Disneyland: Tips and Itinerary Ideas for Toddlers
Please note: The author and her family explored the parks for free and received many discounts during this trip to Disneyland, courtesy of her friend who’s an employee there.
The awesome part about bringing a toddler to Disneyland is that they are free all the way until the age of three. That means they enter the parks for free and eat for free. Disneyland has typical children’s meals (pizza, nuggets, etc) as well as healthy options (grilled chicken, veggies, etc). And you can get milk almost anywhere you go (which made our 2-year-old very thrilled!)
Before our trip, many people told us to wait until Owen was at least five. I’m glad we went ahead anyway because we would have missed out on being able to take our time and do Disneyland at a toddler pace, complete with schedule down time, i.e. nap time. Our trip was surprisingly low-stress and a lot of fun.
Tips for lowering stress with a toddler at Disneyland:
- Use the PhotoPass service. The PhotoPass photographers will take photos with your own camera/phone, but they will also take photos with their camera and post them so you can decide if you’d like to purchase them. If you purchase after you see the photos, it’s about $40/day. The nice thing is you can share an account with everyone in your group and it’s the same price. This service was especially handy when I was away from my husband (who has a nice camera) and wanted to get a few photos with characters when the lines were short. If I were to do Disney solo with the kids, I would solely use the PhotoPass and my iPhone for simplicity.
- Stay on the property (or really close by). It was imperative that we had the option to go back to the hotel to nap in the afternoon. With all the excitement of Disneyland, it’s easy to stay up late each night. It may seem like you are wasting money by not being in the park the entire day, but overtired toddlers (and frustrated parents) don’t make for a happy trip. We stayed at the Paradise Pier Hotel (we got a great rate) and the hotel was lovely! If your toddler typically takes short naps and you are staying off-property, you might consider napping in the lobby of the Grand Californian, the dark Animation Studio at Disney’s California Adventure, or in the stroller. Personally, I also needed some quiet time where I could rest before continuing the day.
- Do Character Meals, if your kids are excited to meet characters. I’d recommend doing Character Dining on days you will not be in the park just so you aren’t cutting into park time. These are great to do on travel days to extend the Disney experience. Some characters (like Stitch) only seem to be available at Character Meals. Others have really long lines to meet them in the park, so this will save you time.
- Sit down for some meals. Sitting at a restaurant provides a great break from all the park activities and can help toddlers (and parents) de-stimulate. You can make reservations for restaurants up to 60 days ahead. We appreciated being able to sit down, eat a more substantial meal, and rehydrate while talking about what we were enjoying most about the parks. It also gave us time to clear our heads and think realistically what our next steps should be.
- Learn about Magic Hours/Magic Mornings. Because we stayed on the property, we were able to enter the parks a full hour before the general public using Magic Hours, meaning the Dads were able to do some of the crazy busy rides in under five minutes (which required hours of queuing otherwise). Many of the multi-day passes include one day where you can use Magic Hours. They alternate between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, so make sure you know which park has them each day so you can plan accordingly. We took full advantage of Magic Hours at Disney’s California Adventure and our toddler was able to get photos with all the Cars characters, do all the Cars rides he was tall enough for multiple times, and head to a Bug’s Life all before the park opened to the public. It saved us a lot of time!
- Find out about Ride Refurbishments. Especially if you go in the off-season, several rides will be closed for refurbishments. When we went, the Train and the Monorail were both under refurbishment. I knew this ahead of time, so I didn’t plan on using either of these for transportation or for downtime at the park. It also gave us a heads up that my husband’s favorite rides were going to be closed. As kids get older and have favorite rides they look forward to, it’s nice to be able to manage their expectations and let them know if their favorite ride will be unavailable.
- Travel with another family. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to travel with another family whose kids are the same age as yours. We were able to switch off nap duty so the Moms could stay in the park one day and the Dads could the next. It also meant that Moms could take the kids on toddler rides while the Dads did FastPasses for other rides and vice versa. Plus the kids were able to play in line together to help pass the time.
- Listen to your kid. If your child seems scared of Mickey Mouse, it might not be worth it to wait in line for a photo (where your kid may be crying or nestling into your arms). Same goes for rides. If your child is afraid of a certain movie, character, or type of ride, don’t force it. The goal is for your child to have a fun time. My son loves trains and didn’t mind the wait to get to ride one. He also loved It’s a Small World and it was such a special experience for both of us because he was really awed by the ride. I pushed him to do the Flik’s Flyers ride, even though he said he didn’t want to, and it ended up being one of the only rides neither of us enjoyed.
- Learn about Rider Switches. If you have a small child who is unable/unwilling to go on a ride, you can get a Rider Switch pass so both adults can go on the ride on after another without waiting in line again. This is a great way for both adults to go on favorite rides. This would probably be most helpful if you had an older child because then the older child gets to go twice. Because I’m pregnant and couldn’t go on some of the rides, we never needed the Rider Switch pass, but I can see how this will be very handy in years to come.
- Download the Disneyland App. This Disneyland app saved us so many times! Not only does it give you the wait times for the rides, but it also tells you where characters are, where the nearest bathrooms are, where restaurants are and serves as the portal for your PhotoPass.
- Get a battery-powered cell phone charger. We got so much use out of this phone charger. Because you may be splitting off from your group or using your phone to take lots of photos and videos, your battery might drain more quickly than usual. This is also the case if you are constantly pulling up the app or letting your kids watch videos/play games on your phone in line.
- Set expectations. The most heartbreaking thing about Disneyland was seeing parents yelling at their crying kids. Most of these kids looked exhausted and were probably hungry. I know first-hand how stressful it is when your toddler is not on their best behavior when you are doing something special. This is why it’s so crucial to set realistic expectations for your trip. We went in knowing this trip was primarily for Owen and it was a scouting trip for future trips to Disneyland. With that mindset, it was easy to tell ourselves that we’d had enough each day and we would do the rest another time. We also knew that the nighttime parades and fireworks would probably not be in the cards for us this trip because it was past bedtime. Our main theme was This is a Fun Trip and if someone wasn’t having fun, we needed to change what we were doing.
- Make a schedule. Disneyland is not a good place to “wing it” when traveling with a toddler. Ask everyone in your group what their priorities are. I made sure that my husband had time to do some of his favorite rides from his childhood, so we managed to hit up the classic photo spots, and Owen got to go on lots of rides! It’s really nice to group the rides/attractions by section. That way, you can park your stroller and walk around and do everything you want in that area then move on to the next.
Let’s get on to how to plan your day. Here’s what our itinerary looked like:
- Arrived at Paradise Pier Hotel in the afternoon. Walked around Downtown Disney and had a light meal
- Did the 5:30 p.m. Goofy Character Dinner at the Disneyland Hotel. The restaurant was pretty empty since it was early and there was no wait for our photo with Chef Goofy and we got to see all the characters pretty quickly.
- Entered Disneyland and did It’s a Small World and the Casey Jr. Circus Train and caught part of the parade. It was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the park and we got our first taste of Disneyland churros. We only did this because we had free entry into the parks. Normally, we would have gone back to the hotel to rest.
- 8.00 a.m. Reservation for Surf’s Up! Character Breakfast with Mickey and Friends at the Paradise Pier Hotel. In hindsight, we should have saved this for the day we flew home because it meant we missed the Magic Hour and didn’t arrive at the park until 9:30 a.m. when things started to get busy.
- Headed to Disneyland and did the following rides in this order:
- Moms and toddlers did Storybook Canal ride while Dads did Matterhorn (5-minute wait).
- Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
- Silhouettes on Main Street For $10, you can get a silhouette cutout of your child and it’s finished in mere minutes. We did this right before our lunch reservation across the street.
- Lunch at Carnation Cafe.
- Moms took toddlers back to hotel for nap time while Dads did the following:
- Space Mountain.
- Star Tours.
- Moms and toddlers joined Dads after nap time for the following:
- Jungle Cruise.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
- Dinner at Cafe Orleans My favorite restaurant!
- Headed to Toon Town.
- Mickey’s House We did this twice within 15 minutes and got PhotoPass photos with two different Mickeys.
- Chip and Dale’s Treehouse We did not enjoy this.
- Goofy’s Playhouse This is an indoor and outdoor play area with a padded floor. Great for kids to run around while parents sit down.
- We did It’s a Small World again There was no line.
- We grabbed churros on our way out of the park, making sure to leave before the parade.
- Downtown Disney.
- World of Disney store.
- Haagen Dazs.
- Disney’s California Adventure during Magic Hour at 8.00 a.m.
- Headed straight for Cars Land and parked the stroller.
- PhotoPass photo with Red.
- Dads tried to do Radiator Springs Racers since there was a 5-minute wait, but the ride closed when they got in line.
- Moms and Toddlers got in line for Luigi’s Rollicking Roadsters and Dads were able to join us before our turn. The boys loved it so much that we hopped right back in line.
- PhotoPass photos with Lightening McQueen, and watched Mater arrive.
- Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree.
- PhotoPass photo in front of Cars Land sign.
- Dads got Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers Timing was for after dinner.
- Grabbed the stroller and went to A Bug’s Life.
- Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train This is a very short ride, but the toddlers loved it.
- Flik’s Flyers We should have listened to the toddlers saying they didn’t want to do this ride.
- PhotoPass photo in front of Mickey’s Wheel.
- 11:20 a.m. Character Lunch at Ariel’s Grotto.
- Dads took toddlers back to hotel for naps while the Moms did the following:
- PhotoPass photo with Buzz Lightyear.
- Learned to draw Sulley at Animation Studios.
- Mike and Sulley to the Rescue.
- PhotoPass photo with Oswald.
- PhotoPass photo with Walt Disney statue and Newsboys.
- After naps, the Dads and toddlers joined us:
- PhotoPass photo with Goofy.
- Mike and Sulley to the Rescue again.
- Pixar Parade This was fabulous for adults and toddlers alike!
- Dinner at Wine Country Trattoria.
- Shopping for sweatshirts.
- Headed back to Cars Land.
- Adults used Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers while I watched the toddlers.
- Watched Radiator Springs light up.
- PhotoPass photo in Cars Land.
- Then we headed back to the hotel in time to watch the World of Color show from our hotel room.
- We grabbed coffee at Starbucks inside Disneyland and took advantage of the Magic Hour at 8.00 a.m.
- We waited 40 minutes for Peter Pan’s Flight.
- No wait for It’s a Small World.
- Then we headed to Toon Town which opened at 10.00 a.m.
- My husband did the Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Ride while I took Owen to sit on all the cars in Toon Town.
- We got in line to see Minnie in her house and get photos (line was about 15 minutes long).
- We had a late check-out of noon, so we went back to the hotel to pack up and check out. Then we grabbed a taxi so we could get In N Out on our way to our other hotel (Paradise Pier was sold out for our final night).
- After Owen’s nap, we took the free shuttle to the parks and went to Disney’s California Adventure.
- Animation Studio: learned to draw Winnie the Pooh.
- Turtle Talk with Crush.
- At this point, Owen was exhausted, so we took the shuttle back to the hotel and ordered room service for dinner and called it a night.
We had such a fun time that we are already trying to figure out when we can go back!
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