The Best Way to Tackle Disneyland With Small Kids Isn’t What You Think

The dominant theme park strategy is to do and see as much as possible in a day. We offer a better (and saner) way.

The Best Way to Tackle Disneyland With Small Kids Isn’t What You Think

When you’re with small kids, use the Disneyland Railroad as both a ride and convenient transportation.

Photo by Scott Brinegar/Disneyland

Having grown up in Southern California, I have been to the Disneyland Resort countless times, including more recently as a mother of a toddler and an infant, and as an aunt to my two young nephews. And I have learned that there is actually a way to retain your sanity when taking the little ones to Disneyland.

Even if you have been numerous times, you might do a bit of online research before heading to the parks. Yet what I often find is a lot of advice on how to go on as many rides as possible and see as many parades and live shows and squeeze as much as you can into one day.

But, here’s the thing—babies and toddlers don’t know all the things there are to see and do. That became starkly apparent to me on my latest trip to Disneyland with my two-year-old son, who had already been three times before. We had been hyping it up in the days leading up to our visit, thinking he surely had some sense of what it meant. Excitement was definitely building, we told ourselves.

On the way to the park, we stopped to get doughnuts and as we pulled into the doughnut shop parking lot, he asked, “Is this Disneyland?” From that point on, we took the day, which included bringing along his three-month-old sister, very slow—because Disneyland was a doughnut shop for all he knew.

We went on three rides the entire day. We saw one show. The kids napped in the Grand Californian hotel lobby, and we stopped at two play areas where my son could run around and burn off that toddler energy.

The Disneyland Resort is no small expense these days and people come from far and wide to experience the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks, so they want to get the most bang for their buck. But with small kids, if you manage your expectations and slow things down, you may actually avoid meltdowns and have an enjoyable, not totally exhausting day and go home with some wonderful memories and photos to show for it.

Here are some tips on how to make that happen:

Try to go as early as possible

Little kids often wake up early and crash early. This isn’t the case for everyone, but if you have some early risers, take advantage to beat the crowds and the heat and get to the parks early. This will also help you get a parking spot closer to the actual parks (for anyone who hasn’t experienced the parking, you basically get funneled to wherever parking is available), which you will be thankful for at the end of the day.

Pack light, pack smart, bring a stroller

Even if you have a toddler that has long since shunned the stroller, such as our guy, bring or rent a stroller (and make sure you’re up to date on the parks’ stroller policies as they have recently changed—they no longer allow side-by-side double strollers or wagons). There is endless walking and let’s face it, the stroller also doubles as a rolling cart that can lug a lot of your gear.

We like to keep said gear tight and practical, including diapering essentials, sunscreen, hats, layers for those cooler SoCal nights, and my little trick that I learned from a friend—we toss in pajamas, which we change the kiddos into right before we leave so that we can easily transfer them from stroller to car to bed when they inevitably conk out on the way back. I bring snacks and refillable water bottles, but I like to eat meals at the parks because that’s part of the fun. When we have a non-walking kid (aka a baby), we also like to bring a carrier such as the Ergo for using on rides and for what we call “Ergo naps.”

Set aside adequate time for resting, feeding, and naps

A big part of the go-slow approach revolves around the sheer amount of breaks you need to take with babies and toddlers for feedings, naps, diaper changes, and more feedings, naps, and diaper changes. With two small kids (or more), if one doesn’t need something, the other one does. We are adamant about making sure our kids still nap—and nap well—when we are at the parks. For this, we have a bit of a hack: We put them in the stroller or baby carrier like everyone does, but then we head to one of the hotel lobbies to take a load off in a comfortable indoor environment (Disney’s Grand Californian is my hotel of choice). This hotel lobby nap (we either leave the kids in the stroller or let them nap on us) breathes new life into everyone, including us tired parents, who get time to just sit and read or look at our photos.

Those with babies should also embrace the decked-out baby care centers—there’s one right behind the Main Street Photo Supply Co. store in Disneyland; in Disney California Adventure, there’s one next to the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and another across from The Bakery Tour in Pacific Wharf. They are air-conditioned, have comfy nursing chairs and large changing tables, and sell a bunch of baby essentials.

Choose a few rides

Before we head to the parks with the munchkins, we identify just two or three rides that we would really like to get on. That’s it—two or three. Maybe one or two tried and true (such as It’s a Small World and Jungle Cruise) that we know won’t freak anyone out, and maybe a new one to see where the kids are at with their courage. Anything in addition to this is icing on the cake. The Disneyland Railroad train is a great “added bonus” ride that serves as a way to get into or out of Disneyland (be warned that you will need to get your stroller on and fold it up). And the same goes for the Red Car Trolley at Disney California Adventure.

It’s a Small World is a classic little kid crowd-pleaser.

It’s a Small World is a classic little kid crowd-pleaser.

Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

Others the young ones seem to love include The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, King Arthur Carousel, and Peter Pan’s Flight in Disneyland. At Disney California Adventure, we like The Little Mermaid Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Luigi’s Rollickin Roadsters, Monster’s Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!, and Jessie’s Critter Carousel.

Rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree that we thought were shoo-ins for smaller kids, we have learned require a bit of building up their confidence. (Every kid is different so feel free to test out different rides, but know that sometimes, even with the best intentions, you may end up with a sobbing kiddo on your hands—nothing an oversized lollipop or light-up souvenir can’t fix.)

Jungle Cruise is a perennial favorite with (or without) small kids.

Jungle Cruise is a perennial favorite with (or without) small kids.

Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Use your baby to skip the line

OK, so there’s no real way to skip the line entirely. But if you have a smaller child who can’t go on all of the rides forcing one adult to wait with said child, some rides offer what is called a rider switch option whereby only one set in the party has to wait in line. The waiting parent can then bypass the line when switching places with the parent who went on. The waiting parent can either go on alone or with up to two other people and provides his or her rider switch pass upon entry. (Note: You can also use the rider switch option together with the FastPass option, so you can all show up and get FastPasses, use the FastPass entry at the allotted time, and then switch after the ride.)

Play areas are key

Toddlers need to move. So, while Disneyland is known for its fun rides, it’s important to build in time for running around when you’re with small kids. My absolute favorite for this is the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at Disney California Adventure. It’s actually a massive obstacle course–like playground with several different areas suitable across ages and abilities. Another great one is Goofy’s Playhouse in Mickey’s Toontown. And a third option is exploring Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, which has the added allure of getting to ride the raft boat across Rivers of America to get there and back.

Embrace the less-popular treasures

Crowds and long lines don’t mix well with small kids. This is a fine time to embrace a lot of the parks’ hidden gems that many people bypass for the blockbuster attractions. Check out historical artifacts in the shops on Main Street, take a leisurely ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat, or play games on the Pixar Pier boardwalk. It’s all magical to little tykes.

The little ones will delight in a ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat.

The little ones will delight in a ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat.

Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

Live music is your friend

Little kids are so unabashedly cheesy. Their lack of inhibition when it comes to something like live music—and dancing to it—is something every parent of babies and toddlers can enjoy. Since it’s not easy to ask small kids to wait for a long time for the big parades (sometimes we just try to glimpse these whenever we can), instead we opt for the smaller live performances that take place all around the parks. Our kids love these. For some serious dancing adorableness, head to the Disney Junior Dance Party, which takes place a few set times each day in a studio building in Disney California Adventure’s Hollywood Land—miniature people grooving is the cutest thing ever. And we also love Mickey and the Magical Map at the Fantasyland Theater in Disneyland where everyone can sit back and relax while enjoying songs from some of our favorite Disney stories.

Where to eat

Meals are another chance for everyone to rest and recuperate. There are a few places we like to eat with the little kids with great seating and decent choices, and we make sure we have something fun to do during the meal, like an activity book, to help keep kids in their chairs (the Disneyland fold-up maps work great for this too). For seating, we love the Hungry Bear restaurant in Critter Country. There’s something really relaxing about sitting in the shade along the Rivers of America banks, watching the steamboat roll on by. It’s kind of standard casual lunch and dinner fare such as burgers and chicken nuggets, but there’s also a decent crispy fish sandwich and a barbecued chicken salad on the menu.

Another go-to with the kids is Rancho del Zocolo, the Mexican restaurant in Disneyland’s Frontierland, to break up the monotony of standard theme park food. The space is cute and festive, and the kids’ menu features a bean and cheese burrito and chicken tacos with healthy sides.

At Disney California Adventure, we will either hit the Smokejumpers Grill because there is plenty of space and a burger always goes over well, or we’ll grab a bunch of different things on Pixar Pier from stands like Angry Dogs and Poultry Palace and sit in Pacific Wharf, where parents can get a well-earned beer from Pacific Wharf Distribution Co.

Of course, there are a lot of snacks and treats on offer. The fruit stands are the best for healthy, refreshing options on hot days (we love the mango slices and, oddly, the giant pickles). Our favorite ice cream pit stop is The Golden Horseshoe in Disneyland; if you’re lucky and time it right, you will get to eat your sundae while watching a sweet and hilarious saloon musical show—another one the littles love.

Also, embrace the option to order food online through the Disneyland app to minimize wait times. Hangry-ness and waiting don’t mix well for people of all ages, but toddlers seem to cope worse than others.

Remember why you came

I don’t know for sure why you decided on a trip to Disneyland, but I’m going to guess it was to spend time together as a family and hopefully have a ton of fun. When you step into the park, take a deep breath, and try to remember that throughout the day, including during the potentially more trying moments when family members are getting tired or hungry. When you hit a challenging snag in the plans, embrace the Frozen mantra and try to “let it go.” It’s Disneyland, folks; there are way worse ways to be spending your day.

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Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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