A Parent’s Guide To Planning a Disneyland Vacation
If you have been to Disneyland with kids, you know it’s the happiest place on earth that leaves you feeling like you ran a marathon by the end of the day. For every magic moment, there is an equal amount of work that goes into a successful Disneyland trip with young kids. As a Disneyland Annual Passholder for almost 11 years, 7 of them with kids in tow, here are my tips and tricks for making it a smooth sailing day!
Pack your kids’ belongings in a comfortable backpack that you don’t mind getting dirty or shoving in the bottom of a stroller. While you may be tempted to pack every possible item your little one may need, I recommend bringing the essentials only. When you are rummaging through your bag in the hot Disneyland sun (it always seems to feel 10 degrees hotter in the parks!) or in a crowded stroller parking area, you’ll be happy you didn’t overpack! Keep your bag light, with your items easy to grab quickly.
My go-to packing list:
Diapers (or backup underwear and shorts if newly potty trained)
Small package of wipes (even if you won’t be changing diapers, there are always sticky fingers!)
Water bottle (just one or two, and plan on refilling if needed)
Back-up face masks
Sunscreen (if going in a hot season)
Light jacket (it can get chilly at night even in the summer, and doubles as a blanket for a stroller nap!)
ID and credit card in a small wallet/fanny pack/etc. you can keep on you. You do not need to bring your full wallet.
If you happen to forget an item or need more of anything, both parks will have everything you need available to purchase. I don’t recommend planning to buy essentials there since the cost will be much higher than outside of the parks, but it gives me peace of mind knowing if I run into an emergency I will be covered. The Baby Care Center at both Disneyland and California Adventure have baby food, diapers, sunscreen, etc. Extra clothes can be found in most of the stores if needed, and there is never a shortage of food! Speaking of…
I personally buy our meals at Disneyland, and pack snacks for my kids. If you prefer to save money and not purchase every meal in the parks, I recommend bringing a smaller bag just for food to keep in your stroller. This way the food is not buried under jackets and diapers, so it is easy to grab when needed.
Pack snacks in easy baggies so kids can eat on the go while you are walking from ride to ride, or waiting in line. Keep in mind food and drink typically needs to be put away before going on a ride, depending on the ride. For this reason I like to keep the snacks small and easily able to be cleaned up or packaged away at a moment’s notice. My kids like crackers, granola bars, sandwiches, mini bagels with cream cheese, and other similar snacks.
Eating in the park:
Our family has our snack priorities that we know we don’t want to miss! It is usually a churro, popcorn, and beignets. Depending on the day or season, we may add a treat like churro toffee or a seasonal flavoring like pumpkin beignets! Since we have our favorites we look forward to snacking on, I don’t spend my money on basic snacks that I can bring from home. That being said, there are cute mickey shaped goldfish type crackers and fruit available if your kids need a basic snack you didn’t bring along.
When it comes to meals, the kids’ meal portions can be very small, but they do include a small smoothie and some fruit. Oftentimes I buy regular sized meals for my two kids to split. When you are doing a long day in the parks, you want those little bellies nice and full! Here are some of our go-to spots for meals for kids:
Little Red Wagon – corn dogs
Alien Pizza Planet – pizza and pasta
Galactic Grill – cheeseburgers and fries
Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe – grilled cheese or a turkey sandwich
The Golden Horseshoe/Stage Door Cafe – chicken strips
Whether it’s your first time visiting the parks or not, having a general plan or roadmap for what your day will look like can help things flow nicely. If you are not familiar with the layout of the parks, make sure you grab a map on your way in and decide where you’ll be heading. This is helpful when you are all the way down in Toontown and your little one requests to ride Winnie the Pooh, for example. My kids accept the answer, “we’ll be riding that after lunch!” much better than, “we’ll do that one later.” I have found it keeps the requests down, and they are able to enjoy each land knowing they’ll be hitting all of them at some point!
There is no right way to do Disneyland, or a specific roadmap that is best to follow. Many families have traditions they like to hold onto regardless of wait times. For example, my parents have a tradition of riding Pirates of the Caribbean first, no matter what! Keeping up with this tradition occasionally when I go with my kids, I have found that the lines for Pirates and Haunted Mansion are lower in the morning, so I think it is a great place to start.
If you are arriving at Disneyland for rope drop, you’ll notice right away that everyone runs directly to Fantasyland. Peter Pan and the new Snow White ride are the most popular in that land, so the lines immediately get long as everyone likes to knock them out first! If you are up for the thrill of racing through the castle with the crowds to get in line, the morning is a great time to ride them.
If it is going to be a hot day, I personally like to do Fantasyland in the morning before the temperature gets too high. The lines are tightly winded and tend to get stuffy, so the cooler morning temps make it more bearable! Keep this in mind for It’s a Small World as well, since the line is 100% outside and often in the sun.
If your days are limited, you might not have enough time to do the entire park during your visit. I recommend having a priority list of the rides you know you don’t want to miss, so you don’t leave with any regrets!
Strollers are definitely a necessity when you have babies and/or toddlers in tow, and even older kids after a long day! Having a stroller with storage underneath feels like a necessity as well, so you can keep your arms and back free for toddlers instead of backpacks. In all my years of bringing a stroller full of personal items, I have never had (or even heard of) anything being stolen from them.
I always keep my ID and credit card either in my front pocket, phone case, or fanny pack so that I don’t have to worry about them however, just in case. Lockers are also available for purchase at the front of the parks if there are items you want to keep safe but don’t need to access regularly. This can be a good option for heavier jackets that you only plan to bring out at night.
There are designated stroller parking areas throughout the parks. Look for the signs that direct you to stroller parking near each ride, and the signs that mention no stroller parking allowed. If you come back to your stroller after a ride and don’t see it in the spot you left it, don’t panic! Cast Members continually re-arrange strollers to keep the parking areas organized.
Every once in a while it can take a minute or two for me to find my stroller, so it is always helpful to have a marker that helps you easily identify the handlebars. If you have parked in a non-stroller parking area, your stroller will be moved to the closest one nearby. The Cast Members are always kind and willing to help you find it if needed!
Do not feel like you need to return to your stroller after every ride. I prefer to park mine at a convenient spot at the entrance of each land, and only return to it when we’re ready to move onto the next area. Taking time to load and unload a baby or toddler after every ride eats up a lot of time. Some days I have even parked it on main street and return to it hours later if my little one can handle more walking that day!
TAKE A BREAK
Naps are your friend, even at Disneyland! Don’t be afraid to take an hour or two out of your day to allow your kids to nap if needed. Letting them get some rest, especially in the middle of the day when it’s hot, will be worth them waking up rejuvenated and ready for a later night! Pushing through the day and not allowing them to nap because of the fear of fitting everything in can just lead to a whole lot of tired tantrums and an early night.
If you are staying at a nearby hotel, a nap back at the hotel might be your best bet if you know your toddler does best after a good nap. If you have a good stroller napper, find a shady spot at a table where you can enjoy a break while they sleep. One of my favorite spots for nap time is inside the Disney Gallery right near the entrance of Disneyland. It is a quieter building, with the Hall of Presidents and some interesting Disneyland history to look at while your baby or toddler can snooze in the air conditioning!
When it comes to diaper changes and potty breaks, every bathroom will have a diaper changing area. The Baby Center at both Disneyland and California Adventure have small toddler potties, fully equipped changing stations, and designated feeding areas to sit and feed babies. They also have hot water, microwaves for warming up bottles, and cold water to refill water bottles.
SET YOUR KIDS’ EXPECTATIONS
Every single time we go to Disneyland, I let my kids know if we will be buying a toy that day, how many treats they can request, if we’ll be getting a balloon, etc. For the record, my daughter has heard “yes” to a balloon request one time in 7 years and it made it a special occasion when that day finally came! The idea of toting around a balloon all day, with the risk of it flying away, is one of the battles I choose to fight.
The requests for snacks and candy will come no matter what, but setting the terms ahead of time really eliminates meltdowns when they see those big Minnie Mouse balloons they decide they just need to have! Since my kids know they get to have 2 snacks, for example, they don’t ask for a churro at every cart we pass.
If your kids get to pick out a souvenir or toy, I recommend letting them know they’ll be able to make their choice at the end of the day. That way they can spend the day making a mental note of which one they want in all the stores they walk through, and it doesn’t have to be carried around all day. This goes for your own souvenirs you plan to buy as well!
I also like to prep my kids on the potential long lines or hot temperatures. The more everyone is prepared, the better!
LET GO OF YOUR EXPECTATIONS
At the end of the day, be prepared to let go of your plan and any expectations. Some of the most magical Disney memories happen in the impromptu moments! Take a detour for a character photo, run onto a ride with no lines over and over, and enjoy every churro!