Updated November 30, 2016
You know those people who tell you not to visit Disneyland until kids are “old enough to remember it”? Ignore them. If you wait too long, you’ll miss the magic.
I’ve taken children ages 5 months to 13 years to Disneyland over the years, with one brave day including 5 children on my own. It was chaotic, stressful at times, and worth every bit of effort.
My favorite age group to take to the parks is from around 2-5 years old for a variety of reasons. Kids in this age group really believe in the magic and embrace so much of what I love about Disneyland.
Here’s some tips on how to get the most out of your trip with toddlers.
In this article
Where to Stay
One of the best perks of a visit to Disneyland is that you can stay on or off-site and have a great experience.
DLR Hotels give you an extra dose of magic with stellar Disney service, close proximity and privileges like package delivery to your room and extra magic hours. There are many good dining options at the DLR hotels, too.
Off-Site Hotels are less expensive and are often closer to the parks than DLR Hotels. They, too, have lots of advantages including location, possible free parking and some have free breakfast, too. Review Step 2 of my planning strategy for details on each off-site hotel.
Announcing Your Trip – How and When
When to tell your toddler? Well, that depends on your toddler. If you have a little one prone to questions like “Is it today?”, “I get in my car seat now?”, “We go to see da mouse?”, I’d maybe hold off until a few days prior.
If you feel like your little one can handle the news, there are plenty of ways to announce your trip that will add to the anticipation. A balloon delivery, a puzzle surprise, Disney themed meals and countdown calendars are fun ways to help your children learn about the big news and even gauge the amount of days until they go.
If you’re flying, consider asking the flight attendant for a special announcement if he or she has time. We did this for a surprise Christmas NYC trip for our kids and they’ll never forget it. (Neither will we.)
Be Prepared – What to Pack
In addition to the basics of travel, consider these extras for days at the park with toddlers:
Wipes – for bathroom use or not, you’ll use these to wipe sticky hands, clean a table and more
Snacks – have several tried-and-true favorites on hand for meltdown recovery and for in between meals
Small Activities – either on your phone or packed in your bag, kid-friendly options to pass the time will help with waiting in lines or pre-parade
Bubbles and glow sticks – another option for pre-parade fun
I pushed a stroller – single or double – through the park until my kids were 5+ years old. I can’t stress enough how important having a stroller is for everyone involved. Kids love to take a rest and even withdraw a bit from the busyness of the park. We used our stroller for naps, feeding, quiet time and more. They provide a great seat for parades, too!
There are options for renting one if you don’t want to bring your own.
Tie a balloon or ribbon onto your stroller to easily locate it within a big crowd of other strollers. They’ll start to look more and more like each other as the day progresses.
Know this about DLR transportation: Children of any ages are not permitted to sit or sleep in strollers while on any form of Disney transportation – trams to the parking garage, monorail, etc. Be prepared to wake your child if you board these options.
Within my stroller post, I provide tips on how to manage your bags. Here is what worked for me:
Bag #1: Pack one with valuables (camera, wallet, tickets, phone) that is easy to carry on rides. I keep these items in a backpack that I wear throughout the day. No need to fumble around for everything upon getting in line. Have it all ready to go in your backpack.
Bag #2: Pack this bag with non-essentials, in case it were to get lost or stolen. For me, this bag contained sweaters, glow sticks, snacks, wipes, diapers, ponchos, blanket (for the parade) and more. Anything bulky and heavy was left at the stroller. **I’ve never had anything stolen at Disneyland, but you just never know. Bring pricey items with you. For me, that also included princess dresses and Mickey ears that I would not want to replace.
Your Park Agenda
In a bit, I’ll cover touring plans and within that information, you’ll find which attractions include a FASTPASS option. Spend a few minutes learning how FASTPASSES work at DLR. Although fewer toddler rides include them, you’ll be glad you used them for the ones that do.
In the FASTPASS post I mentioned above, I cover Single Rider attractions, too. This will help adults enjoy attractions quickly when children are not interested in them.
Rider Swap (or Rider Switch or Child Swap) might work for you. Here’s how it works: As you approach the line, let a cast member know you’d like to do a Rider Swap. Everyone (adults and children) will then stand in line together. When it’s your turn, one adult will ride (with an eligible child) and the other adult will stay with the remaining child or children. Then, the other adult will get a turn to ride without having to wait in line all over again. This means the eligible child can ride twice!
Rider Swap is available at these attractions in Disneyland:
Big Thunder Mountain (Frontierland)
Gadget’s Go Coaster (Toontown)
Indiana Jones (Adventureland)
Space Mountain (Tomorrowland)
Splash Mountain (Critter Country)
Star Tours (Tomorrowland)
Rider Swap is available at these attractions in California Adventure:
California Screamin (Paradise Pier)
Goofy’s Sky Skool (Paradise Pier)
Grizzly River Run (Grizzly Peak)
Radiator Springs Racers (Cars Land)
Silly Symphony Swings – tandem or single (Paradise Pier)
Soarin’ Over California (Condor Flats)
Tower of Terror (Hollywood Land)
Tuck and Roll’s Drive ‘Em Buggies (a bug’s land)
Bringing a Princess?
Toddler princesses are pretty much the cutest thing ever and they deserve to see and do everything princessy possible at the parks. I’ve detailed many options and have included some tips on outfitting your princess, too, in my Disneyland for Princesses post.
Take a Break for Nap Time
Toddlers need naps and I encourage you to leave mid-day to make that happen. The crowds are heaviest from around 1-5pm, so take a break and spend some time at your hotel.
Start your day early and enjoy a less crowded park prior to lunch time. Then, take a break. Let little ones nap, take a shower or have a snack….and return refreshed and ready for an evening of fun.
Favorite Dining Options
When planning your trip, consider a meal with Disney characters. Toddlers light up during these times and the experience will give you a chance to do several things that you would have had to stand in line for at the park, including taking photos and getting autographs.
There are five options for character dining with one at each of the DLR hotels and then one at Disneyland and one at California Adventure. Each offers something a little different, so review your options to see what best works for your crew.
If you have a picky toddler (like I did), know ahead of time where you can find what when it comes to food at the parks. I’ve detailed all of your dining options here:
Some Stuff You Might Have Not Considered
Disneyland has several unexpected scary attractions that you’ll want to know about prior to your visit. Review the ones I think might surprise you.
As expected, most bathrooms at Disneyland will have diaper changing stations. In addition, there are two Baby Care Centers within the parks that have excellent accommodations and supplies for sale in case you run out. The Baby Care Centers go above and beyond providing accommodations to breastfeed, change diapers, warm food in a microwave, feed children in high chairs, or simply sit down for a minute.
Prepare yourself and your children by knowing which attractions will be closed for refurbishment during your visit. Most closures are planned well in advance, so you can let toddlers know ahead of time what they might miss out on (or just avoid that area of the park all together).
Take a look at which rides will work for your family ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Disneyland has an easy-to-use filter to navigate through the attractions. I’ve got you started by selecting which rides work well for preschoolers.
If the parks are super crowded, you have options. Review my suggestions for what to do when Disneyland is crowded. Many of the suggestions I provide are great for toddlers because they require less time in line (or none at all).
Finally, review my touring plans for Disneyland in 1 Day and Disneyland in 2 Days, plus California Adventure in 1 Day. These plans are designed with a focus on attractions that fit for toddlers.
If you’re taking the entire family with a range of ages, there’s a Family Plan included, too. This plan will steer you in the direction of a blend of attractions with alternate options for the little ones in case some attractions are not a good fit.
Here they are:
Disneyland 1 Day Plan
Disneyland 2 Day Plan
There you go! Have other suggestions? Find me on Facebook and share your secrets. I’d love to know!