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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  • danyoung

    Excellent article, but I have to call you out on a bit of revisionist history. Disney did not create Port Orleans Riverside – they created Dixie Landings, which was later (due to stupid political correctness requirements) to Port Orleans Riverside. It and the nearby Port Orleans Resort (now Port Orleans French Quarter) used to be separate entities. Why they are now considered one is a total mystery to me.

  • jasonk5

    We’ve stayed at the Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Wilderness Lodge, Port Orleans Riverside, and All Star Sports. Even though I’m a Disneyland purist, I do find myself always wanting more time at Disney World to spend and swim at the hotels. They just can’t be beat. They are an attraction unto themselves. Although we have stayed at the Grand Californian many times (because they have treated us right every time), Disney World hotels are just fun to walk around, swim, eat, etc. Disney World for the win….on this one.

  • holierthanthoutx

    I can really only speak for the DVC properties, as I haven’t stayed at most of the non-DVC resorts. My single favorite hotel is the Grand Californian at Disneyland. While the theming might not be the BEST, the accommodations, amenities and proximity to the theme parks and Downtown Disney make it an awesome place to stay.

    A close second is Kidani Village at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. This one wins the theming award, both for the property in general and for the individual rooms.

    Overall, I’d have to give the win to WDW, because you have so much variety to choose from. The Bay Lake Tower is amazing, and being able to walk to the Magic Kingdom or to the monorail is a great perk. The Boardwalk is also fantastic with its proximity to the Boardwalk’s restaurants and shops, and to Epcot and DHS. Old Key West has HUGE rooms (a two-bedroom there is something like 1400 sq. feet) and nice theming, and it looks like the Villas at the Grand Floridian will be spectacular.

  • oldhotelguy

    The Original Disneyland Hotel!!

  • oldhotelguy

    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.

    This is the company story line but not exactly factual.

  • Freddie Freelance

    Let me just point out that you can get a Kungaloosh at one Resort, and it’s not Disney World!

  • PecosBill

    Jeff: “…as some of these places are wonderful.”
    Does that mean that there are many that are less than wonderful???