Planning a trip to the happiest place on earth can be a daunting task; especially for first time visits. We took a trip this Spring when our Little Wonder was around 2.5; what motivated us to take this trip when he was this young is that kids before 3 are FREE! Free park admission, and they often can eat free off parents plates in many dining packages—which saved a lot of money.
As a planner by nature and profession I did an extensive amount of research online and amongst my Disney obsessed friends before the trip and I am so glad I did. It really helped prepare us for the trip and prioritize what was important, which lead to a pretty stress free happy time at the park. Here are some of my top tips I learned from my experience that helped make our Disney Adventure a truly magical trip.
PLANNING THE TRIP—TIMING, TICKETS & HOTEL
No matter when you decide to go to the park, it will be busy so you need to have a solid strategy around timing for your visit. Weekdays are always better than weekends, with Mon-Wed being the least crowded days. In regards to time of year, prior to spring break and before the holidays are lowest peak seasons. Looking to the rest of 2017, here are some of the non-peak times to consider:
Weekdays in May
Mondays through Thursdays the last two weeks of August
The first half of September (except the days of Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend through Labor Day, Aug 31-Sept. 4, 2017); Mondays through Thursdays for the remainder of September and October
Mondays through Thursdays in November (minus the weekend of Avengers Super Hero Half-Marathon Nov. 10-13, 2017, and the week of Thanksgiving)
Mondays through Thursdays during the first half of December
Undercover tourists has a great compilation of best/worst times to visit the park as well as a crowd calendar.
As for your length of time at the park, that really depends on your objectives for the visit and if you want to do both Disneyland and California Adventure. Knowing that we would have to take a lot of breaks and leave early, we wanted to maximize our time and options and opted for the Three Day Park Hopper Ticket. This allowed us to go to both parks, and gave us just enough time to get to our must-see’s on the trip. Whatever option you decide buy your tickets online before you go and research prices; we found the best price options on Getaway Today which was a highly recommended site from several Disney pro friends.
If it is within your budget to stay in one of the 3 hotels on the Disney Property—Paradise Pier, Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian—DO IT! We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and it really did make the trip that much more magical, and made life a lot easier when taking breaks. Plus the pools are fantastic, and so necessary if you go during the summer.
Paradise Pier is the more budget friendly option, where the Grand Californian is the newest/most expensive but also closest to the park and includes a private entrance into California Adventure. We stayed at the Disneyland hotel and loved it. Upon check-in we got our first character encounter in the Lobby meeting Goofy, and our little guy was obsessed with Castle headboard in the rooms that had lights and plays "When You Wish Upon a Star." The Disneyland Hotel is also very roomy, we fit three adults one toddler with tons of room to spare! Beyond the close proximity to the park, staying at the Disney properties gives you other perks like priority dining reservations, 1 hour early entrance to the park with magic mornings and extra magic hours.
Disney also has affiliation with over 40 Good Neighbor hotels, where depending on your length of stay can give you access to perks such as magic mornings. My biggest piece of advice for staying at a Good Neighbor hotel is to factor in the extra time (30-45 mins) it takes to get to/from park (either walking or parking/tram ride to park) into your schedule. For us, since we are not frequent Disneyland visitors it was worth the splurge to stay on a park property to have the whole magical experience and save time/have added proximity convenience.
CHARACTER / EVENT DINING and PLANNING YOUR DAYS AT THE PARK
Once you have your timing and accommodations booked the next thing to tackle is planning your days and securing dining reservations.
The #1 tip I can give to having a truly magical Disney experience is do the character dining or any meal/show bundle you can. Not only is it super fun, but it saves you so much time in the park as you get quality time with the characters for pictures and autographs and it really just immerses you in the Disney experience. Many of the character dining experiences are at the resort hotels, but you do not have to be a hotel guest to make a reservation. Reservations can be made 60 days in advance and go fast, so make sure to book in advance. My top character dining reco’s would be the Surf’s Up Breakfast at Paradise Pier (only character dining guaranteed to have Mickey) and dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen. The topic of character dining can be a whole blog post of its own—Disneyland Park Daily has a great guide to all the character dining options, highly recommend checking out as you make your reservations.
Disney also offers several meal/event bundles for popular attractions like the World of Color, Frozen the Musical and the Electrical Parade. While some can be quite pricey they are wonderful options of getting a nice meal and saving time waiting in lines for attractions. For example, we did the Frozen lunch bundle, which gave us priority seating in first ten rows and no line—which saved us about 2 hours (avg. wait time for Frozen show). Prioritize what show attractions are important to you, investigate your options and make your reservations early if interested. Disneyland Daily has a fantastic review of all the various Event/Dining Bundles, highly recommend reading before making your reservations.
Once you have dining reservations made, it is a good idea to make some general daily plans of how to structure your day. Even with a 3 day park hopper, it is impossible to see everything in both parks. Long lines, tired toddlers, and general exhaustion prevent this from happening so it is really helpful to prioritize you must-do attractions and things you would like to see but would be okay missing if you don’t get to it. To get started you can review interactive park maps online, and you can even preview most rides by searching for videos of them on YouTube. Some other park tips to factor in to your visit:
Download the Disneyland Park App, it is amazing and gives you estimates on ride wait times, location of characters, and you can manage all your reservations through the app.
Visit Magic Kingdom Mamas, and follow them on Instagram. These moms are adorable season pass holders that are at Disneyland 3x+ per week and offer the best advice for navigating the park with little ones, and have extensive reviews on every ride/attraction.
Bring a stroller and your best walking shoes, you will need it as the walking is intense (average 12 miles a day on my fitness tracker) and it is helpful for impromptu naps, shade for your little one, and a general carrier of all your stuff.
Pack water and snacks to bring to the park. Disneyland food is delicious (and extremely allergy friendly, they accommodate every allergy) but expensive. Disney has no restrictions on bringing in your own food so pack as much as you can, with the amount of walking and time at the park you will need it!
On main street there is an infant center where you can buy/change diapers, heat up food, have a private place to nurse, etc. All bathrooms are extremely friendly for baby changes but it is nice they have this center if you want a little more privacy.
Lastly, when planning out your day you need to factor in your must see attractions and rides. Lines can be long and sometimes you can only get 1-3 rides done in a 3 hour period; so having a strategy of knowing what you want to see is very helpful. Disneyland Daily offers the best overview of Fast Pass (reserved ride time, no line), Ride Swap, and Single Rider Lines; which was the most helpful resource for me when planning our strategy. The only ride for Toddlers the Fast Pass helps with is Toy Story, the other ones they are too small for but can be useful if you plan to ride some adult rides without your little one. We were lucky that our little one was obsessed with the rides and had no fear, he really liked them all. Here are my top picks for rides and attractions based on our experience with our 2.5 year old.
Disneyland (Lands in order of favorite areas for my toddler)
Toontown—Everything here is perfect for toddlers, lots of play grounds to explore and they can visit Mickey and Minnie in their houses. Best time to see them is getting to Toontown right when it opens (1 hour later than rest of the park) and going to their houses first.
Fantasyland—Casey JR Train, Storybook Canal boats, Small World, Teacups, Dumbo
Tomorrowland—Astro Orbitor, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Finding Nemo, Autopia (driving cars)
Critter Country—Winnie the Pooh
Adventure land—Jungle Cruise
Frontier land—Fun to walk around but not much for Toddlers to do.
New Orleans Square—Pirates was closed when we were there, I am not sure if it would be toddler appropriate.
California Adventure (Lands in order of favorite areas for my toddler)
Cars Land—Most popular area, so good to go to first or during magic hour. Toddlers are not tall enough for the Radiator Spring Racers ride, but can go on Mater's Junkyard (basically teacups in a truck) which my son loved.
Hollywood Land—See the Disney JR show, it is 30 mins and is an interactive live action show with characters from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia the First, and Doc Mc Stuffins. Lots of fun! This is where the Frozen show is as well as lots of characters, including Marvel superheroes.
Bugsland—Pretty much every ride here is toddler appropriate and this is one of the most fun areas in both parks for Toddlers. My son absolutely loved it.
Paradise Pier—Toy story, Mickey’s Ferris Wheel, Little Mermaid. This is also where you will find Buzz and Woody from Toy Story.
For our trip we decided to spend two days at Disneyland and one day at CA adventure, which was perfect. We got to see all our must see attractions and shows, and left completely happy and exhausted. While planning the trip was a lot of work, I can honestly say it was the trip of a lifetime. Seeing our guy light up and have so much fun created memories for a lifetime that we will cherish forever. I hope you find these tips helpful, and good luck planning your family adventure!
-- Crystal Adams (Friday PM class)