If your family has tots or teens or everything in between, a family trip to Disneyland is a rite of passage. We've just made another visit to Disneyland in California and updated our best tips. As you plan your trip to the Magic Kingdom or are just thinking about when is the right time, read on for our top 10 tips to ensure your visit is as enchanting as you dreamed — and that your kids come home with happy memories, no matter their age.
1. Grab the new MaxPass to beat the lines (bonus: access park photos free)
Before you head to Disneyland, download the Disney App on each of your family members' phones. The app will show you wait times for rides, when and where characters are appearing, when events like the popular Paint the Night Parade at California Adventure are happening.
Once inside the park, purchase a Disney MaxPass online for the app, currently $10 per guest, per day. Once each member of your group has the MaxPass, you will be able to link your tickets so that you can select Fast Passes electronically, together or individually. This will allow you to maximize your time at both parks as you can make a Fast Pass reservation for a popular attraction in California Adventure while you are still in Disneyland — or from anywhere inside each park.
Bonus: The MaxPass comes with an unlimited Disney PhotoPass, so you will have all the photos taken by Disney photographers and on the rides saved and available to download for free when you get home. Open the app so the Disney photographer can scan it. Then when you step off a ride offering a photo (such as Splash Mountain), just enter the number of your photo in the app and your photo will be saved and you’ll be able to download it for free. Priceless!
The downside of the MaxPass is that it will use up your phone's battery quickly. There are very few places to recharge a phone in the park, so I purchased a compact portable charger for each member of our family. You can also purchase portable chargers in the park.
2. Stay onsite at a Disneyland Resort and get an extra hour in the parks, or save by staying nearby
Whether you have toddlers or teens, splurging and staying onsite at one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels offers some great advantages. Staying onsite is more expensive than hotels located in surrounding Anaheim, but being able to take the monorail back to the hotel for a midday nap or swim, or to allow teenagers to roam free-range, can make the expense worth it for some families.
Bonus: You will also have access to either Disneyland or California Adventure for an early Extra Magic Hour when the parks open early for guests of the resort’s hotels.
You can also save a bundle by staying offsite — but still close by — at a Disneyland Good Neighbor Hotel.
For easy, all-in-one travel planning, consider package deals that include admission to the park and lodging (onsite or offsite). Check out Disneyland’s packages, Alaska Airlines' package deals or Disneyland packages available from Costco Travel.
3. Multi-Day Park Hopper Passes are worth it if you plan to visit both Disneyland and California Adventure
Disneyland and California are separate, adjacent parks. It can help to note that there are fewer rides and attractions that appeal to toddlers in California Adventure, so some families might opt to visit Disneyland alone.
But if your family plans to visit both Disneyland and California Adventure, consider getting a 3-, 4- or 5-day Park Hopper ticket that includes access to both. Even using the Max Pass to optimize your time with Fast Passes and a "Touring Plan" from a resource such as the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland book or app, most families will find it challenging to do everything they want to do at both parks in one or even two days.
And if you have little kids, standing in lines for ride after ride without a break often results in toddler meltdowns by early afternoon. After several visits we’ve decided that a four-day Park Hopper Pass is optimal to be able to do everything we want to do in both parks. With the purchase of a 3-, 4- or 5-day Park Hopper pass, visitors also get a bonus Magic Morning in the parks, which means you can enter and ride select rides an hour earlier than everyone else.
4. Plan for rides that are appropriate for your kid(s)
If you have little kids, research the rides to figure out which ones will be the right fit for them, based on age and temperament. For example, in Disneyland’s toddler-friendly Fantasyland, Snow White's Scary Adventure ride includes a skeleton in a cage that is terrifying for some kids. And for some little guys, Roger’s Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, with its jerky ride, with loud noises and a scary story line, may not be a great choice.
Some of the older, iconic rides have been updated to be more family friendly, including Pirates of the Caribbean, which now features a redheaded female pirate — you can also meet her roaming New Orleans Square. But some remain scary and best for older kids and teens because they are dark or fast, including Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion.
5. Bring sunblock, a stroller, good walking shoes and an extra set of clothes for your princess or Jedi knight
A bad sunburn is one of the fastest way to ruin a day at the park. Pack sunblock, wear hats and re-apply sunblock often. You will be walking all day so wear good walking shoes and if you are not staying onsite, consider bringing a fold-up stroller or renting a stroller from the park so your toddler has a place to nap in the afternoon.
Those super-cute princess outfits and Jedi robes make for awesome photos but by the afternoon your kids will want to get those outfits off, so pack a change of clothes. (Bonus tip: Save on those fabulous park outfits by hunting for them at consignment stores before your trip.)
6. Pack water bottles and snacks and have older kids haul their own stuff
If you see a toddler melting down at Disneyland, it's a safe bet that they're tired, dehydrated or hungry. Bringing healthy snacks and a collapsible water bottle for each member of your family will save you money and help keep everyone hydrated and happy.
Your bags will be inspected by security when you enter the park and you are allowed to bring in snacks and water bottles, just nothing in glass. I like the BPA-free Normader Collapsible Water Bottle because of its leak-proof cap and ability to “stand up” when full. You’ll find water fountains to refill bottles in the parks and you can also ask restaurants for ice water when purchasing meals.
When my kids were younger I felt like a "parent sherpa" toting a giant backpack full of diapers, clothes, snacks, wipes and more. Now that my kids are older, they haul their own stuff in their own small backpacks.
Get water-resistant bags for cell phones for those awesome water rides that often leave you soaked. I also bought each of my family members a Disney lanyard and ID pouch online before we left that held their tickets and hotel room card key. This helped to keep everyone organized.
7. Change or feed a baby or find your kid at Disneyland’s and California Adventure’s baby centers
Find fully staffed baby centers near at Disneyland (near the Plaza Inn restaurant on Main Street) and at California Adventure (near the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain). You can buy diapers, wipes, sunscreen, baby food, and other baby supplies here for a reasonable price, change your baby, relax out of the sun and nurse in private.
These facilities also serve as Disneyland and California Adventure’s lost-child meeting area. Theme parks are nearly always crowded and getting separated from your child can happen. Some families choose to wear matching neon t-shirts, for example, to help stay together. You can tell your child if they can't find you, to tell a Disney staff member who will escort them to the nearest baby center.
8. Splurge on a character meal, autograph book and plan for special events
A character encounter over a meal is an extra-special treat for a child celebrating a birthday or for one who's a super-fan of a particular princess or superhero. Among several great character meal opportunities available in the parks, our favorite is the breakfast buffet at the Storytellers Café (inside the Grand California Resort) where you can meet Mickey, Chip and Dale and their friends.
Find all character meal options and menus at the Disneyland website. Reservations are available 60 days in advance — and a must as the character meal opportunities fill fast. Make your reservations online, with the app or by calling 714-781-3463.
Maximize your character encounters by buying an autograph book and packing a sharpie pen that makes it easier for them to sign the book.
Note that you’ll also see many of your favorite characters at special events, including the Paint the Night Parade, Frozen — Live at the Hyperion in California Adventure Park and Fantasmic!. I splurged on our most recent trip by reserving a "dine-and-admission" package for the Paint the Night Parade and Fantasmic!. Each package included a fixed-price, multi-course meal at a park restaurant plus "admission" to a reserved area where we had a great view of the show, without having to try to save a spot for hours.
9. Save on your Disneyland swag
Stock up on snacks, sunscreen and Disneyland swag — and anything else you forgot to pack — on your way to the park at the Anaheim Target at 101 Euclid. You’ll find adorable Disney merchandise here for less than what you pay in the park or in Downtown Disney.
For an inexpensive, fun souvenir, I recommend the penny machines in Disneyland and California Adventure. Buy a Disney "penny collector" book and make a game of seeing how many of the spaces you can fill with pennies stamped with attractions from all over the parks. You can find their locations online.
Our teens like to collect and trade Disney pins with staff (called "cast members"). Pins are easy to pack and make affordable souvenirs. You’ll see many guests wearing them on their lanyards. You can purchase pins at many stores in the park including the Westward Ho Trading Company in Frontierland and the Little Green Men Store Command in Tomorrowland, where you will also find those famous Tomorrowland pins.
10. Start and end the day magically
Celebrating a birthday or an anniversary? Or it is your first time in the park? Then head for Disneyland’s City Hall when you first enter the park to get a button you can wear all day. You’ll be celebrated by cast members and may enjoy a perk or two, such as a free dessert.
For our family, the nightly Disneyland fireworks show is one of the highlights of a visit to the Magic Kingdom. To get the best view, head to the front of Main Street and find a spot across from the Disneyland Fire Department, then face the castle. A recent fireworks show featured the characters of Pixar, including the beloved relatives of Coco, who magically appeared from the rooftops of Main Street shops during the show.
After the show, if your family members are night owls, you can easily avoid the crowds by jumping on the Disneyland Train at the Main Street station and heading into another part of the park. Or if you are done for the night, you’ll be able to make an easy exit out of the main gate, along with most other visitors.
More family fun in southern California...