Disneyland is celebrating its 60th Diamond Anniversary this year. But while it may still be officially the happiest place on earth, but traveling there with young kids can be a nightmare if you're not prepared. We’ve updated our top tips on how to make your trip to Disneyland as enchanting as you've dreamed.
1. Stay on site at a Disneyland resort or save by staying nearby
Staying at one of the three official Disneyland resort hotels 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 or allow teenagers to remain “free range”, enjoying the rides in the park while their parents take a break close by makes the expense worth it.
You can often save significantly on lodging by staying offsite and walking, taking the ART (Anaheim Resort Transit shuttle) or a taxi to Disneyland. On our most recent stay, my family enjoyed the elegant larger rooms and rooftop pool at the DoubleTree Suites. Even with the cost of the taxi we took to and from the park every day, we saved on our accommodation costs. The Candy Cane Inn has hosted generations of park visitors and offers a free shuttle to the park and free breakfast. Kids enjoy the mini water park at the Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Water Playground, located less than a ten-minute walk from the park’s gates.
Get advice on where to stay and the distance from the park if you stay off site and discounts by visiting the MouseSavers.com website and reader recommended DLR Prep School’s website, which offers a great chart showing the average rate for off site hotels and if they are within walking distance of the park gates.
If you plan to stay in the park all day, if you have a toddler, bring a fold-up stroller or rent one at the entrance. For easy “all in one” travel planning for airfare, admission to the park and onsite or offsite lodging, check out the Alaska Airline’s website which offers seasonal sales on Disneyland packages.
2. Read up and plan ahead
An article like this is a good start, but to get the full (and we mean full) scoop, get a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland.
Disney recently implemented a new price structure for one-day tickets, so consider buying your tickets ahead of time at a AAA Washington Travel Store, which often offers discounts and extra perks when you buy your park passes there.
Veteran visitors also recommend planning ahead for special experiences while you are at the park, such as a character meal. Before Amanda Pearson, mom of two, left for their most recent trip, she 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, and plan a parade
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.)
For more princess encounters, visit Disneyland’s new Fantasy Faire, adjacent to Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Fantasyland. Princesses will gather in the Royal Hall to meet guests and perform two live shows a day for audiences at the Royal Theatre. Check the park’s daily schedule sheet for performance times.
You’ll also find the times for the park’s parades on the park’s daily schedule, which offer another great opportunity for photos with Disney characters. Daily and nightly parades at Disneyland and California Adventure are popular so bring a beach towel with you and ask a Disney “cast member” as all employees are called, where a good spot is to view the afternoon parade and save your spot with the towel before the parade starts.
Many kids love to interact with Disney “cast members” as all employees are called, by trading pins. You can buy pins on eBay or at the Pin Traders store in Downtown Disney, pin them on your child’s lanyard and he or she can “trade” for pins with Disney employees and other park guests throughout the day. Look for pins on employee lanyards and boards at the park restaurant and stores.
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 you can save your previous memories, purchase the Disney PhotoPass through the Disneyland website or at PhotoPass Sales Centers in the Park. If you pre-purchase, you’ll get an app for your phone that will allow you to have park photographers scan a QR code on your phone and you’ll be able to gather photos from your day in one place and view and share your photos throughout the day. You can also skip buying the pass and just collect the free “photo cards” the park’s photographers will provide you, and view and purchase the photos online when you get home.
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 if you have a 3-Day or longer pass you can also take advantage of Disney’s “Magic Morning” option as well on selected days. If you are traveling with little kids, use that extra hour to race to the back of the park to enjoy riding the popular Dumbo and Peter Pan rides. Traveling with teens? Take the train to New Orleans Square and hit the popular Indiana Jones ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain before the crowds arrive.
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. You can also get a FASTPASS for the popular World of Color show at California Adventure at the machine next to Grizzly River Run. Note: The FASTPASS for the super-popular Radiator Springs Racers ride in California Adventure has been moved to outside of Cars Land, next to the It’s Tough to Be a Bug attraction.
Important note: The park strictly enforces return times. 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.
This article was written in 2010 and updated several times since then, including in March 2016.