We had an amazing opportunity to go on our first trip to Disneyland last week. We went with our friends (one of whom is an employee) so we were able to explore the parks for free and get amazing discounts. Next time we might not be as lucky and I kept that in mind during our trip.
The beautiful part about bringing a toddler to Disneyland is that they are free all the way until 3 years old. That means they enter the parks for free and also can eat for free at most restaurants. Disney restaurants have typical children’s meals (pizza, nuggets, etc) but they also have several healthy options (grilled chicken, veggies, etc). And you can get milk almost anywhere you go (which made our 2-year-old very thrilled!)
Before our trip, many people told us to wait until Owen was at least 5 years old. I’m glad we didn’t listen because we would have missed out on being able to take our time and do Disney at a toddler pace, complete with schedule down time, i.e. nap time. Our trip was surprisingly low stress and a lot of fun.
Tips for Lowering Stress with a Toddler at Disneyland:
• Use the PhotoPass service. The PhotoPass photographers will take photos with your own camera/phone, but they will also take photos with their camera and post them so you can decide if you’d like to purchase them. If you purchase after you see the photos, it’s about $40/day. The nice thing is you can share an account with everyone in your group and it’s the same price. This service was especially handy when I was away from my husband (who has a nice camera) and wanted to get a few photos with characters when the lines were short. If I were to do Disney by myself with the kids, I would solely use the PhotoPass and my iPhone for simplicity.
• Stay on property (or really close by). It was imperative that we had the option to go back to the hotel to nap in the afternoon. With all the excitement of Disneyland, it’s easy to stay up late each night. It may seem like you are wasting money by not being in the park the entire day, but overtired toddlers (and frustrated parents) don’t make for a happy trip. We stayed at the Paradise Pier Hotel (we got a great rate) and the hotel was lovely! If you toddler typically takes short naps and you are staying too far to go back to your hotel mid-day, you might consider napping in the lobby of the Grand Californian, the dark Animation Studio at Disney’s California Adventure, or in the stroller. Personally, I also needed some quiet time where I could rest before continuing the day.
• Do Character Meals, if your kids are excited to meet characters. I’d recommend doing Character Dining on days you will not be in the park just so you aren’t cutting into park time. These are great to do on travel days to extend the Disney experience. Some characters (like Stitch) only seem to be available at Character Meals. Others have really long lines to meet them in the park, so this will save you time. But, if your kid is scared of the characters or not interested, skip the Character Meals.
• Have some sit-down meals. Sitting at a restaurant provides a great break from all the activity of the park and can help toddlers (and parents) de-stimulate. You can make reservations for restaurants up to 60 days ahead. We appreciated being able to sit down, eat a more substantial meal and rehydrate while talking about what we were enjoying most about the parks. It also gave us time to clear our heads and think realistically what our next steps should be.
• Learn about Magic Hours/Magic Mornings. Because we stayed on property, we were able to enter the parks a full hour before the general public using Magic Hours, meaning the Dads were able to do some of the crazy busy rides in under 5 minutes (which were later hours long lines). Many of the multi-day passes include one day where you can use Magic Hours. They alternate between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, so make sure you know which park has them each day so you can plan accordingly. We took full advantage of Magic Hours at Disney’s California Adventure and our toddler was able to get photos with all the Cars characters, do all the Cars rides he was tall enough for multiple times and head to a Bug’s Life all before the park opened to the public. It saved us a lot of time!
• Find out about Ride Refurbishments. If you go in the off-season, several rides will be closed do to refurbishments. When we went, the Train and the Monorail were both under refurbishment. I knew this ahead of time, so I didn’t plan on using either of these for transportation or for down time at the park. It also gave us a heads up that my husband’s favorite rides were going to be closed. As kids get older and have favorite rides they look forward to, it’s nice to be able to manage their expectations and let them know if their favorite ride will be unavailable so they have time to process.
• Travel with another family. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to travel with another family whose kids are the same age as yours. We were able to switch off nap duty so the Moms could stay in the park one day and the Dads could the next. It also meant that Moms could take the kids on toddler rides while the Dads did FastPasses for other rides and vice versa. Plus the kids were able to play in line together to help pass the time.
• Listen to your kid. If your child seems scared of Mickey Mouse, it might not be worth it to wait in line for a photo (where your kid may be crying or nestling into your arms). Same goes for rides. If your child is afraid of a certain movie, character, or type of ride, don’t force it. The goal is for your child to have a fun time. My son LOVES trains and didn’t mind the wait to get to ride one. He also loved It’s a Small World and it was such a special experience for both of us because he was really awed by the ride. I pushed him to do the Flik’s Flyers ride, even though he said he didn’t want to, and it ended up being one of the only rides neither of us enjoyed.
• Learn about Rider Switches. If you have a small child who is unable/unwilling to go an a ride, you can get a Rider Switch pass so both adults can go on the ride on after another without waiting in line again. This is a great way for both adults to go on favorite rides. This would probably be most helpful if you had an older child because then the older child gets to go twice. Because I’m pregnant and couldn’t go on some of the rides, we never needed the Rider Switch pass, but I can see how this will be very handy in years to come.
• Download the Disneyland App. This Disneyland app saved us so many times! Not only does it give you the wait times for the rides, but it also tells you where characters are, where the nearest bathrooms are, where restaurants are and serves as the portal for your PhotoPass.
• Get a battery-powered cell phone charger. We got so much use out of our phone charger. Because you may be splitting off from your group or using your phone to take lots of photos and videos, your battery might drain more quickly than usual. This is also the case if you are constantly pulling up the app or letting your kids watch videos/play games on your phone in line.
• Set expectations. The most heartbreaking thing about Disneyland was seeing parents yelling at their crying kids. Most of these kids looked exhausted and possibly hungry. I know first-hand how stressful it is when your toddler is not on best behavior when you are doing something special. This is why it’s so crucial to set realistic expectations for your trip. We went in knowing this trip was primarily for Owen and it was a scouting trip for future trips to Disneyland. With that mindset, it was easy to tell ourselves that we’d had enough each day and we would do the rest another time. We also knew that the nighttime parades and fireworks would probably not be in the cards for us this trip because it was past bedtime. Our main theme was this was a fun trip and if someone wasn’t having fun, we needed to change what we were doing.
• Make a schedule. Disneyland is not a good place to “wing it” when traveling with a toddler. Ask everyone in your group what their priorities are. I made sure that my husband had time to do some of his favorite rides from his childhood, that we hit up the classic photo spots, and that Owen got to go on lots of rides! It’s really nice to group the rides/attractions by section of the park. That way, you can park your stroller and walk around and do everything you want in that area and move on to the next.
These tips are a starting point for a stress-free vacation to Disneyland with your toddler. The most important thing to keep in mind is to enjoy yourself and your family!