date and disappointing by comparison. Disneyland gets extra points because it also has Fantasmic and great fireworks. I see these nighttime events as being very important to the overall experience of the day because it is the grand finale.

As for the nighttime character of the parks, both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom do well at this because they have long hours and plenty of attractions to keep the park active. With my experience of Disneyland Paris, most of the park began to close and was emptied with the darkness, leading guests to wait for Dreams. That was a shame because I the special detail of the park extended to the lighting, and I had hoped to be able to see how the park responded to the darkness. I was only able to see Discoveryland and Main Street in lights, which were really well done areas.

My favorite area of the other two parks at night is Adventureland, because the low level lighting in the jungle sets a intense mood of adventure.

Conclusion - An Overall Opinion of the Parks

To sum the above comparisons is difficult. All three parks have their own value and I really enjoy them all. Additionally, my bias may affect my views, because Magic Kingdom is the standard to me while Disneyland and Paris are the cool new parks to me.

For the design and beauty of the park categories, I believe it is tied between Disneyland Paris and Disneyland, because of both their actual design and the history.

For the attraction categories, I think it is obvious that Disneyland is the best because of both quantity and quality.

But for the best of categories, my analysis shows that the quality is spread well through the three parks.

What this means to me is that all three have the potential to be great and to improve.

Disneyland's lacking is the urban plan and the issues caused by its density and age.

Magic Kingdom is lacking in some detail and beauty, but it is being improved as attractions and lands are added.

And Paris can built upon its excellent design and beauty by adding more attractions that fill in the variety of experiences that make a great park.

So now, what do you think about the comparison between the three parks? If you are familiar with the three, I would love to hear your views about qualities I set up above.


  1. I've never been to Disneyland or WDW (someday!) so I can only vouch for DLP being wonderful. On Discoveryland, was it ever 100% themed fluidly. Star Tours opened in 1992 alongside the rest of the park, and has a more modern day/futuristic design than the rest of Discoveryland. Then they swapped Le Visionarium for Buzz and it lost a little bit more, and Videopolis is being used for the Jedi Academy. I hope the Imagineers don't just say f*k it and throw in more marketable rides and ruin the integrity of the land. I know there has always been problems with Tomorrowland's theming, but Discoveryland and MK's Tomorrowland are good, though the latter is now a mixing bowl of random stuff since Monsters Inc. and Stitch moved in (though at least the latter makes sense on a theming level even if it is as sh*t as they say). And Shanghai's doesn't seem to have any theming at all beyond character-themed rides. How would Tron, Star Wars, Stitch, and Marvel all fit together in a story that made sense?

    1. Your right, Tomorrowland's have always had the most problems with having cohesive themes. I think it is just a result of the vagueness of the title as compared to the more rigid definitions of the other lands. I think that will actually be a future post topic.

      Discoveryland at least originated with a single visual language, which the rest have had trouble with. It is unfortunate that some other attractions have been inserted. Buzz is the biggest offender since Star Tours is at least fairly separated.

      I'm really curious about Shanghai too. It looks cool but pretty varied so we will see how that turns out.