Disneyland may be the happiest place on earth, but traveling there with young kids can be a nightmare if you're not prepared. We’ve gathered top tips on how to make your trip to Disneyland as enchanting as you've dreamed.
1. Stay on-site at a Disneyland resort
Staying at a Disneyland resort is more expensive than the hotels located across from the park entrance, but for many parents, being able to take the monorail back to close to their hotel for a midday nap or swim makes the expense worth it. If you plan to stay in the park all day, bring a fold-up stroller or rent one at the entrance.
2. Plan ahead
Amanda Pearson is Washington mom of two daughters, ages 5 and 7. Based on her visit to the theme park last fall, she recommends the book The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and the Touring Plans website to maximize your time. Before she left for their most recent trip, she also made reservations for her family’s character meal and her daughters' trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Fantasyland, where “fairy godmothers” fussed over them and gave them princess-worthy hair and makeup. (Call 714-781-3463.)
3. Bring extra snacks and water
Don't under-estimate the magical power of snacks and water. Expect that your bags will be inspected before you enter the park: You can bring plastic water bottles and snacks into the park; just avoid packing anything that is glass. Eleanor Jacka, a Redmond, Wash., mom, who recently took her two boys to the park, says “we were able to get the bottles filled with water at any of the eateries and also asked for ice to keep the water cold.” You can also ask for support for a child with food allergies.
4. Splurge on a “character meal” and autograph books
Don't skip the “character meal,” which is not only a treat for the kids but also guarantees a great photo of your kids with a Disney character. Ariel’s Grotto, in adjacent California Adventure, is especially popular with fans of the Disney princesses as they all gather there. (The Disneyland blog provides some tips.)
Purchase an autograph book as soon as you enter the park and carry a Sharpie pen, which will make it easier for the characters who have costumes with gloved hands to sign the books. To ensure great character photos, Certified Disney Travel Specialist Anna Burch recommends purchasing Photopass+ two weeks in advance of your visit, which means you’ll receive all the photos taken at the park, including ride photos, on a CD after you return home to have printed wherever you choose.
5. Use the FASTPASS system
If you are staying at a Disneyland resort, you can enter the park ahead of all other guests on “Early Magic Hour” days, and all guests can utilize the FASTPASS system to save places in line for popular rides. Find the FASTPASS box by the ride entrance, insert your ticket and you’ll get a “pass” marked with a time period during which you can return to the ride and skip most of the line. Abracadabra!
Disneyland guests who have used the FASTPASS system in the past should note that as of last summer the park strictly enforces return times, Burch says. For popular new rides you might designate a “FASTPASS runner” in your group who takes everyone’s tickets when the park first opens to get the FASTPASS for the rides you really want to go on.
6. Look for age-appropriate rides
Hang out in Mickey’s Toontown and Fantasyland for great “little-kid” rides and frequent character visits, but first screen the rides for speed and fright factors. Malissa Grunke, a Redmond, Wash., mom, recommends scouting out the rides ahead of time, which they did on their recent trip. “My husband and oldest child checked out the Mr. Toad ride and the Snow White ride, and while they were OK for [my oldest], we realized they would be too intense for my youngest.”
7. Bring sunblock, good walking shoes and extra clothes for princesses
Pack sunscreen, hats, water and good walking shoes. Jacka says, “We dressed the kids with short-sleeve shirts and a long-sleeve pullover for the cool mornings and nights. Once it warmed up, we’d take off the long sleeve and put on sunscreen. Comfortable shoes are a must for all the walking.” And parents of princess-crazy daughters might consider bringing extra clothes because the girls will not want to wear their princess outfits all day long.
8. Save on Disneyland goodies and souvenirs
On your way to Disneyland, stop at the Anaheim Walmart, which is less than three miles from the park, at 440 North Euclid. You can buy anything you forgot as well as Disney-brand attire and souvenirs for a fraction of the price you’ll pay inside the park. Amanda Pearson also suggests that you “purchase the princess dress at your local Disney store when it has a sale.”
9. Use Disneyland's baby center
Disneyland has a baby center behind the Plaza Inn restaurant on Main Street. You can buy diapers, baby food and other baby supplies here for a reasonable price — and you can also nurse in private. This is also Disneyland’s “lost child” waiting area.
10. Find the best fireworks view
If you are staying at a Disneyland resort hotel, ask where you can view the fireworks from the hotel, with your child already in pajamas. But if you want to be inside the park for fireworks, go to the back of the Disneyland train station on Main Street, facing the castle. You will both have a perfect view of the fireworks and an easy “escape route” to the exit while avoiding the crowds once the show is over.
Sammamish writer Kathleen F. Miller first rode the Small World ride as a toddler with her mom at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and enjoyed her most recent ride with her children at Disneyland last summer.
This article was written in 2010 and updated in February 2014.