Note: This post contains photos from various Disney parks worldwide. If you're planning on going to a particular park and want to be completely surprised by everything, you may want to to skip it.
I’m not even really a big Disney guy. I grew up around the films, have a few song choruses memorized, and have opinions about The Last Jedi, but there’s not a single hill in the Magic Kingdom that I would die on. My more-hardcore-than-me Disney friends joke that my favorite thing to do at Disneyland is to go to Starbucks. (In my defense, the parks can be hectic, and the familiarity of a chain coffeehouse can be profoundly calming.)
For reasons that aren’t mine to explain, my wife and a few of our friends have become somewhat obsessive over Disney parks, and I’ve been lucky enough to come along for the rides. Over the past few years, her and I completed a bucket list item of visiting every Disney park in the world. It started in Anaheim, where Disneyland was relatively close to home, and continued on a round-the-world trip we took in 2016. During our travel, we stopped in on the Disney resorts in Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. It wasn’t until this year, just last week, that I completed the set and flew to Orlando for a week-long vacation with friends at Walt Disney World. (My wife visited a year earlier to get the scoop before she brought me.)
There’s a lot that’s the same between the parks, and a lot that’s different. It’s easy to talk about any one in particular, but talking about all of them at once becomes a muddled mess. Anaheim is historic and Orlando is massive. Paris is beautiful and special, but also kind of awkward. Hong Kong is tiny but adorable. Shanghai is wild and impressive but equally bizarre. Tokyo couldn’t be more perfectly Japanese.
One thread that runs through all of the parks and resorts is that of quality.
Like most people, I love watching others do their best work. The Disney parks and resorts, worldwide, are the physical manifestations of people doing their best work. And not just a few people, but a lot of people, in a lot of different roles. From the executives willing to fund needless but beautiful scenery, to the imagineers working on mind-bending ride experiences, all the way down the corporate ladder, to waiters and janitors willing to go out of their way to “make magic” and provide a visitor with service that simply wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Employees of Disney parks carry a lot of pride about their workplace, and it shows up.
My favorite thing about all the Disney parks, and the reason I continue to go, even though I don’t feel a super strong connection to any particular Disney hero or storyline, is because this quality provides an exceptional amount of inspiration and happiness. The attention to detail in the hand-painted window signs, the marquee light bulbs flashing in perfect unison at the correct temperature, the themed trash cans and exit signs — nobody else cares about this stuff in the way that Disney people do. It makes you want to do whatever it is that you do, better.
I’m gushing, and I should stop. Disney parks are not perfect — they require an intense amount of research and planning in order to maximize the value of your (not inexpensive) visit and reduce your in-park stress. Planning aids like the FastPass system do help, but they require their own research and foresight. My friends highly recommend consulting a Disney-specific travel expert and/or using a service like Touring Plans to avoid long queues. The popularity of the parks is unavoidable, and if you hate being around other people, then Disney parks might just not be for you. But for those who can bear it, there’s a nice sports-stadium effect that happens: everyone is there for the same reason, enjoying the same spectacle, and something about that makes everyone into friends.
I'll admit that I probably wouldn't have visited all the parks if it weren't for the keen interest of my wife and friends, but having done so, I don't regret it in the slightest. Every trip to a Disney property leaves me with more child-like wonder in the amazing things that people are capable of imagining and constructing. It's awe-inspiring and fills me with joy and hope for the future. If that's not worth the price of admission, I don't know what would be.
If you’re reading this, I have to assume you have more than a passing interest in the parks division of the ever expanding Walt Disney Company, or at least know someone who does and is taking you along for a trip. I thought it might be useful to answer the most common questions, but please keep in mind these opinions are mine — other Disney parks experts will have their own.
Q: Which one is the best? Which is the worst?
I hate to cop out and give a non-answer here, but the truth is that there is no easy answer. “Best” is subjective to your travel budget, your trip intentions, the direction your nostalgia leans, your level of comfort in busy places or foreign languages, and all kinds of other factors.
My favorite park was Tokyo DisneySea, but I already had an affinity for Japanese culture and language, so a lot of what I like about it is rooted in that, and not any particular attractions or park area. (Though the roller coaster “Journey to the Center of the Earth” kicks ass.)
In all likelihood, the best Disney resort for you is the one that is most easily accessible to you. They aren’t “all the same” by any stretch of the mind, but there is enough quality and imagination at each one to provide a fulfilling and inspiring trip.
Q: Is it worth it to visit all the resorts?
No! Not unless you’re an absolute psychopath who feels in their soul that they must experience all things Disney. In which case, yes!
It’s insanely expensive and requires massive amounts of travel and logistics (though here’s a hot tip: US and Canadian citizens don’t need a visa to visit China if you keep you trip under 144 hours, only visit Shanghai, and exit through Hong Kong – this lets you hit 2 resorts in the same trip – here's a FlyerTalk thread with more info).
There is some amount of overlap in attractions between parks, so you get diminishing returns the more parks you visit. While there are unique and uniquely enjoyable rides like Mystic Manor in Disneyland Hong Kong or Avatar Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom, your nearest park isn’t any less fun or attractive for not having them.
Q: What do I need to know before visiting [Disney Resort]?
Other Disney bloggers have written extensively on each individual park, so I’ll refer you to my friend Carlye Wisel, who writes about this stuff professionally. Yes, it’s her real job.
Q: Do I need to stay in an “on property” hotel or is some cheap nearby hotel fine?
It’s up to you and your trip goals! For example, the Disneyland Hotel in Paris is majestic, but maybe you’d rather stay in Paris proper (also majestic) and just take the 45 minute long train ride in, which drops you directly at the park gates. Similarly, Hong Kong has great hotels, but it’s shockingly close to the city and easily accessible by public transit. Shanghai on the other hand basically requires you to stay on property - there’s really just no other reasonable option.
All of the on property hotels I’ve stayed at have been at very least “great” but are sometimes not very price competitive with other local hotels. Do your own research and let your heart be your guide.
Q: How do I plan a great Disney vacation?
Ask my wife! But folks, really: Start with your goals. What experiences are you hoping to have? Be aware that doing and seeing everything isn’t reasonable, even for a multi-day trip, so choose the things that are important to you and plan around them. There are rides, character meet and greets, parades, shows, fireworks, snacks and dining (and potentially much more depending on your hotel/accommodation).
With your goals in mind, research! Learn about Fastpass (It's different at different locations!), learn about what can be reserved in advance, make a timetable, and have a plan. It’s not necessary to stick to said plan, but having solid expectations about queue wait times and crowd levels for your trip will go a really long way in making your experience enjoyable and not hectic.
Also, know where the Starbucks is.