(FYI, this is part 1 of my Disneyland series. I’ll be back soon posting my favorite activities to do with toddlers and tips to make the most of your day at Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park.)
There are few things in life I love more than Disneyland. Besides visiting family, it’s pretty much the only family vacation we’ve taken with our kids. In the six years since our oldest daughter was born, we’ve been to Disneyland four times, and I’m always (not-so-secretly) planning our next adventure there.
I come by this love honestly. Our family went there more than a handful of times growing up, and my dad is a true Disney fanatic. Before our family trips, he’d read Disney travel guides so he’d know all of the tips on how to make the most of your day. Things like “eat at the off times” and “when there are multiple lines, stay to the left.”
Fast forward to Disneyland today and it is much more complicated. It’s not the type of theme park where you can just show up and go with the flow. Having a successful day is all about the prep work, and when traveling with toddlers, being prepared is even more critical. So to make it a little easier for you, I’ve compiled all the basics about planning a trip to Disneyland with toddlers.
But before we go any further, let’s address the question I get asked more than any other.
IS IT WORTH GOING TO DISNEYLAND WITH A TODDLER?
Many people think it’s not worth going to the Disneyland Resort while your children are toddlers and that it’s better to wait until they are older and will remember more about the trip. While I completely understand (Disneyland is expensive!), I think it’s 100% worth it if YOU want to take your toddler and it’s in your budget.
Some of my favorite memories I have with my kids are at Disneyland and seeing it all through their eyes when they’re still young enough to believe in the magic of it all is like nothing else. Plus the park caters to young kids, and there are tons of activities and rides just for them! And wouldn’t you prefer your kids melting down at Disneyland with hundreds of other young families around showing their solidarity than at a beach resort? I sure would!
Oh, and let’s not forget that admission is FREE before age three at Disneyland! Yep, children under three do not need an admission ticket to Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park, and they also eat free at select family style dining locations. Last year I convinced my husband fairly last-minute that we should go to Disneyland because our youngest two kids were both free that year and we couldn’t miss out on that kind of bargain! (Ha, just kidding. Disneyland is never a bargain, but it did do the trick!)
OK, so now you’ve decided that you’re taking your toddler to Disneyland. Where should you begin? Well, read on, because I’ve compiled a list of everything you need to know to plan your trip and basics for navigating the park.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
1. WHEN TO GO. One of the best things about traveling with toddlers is you’re not limited by school schedules and needing to travel during summer and spring break when the crowds are typically the worst. The holiday season is pretty intense too! Instead, if you’re able to, choose another week when the crowd size isn’t predicted to be as bad. We always check this website before we finalize the dates of our trip.
2. WHERE TO STAY. Stay at a hotel within walking distance to Disneyland, whether you stay at an official Disneyland hotel or one of the nearby Good Neighbor Hotels. Being able to come and go with your toddler as you please, and not having to break down your stroller to get on a tram or shuttle at the end of the day is the way to do it!
The three Disneyland Resort Hotels are much pricier than the offsite hotels, but they do have their advantages. The biggest one is that you’ll get Extra Magic Hour, which gets you into one of the parks one hour before opening each day.
The benefit of staying offsite is that it’s much cheaper, and some of the hotels are just as close, if not closer, than the Disneyland hotels! This is the route we always take and stay at one of the closest hotels on Harbor Boulevard. We like both the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort (pictured above) and the Howard Johnson Anaheim, which has a super fun water playground. (Tip: utilize mobile ordering at the Panera Bread or McDonald’s on Harbour Boulevard and pick up breakfast on the way to the park in the AM. Your kids can eat as you go through security and wait to get into the park.)
3. HOW LONG TO STAY. If this is your first trip to Disneyland, my recommendation is to do the 3-day one park per day pass. Plan to spend two days at Disneyland Park and one day at Disney California Adventure Park. With a 3-day park pass, you’ll also get one Magic Morning, which means you’ll get into Disneyland one hour before opening.
I prefer the one park per day pass because it makes the day feel a little less stressful for you and your kids. No worrying about “getting your money worth” by hopping parks, and instead, you can just focus on having the best day at one park.
4. BOOK A CHARACTER MEAL. The character dining is definitely worth it because you get a lot of one-on-one time with the characters. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance, and I recommend booking as soon as possible (the best way to book is through the Disneyland App). If a restaurant is booked, check back often as people are always canceling and changing reservations!
The options for dining include breakfast with Minnie and Friends at the Plaza Inn located inside Disneyland Park (my personal favorite, because of the nostalgia), or character dining at each of the three Disneyland Resort Hotels. You don’t need a theme park ticket to do character dining at one of the hotels, so you can do that on a day you’re not going to the park (which saves valuable park time)! Also, if your toddler is anything like mine and takes time to warm up to the characters, you might want to schedule this experience towards the end of your trip to make the most of it.
5. BRING OR RENT A STROLLER. You will definitely want a stroller at the park, and not just for your child, but also to store everything you’ll need for the day! Disneyland requires a lot of walking, and it’s much quicker and more convenient to cross the park with your toddler safely strapped into their stroller than running through the crowds with them. Pick a stroller that’s easy to navigate, they are comfortable napping in, has a big canopy, and has decent storage. (Tip: before you go, check the new size restrictions to make sure the dimensions of your stroller meets the requirements.)
Another great option is to rent a stroller. If you go this route, choose an off-site rental service (like City Stroller Rentals) versus renting at the park so you can take your stroller back to your hotel at the end of the day when your little one is sure to be exhausted!
A few Disneyland stroller recommendations that fit the size restrictions below:
6. RESEARCH THE RIDES. Before you go, make a list of which rides and attractions you want to do with your toddler during your trip. You’ll want to check the height requirements and check for scheduled refurbishments on the events calendar so you can help your toddler deal with any disappointment before you get to the park.
Also, in Disneyland Park, some of the rides that seem like they’d be fun for toddlers may actually be too scary for them. These rides include Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, and the Haunted Mansion. You can watch videos of any of the rides on YouTube before your trip, so you know what to expect. At the park, start by taking your toddler on some of the gentler, less scary rides like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan’s Flight to see how they do and work your way up from there.
7. BRING YOUR OWN FOOD. Not only will packing your own food save you money, but it also will save your sanity when you’re trying to keep your toddler entertained. We typically pack a soft cooler with a variety of favorites like Uncrustable sandwiches, fruit snacks, apple slices, veggie sticks, granola bars, lollipops, and crackers. And don’t forget to bring water bottles for the kids! You can fill it at the drinking fountains located throughout the park or you can ask for a cup of water at any quick service dining locations and transfer the water to your kids’ water bottle.
8. PACKING LIST. If your child is young enough to use a baby carrier, bring one! You’ll be able to wear them in lines instead of dealing with a squirmy baby, and you won’t be tied to your stroller if they need to rest. You’ll also want to bring a portable phone charger since you’ll be on your phone all day using the Disneyland App and taking photos. For your stroller, bring a set of stroller hooks to carry all your belongings and a portable fan to keep your toddler cool.
Other things to add to the packing list include a packable blanket to hold your spot for parades, rain jackets or ponchos in case of rain, lost child temporary tattoos (love these Disney-themed ones!), sunscreen, sun hats, hand wipes, sanitizer, and small activities to keep your child entertained.
YOUR DAY AT DISNEYLAND
1. BE ORGANIZED ABOUT YOUR BAGS. Be sure to bring a small backpack for your valuables (keys, wallet, phone, extra phone charger) plus a few snacks to carry with you to attractions and rides. You can leave everything else at the stroller. Also, be sure to pack your stroller and bags each night after the kids are in bed, so you are all ready to go and don’t waste any time in the morning. Which leads me to…
2. GET THERE EARLY. I suggest being through security and at the gates a minimum of 30 minutes before park opening. This means you’ve got to start walking over a full hour early and if you’re parking your car, you’ll need even more time.
They will start letting people into Disneyland about twenty minutes before the official opening time of the park, which insiders call rope drop. (It’s called rope drop because this is when Disney cast members remove the ropes at the far end of Main Street to admit guests to the various themed lands.) Before rope drop, guests can explore Main Street while it’s relatively quiet. Tip: this is a great time for photos because the lighting is good and your kids are excited and will hopefully be cooperative.
So why the early start? The reason you are dragging your kids out of bed, getting them fed, and to the park early in the morning is that, well, most guests don’t do that! The park is the least crowded early in the day and the lines are much shorter. You’ll get more done in the first two to three hours than other families get done in a full afternoon.
3. DISNEYLAND MOBILE APP. I can’t imagine doing Disneyland without the mobile app, and the good news is that it’s free! Use it to order your tickets before you get to the park, check wait times for rides, locate the characters, make (or break) dining reservations, find the closest restrooms (critical when traveling with toddlers!), and place food orders.
4. MOBILE FOOD ORDERING. This is a feature of the Disneyland Mobile App, but since it’s relatively new and so incredibly helpful, it’s worth pointing out. With mobile food ordering, you can order food on the app and then pick it up from the restaurant or food stand at a designated time instead of having to wait in long food lines. During our recent Disneyland trip, we went to Tiki Juice Bar to order a Dole Whip and found there was a super long line. Instead of waiting in it, we jumped on our app to place our order and picked up our Dole Whip within a minute or two!
5. BABY CENTER. Oh, how I love the baby centers at Disneyland, and they’re not just for babies but toddlers too! They each have a nursing room, multiple changing tables (much better than the ones in the public restrooms), toddler-sized toilets, a small kitchen and feeding area with highchairs, and a TV area with chairs. If you forgot any necessities, there is also a vending machine where you can buy formula, baby food, juice, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, pacifiers, and over-the-counter medication.
In Disneyland Park, you’ll find the baby care center at the end of Main Street tucked off to the right near First Aid. In Disneyland California Adventure Park, you’ll find the baby care center off to the left after you pass Cars Land near Ghirardelli.
6. FASTPASSES: This is one of the best ways to maximize your time at Disneyland! FASTPASSES allow you to skip the long lines for various rides and instead return at a designated time and wait in the (much shorter) FASTPASS return line. FASTPASSES also allow you to reserve spots for the popular nighttime shows at both parks. You can obtain a FASTPASS at the distribution machine near the ride’s entrance, or you can get them on the Disneyland App if you purchase the MaxPass (see #8).
Keep in mind that there are only a handful of rides at Disneyland Park with no height restrictions that distribute FASTPASSES, and at Disney California Adventure Park the only ride with no height restrictions that distributes FASTPASSES is Toy Story Mania.
7. RIDER SWITCH. This is a crucial tip for those of you who will be at Disneyland with a baby or young toddler and an older child. If your toddler doesn’t meet the height requirements for a ride, one adult can wait with that child while the other adult takes the older child on the ride. The first adult and older child go on the ride together, and then the adults switch places and the second adult goes on the ride with the older child (yes, the older child gets to ride twice) while the first adult waits with the toddler.
To take advantage of Rider Switch, your entire party must check in with a cast member at the FASTPASS return line before the first party rides. You’ll be given a FASTPASS for up to three members of the party.
8. DISNEY MAXPASS. This is an optional add-on to the Disneyland App. The price is $15 per person, per ticket, per day. Depending on the age of your kid(s) and what you want out of your day, the MaxPass may or may not be worth it to you. There are two things Disney MaxPass does.
The first is unlimited PhotoPass photos. There are photographers throughout the park that will capture your family during the day. If you have the MaxPass, you get to download all the photos taken of your family instead of buying a few individually. This feature alone may make the MaxPass worth it to you. Our family has gotten some adorable pictures from the park photographers in the past!
(Tip: if you want the MaxPass for photos only, have only one person in your party purchase it. If the person with the MaxPass is not present for photos, the photographer can give you a PhotoPass card with a code that can later be linked to the MaxPass in your party. You may also consider buying the MaxPass for just one day of photos, like the day you plan to meet the most characters.)
The second thing you can do with MaxPass is to book FASTPASS reservations for select rides and nighttime entertainment on the Disneyland App. This is much easier than having the collect them from the kiosks all over the park.
(Tip: As mentioned above, there are only a handful of rides in Disneyland with no height restrictions that accept FASTPASSES. You may consider buying the MaxPass for your toddler just one day to do the rides you think they will enjoy.)
For the record, my husband and I always get the MaxPass for our two oldest kids and us. Although the last time we went to Disneyland, we realized we only needed it for our three-year-old a few of the days.
The one last thing I’d say is to prepare, prepare, prepare! Look at a map beforehand and familiarize yourself with the layout of the park, download the Disneyland App and know how to navigate it, and make a list of must-do activities. Also, watch Disney movies and listen to Disney music before your trip so your toddlers are familiar with it all. This will make them extra excited about everything when they experience it in person.
You can shop more of my Disney favorites here!
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