My first visit to Disneyland was in December of 1988. Mickey was celebrating his 60th birthday, and I was 7 years old. Mom and Dad took us there as one of our Hanukkah presents that year. I remember them telling us about this magical place before we set eyes on it (We being me and my sister.) I remember picturing Disneyland having similar qualities to the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade that we watched on tv- with clowns and such. I imagined It's a Small World as a cave with life sized mechanical children singing stoically in a choir. Dad used to point out the Matterhorn when we'd pass it while driving on the highway. The first time he did this, I somehow missed the big white mountain, thought he was pointing to a building, and briefly believed that Disneyland was inside a building.
My memories of that first visit are a little hazy. I do know that I insisted on wearing my Donald Duck sweatshirt even though it no longer fit. You can see how small it is on me in this picture:
When I finally made it to WDW's Magic Kingdom, I couldn't help but make constant comparisons to the California park. When you are used to one, it is positively surreal to enter the other- Main Street in particular is like strolling into a parallel world. It looks the same at first glance, but suddenly- hey why is the bakery over where the Emporium should be? And whoa- the castle shrank/grew! I ended up working at WDW during and after college because my family now lived in Tennessee. At first, I very much thought of DL as my home park, but gradually, I had to admit that I now knew Florida's version better. When I returned to DL for the first time in 10 years, my point of view was reversed!
On Disney message boards, the question comes up over and over- which coast is better? Now, it's not really fair to compare the entire resorts to each other- Disneyland's 2 parks and 3 hotels vs. WDW's 4 parks and more than a dozen hotels (although I've read that despite that, WDW has a mere 10% more attractions than DL). The best way to compare is to look at the two Magic Kingdoms.
Lots of people think that the Florida castle blows DL's out of the water, but personally, I love the little castle. I think it's smaller size gives it a feeling of being more magical and whimsical- but then again, I love dolls and miniatures.
That's my feeling about Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World on the whole. Walt Disney World really is a world in itself- a major tourist destination that people visit from all over the globe. Disneyland, however, is a local attraction, and you get a very different vibe just wandering through it. There is a sense of "this is our special park." It's a regular family day trip as opposed to a once in a lifetime (or even once annual) vacation for a greater percentage of the visitors, which makes the atmosphere a little more relaxed. Also, this is the park that Walt himself had a hand in creating and could even be found visiting often during his life. There's a whole history there that WDW doesn't quite match.
As for attractions that can be found at both parks, I find DL often has the upperhand. DL's Pirates of the Caribbean is longer with more scenes than MK's. DL's It's A Small World has larger show rooms and a better sound system. When MK still had a Toontown, it was merely a shadow of what DL offers- although with the new Fantasyland in the works, WDW is likely to pull ahead. I find Haunted Mansion pretty equal, although DL has you walk through a segment that is ride through on the other coast. Jungle Cruise gets a vote for WDW- the Florida version has a whole Asian ruins scene not found in California.
Which park someone prefers is going to be a personal thing- often linked to which coast one grew up with. My family has a history with Disneyland- both parents visited within the year it opened.
This is my dad and my aunt in '55:
I have an interesting perspective. I grew up going to Disneyland only to end up spending most of my adult life so far working at WDW. And now, I'm living back in California- only up north this time, about 6 hours from Disneyland. And while I miss my life at Walt Disney World and it will always hold a special place in my heart, I can't help but feel as if I'm coming home now that Disneyland will be my Disney home base again.