Dueling Disney: Best Resorts

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Disney Parks, Disneyland Resort, Dueling Disney, Features, Walt Disney World

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Published on June 05, 2013 at 2:00 am with 31 Comments

So, you decided to come to a Disney resort, but now the ultimate question hangs in the balance: where will you rest your weary head after a long day of Park-hopping? Well, luckily, both Walt Disney World and Disneyland offer a host of different options for you to choose from. However, is one Coast superior than the other when it comes to their offerings? We’re about to find out!

(As usual, Keith is representing Disneyland Resort, while Jeff is representing Walt Disney World.)

Topic 10: Resort Hotels

Keith: Yikes. I may have my hands full on this one. Disneyland only has three on-property hotels, and you guys have what, ninety? I am really going to have to play up the history in this installment. Sherman, you’d better get that WABAC machine ready!

Jeff: Ninety seems fairly accurate. And of course, that may seem a little overwhelming at first. However, when you take into the account the millions of families that visit the Walt Disney World resort each year, it’s good to know they have choices. You may have some good history to back you up, but don’t be fooled; our resorts have JUST as much history as yours do!

Keith: Just? Surely you jest! Get the gist?

In 1984, the Japanese conglomerate Tokyu Corp opened the Emerald of Anaheim Hotel on 1717 S. West Street, just blocks from Disneyland. The 15-story, 502-room hotel was unique amongst its neighbors (as well as most American hotels), as it actually contained a thirteenth floor. In 1989, the Emerald and Pan Pacific hotel chains, both operated by subsidiaries of Tokyu Corp, joined forces. The Emerald of Anaheim was renamed Pan Pacific Hotel, but that moniker would only last a few years. Disney purchased the hotel in 1995, and subsequently renamed it The Disneyland Pacific Hotel. The move came only months after Disney abandoned their $3-billion dollar “Westcot” expansion plan. “We have a continued commitment to the city of Anaheim and its well-respected hospitality industry,” Paul Pressler (then-president of Disneyland) stated. “The acquisition of the Pan Pacific Hotel enables us to offer additional lodging choices for the guests of the Disneyland Resort”


The Disneyland Pacific Hotel underwent an extensive remodel, and on November 1, 2000, was renamed Paradise Pier Hotel to coincide with the themed land it overlooked in the soon-to-be-opened California Adventure park. The hotel’s fun environment includes the PCH Grill, where guests can enjoy California-style cuisine while in the company of Disney characters. There’s also a rooftop pool area, with a water slide (cleverly named California Streamin’) that pays tribute to classic boardwalk roller coasters.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Jefferson, but I don’t believe any of the Walt Disney World resort hotels have a rooftop pool. You may just have to concede the loss right now!

Jeff: Rooftop pools? Disneyphile, please. We don’t need no rooftop pools!

Since you started off with the hotel that most people don’t even realize is owned by Disney (and they don’t…I walked past it the other night with some friends, and they had no idea), I’ll start off by looking at some of the so-called value resorts that Walt Disney World has to offer.

You see, unlike Disneyland, all of the resorts that are offered by Walt Disney World were not previously owned by other hotel chains (minus the Swan and Dolphin…but we’ll get to those later). In fact, when it came to planning Walt Disney World, the company thought ahead, and bought 43 square miles of land, so they would have more than enough room for their theme parks and resort accommodations.


But like I said, before I get into the history of some of their more prestigious offerings, I’ll look at the values. Walt Disney World has quite a few value resorts for you to choose from for those of you on a tighter budget. Now, don’t let the terms “value” and “tighter budget” confuse you, as some of these places are wonderful. The originals included All-Star Movies, Music, and Sports, with each themed around their namesake. While they may be spread out like a large college campus, each offers uniquely themed buildings for guests to stay in.

A few years after those resorts opened, Pop Century was conceived. Billed as a “phase one of two” hotel, this resort would offer guests at look at the yesteryears they were used to, with buildings themed from 1950s through the 1990s. Across Hour Glass Lake, Disney planned to build phase two of Pop Century, called “the Classic Years,” to invoke the 1900s through 1940s. Unfortunately, the travel industry took a hit after 9/11, so those plans never came to fruition. The buildings that had built for that project sat empty for years, until they re-themed and build more 2 years ago, bringing us the wonderfully themed family value resort, Art of Animation. And let me tell you, that place is gorgeous. GORGEOUS. And their food court is pretty dang impressive for a value.

Keith: Well I had to start somewhere! And Paradise Pier is 33% of the Disneyland Resort hotel “fleet,” after all. I’m thinking now that after a) the rooftop pool revelation, and b) you even typing the words “Swan” and/or “Dolphin,” I may have just sealed this baby up! Want to quit now? You know you do.

Jeff: Give up! Never! You forget that my last name isn’t “Taylor.”

Keith: Haha! You have a point.

Disneyland Resort’s flagship hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, opened on January 2, 2001. The hotel welcomes guests through a one-story entryway, followed by a two-story reception area. After that, guests venture over to the 65-foot-tall Great Room, which is meant to elicit the feeling of passing through a California Redwood forest.

The Grand Californian was designed to pay homage to California’s turn-of-the-century Romantic Arts and Crafts Movement. In its planning stages Disney reviewed portfolios from over 300 artisans and craftsmen, and even met with the Arts and Crafts Guild in Northern California.

The result was a celebration of design and function. 4240 Architecture Inc, the firm Disney hired to tackle the project, manipulated spaces in small and large volumes and utilized varying levels of light to provide each guest the feeling of intimacy while ensconced in a large setting.

The Great Hall

The hotel is home to the award-winning restaurant Napa Rose, one of the finest restaurants in the entire resort. It also has its own private entrance to California Adventure, which leads into the Grizzly Peak area. Some rooms overlook the park, even offering views of the nighttime show World of Color. Others overlook the hotel’s expansive Redwood pool area (complete with 100-foot water slide), and some offer direct views into Downtown Disney. In 2009, the property underwent a 2.5-acre expansion that saw the addition of over 200 new hotel rooms, and 50 Disney Vacation Club two-bedroom equivalent villas.

Disney’s Grand Californian has proven to be a worthy flagship hotel from day one. In February, 2001, it won the award for Project of the Year–Land Development, by the American Society of Civil Engineers. If you have the means, this hotel is the perfect place to enjoy a taste of California, in a luxurious setting that still manages to feel cozy.

Oh, and its lobby is also the place where Jeff first watched the video of me and Richard Sherman singing “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” together. Do I get points for that?

Jeff: If anything, I’m giving you negative points for that, just for being a jerk. Because you, good sir, are a jerk.

Grand Californian may be the cream of the crop over by you, but I think for most folks, it’s a little too pricey. Now, when you’re visiting Walt Disney World, and don’t want to spend a boatload of dough on a room, but also don’t want to stay in at a value resort, you have some options with their moderate offerings.

What’s interesting about these moderates is that some of them were created as a sort of “all-in-one” area for folks staying there. When the Disney Parks (and yes, I mean both coasts), were in a state of declining profit in the early 80s, they tried to come up with some ways to prevent the perception that visiting there was too costly for the middle class. It was thought that if they created “residential villages,” sort of like the ones that were popular in Europe at the time, middle class folk would be more apt to stay. These new resorts would include the guests’ rooms (obviously), but also shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and sport activities.


And so, the Caribbean Beach resort was born! This moderate resort, in a lot of ways, helped people extend their stays at Walt Disney World, while visiting Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. Soon after, they also built Port Orleans (which was split into two sections: Riverside and French Quarter), The Cabins at Fort Wilderness, and finally, Coronado Springs, which is aimed toward corporate conventions.

Even today, all of these resorts are beautifully themed and highly detailed, moderately priced options for guests. They won’t cost you an arm and a leg, like Keith’s final offering will.

Keith: Ha. I got to sing Beautiful Tomorrow with Richard Sherman, but you got to write a book with Rolly Crump! I think we’re even, bud.

Knowing I usually save the best for last, some might be wondering why I discussed the Grand Californian second. That’s easy. While it’s technically the resort’s flagship hotel, The Disneyland Hotel will always be the flagship to me.

In the spring of 1954, Walt Disney approached his friend and television producer Jack Wrather with an offer: to build an upscale hotel adjacent to his Disneyland project. Walt had already been turned down by several well-known hotel chains (including Hilton), and Wrather’s response was the same. Walt, however, was persistent. And really, how many times can you say no to Walt Disney? Walt rewarded his friend with a 99-year lease, and exclusive rights to use the Disney name for future hotels. This would mean that while Disney owned the land, Wrather would own the hotel.

The Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955, with five 2-story buildings. On June 11, 1961, the Monorail station on West street officially opened. In September of 1962, the 11-story Sierra North Tower opened, and was Orange County’s first high-rise building. January 15, 1970 welcomed the Marina Tower, and four months later, the show Dancing Waters debuted in a new crescent-shaped amphitheater. In July of 1978, the Bonita Tower opened, which was named after Wrather’s wife.

Does anybody else remember the 165-foot waterfall and Koi Fish pond? Aqua Gardens, easily one of the most tranquil places any Disney property has ever contained, opened in June of 1979. And in 1986, guests could visit The Monorail Cafe for a “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” sandwich, and awesome milkshakes. The Walt Disney Company eventually acquired the Wrather Corporation in January of 1988, thus obtaining ownership of the hotel.

The Disneyland Hotel holds so many fond memories for me. Our family’s tradition was to begin the drive down to Anaheim in the morning (from San Francisco), and arrive in the mid-afternoon. We would eat dinner (sometimes at the Acapulco restaurant on Harbor, sometimes at the Monorail Cafe), then spend the evening strolling through the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. Human-powered Pedal Boats in the marina, playing Dragon’s Lair in the Atari Adventure arcade (which sat in and below the water level of the marina), steering coin-operated “Commandaboats” through a sectioned off course of the marina, and a cartoon art museum, are just a few of the ways kids kept themselves entertained in the Disneyland Hotel’s heyday. Free entertainment was also available, such as: a special viewing area for the Disneyland fireworks, the Polynesian Fantasy show, and the classic Dancing Waters, which became Fantasy Waters in 1992.

Just as much history, Jeff? Not bloody likely!

Nowadays the recently remodeled Disneyland Hotel doesn’t provide the entertainment it used to, however it is still a beautiful property with a variety of delights fit for all ages. The hotel now has “signature rooms,” each of which are gorgeously decorated in their respective theme: Pirates of the Caribbean Suite, Mickey Mouse Penthouse, Fairy Tale Suite, Big Thunder Suite, and the Adventureland Suite.


The hotel is now also home to the wildly popular Trader Sam’s – Enchanted Tiki Bar, of which I hear almost daily from Walt Disney World patrons how they wish it were in Florida. Steakhouse 55 also happens to be one of the best steakhouses I’ve ever been to. Amazing food complemented by the fantastic atmosphere of elegant old Hollywood (complete with several portraits of Walt) assures every guest will have an outstanding dining experience.

And in case anyone was wondering where the “best pool ever” is located, according to one Jeff Heimbuch, that would be the newly re-imagined pool at the Disneyland Hotel.


Note, he said “ever.”

Jeff: Listen, stop using quotes from photos I posted 3 days ago on Instagram against me. It’s unfair, and unsportsman-like.

I will admit that the Disneyland Hotel does have a grand and marvelous history. I won’t discount that. However, when it comes to pure theming and elegance, I’ll have to continue to side with the deluxe resorts at Walt Disney World.

Let me start off with the wonderful, original resorts that grace the Seven Seas Lagoon. You see, since Walt was upset about the neon, popped up paradise that sprang up around Disneyland, the blessing of size was his friend for Walt Disney World. The tackiness of motels wasn’t going to be a problem for him, no sir! He planned on having several resorts surround his new Magic Kingdom, so he could control the illusion.

Though there are quite a few that were never built (the Persian, for example), the first two that opened with Walt Disney World are amazing. The Contemporary, it goes without saying, is absolutely iconic. Before the Grand Floridian came along, the Contemporary was considered the flagship property of the resort. The iconic A-Frame was a collaboration between Disney, the United States Steel Corporation, and the architect Welton Becket. The steel frame of the hotel was made on site, while the rooms themselves were modular, being made off-site, and then hoisted into place by a large crane. All of them surround the gorgeous Grand Canyon Concourse, the multi-story mosaic designed by Mary Blair, is the centerpiece of this gigantic room, and is also home to the Five Legged Goat. The resort grew over the years, with a convention center being added in the early 90s, and the Bay Lake Tower addition being added in 2005. With the monorail running through it, its still a wonderful choice for your visit.

Moving along, we also have the Grand Floridian Resort, which is comparable to Disneyland’s Grand Californian. With its Victorian theme, it opened in 1988, and was an instant hit. Designed by the architectural firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo, it sits where the “Asian” themed resort was once scheduled to sit. Its grand elegance was modeled after the beach resorts along the Florida coast. The outer lodge buildings are all named for islands in the Florida Keys. And its five story lobby is truly a sight to behold.


My personal favorite resort, both along the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon and at Walt Disney World, is none other than the Polynesian. The second resort to open on the Walt Disney World property on opening day, this is, by far, the most gorgeous. It invokes the feeling of being in a tropical setting, surrounding yourself with dense foliage and south seas designs. The resort is organized around the Great Ceremonial House, designed after a Tahitian royal assembly lodge. Guest rooms are located off of it, in long houses, named after isles on the Polynesian isle map.

When Walt was in talks about designing Walt Disney World, he originally wanted the resorts surrounded the Magic Kingdom to reflect the different areas of the park. Looking around Bay Lake, they all seem to fit, with Grand Floridian echoing the views of Main Street, the Contemporary looking toward the future with Tomorrowland, and The Polynesian being much like the wilds of Adventureland.

And these are just the deluxe resorts on the Monorail Loop! Would you like me to get into the pure beauty that is the Animal Kingdom Lodge, where you can wake up and see animals grazing right outside your window? Perhaps you’d prefer the turn of the century Atlantic City feel of The Boardwalk, which is also quite nice. If that isn’t enough, you can head on over to the Yacht and Beach Club, where some of the nicest rooms on property are located. I know I mentioned the Swan and Dolphin before, but we’re running out of space, and we’re well over our word count, so I’ll just wrap it up.

That’s the thing about Walt Disney World. You have plenty of options when it comes to where you want to lay your head at night or take a break during the day. And every one is just as good, if not better, than the last.

So, what say you, Keith? Have you had enough?

Keith: I have had enough, actually. I can’t believe how much time we spent on this installment! I would like to say though that I adore many of the hotels at Walt Disney World (French Quarter, Polynesian and Beach Club are my favorites), and while it’s true we can’t hang with you when it comes to quantity, I believe we are right there in quality. Oh, and I have only just begun using your own words against you, my friend (maniacal laugh).

What do you folks think? Do you like the three options that Disneyland Resort provides? Or do you prefer the multitude of choices that Walt Disney World offers? Let us know in the comments below!

Dueling Disney is written by Jeff Heimbuch & Keith Gluck

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected]

You can follow us on Twitter: @DisneyProject and @JeffHeimbuch

About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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  • Terrytiger

    No mention of Wilderness Lodge??? This is by far the most unique and beautiful resort at Walt Disney World. It was designed by the same architect as the Grand Californian with a grand lobby that even beats out Grand Californian in grandeur. What other hotel has a geyser in it’s lobby that flows out into a stream and over a waterfall into the pool complex and eventually flows all the way out to Bay Lake! Not to mention the Firerock Geyser outside. And you can take a boat to the Magic Kingdom from there!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    As much as I love the Grand Californian at Disneyland, there are over a half dozen hotels I like as much or better at Walt Disney World. My favorite hotels are the Boardwalk and the Animal Kingdom Lodge.

    • sjames

      We go to Disneyland more than WDW and stay at the Grand Californian. While it is truly a beautiful and very tranquil hotel, the room itself is not all that ‘grand’. The Yacht Club Resort’s room in WDW was much bigger and nicer. When you stay at WDW you are given the royal treatment from the moment you land at the airport unlike Disneyland so it makes staying at the resort hotels all that much better.

      But if you love the look and feel of a National Park, there is nothing better short of being in Yosemite than the Grand. The true advantage of staying there is that you can walk into the CDA and to Downtown Disney but of course you cannot walk anywhere in WDW.

      Comparing WDW and DL is like comparing apples and oranges-very different places and different advantages and disadvantages to both.

  • BC_DisneyGeek

    I love the WDW resorts. The amount of space makes a huge difference. When I stayed at Coronada Springs and French Quarter I enjoyed long walks around the lake or along the water. Nothing at Disneyland can compete with that, as beautiful as the Grand Californian is.

    In Anaheim, a hotel is a place to sleep. In Orlando, a hotel is more of a place to enjoy and experience in its’ own right.

  • gboiler1

    I enjoyed the Disneyland Hotel and being on the edge of downtown Disney with the Monorail option, however this is the first Duel so far where I believe WDW is the clear cut winner.
    Plus WDW has a wider range of more affordable options that still allows a stay on property.

  • yellowrocket

    I can’t wait to read the comments where WDW haters give the win to Disneyland.

    • tofubeast

      Priceless. :)

  • eicarr

    If I want a beach resort I go the coast to relax, not a converted swamp. I never got that. I just go to get on as many attractions as I can every park trip, so being a short walk from all park gates to take breaks throughout the day is most important to me. I know that due to Florida’s lax codes they’ve started building some WDW resorts without finished blueprints, and I find that disturbing. And their economy resorts remind me of housing projects.

    But due to high prices, and always being sold out, I opt for motels across the street from DL till the build the badly needed hotels on the massive amount of empty DL resort land. At both resorts it’s all about the rides for me, and I think Universal Orlando gets that too with its hotel layout.

    • holierthanthoutx

      I’m curious — which WDW resorts are “a short walk from all park gates”? I’ve stayed at the Contemporary, which is a short walk from the Magic Kingdom, and there are several Epcot-area resorts that are a short walk from the International Gateway entrance to Epcot, but I can’t figure out how you’d ever be a short walk from all four parks.

      • jcruise86

        I think Eicarr used walking to the parks as an example of why he prefers the Disneyland Resort. Universal Orlando might play this up too.

        I do love at least half a dozen resorts at WDW and usually visit some on most trips even when I’m not staying there.

  • tofubeast

    I think there is no contest here. For the price I can stay at a DLR hotel, I can stay at one HECK of a resort at WDW. I paid way more to stay at a “good neighbor” hotel than I have with a WDW value or even moderate (when on a good discount), and that place really just was a motel. WDW offers so much to the visitor such as water activities, insanely amazing pools (how could you miss Stormalong Bay?), golf, car racing, mini golf etc…etc…..etc…. The resorts are destinations in themselves, with many families taking days off from going to the theme parks, to resort hop and enjoy the grounds and restaurants. This is especially popular during the holidays when the resorts have stunning decorations. I love being immersed in the Disney bubble that is the WDW resort.

  • Mr. Disney

    Wasn’t the Grand Floridian also modeled after the historic Hotel Del Coronado, here in San Diego? (A mere hour and a half away from Anaheim?) :)

  • Monorail Dreamer

    WDW clearly wins this one by a mile. The Polynesian is my favorite due to the landscaping and the monorail service (including easy access to the TTC for the Epcot monorail), but i have never had a bad experience at any of the price points. You also didn’t mention Fort Wilderness, which isn’t a hotel, but is a fantastic option for RVers. The boat ride from Ft. Wilderness is one of my favorite memories from childhood WDW trips.

  • LoveStallion

    Hard to really argue in favor of Disneyland here. The place is barely a “resort.” I think it’s funny that you guys only mentioned the hotels. I believe “resort” encompasses the entirety of the property, including shopping, entertainment, sports, etc. Disney World has golf, for goodness’ sake.

    I’m a huge supporter of my Disneyland roots, but Disneyland will always be a commuter park.

    • Grizzly

      This article was about hotels, which at Walt Disney World are called “resorts”.

  • Big D

    No question, WDW wins by a landslide. I think Animal Kingdom Lodge alone beats all three Disneyland hotels put together. If you took the Grand Californian by itself and compared it to individual hotels, I think it would beat most of the WDW hotels, but not Boardwalk or AK Lodge. The Boardwalk wins just because the rooms there are a lot bigger then the rooms at the Grand Californian, even though I prefer the theme of the Grand Californian slightly.

  • ChrisNJ

    up until about 10 years ago I was a huge fan of Disney hotels/resorts and then something changed. Each time I went back to one I noticed how it was not being kept up. The last straw for me was a stay at the Polynesian three years ago – the room was recently renovated and yet it was just blah. And the hallways, elevator and stairwell were always dirty.

    My last Disney stay was at Art of Animation’s Cars section. The grounds were spotless. Staff was just like the good old Disney days – polite & friendly. The family suite however was not good – found two crawling bugs and a huge yellow stain on the sheets of the sofa bed.

    I travel a lot and stay in all levels of hotels. Sadly Disney World hotels are a bit lacking considering the price (and yes I factor in proximity/transport). I will give the Four Seasons a try before doing completely off property.

    Disneyland Hotel rooms are actually very nice. Think I preferred the Neverland pool though.

    • Big D

      Try the Swan & Dolphin next time you go. They are actually Westin hotels and and very nice. They are not richly themed, but they do have an awesome pool and a beach, and some exceptionally good restaurants. The rooms are a little small (equivalent to AK Lodge or a moderate / value resort in terms of size) but well appointed. They also have a laundromat on property which I find to be very helpful. Oh, and it’s pretty much the best location at Walt Disney World. The only downside is that because they are not Disney hotels, you won’t get the magical express transfers, and you can’t buy a package with the meal plan.

  • JiminyCricketFan

    I have to say that WDW is the winner. While I have never stayed in the Disneyland hotels because I live here, I have had several wonderful stays at different hotels in WDW. I do think that WDW hotels are a bit on the pricey side for what you get, but I still stay at Disney on-property hotels on my trips to WDW.

  • brianpinsky

    Being a Disneyland Native I see the hotels oh so often and I have fallen in love with the Grand Cal and Disneyland Hotels. Back in ’05 when we visited WDWR we stayed at the Grand Floridian. The bugs were so a turn off. I would pick Disneyland’s hotels any day over the Grand Floridian. The Grand Floridian does have its charms but it does not compare the amazement and the comfort that the Grand California gives; and that’s just the lobby.

  • scarymouse

    Hands down Anaheim, Closest proximity to the parks, Grand Californian has its own entry into DCA. Sometimes quantity doesn’t beat quality, in this case Anaheim is more tied together and not so spread out, time wise especially. I do concede to Animal lodge that’s just too cool, but overall Anaheim.

    • sjames

      I’ve already commented but it is interesting to see the strong alliance to one park over the other. It’s great that there are two places and that both places offer something for all of us! I agree…..truly love the resort feel at DL and that everything is in close proximity. I could spend an entire day in the Grand’s lobby alone. You can sit out by their amazing pool area or anywhere outside and not be consumed by bugs and humidity! You can also walk into DCA, ride the Grizzly, or have lunch and come right back to your room within minutes.