If there is a pre-schooler in your family and you are considering a trip to Disneyland, read on for our tips to make your trip smoother.
Consider Taking a Stroller
Many people underestimate the amount of walking involved in a day at Disneyland. Some of this will even happen before and after you leave the park. Even the most active pre-schoolers can run out of steam. A great strategy for kids who don’t want to be stroller-bound all day is to use the stroller going to and from the park and at intervals during the day. You can have them ride to an area of the park, for example Fantasyland, then park the stroller in the designated stroller parking area and let them walk between all the rides in this area. When you are ready to go to a different area then pop them into the stroller and follow the same plan. A stroller is also great for night time shows like World of Colour where you are expected to stand. My kids would not have been able to last if we hadn’t had a place for them to sit.
Insider Tip: We have often left a diaper bag with snacks and water bottles under the stroller so that we didn’t have to lug it around all day, but never leave ANYTHING in your stroller that you are not willing to lose. I am always shocked when I see strollers unattended with a phone or camera in the cup holder. This is the Happiest Place on Earth but that doesn’t mean that people won’t take your stuff. There are lockers available for items you don’t want to lose, and you can have souvenir purchases sent to be held at the front of the park so you don’t have to walk around with your merchandise all day.
Want to make the most of your day? Use your time when you have to wait in line to snack. If your kids are anything like mine then they hate waiting in lines (not a fan myself so I get it). Taking a small snack break while in line is a great way to maximize your time, and they are less likely to resent the wait.
We are big fans of bringing our own snacks into the park and then having one treat a day that we buy. You know what portable snacks your kids like, but typically we would bring small ziplock baggies of goldfish crackers, apple sauce pouches, fruit or granola bars for on the go snacking. Read our Disneyland classic snacks series of posts for ideas about snacks you might want to splurge on in the parks. Another great option is buying a Kids Power Pack and splitting it up into snacks. Read our post In Praise of Kids Power Pack for more information.
Surprisingly Scary Rides
There are many great ride options for pre-schoolers and families that anyone can ride regardless of height. Some of these rides though can still be scary for smaller children. Look for our post on rides that are surprisingly scary at Disneyland (coming soon) to see which rides you may want to skip.
Fastpass and Rider Switch
No one likes to wait in line and anyone with small children knows that it is something to be avoided if at all possible. Make sure you take advantage of the free Fastpass option available for some rides so that you minimize your wait time whenever possible. For more information on how to use Fastpass at Disneyland make sure you read our post on Fastpass for Beginners.
Insider Tip: If you have one older child they will often be allowed to ride twice, once with each parent.
Insider Tip: Combine Rider Switch with your Fastpass to minimize those wait times and get on the rides you want.
Battle the Boredom
A surprisingly large number of kids are not OK with meeting characters. Know your kid. The way they react to meeting Santa or a team mascot is probably the way they are going to react to Mickey and his friends. Many kids find it easier to interact with face characters like the princesses or Captain Jack Sparrow. Be prepared for them not to react the way you expect when meeting a character.
My very outgoing daughter absolutely LOVED Princess Jasmine in Aladdin so I thought she would be very bubbly and chatty when she met Jasmine for the first time. I was surprised to find the opposite. She was so overwhelmed with meeting her favourite princess “in real life” that she froze. Jasmine was lovely with her and took time to draw her out but it certainly wasn’t the reaction we were expecting.
Picky eater? You are in the right place! There are kid-friendly options at every restaurant in park and most of those in the surrounding area also have kids menus. You will find the kid staples such as hot dogs, hamburgers, pasta, mac and cheese, and pizza but also some more interesting options such as baked salmon.
Looking to add more fruit? Other great options are the fruit and drink carts located all over the park. You will find things like a cup of grapes, watermelon, mango slices or pineapple spears. The prices are a bit steep in my opinion but it is convenient and healthy.
Early and Late
Crowds are at their lightest first thing in the morning. Although it might not seem like it when you are waiting to enter the park those people quickly disperse throughout the park and ride wait times will be shortest the earlier you go. Our strategy for most park days (the exceptions are the off-season midweek when park hours are restricted to 10am-8pm) is go early and late. If you have been to a Disney park in the afternoon you will have seen little kids melting down all around you. That is because they are DONE! I get it, Disneyland is an expensive trip and the temptation is to stay every minute possible to get your money's worth out of the day. but if your child is acting up because they are so tired and overstimulated then no one is having a good time. Think quality not quantity. Crowds and temperatures are at their peak in the afternoon.
We go first thing (our kids were always up early anyway) and stay until just before or after lunch depending on if we are eating lunch in the park or not. Then we head back to the hotel for some downtime and a well deserved nap. We might have a swim afterwards if we have time. Then we either head back to the park and have dinner there or eat off-site and go to the park directly after dinner. Evening crowds will not be as light as they are in the morning but they will still be better than mid-day. Disneyland is also a locals park and many people come after work to spend a few hours. On coming back into Disneyland our first night and seeing all the lights that make the parks so atmospheric our daughter was in awe. Her eyes could barely take it in and she said it looked like a magic fairy land. This is still one of her favourite times to be in the park as it still makes her feel the magic. Of course staying late means that you will also have the ability to take in the night time entertainment which is a must see.
Everybody's Nap Time
You have to follow this tip if you plan to take advantage of our strategy above. EVERYBODY naps. Our kids both gave up naps for good before they were 2-- except for Disneyland. You will find that most of the area hotels have really excellent blackout curtains. Pull those curtains, set the alarm and take a nap. We ALL nap. Parents included. Grandparents included, now-teen-aged boys included. It is the only way to keep enjoying the parks at their best times without getting burnt out. Trust me-- with all that walking you will thank me even if you just lie down and put your feet up.
Downtime in the Parks
There is SO much going on in the parks at all times that it can be very overwhelming for small people. You know your kids best so you will know the signs for when they have had enough and just need a little break. There are some quieter spots in the park where you both can just take a break from the stimulation. Here are a few of our favourites.
- Tom Sawyer's Island - this is a really quiet oasis. Yes there are things to do like the caves or the bridges but it is also one of the few places that the kids can just run around and take a break from the lights and sounds of the rides and shows.
- The Mark Twain- a very slow ride around the Rivers of America. The middle decks are shaded and you can just sit and watch the world go by. A great way to sit and have some water and a snack in the shade while still being on a "ride".
- Disneyland Railroad- another really relaxing downtime ride. A great way to get from one side of the park to the other without battling the crowds, but also just a fun all ages ride where you can do the full circle. (If you have a dinosaur fan there is a dino section between Tomorrowland and Main Street).
Disney California Adventure
- Redwood Creek Challenge - this is full of things to do like a ropes course and climbing and slides but it still feels very peaceful in the trees and there are definitely quiet corners where little ones can get out and run around or sit in the shade and have snack. Pre-schoolers will be too small for the Smokejumpers Rope Swing but this is a highlight for older kids. One thing to watch is that if you choose to take them on a rope bridge that they step on the ropes-- small feet can slide into the holes instead.
- Animation Building - There are lots of things to do in here (meeting Anna and Elsa is the big draw) but there are also quiet corners. Turtle Talk with Crush is a fun little show that isn't too stimulating and the waiting area has some couches and is blissfully air-conditioned. We have even waited for a show just so we could have some extra quiet time.
Downtime Out of the Parks
It is always tempting to squeeze in as much as possible, but after so much stimulation sometimes you just need a break from the park- whether that is an afternoon break, an early night or a non- park break. Our kids love swimming so they are happy to take an hour in the afternoon to play in the hotel pool. An early night could be a night in with a movie or just some time playing and an early bed time. And a day off from the parks could be a day at the beach or exploring another part of L.A.
Have a souvenir strategy in place before you enter those gates. I know that I want to go crazy and buy half the stuff in the stores so I know it is at least twice as hard for a pre-schooler to resist all those fun goodies. Pick a strategy that will work for your family so that you can avoid melt-downs but still not break your budget. I know some people like to stock up on small Disney items in advance and give them out a little at a time instead of buying in the park. Other people make up pretend Disney money that they can redeem with Mom and Dad so the kids get the idea of budgeting for what they want. Our plan has always been that they could have 1 SMALL item from the park (for example a very small stuffed friend). Most often they have chosen a mini Tsum Tsum. --- These are under$10 and don't take up much space--- so win! The exception to this rule was that they also got a pair of Mickey Mouse ears on their first trip. As they have gotten older they have started collecting pins and almost always will choose a special pin to remember the trip.
All Photos by Jennifer Stuart and Kim Stuart
Comments? Questions? We would love to hear from you. Do you have a favourite tip or a tip that we left out?
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