Comparing Disneyland With ‘Disneyland for Adults’

Las Vegas and Disneyland may share some birthdays and lots of tourist traffic, but their similarities end there

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Among a certain set of travel writers, the notion that Las Vegas is a kind of “Disneyland for adults” has, through repeated mention, become a received wisdom. Just Google “Vegas” and “Disneyland for adults,” and observe 10-plus years of editorial groupthink, from TripAdvisor to Yahoo. (And in April 2014, The Verge apparently predicted Las Vegas might become “the Disneyland of weed.” We’re still waiting in line for that particular attraction.)

It’s understandable why these writers are tempted to draw such a comparison. Both places deal in fantasy fulfillment; both places are extensively themed; both places have cartoon characters enjoying extended residencies. They even share some birthdays: Three classic Las Vegas hotels—the Riviera, the Dunes and the Moulin Rouge—opened their doors a few scant months before Disneyland made its July 1955 debut. And, oh yeah, Las Vegas debuted roller coasters and Star Tours-style motion simulator rides in the 1990s, and in 2001, Disney finally stole a page from Vegas and fronted Disneyland with upscale bars.

But that’s where the comparisons end. Las Vegas was never in any danger of becoming a Disneyland, even with theme parks at both ends of the Strip (MGM’s defunct Grand Adventures Park at the south end, and Circus Circus’ Adventuredome at the north). And Disneyland, even at age 60, isn’t close to becoming Las Vegas. It’s worth a moment, on the occasion of Disneyland’s diamond anniversary, to consider some reasons why TripAdvisor and its ilk should forever retire “Las Vegas is a Disneyland for adults.”

For starters, Disneyland respects its history more than we do. Sure, they’ve made some changes over the years, but by and large Disney has kept big swaths of the park much the same as they looked on opening day. Main Street has barely changed; Fantasyland and Frontierland have only grown larger; and the Mark Twain steamboat is still operating and looks like a million bucks. In fact, more than a dozen of Disneyland’s opening-day attractions, from the Jungle Cruise to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, are still in operation today.

It probably doesn’t need to be said how well Las Vegas is doing on the historical preservation front. All three of the aforementioned 60-year-old resorts are closed; the Riviera will likely be rubble within a year. Most of our older hotel-casinos—Caesars Palace, especially—have been expanded and remodeled so many times that they have little in common with their opening-day iterations.

To be fair, this is an apples-to-appletinis comparison: A casino has little in common with a spinning teacup ride, save for the nausea that comes after you’ve given either a whirl. But thousands upon thousands of tourists still come here looking for “old-school Vegas,” and we’ve kept very little of it alive for them. Perhaps worse, many of us barely even remember what came before. Disneyland fights to keep continuity with its past in ways Las Vegas probably never will.

Disneyland is also more successful in getting people out of their cars. You park, take a short tram ride, disembark in a lushly landscaped plaza, and all the amenities of Disneyland Resort spill out before you: the three Disney-owned hotels; the Downtown Disney shopping, bars and dining district; Disney California Adventure park; and, naturally, Disneyland itself.

Again, this is an unfair comparison: Officially, Disneyland Resort encompasses 160 acres (though several areas not accessible to guests push that number higher), while the resorts of the Strip are spread over a far greater area. (CityCenter alone encompasses 76 acres; Disney California Adventure, the Anaheim attraction’s “second gate,” is only 67 acres.)

But Las Vegas has had a good, long time to figure out the transit problems of our tourist corridor. Basically, the clock started ticking the minute someone suggested we build a monorail line from MGM Grand to the Sahara, but built it behind the properties east of the Strip where no sane person would think to look for it. People still take cabs from the Monte Carlo to the Wynn, because apparently no one wanted a monorail that ran down the center of the Strip. Las Vegas desired Disney convenience; they just didn’t want anyone to see it.

Meanwhile, Disneyland’s own monorail line has been transporting tourists to and from its hotels since 1959. People ride it just for fun, for the sake of the scenic views it affords. And people on the ground take photos of it as it goes by.

But Las Vegas has it over Disneyland in one important respect: People can still afford to come here. Nightly summertime rates at the Disneyland Hotel (the resort’s oldest) begin at $329 for a standard room, and single-day adult admission to just one of Disney’s two Anaheim parks will set you back $99. You can have a thrilling day and night in Las Vegas for half that cost (and perhaps even win a few bucks).

Maybe Disneyland should strive to reduce its costs and become known as “the Las Vegas for families.” Meanwhile, we can work on becoming “the Disneyland of weed.”