Updated: Jun 11
We've been talking about going to Disneyland since Marvel was six months old. Our original plan was to celebrate her first birthday there, but COVID made other plans for us. With her turning three in October, we knew the race was on to get the first trip in. So in May, we decided to go for Andy's birthday after our weekend working at SiliCon to kill the long drive down. This trip was months of planning and research. Lucky for us, we have the amazing Auntie Disney, aka best sister-in-law on the planet, Lyndsey, to give us all her tips and tricks to have the best Disney experience. A lot of friends and family ask to pass on our tips, so I gathered up all my notes and wrote it all out for you:
General Disney Park Knowledge
Download the app and get to know it very well in advance. You need it to get around the park, use genie services, look at wait times, and even order food now. If you haven't invested in a portable battery pack, now is the time to get one. We love this one.
Genie+ is only worth it if your children are over 40 inches and the park is crowded. We had Genie+ service and even paid Lightning Lane for three rides. With an impatient preschooler and over 100-degree temperatures, it saved us from a lot of waiting and meltdowns. But note once you use lightning lane through Genie +, you can't do it again. Most small children's rides do not have a lighting lane and will have a longer wait time. This is why that early morning entry comes in handy.
Genie+ also allows you to do Disney Photo Pass, which is a complete lifesaver! This nifty little feature lets you download all your ride photos and any photo ops you do with Disney's professional photographers. The photographer will ask you to scan your app or give you a card to scan into your app later. That way, all your photos are in one place to download. As a parent, these are great opportunities to get those nice Christmas card pictures we always want!
Disneyland rides are open till midnight, but Main Street and Downtown Disney Store are open till 1 AM for shopping. If your little ones pass out in a stroller, this is a great time to go shopping without someone having a meltdown over a stuffed mickey they already have.
Rider Swaps are the best if you are a parent of a little one. While one parent stays behind to watch the younger kids who can't ride, you can swap riders and get your turn after.
If you are planning a multiple-day trip, know that Disneyland is much more toddler and kid-friendly than California Adventure. There are more food and ride options for them as well. California Adventures doesn't have many kid-friendly sit-down options, and there seem to be fewer characters in this park than in Disneyland. We did two days at Disneyland and One Day at California Adventures, and we got to see it all.
Toddler Specific Tips
Did you know that all children under three are free at Disneyland and California Adventure Park? Even if your child turns three during the trip, they are still free for the entire trip.
Bring your own stroller, but remember, wagons aren't allowed. We brought our BOB jogger stroller, which was perfect for the trip. After seeing what was available at Disneyland to rent and what people were given, I'll be sure to bring mine every time. The plastic carts are uncomfortable for the kids and rattle like crazy. The strollers I did see didn't give me a very clean impression and looked highly worn.
When it comes to stroller parking, you will find it throughout the park. Put all your valuables in a backpack. That way, when you park it, it's easy to gather. Don't forget to pack extra snacks, wipes, diapers, and clothes in that bag. We even packed some Bluey figures. These things can come in handy when you are stuck in line.
We had zero issues with anything going missing, but our stroller got moved several times. Disney workers will move strollers around to ensure traffic flow isn't blocked. An easy way to find your cart in the sea of them is to get a balloon or ribbon for the stroller handles.
Disneyland offers toddler meals at multiple locations, which keeps parents from ordering a full meal just for them to eat. Buffet-style dining options do not charge for any children under three as well. These little things add up so parents can save money and have a memorable family vacation.
We threw our routine and our general schedule out the window. We were on "Vacation Time." When it was clear that Marvel needed a break or nap, we headed back to the hotel, which was easy to get back to. There were also a few nights and times when we let her fall asleep in the stroller. This allowed us, adults, to get in a quiet meal together or trade off riding rides that she wasn't tall enough for.
If you are looking for an excellent spot for parades, shows, or fireworks, be ready to pick a spot at least an hour early and camp out there. This is an excellent time for one person to get food while the other sits and rests with the kids.
If princesses are high on your list to see and experience, do yourself a favor and head straight to the Royal Hall at 9 AM. The line will start early, and once it does, it will be a minimum 50-minute wait till they close at 5 PM. It's three princesses, and they swap at noon. This is one experience I wish you could book in advance or even pay for, like the rides. Unfortunately, we weren't looking to tempt fate with a 2.5-year-old in 100+ degree heat with a 75-minute wait.
Star Wars Land offers two different experiences that you can pay to participate in. One is a "Build Your Own Droid," and the other is a "Build Your Own Lightsaber." Both state 3+ as the age experience level, but we will warn you now it is not. We recommend that anyone who does these experiences be 10+ years older and be able to follow visual instructions carefully. We ended up doing both experiences while Marvel was sleeping in the stroller. Strollers and young children aren't generally allowed in these experiences. We only got to bring our stroller and sleeping child because we chose an 11:30 PM time slot where only four people were signed up. The droid experience was not worth the money. Our BB-8 stopped working the minute we got home and refused to connect to the app or the remote anymore. The lightsaber session, though, is TOTALLY worth it if you are a Star Wars fan.
All Disney dining reservations are made through the app now. I would start looking at reservations 3-4 weeks in advance for sit-down dining. Mobile dining can be ordered as you go through the day and are ready for it. If you forget to make sit-down reservations, there is a good rumor that the early hours between 3–6 AM will give you the newest updated reservations due to cancelations. I scored our Goofy's Kitchen reservation for 10 AM on our check-out day at 6 AM.
Make sure to book all your character breakfasts in advance. We highly recommend Minnie's Breakfast at the Plaza Inn in Disneyland. The food was terrific, and many characters were walking around to entertain the little ones. We did Goofy's Kitchen too, but it had fewer characters and a longer wait.
You can get a dining package to include Fantasmic Seating. We opted for this through Hungry Bear and did not have a great experience. You are essentially paying for front-row seating on the ground in front of the waterfront. This area can see cockroaches at certain times of the year. Make sure you look around where you are sitting, especially if it's right at the waterfront. An immense colony swarmed us, and it ruined it for us. Thankfully Disneyland made it right when we sent in a formal complaint. Shout out to Joshua at Disneyland Customer Service!
If you are doing Fantasmic Seating, even though it says you can arrive up to 10 minutes before the show. Make sure you get there at least 30 minutes to an hour before the show to ensure you get the best seats.
World of Color has a queue you get in at noon on the app, but if you've got small little ones, don't do it. You will have to stand during the entire show, and it's tough for them to see. You are better off camping out an hour before the show begins on the outer edges where the kids can stand and see.
Disney handled my gluten allergies amazingly. I didn't have an issue and could easily place my order through the app. As someone used to going hungry on trips like this, it was nice to be able to stuff myself like everyone else.
The Gluten-Free Monte Cristo is hailed as the ultimate celiac pleasure on every significant blog. This item has to be ordered two weeks in advance via Disney's Special Diet coordinators. It's only available right now through Blue Bayou or Cafe Orleans. For me, though, it was a total flop. I was really disappointed in how bland it was, and it tasted no different than a grilled cheese I would make at home. I would definitely save my time and money for a different stop, like a Chili Cheese Dog.
When trying to find gluten-free options, I relied heavily on these two articles from
Lucky for us, we have a tall two-and-a-half-year-old who was ready to take on the big kids' rides. Marvel generally loved most of the rides, including Thunder Mountain and Rise of the Resistance. In retrospect, a few rides were too much for her age, even though she said she could "handle it." Remember, you are the parent, and if you know it's not going to end well, don't do it. Marvel was adamant that she wanted to see Groot on the Guardians of the Galaxy breakout, but by the end, she was yelling at everyone, "I'm done. I do not like this". We had to get a stuffed Baby Groot to calm her down after, and Andy got the stare-down when he asked about Space Mountain.
If you do a ride with a photo op, make sure you take a picture of your photo with the code in case it doesn't load to your Disney Photo Pass. We almost cried when we thought our photo from Guardians of The Galaxy Breakout didn't load, but it can take 24 hours for them to get into the system. Thus, you should take a photo of the code in case they don't show up.
Every height marker in the park is off by a smidge. Marvel wore the same shoes throughout the trip, and there were multiple times when we could tell that the height measures were either a smidge too tall or small. The cast members will ask the children to stand under the marker, which causes them to shorten their neck, so their head isn't pressed against the metal. If you've got a child just on the cusp of the height requirement, practice doing height checks before you leave. That way, they know what to expect. Be ready for the cast members to check your child's height at least 2-3 times before boarding. Thus how we found each one was off slightly.
Staying at a Disney resort is well worth its price. All three hotels are within walking distance of the park (5 minutes) and give easy access to Downtown Disney's shopping and dining. Staying at one of the Disney resorts also allows all guests to get in 30 minutes before everyone else goes into the park. These 30 minutes can allow you to conquer quite a few little kid rides without lightning lanes before the lines get insane. It was also well worth not having to take a shuttle and being able to go back to the hotel when we needed a break.
If you stay at a Disney Hotel, they will also hold your luggage for you until you are ready to leave. In case you want to do some last-minute shopping in Downtown Disney or maybe a day at the park after you check out.
Car Trip Tricks
We opted to start the drive during nap time. It worked great for us because it killed a good chunk of the drive on the way down. Unfortunately, on the way back up, our regular 8-hour trip turned into nearly 12 hours with traffic. While driving can be cheaper with small children, the trip can quickly turn to hell when you're at a standstill. Andy and I both vowed we would never do that drive again and would only fly next time.
I brought back a tiny backpack full of new toys, art projects, books, and snacks she could do in the car. I had been looking over the Dollar Store, Five and Below, and Target Dollar Spot for over a month, so the bag was super low cost yet very effective. She also liked wearing the smaller backpack around the park full of snacks and her treasures.
Make sure you stop every 2-3 hours during a day trip to stretch those restless legs and 4-6 hours for night trips for food and diaper changes. It's a good idea to research places to stop in advance versus in the moment. You can mark all the spots to stop your google maps or other map apps.
If you are looking for childcare options at Disneyland, there are some fabulous companies and nannies down here that specializes in helping families with childcare while at Disneyland. It's definitely worth checking out if you have the extra budget and need the adult time!