We just returned from one of our most epic family vacations ever: our first visit to Disneyland with children. And, although Jon and I have been to Disneyland several times before, this was our first time taking our kids (ages 3 and 5) with us.
I purposefully did not plan too much for this vacation because I knew that we were going at one of the worst times of the year (crowd-wise, anyway) and I just wanted to go with the flow since this would be the boys’ first visit. That being said, I picked up a few useful ideas during our time at The Happiest Place on Earth. Read on to see how to NOT suck at Disneyland when you’re bringing young children along for the ride.
Timing, timing, timing
There are certain times of the year where the park is virtually empty (these dates usually align with when most students are in school). There are also certain times of the year where the park is so busy that they literally lock the gates once the park reaches full capacity (we chose to go during the latter).
Unless you enjoy waiting in obscenely long lines and losing sight of your children in a sea of people, choosing a not-so-busy time will probably be in your favor. Several websites keep track of crowd volume at Disneyland so you can plan your trip for a less-busy time of the year (I liked the crowd forecast predictor at isitpacked.com).
That being said, I did not take my own advice on this one. Jon had the whole week of Thanksgiving off work and we wanted to squeeze in a vacation before Christmas and baby arrive, so we decided to bite the bullet and go during one of the busiest weeks of the year. Knowing ahead of time that the park would be crowded, however, saved us a lot of headaches and gave us a proper perspective for what to expect!
Keep track of your stroller
First of all, BRING A STROLLER. Even if your kids are bigger and don’t usually ride in a stroller any more, bring one if they can still possibly fit. Little legs still get tired of walking (and standing in lines), and sometimes it’s just nice to throw them in there and get to where you’re going without complaining/wailing/gnashing of teeth. Strollers are also a handy spot to spare jackets, snacks, sunscreen, extra water bottles…all those things you don’t necessarily want to lug around in a backpack.
There are literally thousands of strollers at Disneyland on any given day, which can make parking and locating YOUR stroller a bit of a puzzle. Especially when you go to the park at a particularly crowded time like we did and the Cast Members (Disney employees) will oh-so-“helpfully” “relocate” your stroller without your knowledge so they can make room for more strollers.
To help reduce the panic-inducing surprise of returning to retrieve a stroller that is no longer where you left it, make sure you always park in a designated stroller parking zone. You can also try using a “marker” to easily locate your stroller amongst the masses: tie a helium balloon to the stroller’s handlebars so you can spot it from a distance, and hang a family identification card on the back of the stroller so you’ll know which burnt orange Bob Duallie is yours (find some cute free printable Disney stroller tags here).
Ask for helpThe Disney cast members want you to enjoy your magical experience. So, if you have a problem, seek one of them out. In my experience, they’ll do whatever they can to help you–whether it’s locating your “relocated” stroller or finding the nearest potty.
We had one experience where a cast member totally saved the day (or, at least, our sanity). We were about halfway through the line for Pirates of The Caribbean when both boys simultaneously announced that they had to go potty. NOW. I ducked out of line with the boys and ran to the nearest restroom while Jon kept our spot in line. Right before we returned, however, the line went inside a building and Jon had to step out of line to wait for us–and now the line had grown to over an hour-long wait. When I told a cast member at the entrance what had happened she ushered us to a separate entrance and allowed us to get right onto the ride. Hey, if you never ask, you may never get!
Get Fastpasses and Rider Switch Passes
Most of the major rides at Disneyland have Fastpasses available. A Fastpass allows you to skip the regular line and go through a shorter Fastpass line, which can save you a lot of waiting. As soon as you arrive, get a Fastpass for the ride you want to go on most and, as soon as you are able to, get a second Fastpass for another ride you want to make sure you get on (the times for when you can use your Fastpass and when you can pick up another one will be printed on your Fastpass ticket).
Since only 2 out of the 4 of us could go on the Fastpass rides (Jacob was too short and I was too pregnant), I just got 4 Fastpasses to each ride so Jon and David could go twice in a row if they wanted to.
Related to the Fastpass is the Rider Switch Pass. If you have one or more children who are unable to ride on a Fastpass ride and one parent has to stay behind with the littles, you can request a Rider Switch Pass at the ride so that the other parent can return and go on the ride without waiting in line. We never actually did this since the other parent, me, couldn’t go on the Fastpass rides either–definitely worth remembering for next time, though!
Download the Disney app
There is a free Disney app that we found really useful. The app showed real-time ride wait times, times and locations of character appearances, special events, and park maps.
There are also apps (and the Disney website) where you can purchase park tickets ahead of time to avoid additional lines at the ticket counter.
Bring snacks and water
Let’s be honest: kids are just tiny snack monsters. They want to eat all day long–especially if there are tempting treats they can view in every snack kiosk and restaurant you pass. With a cup of grapes costing $6 inside the park, however, you may go broke before you fill those little tummies.
You are allowed to bring in any foods and beverages you want into the park, so pack up a cooler (or two) and save a buck (or 100). We brought granola bars, fresh fruit, Uncrustables sandwiches, crackers, fruit snacks, bottled water, juice boxes–even McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and leftover Halloween candy. With their appetites (mostly) satiated, we were able to pass (most) food temptations without much of a fuss, allowing us to splurge for a few giant corn dogs and bags of sticky cotton candy.
Dress for the weather
Southern California is not known for it’s terrible weather, but it is known for one thing: sunshine. Make sure to bring all of your sun gear (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen). No matter how hot it is during the day, however, nights can cool off dramatically. I was really glad that I brought warm jackets and long pants for us to change into in the evening so we could stick around for the nighttime parades and firework shows in comfort. Also, double-check the weather forecast before you leave home to see if you’ll need rain gear (precipitation happen)–the last thing you want is to be walking around in a rain storm with your flip flops and sun visor!
Don’t go on the teacups
Because they’ll make you puke. Oh, just me? Alrighty, then. Moving on.
Find lodging close to the park
I’m usually the queen of finding obscure, affordable housing when we go on vacation. For this trip, however, I just wanted to be CLOSE. I knew that we would have long days at the park and we’d be toting around a lot of gear, so I wanted a hotel that was close enough for us to just walk to the park and not have to deal with traffic or parking.
We stayed right across the street from Disneyland at the Howard Johnson on Harbor Boulevard and it was perfect. Our room had a Queen-size bed for Mom and Dad, and bunk beds for the boys. As a bonus, there was a water playground at the hotel with a pirate ship feature that doubled as a Disneyland fireworks vantage point.
Kids will be kids
Kids are KIDS…even at Disneyland. No matter how much you plan, no matter how much fun you’re having, no matter how magical the place is…kids are still kids. They will melt down. They will throw fits. They will get tired and cranky and hot and cold and hungry. Just go with it. This, too, shall pass. And, unless you’re like me and you get some sort of sadistic enjoyment from documenting these moments on film, nobody will probably even remember the meltdowns.
I have a tendency to plan, plan, plan–especially when we’re going somewhere that will cost as much as a mortgage payment. Since this was our first time bringing the boys to Disneyland, however, I purposefully chose NOT to plan. I wanted to allow the kids to explore at their own pace and to do what they wanted to do without having to stick to some sort of prescribed schedule or optimal timeline.
As a result, some of my favorite moments on this trip came from allowing the kids their own space. They wanted to ride the Buzz Lightyear ride 3 times in a row, so we did. They wanted to leave early the first night and have some time to swim at the hotel, so we did. They wanted to skip the (truly mesmerizing) firework show and look at a Toy Story-inspired shop window for 20 straight minutes, so we did. This trip was about them, not us, so we let them take the lead.
Now go forth and embrace the magic–happy travels!