Living in southern California, we’ve gotten to enjoy quite a few days at Disneyland. Kids are free until they’re three (“Mickey’s guests,” in Disney-speak!), and taking little ones to the parks never loses its magic.
Still, we’ve learned that there are ways to make a Disney trip much more enjoyable and avoid making it an exercise in utter exhaustion for all. From our two years of experience, here are 10 tips for enjoying Disneyland with young kids.
- Pack snacks. Then pack more snacks.
My sister has three (soon to be four!) kids, and this was her only parenting advice to me. It was GOLD.
Going to Disney with kids? Pack a million snacks. Then throw in a few more. You’ll be walking long distances, there will be tons of stimulation, you’ll be waiting in lines, and the kids will be hungry. Snacks provide entertainment, distraction, and nourishment.
Snacks = SANITY.
Even if you plan to purchase some at the park, you’ll be surprised at how hungry everyone gets and how quickly $8 turkey legs and $5 cotton candy add up.
Our favorite foods to bring are bags of nuts (almonds, pistachios), fruit leathers, raisins, Kind bars, Lara bars, fruit snacks, Pirate’s Booty, baby carrots with hummus, apple slices, and clementines.
2. Don’t overplan the day
Allow plenty of breathing room. Kids love the tram, the monorail, just walking around and noticing all the little Disney touches in the parks. They’ll notice things you probably might not – a sparrow eating crumbs from a cookie, a character peeking out a top-story window, a “hidden Mickey” on a street sign.
Stop for half an hour and watch the Disneyland band or the Dapper Dans or whoever is singing in the town square.
Those little unscripted moments are so sweet, and you won’t get them if you’re busy booking it from one ride to the next.
Kids love to explore, and Disney is a great place for that. Don’t be so focused on a “to-do” list that you miss the magic.
3. If you have babies, bring a stroller AND a carrier
Many kid-friendly rides allow you to keep your baby in a carrier! How awesome is that? Rides like It’s a Small World in Disneyland and Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train in DCA are for all ages and allow babies to “ride” on their moms as their moms ride the attraction.
This is gold for nappers.
If you have older kiddos, do not, I repeat, DO NOT forget a stroller. Even if they’re five or six or seven and usually great walkers, Disneyland is a marathon. If nothing else, the stroller will be useful to hold your eighty-three pounds of snacks when your arms get tired.
You can rent a stroller at the park, too, if you need, but it’s lots easier to bring your own and avoid the stroller rental lines (plus the additional hit to your wallet).
If you’ll be parking (i.e., not walking in from a nearby hotel), make sure your stroller folds up, as they must be folded to go on the tram, monorail, or bus that get you to the park’s gates.
4. Plan for a few “must-see” rides or attractions
If this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for you and you’re dying to ride Space Mountain, do it! Just be realistic about your “must-see” events and plan for just a few. It’ll make the day more enjoyable and help you to clearly plan if you’re not rushing around.
5. Arrive early
A lot of the kid-friendly rides have little to no line when the park first opens, but can have an hour’s wait or more later on in the day. My son and I have ridden “It’s a Small World” (his favorite) three times in half an hour when we’ve arrived at 8:00am.
It’s worth taking advantage of an early morning with little kids, especially if they’re naturally early risers. Get to a kid-friendly ride right away, ride it a time or two (or three!) and then let the day unfold.
If you want to meet Mickey Mouse, his house opens up in ToonTown at 10:00am. If you’re there when the gates open and head straight to Mickey’s house, you can beat the rush and avoid waiting in line for 1 1/2+ hours.
Plan to arrive at the parking structure at least an hour before the park opens. Between riding the tram, getting a ticket, and waiting in line for the entrance, that will put you at the park right on time.
In the summer or holiday seasons, try to be parking at least an hour and a half before the park opens.
6. Don’t be afraid to nap
If you pay big bucks for a day at Disney, you want to get the most out of it. But here’s the thing – Disney is a LOT for a kid. Crowds, lines, overstimulation, it can all get to them.
If your kid is a napper, consider heading back to the hotel or your home for a little nap. It’ll give them (and you!) the stamina to make the second half of the day great.
Otherwise plan to provide for a stroller nap, or head to a show in a dark, cool theater to help them take the edge off and enjoy the rest of their day. Some great in-park napping spots are Pirates of the Caribbean, the Mark Twain Riverboat, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (air conditioned, dark, and slooooooowwww…) and It’s a Small World at Disneyland, and the Aladdin show, Turtle Talk with Crush, and Ariel’s Under Sea Adventure in DCA.
I’d always rather pay for eight great hours of Disney with some resting/napping built in than 12+ hours that include several meltdowns before the evening parade begins.
7. Take advantage of low-cost souvenirs
At Disneyland, for only $11 you can get your child’s silhouette portrait made on Main Street. With the circular frame it’ll set you back a bit more cash, but it’s a treasured souvenir in our home and a great gift for grandma!
At DCA, you can draw a Disney character at the Animation Studio for free.
Both parks will give you a free button for a milestone life event (birthday, anniversary, family reunion, etc.). You can ask at most stores and kiosks.
8. Sit down for at least one meal
It’s temping to keep going and going and going, but let yourself and your kids replenish in body and mind with at least one sit-down meal. Lunch will set you back less than dinner, and there are some great restaurants that provide entertainment while you dine.
Our current favorite is dining on the Tomorrowland Terrace where we can watch the Jedi Training Academy while we polish off burgers and fries. For our family of three (I’m not counting Wils, since he’s still nursing!) we can do lunch there for under $40.
Resting our feet for half an hour while our son is entertained? That’s priceless.
9. Plan activities to do in line
Download a few new game apps for your phone, bring some coloring supplies and stickers, and make sure to have snacks at the ready. It’s hard for me to stand in line for an hour, and I’m not a preschooler.
Help a kid out.
10. Take Age-Appropriate Warnings Seriously
There’s an “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” show at DCA that looks like it could be cute for kids. There are warnings posted that the show can be scary. Luckily I screened this one before taking my three-year-old because he would NEVER HAVE SLEPT AGAIN.
There were terrifying moments when the lights went dark and wasps came to “sting” the audience (our seats poked us in the back with little plastic thingies), and a horrifying climax where giant black widow spiders descended from the ceiling. WHAT THE HECK, DISNEY?!?!
There’s a darker side to some of the rides even in kid-centric areas. There are super scary moments on some otherwise great attractions (Finding Nemo, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan, Snow White, and It’s Tough to Be a Bug, just to name a few).
Read up on what’s appropriate for your kid’s age, ask people getting off of the ride if there are any intense moments, and when in doubt, don’t go on.
Your best bet for really little kids is to stick to the rides in the open air like Dumbo, the Golden Zephyr, Flik’s Flyers, etc. If you can see the entire ride, odds are it won’t be too scary.
Are you a Disney fan? What tips would you add for visiting the parks with littles?
For more great ideas, check out Magic Kingdom Mamas.