Tash's Travel Tips: Ultimate Guide to Disneyland with Toddlers: Tips, Tricks, and Kid-Friendly Rides
If you have been following me for the last year, you know that I have become full on obsessed with Disneyland. I went for the first time on a sponsored trip to Disneyland with Alaska Airlines last spring, on my 40th birthday, and I have been hooked ever since. I can say that up to that point, Disney things had never really been on my radar, but now that I have tasted and seen, I could never go back. Going to Disneyland as a solo adult, though, is a much different experience than taking children, and packing up two toddlers and a tween to experience the overwhelming joy that the parks have to offer can be a daunting task. Even with all of that in mind, it was so important to me that my kids grew up experiencing and enjoying the magic, so it has been a challenge I have happily taken on, and I wanted to gather a few things I have learned the last 4 trips (yes, 4 trips in 18 months) to the parks I have taken and share them with you.
Navigating the Happiest Place on Earth with young children can seem overwhelming, but worry not, because hopefully this comprehensive guide will arm you with essential tips and tricks, packing strategies, and a curated list of the best toddler-friendly rides at Disneyland and California Adventure. Get ready to sprinkle some pixie dust on your family's Disney experience!
First things first, booking your trip: the best times to visit Disneyland are the off-peak seasons, typically mid-January through mid-March, or mid-April through mid-June, to enjoy shorter lines and a less crowded park. My family has taken trips to the parks in January, May, October and now November and I can attest that going to the park in off season makes it far easier to navigate.
Planning Your Disneyland Trip with Toddlers
Before setting foot in the land where dreams come true, a well-thought-out plan can make all the difference. Consider these suggestions to ensure your trip is as smooth as a ride on "it's a small world":
Plan your day. Before your trip, check the park schedule and plan out which rides and attractions you want to visit, and in what order. This can help you make the most of your time and avoid waiting in long lines. You can plan your day inside of the Disneyland app by highlighting the things that may be of interest to you, think character meetings, parades, special shows and events and, of course, the rides. It is important to note that each park has its own individual apps, so keep that in mind when downloading.
Accommodations: Choose a family-friendly hotel, preferably one with easy access to the park to facilitate nap times and quick breaks. Our family has stayed on site at Disneyland hotels (here are two we have personally stayed at: Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and Disneyland Hotel) and off-site at Disneyland affiliate hotels and each experience was incredible. There are perks to staying on-site (early entrance to the park, easier restaurant reservations, Disney perks, quick access to Disney and park amenities) but staying on site vs. staying off didn't make or break our trip. One hotel that we stayed at offsite and loved was the Cambria Hotel & Suites Anaheim. We had such a great time, it was perfect for our needs and I would stay there again and again (daily movies, heated pool, great on-site food and far less expensive from the Disney based hotels but still with the same feel).
Disneyland App: Download the Disneyland mobile app to check wait times, find character greetings, and even order food. The Disneyland app is your compass for navigating Disneyland and it holds all reservations, maps and everything you need to effectively survive Disneyland. Do not do the park without it.
Child Safety: Write your phone number on a wristband or tag attached to your toddler's clothing in case you get separated or dress in matching clothing so that people can quickly identify who your children belong to.
Packing the Essentials for a Day at Disneyland with Toddlers
Packing for Disneyland doesn't have to be as daunting as climbing the Matterhorn. Here's a checklist to keep your day running as smoothly as Peter Pan's flight:
Comfortable Stroller: Essential for naps and resting. Make sure it's easily identifiable to avoid mix-ups. If you are traveling by plane, like our family, and want to keep packing to a minimum, you can rent strollers in the park (single and double). You can also use a rental company to rent the things you need like car seats, strollers, cribs etc. One of my favorites is Baby Quip. I have used them for trips to other big cities and it has been perfect for my needs - specifically to Disneyland you can check out Cloud of Goods (which delivers to Anaheim area hotels), OC Baby Gear Rentals or City Stroller Rentals.
Weather-Appropriate Clothing: Bring layers and change of clothes, as mornings and evenings can be cool and its so much easier to peel off if too hot, or pile on when cold.
Toddler Snacks: While Disney offers various food options, having familiar snacks can stave off hunger tantrums and save your pockets. Our family always eats breakfast off site, brings tons of snacks and does one meal in the park. Be prepared, feeding a family of 5 at Disneyland its generally no less than $100 (even with the tiniest stomachs).
Hydration: Pack a refillable water bottle to keep your little one hydrated throughout the day. There are water stations throughout the park and filling up is very easy to do.
Sun Protection: A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must, even on cloudy days.
First-Aid Kit: Include band-aids, antiseptic wipes, and any necessary medications.
Entertainment: Small toys or books can be lifesavers while waiting in line. Most lines for popular rides and character visits average 35-45 minutes with the most popular rides running anywhere from 60-120 minutes. Having entertainment is key to surviving. Disney has thought about it all though. Even those the line are long, they are filled with interesting things to look at and most rides are equipped with places to hold your gadgets so cruising through those lines with extra in your hands works out just fine.
Navigating Disneyland and California Adventure with Toddlers
Once you arrive, keep these strategies in mind:
FastPass a.k.a 'Genie Pass' and Rider Switch: Take advantage of FastPass selections and Rider Switch if you're traveling with another adult. Disney's fast pass service allows you to reserve a spot on a ride and then come back at a designated time, bypassing the regular line. It's a good idea to take advantage of this service for the most popular rides, especially if you have children who may get restless waiting in long lines.
The Disney's child swap program: If you have children who are too small to go on certain rides, Disney's child swap program allows one adult to wait with the child while the other adult goes on the ride, and then they switch. This allows both adults to enjoy the rides without having to leave one behind to watch the child. This was something I didn't know my first family trip to Disneyland, but fully took advantage of my second trip and it was a game changer making sure everyone had a chance to enjoy the park.
Frequent Breaks: Plan for downtime. Find a quiet spot for rest, away from the sensory overload. Take breaks. Disneyland can be overwhelming for young children, especially with all the noise, crowds and excitement. Be sure to take breaks throughout the day, whether that's to rest in a shaded area or to take a nap. This will help your children recharge and enjoy the park to the fullest.
Disneyland Baby Care Center: Disneyland has a full service complimentary Baby Care Center that is filled with anything you could possibly need to care for your baby and/or toddler. There you can find: Nursing room with chairs, changing room with tables, toddler-size toilets (for Guests under 42” tall), feeding area with highchairs, kitchen with sink, bottle warmers and microwave and vending machine offering formula, baby food, juice, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, pacifiers and over-the-counter medication—all available for purchase with a credit card.
Character Interactions: Prepare your toddler for character meet-and-greets. Some toddlers may find the characters overwhelming. Disney's Character Dining experiences allow your kids to have a meal with Disney characters. It's a great way for your kids to have interaction with Disney characters and create memories. It's good to make reservation in advance as these experiences can fill up quickly. We recently had the opportunity to make a reservation at Goofy's Kitchen, and although pricey, it was absolutely worth it and the girls LOVED the experience. I wouldn't do it every visit but it was a special treat to guarantee they would see some of their favorite characters on our trip. You are going to want to book your reservation(s) at least 2-3 months in advance to lock in an option for your trip. You can find a list of character experiences here
Dining Options: Consider dining during off-peak hours or making reservations to minimize waiting. Check out the character dining experiences here and a list of all dining here. I can say that Disneyland (with the exception of Paris) does food VERY well, so if you have the additional funds to spring for a meal, you won't be disappointed.
Top Toddler-Friendly Rides at Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure
Disneyland is a treasure trove of toddler-friendly attractions. Here's a list of can't-miss rides and attractions:
"it's a small world": A gentle boat ride showcasing singing children from around the globe.
Dumbo the Flying Elephant: Soar through the air with the beloved pachyderm.
Peter Pan's Flight: Glide over London on this enchanting journey to Never Land.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: A whimsical ride through the Hundred Acre Wood.
Disney California Adventure
California Adventure also boasts a bevy of toddler-approved rides and experiences:
Jessie's Critter Carousel: A delightful merry-go-round ride perfect for little wranglers.
Toy Story Midway Mania!: A 4D shooting game that's fun for all ages (though younger toddlers might just enjoy the vibrant scenes).
Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!: Hop aboard a taxi for a ride through Monstropolis.
The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel's Undersea Adventure: A gentle ride that takes you under the sea with Ariel and friends.
Visiting Disneyland with toddlers is truly a remarkable experience that, with a bit of preparation, can be as enchanting for the parents as it is for the children. Remember, it's not just about the rides—it's about the joy and wonder in your toddler and you don't have to wait until they're older to feel it will be a memorable or manageable experience. Knowing before you go makes any mountain easy to climb, even the monstrosity that is Disneyland. I have gone to Disneyland by myself and with my children and nothing beats seeing the parks through their eyes, and it's always worth it, even if they're filled with overwhelmed and exhausted tears.
I hope this blog posts encourages you to book that trip and get out in to the park and arms you with the tips and tricks to make your trip a success. My best memories from the last year, are filled with bubbles, laughs and Mickey Ears.... and I wouldn't change a thing.
With wisdom and courage, for his Glory,