How to survive Disneyland with toddlers

by Melody on December 13, 2013

How to survive Disneyland with toddlers

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Our family just recently got back from a trip to Disneyland and California Adventures in Anaheim and ever since, I’ve been deluged with questions and concerns and would-you-go-backs and tell-me-all-about-its.  The one question I’ve heard over and over is “How in the world did your kids do?”.

Our kids are 5 1/2 and 3 1/2 and to be perfectly honest, I was a little concerned about how they would do.  The youngest still takes epic naps and they get grumpy and irritable and stubborn when they are tired.  How would they possibly make it through a whole day?  I love Disney with all my might, but wasn’t sure if it would work its magic on my boys, at least enough to prevent a complete and utter meltdown in the middle of the park.

Now that we have done it and turned into old pros, I have been shouting from the rooftops that it was the trip of a lifetime.  I severely underestimated my kids and their potential for awesomeness.  They were champs.  They were amazing.  Even with the world’s longest layover on Day 1 and not getting into our hotel until 1:30 AM.  Three weeks later, they are still talking about it and fall out of their chairs if we even mention Mickey Mouse or one of his brethren.

For those who are thinking about a trip or are in mid-planning, I’ve compiled a list of my best tips for you to make this a trip you will never forget.  Traveling with toddlers.  Easy, right?


PicMonkey Collage

Rent/Take/Buy a Stroller – Seriously, just do it.

Or say things like “I’m not sure if we are going to use a stroller, we’ll probably just play it by  ear”.  Five seconds into your trip, fork out the money to rent a double stroller.  Even if you only have one kid, you’ll use the second seat for purses, bags, toys you will inevitably buy and the 27 souvenir cups and buckets you will end up with.

The parks provide you with ample “parking space” for your stroller and the ones they provide are easy to fold and carry.  You may think your kids will be just fine walking around for 12 hours, but they won’t.  They will pass out in the stroller smack in the middle of conversation and there is the added bonus of actually being able to get where you’re going in a timely fashion.  Instead of stopping to check out every Disney-themed trash can and water fountain and bathroom and recycling bin.


Get in shape

There will be times when your children refuse to get in the stroller and refuse to walk in a straight line.  Cue the shoulder ride.  I’d say pass this off to Dad since he’s big and strong, but when you have two kids, someone else needs to step up.  You will carry your kids on your shoulders all the way back to the hotel or heave them up there so they can see the parade when the person in front of you decides to record the ENTIRE thing on her phone right in front of your kids face.  You will push heavy strollers and race to every bathroom in the park with a 45-pound toddler on your hip.

Start now.  Strengthen those muscles.  Work on your endurance.  Disneyland is a marathon.  Don’t break a hip.



Do some food planning

Just about everything in Disneyland costs an exorbitant amount of money.  Find a hotel with a free continental breakfast so you can stuff yourself on bananas and hard boiled eggs for sustenance.  Jam every open space in the stroller with extra oranges and apples and cups of dry cereal for desperate moments in the park.

Pack snacks like almonds, dried fruit, anything that doesn’t have to be refrigerated.  People will get hungry.  Lines are long, food is expensive.  If you’re really ahead of the game, pack a lunch.  You can take just about anything into the park with you.

Bring empty water bottles for everyone in your family, there are water fountains all over the park.  Unless you really enjoy paying $6 for a bottle of “spring water”.

However, you will need to suck it up and pay $6 for a Mickey-shaped pretzel and a Grand Canyon-sized souvenir bucket of popcorn and a Mickey fudge pop and a $5 cup of coffee when you just can’t take one more step without caffeine and frozen margaritas to perk up the afternoon.  Have a love/hate relationship with the fact that every single kiosk and cart and booth and store will gladly accept your credit card.


Buy yourself a Ghirardelli ice cream cone from Paradise Pier.  Shove it in your face.  Dive in and swim around a little.  Enjoy every blessed second.



Bring back-up

Take a set of grandparents with you.  Or two.  Take aunts or uncles, take another family.  Find a lovely couple outside of the park and adopt them.  Disneyland is an entirely different trip with more than two adults.  They do a great job of making everything as accessible and efficient as possible, but if you want to do any sort of adult things (like going on rides without a cartoon character), you can’t beat having another set of adults.

The park is huge and busy and a bit overwhelming at times.  Having extra sets of eyes watching your kids will save your sanity.  When someone has to go to the bathroom every five seconds, you’ll have built-in help.  You can send one adult off to stand in a 2-hour line for a Fast Pass while the rest of your group actually gets to go on rides.  If your adults are extra awesome, they might take your kids back to the hotel to decompress for a few hours while you ride terrifying rides and drink beer.



Fast Pass and Rider Switch Pass – These are made for you!

Several of the more popular rides offer something called a Fast Pass.  This allows you to print out a ticket for each person in your party that gives you an hour time block in which to come back.  When you come back, you can use the special Fast Pass line and basically bypass the ginormous crowd of people waiting in the standby line.  You still may wait 10-15 minutes with your Fast Pass, but trust me, there is NOT ONE SINGLE RIDE that is worth waiting in line 2 hours for.  Not one.  The Fast Pass lets you get on most of the rides you want without forcing your children to stand and wait for what seems like their entire lives.

On occasion, we couldn’t make it back in time to use our Fast Passes, but we had them just in case.  With a little planning, we were able to make most of them work and were able to squeeze in some smaller rides while we waited.  This works out well if you go on a ride and your kid loved it so much, they want to go on it over and over and over again.  Instead of waiting in an atrocious line every time, you can come back and basically get right on.

Not as well known but just as amazing is the Rider Switch Pass.  If you are visiting the park with just your kids and your spouse, you can request one of these before you get on the ride.  One of our boys was too short for some of the rides, so we would send my husband and older son on the ride first.  When they came out the exit, I could use the switch pass, go straight back in and get on the next ride instead of waiting in line again.

This also works if you have a child who, without fail, has to pee when you are halfway through the line to a ride.  You can get a switch pass and take him on the ride after EVERYONE ELSE in your group has already gone.



Listen to your kids

You can plan your day down to the last detail, but it will almost certainly get derailed in the first five minutes.  Lines will be longer than you expected, your kid will have to go to the bathroom, your husband will get hungry, Lightning McQueen will drive down the street and you will have to stop for 15 minutes to be properly amazed.  I know you will want to go on The Jungle Cruise and you will say so off and on for four days, but sometimes you just have to let things go.

Listen to your kids.  ASK THEM what they want to do.  They may not be at all interested in your plans and your schedule.  They might actually want to watch the Pixar Parade three times.  They might want to spend 45 minutes staring at an impressive display of Toy Story action figures.  They might want to put on the outrageously impractical but totally hilarious tire hats in Cars Land.  They might be fascinated by the details you don’t see, like the horse shoe prints that are carved into the street in Frontier Land or the moving heads on the side of ESPN Zone.  Stop and slow down and let them enjoy the park in their own fascinating and magical way.  A little planning is fine to get the wheels greased, but there has never been a better time to turn your brain off and enjoy your kids and forget about your best laid plans.



Be amazed at the bravery of your kids

Don’t underestimate your kids.   Be delighted and amazed and fascinated by their bravery and guts.  Watch them come off the world’s tallest kids roller coaster with a look of unbridled pleasure, which is in stark contrast to your husband’s slightly greenish hue.  Don’t assume that a ride is too grown-up or too scary or too tall or too fast.  Show your kids the ride and what it does and let them make the choice.  Kids don’t have our tendency to over think and get anxious.  They just see fun.



Buy a light saber. Or two.

Because you know you want to apologize to all three million people in the park after they get poked in the eye/ear/stomach/butt.  Because using The Force for good is almost impossible without a light saber.  Because nobody should go one more second without a picture of their kids fighting the Dark Side while waiting in line to see Buzz Lightyear.  Because it will be the best $13 you have ever spent.


Be cool and go all digital

Both my husband and I did some research on the best digital apps to use while in the park.  If you are reminiscing about the good ol’ days when people didn’t walk around with their heads buried in their phones, get over it for a few days.  These apps are priceless.  You will still get to use your paper map if you are nostalgic, nothing quite beats a physical map for getting your bearings when you’re lost in Toon Town.  For everything else, USE YOUR PHONE.

We ended up using both Mouse Wait and the Disney Parks app for the iPhone and they were amazing.  You can easily find the location of the nearest bathroom, kid-friendly (and wallet-friendly) restaurant, check wait times, find out if a FastPass is available.  I hear you saying “But Melody, I can just find out the wait times by walking to the ride and checking myself.  I’m old school!”.  Yes, yes you can.  But be honest with me, if you want to check the wait time on a ride at the back end of California Adventures and you are skipping around Tomorrow Land in Disneyland, you are NOT going to want to schlep your family 3 miles only to find out the wait is 720 minutes and you will have to donate a pint of blood just to ride.  USE YOUR PHONE.



Learn to love the bathrooms

Keep an eye out for my soon-to-be-released book titled “The Location of Every Single Bathroom in the Disney Parks”.

Possible subtitles:

  • Shortcuts to Every Bathroom in the Park
  • Tips for Carrying Your Ginormous Children to the Bathroom without Throwing Out Your Back

When people ask you what your absolute favorite part of Disneyland was, you will say without a doubt that it is all of the kid-sized awesomeness.  Kid-height water fountains, kid-height doors.

And magnificent kid-sized sinks in every bathroom.  Can I just move in?  This is parenting done easy.



Stockpile baby wipes

Seriously.  Even if you don’t have kids, pack some in your purse so you can give them to a frazzled Mom who is unsuccessfully attempting to get cotton candy out of her hair.  I read more “how-to” posts and articles about Disneyland than I care to admit and NOT A SINGLE ONE insisted I bring baby wipes.  Bring them.  Start stocking up three months before your trip.

As mentioned before, there are plenty of water fountains around the park, but a wet paper napkin can only go so far when cleaning up a melted fudge pop stuck to someone’s butt.  If you forget baby wipes, please profusely thank and hug the amazing Dad who chases you down in Cars Land and offers you a handful.


Ask for help

Said so many times while schlepping around the park, to the point where I probably annoyed everyone in a 10-foot vicinity. “Disneyland must make a gajillion dollars every day selling us magic in the form of park tickets and stuffed animals and Disney tchotchkes, but they spend a crap ton of money every day on employees”.

Every single time you turn around, there is a Disney “cast member” just hanging out.  At the entrance of rides, halfway through rides, chilling by the bathrooms, selling churros from a cart, sitting on a park bench.  Do not waste one single second of your trip pretending you know how to find a ride or restaurant better than these knowledgeable folk.  ASK.  They are encyclopedias of Disney geography and will tell you with a smile.  If you don’t understand something, ask.  If you can’t find something, ask.  If you want to have a detailed discussion about rare and little-known characters from the Cars movies, ask.  You will sail through your trip.

I can’t recall even one instance where a cast member came across less than thrilled to be telling me where in the world I was and how in the world I got there.


PicMonkey Collage

Enjoy their faces

Start preparing your adjectives now.  The look on my 5-year old’s face at any given moment was nothing short of magical and amazed and blown away and complete awe and disbelief and unbridled joy.  Stop and really look at these faces.


As adults, it is a very rare occurrence that something truly makes our jaws drop.  Our children experience it on a daily basis in the middle of a thunder storm or by seeing snow outside their window or getting to hold a snuggly puppy or getting to have an extra scoop of ice cream with dessert.  Multiply that emotion by 7,425 and you have every minute spent in Disneyland.


Soak in these faces.  Live the joy through your children.  Hold your ginormous son on your hip and hold your camera at a dangerous angle so you can capture the look of delight when he sees dancing reindeer in the Disney Christmas Parade.  As soon as you get home, you will fall right back into your get-your-shoes-on/where-is-your-hat/don’t-hit-your-brother routine.  In Disneyland, the only thing that matters is that face.  It’s blissful and magical and full of unicorns and rainbows and cupcakes and all things brilliant and simple and joyful.  I’m going to bottle it up and dab it on my wrists on particularly tough days.


You’re all set.  Go and do Disney.  I don’t want to hear that your kids are too young or there is nothing fun for adults to do or “I’ve been once, why in the world do I need to go back”.  Even with all the crowds and the expensive pretzels and the lines, Disneyland carries this intense and surreal magic that will transport you to a happier place.  If only just for a few days.

Walt Disney was a genius.

Related posts you may find helpful:


How old were you on your first trip to Disneyland or Disney World?

What is your favorite ride or attraction in the Disney Parks?

What is your favorite vacation spot as a family?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

MissJay December 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I’m so glad you guys got to go!! We went 2 years ago, when our kids were 4 and 6 1/2. Your advice is completely spot on! And so true about capturing the looks on your kids’ faces.

One thing we did was to prep our kids before we even left, about what coming home would mean. We were concerned about how hard it would be to leave it all behind and have reality come crashing in with over stimulated and over tired children. We made lists of things to look forward to when we came home (favorite toys, clothes, meals, animals etc) that we didn’t bring. And my husband took a few more days before returning to work to help out with the sheer exhaustion.

I too was impressed with how well they held up, how daring they were, and how chill they were when it was time to go home. I can’t wait to take them again!


Lynn Wargo December 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm

It was a trip of a lifetime Melody! Brings tears to my eyes to look back on the pictures you posted! I can’t wait to go again! Love Mom


Dani December 14, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Thank you so much for the article! I was 18 the first time I went to Disneyland and I absolutely CANNOT wait to take my 2 kids. Mine are 5 1/2 and 2 1/2. My hubby and I are saving up and hopefully we will be able to go next year when my daughter is 3. I would have never thought about needing to take more adults on the trip but it makes perfect sense, because I will definetly need a beer break by the end of the day (who am I kidding, by mid-day). Great tip on the wipes and stroller too! I will be waiting for your followup article, “how to survive flying with toddlers”. 😉


Lisa McNair October 22, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Surviving with Kids at Disney Land must be hectic… there are few articles on about kids, have a look.


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