Sunday, April 17, 2011

Travel Tips and Tricks: How to Do Disneyland with Young Kids!

So is the happiest place on earth still the happiest place when you take young children there?

I'm going to say YES. It's not easy, and you will deal with numerous challenges, but it's worth it and it is possible to have a wonderful time and create awesome memories!
I grew up going to Disneyland all the time and just took my 3 1/2 year old, Kirsten, and my 20 month-old, Natalie for two full days of Disney fun in January. And I'm going to share my favorite tips and tricks for how we did it! Get comfortable. . . this could take awhile. :)
*First step. . . deciding the right time to go!

Everyone is so quick to say "Go in the off-season!", but I think it depends on what you want to get out of the experience. Here are some things to think about:

*If your biggest concern is that you see as few people in the park as possible, then by all means DO go during the off-season! February, early March, September (after Labor day week), October, and early November would all be wonderful times for few crowds. I've had the very BEST luck in September.
If you go during these months- Be aware that you won't be experiencing the parks at their best and brightest. Many rides might be closed, park hours will be much shorter (they might close as early as 8 pm), and parades and shows won't be running as often. This is especially true if you go during the weekdays of the off-season. Weekends will usually still have plenty of shows, and their fair share of crowds.

*If you want to experience everything the parks have to offer, have few or no ride closures, and get to stay in the parks until midnight or later, you've got to go on the weekends or during the busier seasons.

*If you want to experience Disneyland all lit up for the holidays (my very favorite!), some great times to go would be late November, early December or early January. It truly is magical! My favorite highlights include real snow falling after the fireworks show, the Christmas parade, giant trees and amazing decorations everywhere, a MUCH more interesting Christmas-themed Small World ride, and the Nightmare Before Christmas-themed Haunted Mansion ride.

I don't recommend going between Christmas and New Years, unless you like walking around the park like a herd of cattle, shuffling along a few inches away from a bazillion other people. I've done it before, don't plan to do it again.

We went on January 6'th and 7'th, which was technically AFTER their holiday season ended. The great thing about it was most of the Christmas decorations were still up! Small World was still gloriously lit up and still Christmas-themed, there was still snow on the Cinderella castle, and we saw lots of Christmas trees! There was no Christmas parade and the Haunted Mansion was closed though, and we didn't avoid crowds. There were still plenty of people there. But it was fun to still experience so much of the Christmas magic!

Now. . . how long should you stay?

*I would recommend either two days or three days, and definitely buy a Park Hopper pass so you can experience both Disneyland and California Adventure! Costco always seems to have good deals on those. If you have even more time in Southern California, you can get the most bang for your buck with the Southern California City Pass. We bought ours from Costco.com, and it includes a 3-day Disney hopper pass, 1 day at Sea World, 1 day at the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park, and 1 day at Universal Studios.

*I really like the way we did it. . . we took the kids for 2 days, and then we waited a week and left the kids with Grandma and spent our third day of our Hopper pass kid-free. It was the best! We got to experience the magic of Disneyland with our children and get great pictures with them, and then had another day where we could rush around the park at our speed and go on all the fun roller coasters and adult rides! It was absolutely amazing how much more we got done there the day we went without the kids! I know that isn't an option for everyone, but if you have family living nearby it might work out for you the way it did for us.

*When you have 2 or 3 days in the Park with your kids, you can have the freedom to take things a little bit slow. You don't have to worry about running around trying to do everything, because you have multiple days to take it all in!

Disneyland Hotels versus all the MANY other options nearby. . . which should you do?

*I would have loved to stay at the Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier. You just can't beat the convenience, location, and service! But I just couldn't justify the extra cost. It was $220 per night to stay in the cheapest room at Paradise Pier for the dates we were there, and that was for a standard room without an extra bedroom or kitchen or anything! Instead, we stayed at a nearby Residence Inn by Marriott and got a large suite with 2 separate bedrooms and a kitchen for around $100 per night.

*Times when it might be worth it to shell out the extra bucks and stay in a Disney resort property are. . .
~If this is your big once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-20-years Disneyland trip. If that's the case, I say go all out and fully experience it!
~If you find a screamin' deal. . . of course!
~If your kids are on a strict nap schedule and you will be heading back and forth between the hotel quite a bit. Where we stayed, it took about 20 minutes to walk from the hotel to the park. They also offered a convenient shuttle, but it also took around 20 minutes after waiting for the shuttle, loading everything in, and then making all the other stops before getting to the park. We did head back to our hotel for naps and lunch one of our two days, and it took a HUGE chunk out of our day. So the second day we decided to just skip naps and pack our lunch to eat inside the park instead.

*I'm not going to go into an in-depth review of all the hotel options you have. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
~When a hotel's website says "2 blocks from Disneyland" it does not neccessarily mean 2 blocks from Disneyland's entrance. Check out maps and see where it's really located and how long it will take you to get there.
~Read reviews of the hotel, and if there are lots of bad reviews you'll probably want to pick a different option. My favorite place to check hotel reviews is tripadvisor.com. You'll find tons of reviews there.
~I love finding "kid suites" and rooms with multiple bedrooms for privacy, as well as kitchens and fridges so you can pack some of your own food.

(Kirsten meets Mickey!)

Things you absolutely SHOULD take into the park with you:

*A really great, sturdy stroller. Even if your kid is normally fine with just walking, they will get extremely tired from ALL the walking you will do. We brought 2 strollers with us. . . our regular Graco for Natalie, and an umbrella stroller for Kirsten. (Note: If you have a very expensive stroller, considering renting one at the park instead or buying a cheaper stroller for the trip. You have to leave your stroller unattended during all the rides, and you'd hate to get a nice stroller stolen!)
*Sweatshirts. Even on a warm day, it will get much cooler at night!
*Hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, and all that. There's a whole lotta sun at this place, and you really don't want a sunburn to ruin your happiest day!
*Glow sticks, glow wands, glow hats, anything that glows! This is one of my HOT tips: Go to the dollar store before your trip, and buy up LOTS of their cool glow stuff. You'll pay just a fraction of the price you'd pay for glow gear in the park, and your kids will be thrilled to break out all the glowing action at night!
*Some sneaky little strategies for keeping kids quiet in long lines. . . Bring small bottles of bubbles with you, and pull them out to play with in lines that are especially long. Other parents will thank you for this one too! Another trick that usually works: Candy. A well-timed lollipop can save the day!
*Water bottles, lunches, and snacks. You're allowed to bring food and water into the park with you. I'll talk more about food options later.
*Your camera, with a fully charged battery. Amazing photo ops are everywhere, and you won't want to miss getting precious pictures of your kids meeting all the Disney characters! Another good idea is to bring a small video camera. We got a priceless video of Kirsten having a meltdown when we got off the Small World ride at 2 years old, the first time we took her.

HOT tip: They have Disney employees taking pictures of your family with characters, in front of the castle, and pretty much everywhere around the park. They'll give you a PhotoPass card, and it's pretty cool because you can view them all on a computer after you get home and decide whether or not you want to buy or download any. But they're also expensive. Instead, you can give your camera to the Disney employees and have them take pictures for you with your own camera in addition to theirs. They're always happy to do it!

How old should your kids be when you take them?


*This of course is dependent on each child. You know your kids, and you know their personalities and what they can handle.
*Kirsten is 3 1/2, and I thought it was an awesome age to go with her. She loved meeting the characters, loved a lot of the rides, did pretty well staying up late and not napping, and had the attention span to sit through shows. Long lines were still difficult with her, but I would definitely take a 3 year-old again. I'll bet 4 and 5-year olds would be even easier!
*Natalie, on the other hand, was pretty difficult. She was 20 months old, and did NOT have the attention span for shows or lines. Yeah. . . most of Disneyland is shows and lines. :) She still loved the rides and was able to have a good time, but she didn't really care about the characters yet and I don't think she was really ready for Disneyland. I'm pretty sure I won't take her again until she's 3.
*Babies. . . Everyone is different, but unless you had a Grandma along who was happy to just hold the baby and stay with the baby, I wouldn't be too keen to take a baby to Disneyland. With all the stops for feeding and changing, it would be a huge time cut and especially young babies wouldn't enjoy anything. You could get some cute pictures though! And of course there are always tons of babies there and people make it work!

(LOVE this picture of Kirsten with Pluto! Kirsten was so cute with all the characters!)

(Natalie didn't smile in many character pictures. But I think she liked Pluto!)

There are SO many things to do at Disneyland that you're never going to experience it all unless you had a season pass or a whole ton of time there. So don't try to do everything. But here are some experiences that were the biggest hits with my little kids. . .

The MUST-DO attractions with young kids:
(not including rides. . . they have their own section)

*The brand new World of Color show at California Adventure! This was an AMAZING show, I absolutely loved it! Seriously, don't miss this one. And here's a HOT tip: They have FastPasses that are located at machines next to the Grizzly River Run ride, and they hand you seating assignments for the World of Color show. You get seated (well, you're standing, but in a general area) in different colored zones, and they give out the Fastpasses until they're gone. The employees tell you that you can still have a good view of the show without one of these Fastpasses, but it's not true at ALL. You'll view the show from the back and won't be able to see any of the amazing lasers on the water spray. You'll just hear the music and see the fountains. So make SURE you head straight for the FastPass location in California Adventure the very first thing on the morning of the day you want to see the show. The earlier you get there, the better your seating area will be. And you will enjoy the show that much more!

*If you're there during peak season or on a weekend, make sure you sit in front of the castle (get there early to snag a spot!) to see the incredible fireworks show set to music!

*Fantasmic! This show usually only runs during peak times or on weekends, and very small kids won't have the attention span for it because it's a long show. We didn't end up seeing it this time, but I've seen it lots of times in the past and it's a wonderful show.

*Big stage shows and parades! They're always running different ones based on the season. When we were there they had the Aladdin stage show, and Kirsten loved it! Natalie wasn't interested after about 15 minutes and Stephen ended up having to take her outside, but they're perfect for kids with a longer attention span. It's also a great way to beat the heat, since the theater is air-conditioned!

*The designated character photo areas! You'll see random characters all over the park of course, but there are special areas where you know certain characters will be (the times for photos will be posted inside your Disneyland map), and you'll want to make sure your kids meet the characters they're most excited about. Some favorites:
~Winnie the Pooh and Friends in Critter Country~ Located right next to the Splash Mountain and Winnie the Pooh rides, we got pictures with Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore and they're some of my favorite photos we got! They're just all so adorable!
(Some of our pictures with Winnie the Pooh and friends. . .Awwww! )



~Disney Princess Fantasy Faire~ Lines can get very long for this one, but it's worth it for Disney princess fans and little girls. We actually didn't make it to this one, but I'll be sure not to miss it next time!
~Disney Friends at Sunshine Plaza in California Adventure~ This is where we met Mickey dressed in his safari gear, and Chip and Dale!

*The Tiki Room! Yeah, adults won't find it the most thrilling place in the world, but my kids got a huge kick out of the songs and lights and the singing birds and flowers. It's a nice place to beat the heat on a hot day too! You get to sit inside and relax and watch the show! It could use some updating, but young kids really love it.

*Toon Town! There's a whole lot of cute stuff to see at Toon Town, and little kids love being able to run around Goofy's garden, Donald's boat, and explore the inside of Mickey and Minnie's houses! It's especially a good place for toddlers, because they can run around and climb on things and won't have to stand in many lines. You can also get photos taken with Minnie and Mickey inside their houses!




And now for the rides that were my kids' favorites. . . The MUST-DO rides with young children!

*I think the absolute favorite ride of both my kids was Small World. It's just awesome! It's a long ride, you get to relax and rest your feet, there are a million things to see, and kids just love the music. We rode this one twice in a row both days, and I think my kids would ride it over and over all day if we let them. If you go at Christmastime, they integrate Christmas decorations and Christmas music into the ride. The song isn't nearly as annoying when it's mixed with Christmas carols! HOT tip: When the line splits into two, go to the LEFT. It's a whole ton faster!

*Peter Pan! All the kid rides in Fantasyland are total classics, but keep in mind that Snow White is pretty scary, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is weird and kinda disturbing, and the Storybook boat that goes through the whale's mouth is really boring. Peter Pan is the best one by far! And yes, you WILL wait in line at least 30 minutes to go on it, unless you're incredibly lucky. There's just no avoiding the lines for this one.

*Winnie the Pooh is a fairly new ride, and there was NO line at all when we were there! Maybe because it's located way over in Critter Country, far away from the other kid rides, it was the least busy of all the kid rides we saw. We were able to walk right onto this one, so we rode it a few times in a row. HOT tip: One of my favorite rides, Splash Mountain, is right next to the Winnie the Pooh ride, and Splash Mountain has a single rider line that lets you bypass the entire line if you're riding by yourself! I rode on this ride a couple of times while Stephen took the kids on Winnie the Pooh and let them climb around by the characters. Works out great!

*Of course. . . Dumbo the Flying Elephant! This line never looks all that long but somehow manages to take forever, since the line doesn't move quickly. I think one of the longest lines we waited in of the entire trip was for Dumbo. But the kids always love it!

*The classic Carousel. There never seems to be a long line for the Carousel, and both my girls could ride it over and over. Even less crowded and also fun is the Underwater-themed carousel in California Adventure, where they can ride dolphins and seahorses.

*Finding Nemo Submarines! There's a few parts that are a little scary, but Kirsten thought it was an awesome ride.

*Jungle Cruise! Ahhh, the classic Jungle Cruise. Even kids who are easily overwhelmed by noisy rides will love this one, because it's relaxing and slow and they can sit on mom or dad's lap the entire time.

*Autopia! The cars are slow and pretty boring for adults, but kids love being able to "drive" their own car and especially boys would be a big fan of this ride.

*At California Adventure, there are less rides geared towards very young kids, but one of Kirsten's favorites is the Monsters Inc. ride. It's a very cute ride, and one we definitely rode several times in a row. A super fun ride that adults will also love is the Toy Story Arcade ride. The lines are ALWAYS long for this one, but it's tons of fun! Another great area for little ones is the Bugs Life Land. For kids who are easily overwhelmed, nobody could possibly be scared by Heimlich's Chew-chew Train. It's a gentle, very slow-moving ride and my kids really like it.

What about food in the parks?

*I'll admit that I'm not the greatest advice-giver on this one. I just really don't like Disneyland food in general. If I'm going to be buying insanely expensive food, I want it to taste awesome. And the food here just doesn't. Period. It's not good food. I have friends who tell me the Blue Bayou restaurant in the Pirate's of the Caribbean ride is great and totally worth the splurge, and I've also heard good things about the character breakfasts at Goofy's Kitchen. But I haven't been to either one.

*My best tip when it comes to food. . . eat breakfast at your hotel, pack lunches to take into the park with you, and then buy some ice cream or churros during the day and buy dinner in the park. OR go over to Downtown Disney for dinner, where there are some really yummy restaurant options like a Mexican restaurant, a little Italian place where you can buy pizza by the slice, and Rainforest Cafe. All so much better than dining in the park, and you don't have to walk very far to get to them!

*Some food options inside the park that are a little better than the rest:
(Yes, this is a short list. I'm just disappointed by Disneyland's food in general)
~Churro carts~ Yep, the churros are yummy. I always get one while I'm there.
~The Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland is air-conditioned (or you can take your food to the outdoor tables) and has pretty decent chicken fingers and bread bowls for soups and chili. They also have VERY yummy ice cream sundaes, where you can choose your ice cream flavor and have them load it with cookies, brownies, or hot fudge! My favorite is the mint chip ice cream with a chocolate chip cookie and hot fudge!
~Tiki Juice Bar has refreshing pineapple treats that are perfect on hot days. We got a pineapple whip float and shared it while we waited for the Tiki Room show to start.

Strategies for riding the adult rides while young kids are with you:

(Yes, you CAN! And here's how. . . )

*One of Disneyland's best-kept secrets, in my opinion, is the single-rider lines that certain rides offer. I never knew about them until a couple of years ago, even though I've been going to Disneyland for my entire life! When you're a single rider, you can bypass the entire line and literally walk right onto a ride, then switch with the other adults who are with you and they get to ride! The single-rider option is so much better than the Parent pass. The Parent pass requires one parent to still wait in line, and then they switch and the other parent gets to skip the line. With the single-rider line, you both skip the line! Some of the rides offering single-rider lines include:
~Splash Mountain
~Indiana Jones (oh yeah! Love this one!)
~California Screamin' Roller Coaster
~Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
I wish Space Mountain had one! To make sure you get in the single rider line, just ask any of the Disney ride attendants who are always standing toward the end of the lines, and they'll direct you where to go. I love being a single rider, it's awesome!

*Fastpasses are still good options too. You can have one Fastpass at a time, and you just put your park ticket into a kiosk and it will tell you when you can return and ride the ride with a shorter line. For rides like Space Mountain, you can both get Fastpasses and then take turns going on the ride.

*These are some strategies that work pretty well when there are only two parents there with young kids. But the best would be to go with a group of family members or friends, and take turns using parent passes, single riders, tons of options if you're there with a group! I want to try that next time!

*My favorite adult and big kid rides:
Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean (we took our little kids on this but it was a little scary for them), California Screamin' Roller Coaster, Matterhorn

A few unavoidable things that WILL happen to you when you take small children to Disneyland are. . .

*You will endure lots of whining about wanting to go on rides "one more time!" and wondering when the lines will ever end
*You will get only about half the things done in a day there than you thought you would
*You will have a hard time navigating your stroller around the million other strollers who are moving slower than you want to
*You will need to keep a close eye on your belongings, including stuffed animals and souvenirs that you buy in the park. Natalie held onto her stuffed Minnie Mouse all day. . . except when she dropped it off the side of the stroller, several times, and I had to snatch it up off the ground.
*You will become well-acquainted with all the bathrooms and learn which ones are less crowded than others
*You will, maybe at several times during the day, be stuck with a screaming/crying/melting-down child who looks something like this:
*You will buy personalized Mickey Mouse ears for your kids, even though they will probably only wear them for one day (we didn't buy them this time, but we did on a previous trip!)
*You will be jealous of the parents who are there with older, well-behaved children
*You will spend at least $8 on a cool balloon for each child. And they will be so happy you'll somehow think it's worth it

*You will create wonderful memories and be SO happy you took your kids with you, despite all the difficulties!

Happy planning! Have a question or suggestion? Leave it in the comments, with an email address so I can respond to it. :)

20 comments:

  1. So true about hotels not necessarily being close to the entrance. Our hotel was literally across the street from Disneyland, but we had a LONG walk to the entrance that we hadn't been planning on. It was enough that we didn't want to go back to the park after we'd gone to the hotel, and we were there without kids!

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  2. They've updated the tiki room at Disney World. I don't like it as much.

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  3. Good post, great pics, excellent tips!! We are a disney loving family and enjoy every vacation we take there! Thanks for sharing your experiences!!

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  4. Wow, great post! I've grown up going to Disney World and I love it! We've been with our nieces and nephew at all ages and they've always loved going. The Peter Pan ride is one of their favorites. Can't wait to have children of my own and bring them!

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  5. Thanks for this post! I will be prepared when the time comes. I was aware of the single-rider option, but I would rather go with Justin than by myself. Of course, when you're with kids, just getting on the ride at all is what you want! Btw, thanks for the link to numbering comments!

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  6. Thanks, we have not attempted disney yet but I appreciate all the details. I found you on bloggy moms and am now a new follower!

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  7. My best tip is to take your parents :) I love the bubbles in line tip - I think the next time we go, Caleb will be close to 5 or over, so hopefully we won't need them, wish I had had them the last time though. We stayed at the Portofino Inn and loved it. It had a "room" for the kids, divided with french doors with a little table & chairs, pull out couch and bunk beds, fridge, microwave for $89/night in September. Love Natalie's melt down pic!

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  8. Good post! We hope to go this coming Christmas Break...we should all go together!!!

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  9. Holy moly, the BEST DL tip article I've ever seen! This must have taken you forever to write! Great job! And what a good idea with the glow sticks, I'm totally going to do that! We loved taking infants because they were easy, however---ONLY if you are going with other family members. I wouldn't do it if we were going alone.

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  10. Great photos! Looks like you had a great Disney vacation!
    I'm a new follower from the blog hop! Hope you can hop over and visit my blog too!

    http://stylendecordeals.blogspot.com/

    PS. We were at Disney in early March and I miss it already!

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  11. I love seeing all your pictures - they are always so good. I agree with you about the food - you'd think they could do better! :)

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  12. I wish we could get out to San Diego again. I miss it. I'd love to take my kids to Disneyland... I don't think my family ever made it at Christmastime. It looks extra special then. -eliza

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  13. Just starting to plan a Disneyland trip and a friend referred me to your post. Fantastic info! One thing I just learned is that if you stay at the Grand Californian or Paradise Pier you get free entry into California Adventure so you don't have to buy the Park Hopper tickets. Gotta do the math to see if it makes it a little less outrageous!

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  15. Children will experience so much fun if we bring them to Disneyland. Much more if we bring them to Disney shows. Thanks for the tips! Disney Stroller Rental

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  16. Thanks for this post. We are going with three 2 yr olds and 1 three year old (all almost the next age) -- while I have taken my daughter 4 times this year (she was fine at 20 months and stayed up late for everything and wanted to do everything)... I wanted to find the "must haves" and "must dos" and this helped...

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  18. This was an awesome list with such great tips. Thanks for taking the time to give us all the great information!

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  19. wow thanks for sharing! I am a solo mum of a 3 year old girl and we are going to southern California at the end of September. Great tips and advice and yes I can see myself getting a balloon that I cant afford but loving the look on her face :)

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