In my family, Disney barely comes in second to Jesus.
I pegged this saying quite a while ago and it's still oh so very true. My family vacations to Disneyland in Anaheim, California at least once a year, my parents usually going two or three times during the year. My dad also just happens to have work conventions in Disney World in Orlando from time to time, PLUS whenever one of us is visiting our family in Tokyo, we always squeeze in time for Tokyo Disney Resort.
I visited Tokyo Disney Resort back in October and I just returned from three days in Anaheim yesterday. (Update: so this was six months ago...but I just once again returned from Anaheim last week so this is all of a sudden relevant again.)
I've been to both Disneyland in Anaheim (日本語) and Tokyo Disneyland (日本語）many many times and I'm often asked about the differences between them? Is it the same? Is it different? Is it bigger? Is it smaller? The answer to almost every question is a yes and no, so I thought I'd get them all out of the way by writing them down. There's no way that I can cover it all, but I'll try to provide you with the basics.
1. Both Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland have sister-parks.
Most everyone that's been to Disneyland within the last ten years knows that it has a companion theme park, California Adventure, just next door. Tokyo Disneyland is the same, it's partner being Tokyo DisneySea. No, it's not a water park and yes, it's much much cooler than you think.
California Adventure went through a major overhaul while I was on my mission and I was very impressed with the improvements. California Adventure was originally built on a budget and when it first opened, it showed. A lot of the rides were built cheap with very little immersive environment and theme making it feel like just another amusement park you can find anywhere in the country. With a complete overhaul of the entrance of the park that features a replica of the historic Carthay Circle Theater (where Walt Disney premiered the first ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), an entirely new area (Cars Land) and some touch-ups to the carnival rides in Paradise Pier, California Adventure feels like a very Disney experience.
DisneySea on the other hand was built with zero inhibitions. It was built in 2001 and at that time, Tokyo Disneyland was the highest profiting amusement park in the world, thus the park was built on a budget of roughly 4 billion dollars, the most expensive amusement park in history. DisneySea is a unique experience you can't have anywhere else on earth. The attention to detail is impeccable. You could spend an entire day just breathing in the atmosphere, not riding any rides and you'd be satisfied. I would, at least.
No visit to Tokyo is complete without a trip to DisneySea for me. I absolutely love Tokyo Disneyland and go as often as I can, but DisneySea cannot be matched or replicated. If you only have one day in Tokyo to go to either Disneyland or DisneySea, pick the latter.
2. The "Disneyland" parks are also different.
This will make a little bit more sense to those who have visited both Disneyland and Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Disneyland is the original. It was built in 1955 and has of course gone through many changes and makeovers throughout the years, but a lot of its original charm is still intact. It's the only Disney park that features the pink Sleeping Beauty castle which is much smaller than its Florida and Tokyo counterparts.
Tokyo Disneyland is much more similar to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. Its centerpiece is identical: the massive blue and white Cinderella castle. Tokyo Disneyland was built in 1980 and in comparison was designed to handle much larger crowds than its California counterpart. The walkways are much wider and everything is generally bigger in scale. Of course, for someone that hasn't been to either park, you could say there are more similarities than differences. Both feature a castle in the center, Main Street USA (World Bazaar in Tokyo), Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Toon Town, etc.
If you were to ask my personal preference, I prefer Disneyland. It's the original, and that counts. There is so much history and so much charm. If you close your eyes you can almost see the 1950's women in dresses and men in suits with their children, square dancing in the plaza. You can almost hear Walt Disney proclaiming "to all who come to this happy place, welcome" as you enter the gates. Plus, it has more unique rides that can't be found anywhere else.
As for rides, the lists are comparable. They have many of the same rides although for the most part, none of them are carbon copies. They have slight and subtle differences that make the comparison really fun for us die-hards. Disneyland's unique attractions include the Matterhorn and Submarine Voyage while Tokyo Disneyland has Pooh's Hunny Hunt (I can't stand Winnie the Pooh, but this is the most incredible ride I've ever been on) and Monster's Inc. Ride and Go Seek.
Here are the lists of attractions:
3. Shopping and Dining
Many first-time Disney visitors that I talk to come back complaining about the food, whether it be quality or price. Quite simply, they're not doing it right. There are plenty of really great options at decent prices for what you get. You do have to do your research and be smart about where and what you eat.
Both Tokyo and Anaheim resorts have wonderful dining options, but they do vary. In general, Disneyland has really big portion sizes. Of course, Disney food is never cheap, but particularly on my visit this week, I felt like I ate too much.
The food at Tokyo Disney Resort is even higher in quality, but the portion sizes are much smaller.
Overall, I prefer Disneyland's merchandise by miles, but I'm willing to bet that Tokyo makes much more money on merchandise. Why? Behold:
4. The Guests
Disneyland was the first park of its kind and for that reason has remained a tourist destination for all. There are plenty of locals that visit Disneyland, but one of its most striking features at any time you visit is the diversity of the guests. People from EVERYWHERE come to see the original Happiest Place on Earth in all of its historic charm.
Tokyo on the other hand is dominated by locals and it is much more crowded. Much, much, much, much, seriously...MUCH MORE CROWDED. Very few people in the Tokyo Disney Resort are first-timers and they know their way around. Fast-passes (ask someone who knows if you just lost me) run out for all rides in the afternoon typically. Also, going back to the merchandise: most of these visitors have been to the parks multiple times so they're looking for special seasonal items. They're also looking for gifts (sweets, mostly) to give to their friends and co-workers. It's a Japanese custom to return with gifts when you take a vacation. Therefore, the merchandise here is not tourist friendly. There's very little lettering or "proof that I was here" merchandise, which is usually what my family and friends want me to bring home. It's kind of generic.
5. The Culture
Simply put, Japanese culture demands impeccable customer service and Disney is the crown jewel in the customer service...crown. Yeah. Really though, the employees at Tokyo Disney Resort are the most helpful and friendly service people (collectively) that I have ever encountered anywhere. Disneyland's great, but they are no match for Japanese customer service. This difference is immediately noticeable.
Hopefully this answers these frequently asked questions. Honestly, this barely even scratches the surface. I need an entire afternoon to fully elaborate on the differences. If you ever want to just hear someone talk eternally about Disney parks, you've found your man. Seriously though, let me know if you have questions, want advice/suggestions, or want to go Disney-ing sometime. I'm always ready.
If you want a comprehensive comparison of parks I HIGHLY recommend these three articles:
The Rematch (current)
These were written forever ago, but I think are still an accurate comparison and depiction of each Disney park; plus they're really fun to read.