My family spent a few days in Disneyland last weekend and had so much fun! We live in Arizona and are only a six hour drive away from Anaheim, California. We’ve been taking our daughter to Disneyland since she was only nine months old. Last weekend was the first time she was tall enough to go on the “big girl rides”. Her absolute favorite was Thunder Mountain
. Although we’ve been to Disneyland hundreds of times, we felt as if we were experiencing a whole new park because we didn’t have any ride restrictions.
|My daughter’s first time on Thunder Mountain
|She loved it!
With summer already here I definitely wanted to share my best tips for Disneyland vacations with babies and toddlers. This is a really long post packed full of great information. It’s broken down into several sections: where we stay, how we pack, surviving the road trip, Disneyland rides, nap and break, balloons, candy, Tinker Bell and the Princesses, dining, and a few more must sees. I grew up going to Disneyland every summer and my husband’s family went to Disney World often when he was a child. We still go to there a lot and as strange as it may sound to some of you, miss it the day we come home from each visit.
Growing up near Disney World, my husband wasn’t convinced that Disneyland would be any fun. He was sure because of its small size (compared to Disney World) the park would be boring. After dating for a couple of years, I finally convinced him to go for a weekend with me in July of 2004. He was hooked! By 2005 we had annual passes and were going on frequent road trips to California. Each year it made financial sense for us to renew our passes because of the many weekends we spent at the park. We didn’t renew our annual passes the year I was pregnant with our daughter. We honestly thought we would wait several years before taking her to Disneyland. I remember a conversation in which we recalled all the miserable looking parents we had seen together over the years we had been visiting Disneyland. We could probably write a book quoting all the funny things we’ve heard parents say to their children! Before having children of our own we decided it didn’t look like any fun to bring a baby or toddler to Disneyland. That decision didn’t last very long. We talked ourselves into our daughter’s first Disneyland experience when she was only nine months old.
The short trip definitely brought challenges but we had more good memories than bad from that weekend. We bought our annual tickets again and going to Disneyland quickly turned back into a regular road trip for us. By now, I definitely consider myself a professional at road tripping and going to Disneyland with a small child.
I have a long list of friends that come to me with questions about our experiences at Disneyland. Most are completely surprised when I list all the rides suitable for infants and toddlers. Most are curious about where we stay, where we eat, and our favorite activities. I really enjoy sharing our years of experience with friends. I’m always excited to hear about their successful trips too. This post shares all my best tips and information about how we survive six hours in the car to and from California with a toddler. I’ll go back to our family archive and think about how we did it when she was smaller too. I’m also going to share everything we do that helps us have really fun and non stressful days at theme parks. Planning a family vacation takes time. I hope some of the information I share from our experiences helps you!
Everything here is simply based on my own experiences and our vacation style. You may not share my opinions and your comments are welcomed. Lets make this fun for everyone!
Where do we stay?
We’ve stayed at many different hotels in the Anaheim area. Some really good, some decent, and some bad. Instead of comparing every hotel, I’ll share our short list of favorites. I’m sure each hotel has more pros and cons but I’m only including the things that stand out most to me.
Pros: Starbucks in the lobby, walking distance to Disney
Cons: expensive room service with limited options for children, standard room is a studio
Our most recent stay was her. We had a great view of Disneyland and were able to watch the fireworks from our room. We spent a few afternoons at the pool. They have a great water play area for kids. Sometimes we walk to Disneyland from here when the weather is nice.
Pros: multiple room suites are standard, complimentary cooked to order breakfast, nightly Manager’s Reception with complimentary beverages and snacks
Cons: not realistic walking distance to Disneyland
The dining area is located in the center of the hotel. The area features a large mountain lion on top of rocks with water falls. The lion moves his head and occasionally roars. My daughter was extremely amused by the lions each time we stayed at this hotel! It definitely kept her in a high chair during breakfast when she was smaller! I should also add that breakfast is wonderful here! My daughter is an extremely picky eater and this hotel is a great option to avoid purchasing a large breakfast when you’re not sure if you’re kid will eat.
Cons: not realistic walking distance to Disneyland, standard room is a studio (suites are available for higher nightly rate)
Pros: magic morning early entry (on select days guests are eligible to enter the park before it opens to the general public), all three hotels open directly to Downtown Disney or California Adventure (SHORT walk to parks), magic of Disney extends to hotels (rooms, restaurants, etc), on site character dining
Cons: $$$ (remember that you don’t have to pay for theme park parking when you can walk into the parks from your hotel – savings of $15/day), parking (long walk from your car to the hotel if you’re not using the valet), standard rooms are studios
We are big fans of all the Disney hotels! My very favorite place to stay is the Grand Californian Hotel because you can walk directly into California Adventure. I have endless nice things to say about the times we’ve spent at all three hotels. I’ll spare you all the details but I would definitely suggest checking out the sites and deciding what is important to your family when you think of planning your Disneyland vacation. Now that my daughter is older, getting on and off the tram to get to Disneyland from the parking garages isn’t such a hassle. It seemed we had so much more to carry when she was smaller (diapers, wipes, bottles, formula, baby food, etc.). Staying at the Disney hotels allows you to avoid carrying everything with you into the parks because you can easily leave and walk back to your room.
How do we pack?
Keep in mind that we’ve been doing this with our daughter for three years. Driving for six hours with her wasn’t always easy. I’m sure we were terrified the first time we attempted this. I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years! The most important thing I do is start a packing list one full week before we leave. It’s so easy to forget things when you’re packing. In the past I would generally start thinking about everything we needed and then waste time trying to remember what I was sure I wouldn’t forget! I start a word document on my desktop and each night I add to the list. I also run in and add things as they come up. Don’t leave the simple things off your list. We once had to stop to purchase pacifiers. Really, pacifiers?? How on earth could I forget such a necessity? That list will save you time and money!
We always go overboard on buying snacks and drinks before we leave. I generally have a small bag of dry snacks that I keep in front of me on the floor board while we drive. This bag typically has granola bars, some candy, jerky, goldfish, and cheerios. All these food items are out of their cardboard boxes and placed in Ziploc freezer bags to save space. I always add a stash of plastic grocery bags here to serve as trash bags while we drive. Don’t forget your sippy cups, baby spoons, plastic bowls, straws, and wipes! The bag I keep in the front with me is a great place for these items. Sounds like a giant bag but I promise it’s not. Our cold food items are on the back seat in an ice chest. We use a big rolling ice chest that later gets moved into our hotel room (see picture below). We always bring plenty of water and Gatorade. Trust me, you’ll want those to throw in the bottom of your stroller when you go into the Disney parks. Don’t waste your vacation money on bottled water! The items in our ice chest have changed drastically from the time my daughter was an infant. Obviously this will be different for all of you. I’ve recently been including baby carrots and cut celery in Ziploc bags. Cheese sticks were a big staple for my daughter on our last road trip too. Remember that most of the hotel rooms mentioned above have small refrigerators in the rooms so you can easily move all your cold items to the refrigerator during your stay and bring home the items you don’t use.
It’s silly for me to tell you what to pack. I’ll only share a couple of things I’ve found very helpful. If you’re driving, you might want to throw in an umbrella. You might not need it, but you don’t want to have to purchase one when it starts raining.
If you are bringing pacifiers, it might be a good idea to bring along a pacifier clip. I remember losing pacifiers or dropping them and not being able to get to a sink quickly enough!
Another helpful thing I’ve found is having a blanket with stroller ties. This really isn’t necessary for the summer months but as it gets colder, it’s no fun picking up a blanket that has fallen off your cold baby in the stroller! I made my own by sewing ribbons to the corners of a fleece blanket (see picture below). Super easy to make or you could look online and purchase something. You also might want to consider a hat with ties. I know my daughter never wanted anything on her head and I had a really hard time keeping her warm when we visited Disneyland in the winter. I sewed ribbons to the hat she is wearing in the picture below.
While we are on the subject of making your trip easier with babies, don’t forget a carrier! It might sound like a good idea to simply carry your child around Disneyland or let her sit in the stroller. Until she decides she hates her stroller and you are exhausted from carrying her all day! Bring a carrier!!
If you will be using a stroller, it’s a good idea to bring a bag that will fit in the bottom (in addition to your primary diaper bag). You will likely be bringing a lot of stuff into the parks and it will all end up in the bottom of your stroller for storage. Getting on and off the tram, monorail, and Disneyland train usually require you to remove all your items and fold your stroller. This is so much easier when all of your stuff is in one bag. We learned this the hard way. The first and last car on the trams allow you to bring your unfolded stroller on the tram. It’s a great option but there is usually a longer wait if there is a big crowd.
The last packing tip I have is for visiting Disneyland in the warmer months. Bring shoes suitable to play in the water. California Adventure has a great water play area for kids. Regardless of age, they must be wearing shoes at all times. Our first visit resulted in my daughter ruining her little leather shoes.
How do we survive the six hour drive?
My husband really dislikes it when I let our daughter eat in the car. Like any other baby, she thought it was hilarious to throw food everywhere. Luckily we’re past that stage. But for those of you that aren’t, consider an art bib for your road trip. In the picture below, my daughter is wearing a toddler size vinyl art bib. It has sleeves and a couple of pockets on the front. Perfect for baby food in the car! The pockets caught most of the food she dropped and the front completely covered her and avoided any big baby food spills all over clothes and the car seat. Definitely a must have!
We started using a portable DVD player with my daughter when she was pretty young. She was fascinated byHarry the Bunny
so luckily we were able to get a few good hours of silence during our drive while she was watching her video on repeat. She is now really into the Disney Princesses and will watch most Disney movies start to finish. Now that she is a little older I let her pick out the DVDs she wants to bring with us. Then when we are in the car and she requests something we don’t have, I gently remind her that she chose to leave that DVD at home. No tears and she is learning about making choices. The DVD player has been great in the car! Don’t be shy about bringing it into restaurants with you too. We have been able to enjoy quite a few dinners simply because we had the extra entertainment on our table.
Now that my daughter is able to use crayons and markers with out making a big mess I always bring a pad of paper and markers. She loves to draw and it passes a lot of time while driving.
Having a potty trained toddler has caused us to make a lot of stops! It feels like she has to pee the second we drive away from a convenience store! When you plan your trip, if you’re driving, be sure to incorporate a couple of hours for unexpected delays and stops.
The last tip I have in planning your trip is to get your kids excited about Disney rides and parades with YouTube videos. We have found a video online for almost every ride. Remember that these videos are uploaded from YouTube users so you might not see great quality videos. My daughter can tell you about every ride at Disneyland just because she has seen them all online! We’ve also found that she isn’t hesitant or scared to try most rides as she has already seen what to expect.
The Disneyland website has a very long list of attractions with out height restrictions. My daughter has been going on most of the rides in that list since her very first visit. Through our many visits she has made her own list of favorites. I’ll share some of the rides we seem to spend the most time on while we’re visiting Disneyland.
Fantasyland is where you’ll find a lot of rides suitable for infants and toddlers. The very first ride my daughter rode was Peter Pan’s Flight. She hated it! Hopefully she’ll like it someday because I remember it being one of my favorites.
Dumbo the Flying Elephant is definitely one you will want to ride!
You will find my daughter’s favorite ride at The Mad Tea Party
. She loves riding the Teacups with her daddy! I don’t like to spin so I watch from a shaded spot near the ride. She is now old enough to spin the Teacups herself and makes sure she lets my husband know when she will be taking charge of their ride.
We usually end up spending a lot of time in Mickey’s Toontown! Minnie is usually always waiting on her front steps to greet guests and take pictures. There is normally a long line but don’t let that discourage you because the line usually moves pretty quickly. Minnie’s House offers a great little area to step inside and take a quick break. My daughter loves touching everything in the house just as much now as she did when she was smaller.
Goofy’s Playhouse is a great shaded play area for small children. It’s the perfect place to get out of the stroller to run around in a safe and enclosed space.
Mickey’s house is a lot of fun to explore. Toward the end of the house tour you can choose to either exit back into Toontown or wait in line to meet Mickey. I agree that spending some time with Mickey is definitely important if this is your first visit to Disneyland or don’t get to visit that often. With that being said, the line is usually always very long to see Mickey at his house. Instead we usually wait in the shorter lines at the park’s entrance to see the characters. Mickey is usually always waiting to greet guests in the morning. My daughter doesn’t know the difference and we are happier with the shorter wait times.
You’ll find The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
in Critter Country
. The ride is fun and afterwards you can stop nearby for pictures with the characters!
The Disneyland site allows you to search for rides by the height requirement. There is only one ride with a 32″ requirement – Autopia. My daughter had fun the first time she rode the ride as the passenger between my husband and I. Our next visit to Disneyland she insisted on driving the car while I sat next to her. I let her steer and used my foot to push the gas pedal. She was initially excited but then wasn’t able to control the car and we were bouncing off the rails on the track. Since then she has had no desire to ride again. Oops.
The next height requirement category is 35″ and only has two rides – Gadget’s Go Coaster and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The coaster is located in Toontown and my daughter loves it! She was familiar with the ride because she watched a video online before she was ever tall enough to ride. Unfortunately the line is sometimes long. The Bobsleds are known to my daughter as the “Yeti Ride.” She asks to ride it and then closes her eyes from start to finish. I would recommend riding it with your adventurous toddlers!
As I previously mentioned, YouTube has an extensive library of Disneyland ride videos. Watching the videos prior to your vacation is a great way to get your toddler familiar with the rides. My daughter knows what to expect before she ever tries a new ride and is typically not scared.
Nap and Break Time
The excitement of Disney with children definitely wears you out. If you are staying at one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels
, you have the convenience of simply returning to your room for a quick break during nap times. But if you’re staying somewhere else, taking the tram back to your car and then driving to your hotel with a sleeping child might not be ideal. I know each time we tried to go back to our hotel after our daughter had fallen asleep, she was wide awake by the time we arrived back in our room. We now have a few preferred locations we go to when she gets sleepy if we don’t want to leave the parks.
The Enchanted Tiki Room
is a nice place to sit and cool off or stay out of the rain. There is noise but never enough to wake up my daughter while she was napping. You are able to sit while you wait for the doors to open before each show. The show room is dark and temperature controlled. Be sure to sit on the exit side at the end of a row in case your little one wakes up and you need to leave before the show ends.
If you are looking for a more permanent place to sit for a couple of hours, try the Rancho del Zocalo Restaurant
in Disneyland. I love Mexican food and I will be honest, I’m not in love with the food here. But it offers a great shaded place to sit while you let your infant or toddler sleep in the stroller. We usually have a light blanket with us to put over the stroller while my daughter naps. Occasionally we have sat next to very noisy guests and this didn’t work out for my daughter’s nap. But for the most part we have always been able to find seating in an isolated corner where we could chat and my daughter could rest up for more fun.
There are plenty of rides with short wait times but we have found The Pirates of the Caribbean
to be our best option consistently when we are looking for a good ride with a short line.
Disney’s FASTPASS Service
is complimentary to all guests and allows you to get a pass to return to rides at designated times and avoid long lines. I would suggest looking online and determining which rides you plan to FASTPASS before running around the park with out a plan.
I added Mouse Wait
, a great app, to my iPhone before our last visit to Disneyland. We love it! It’s a free app that covers Disneyland, California Adventure, and Downtown Disney. It shows you updated and accurate wait times for nearly all of the attractions. In addition to the most accurate wait times, you have other wonderful resources available including a list of attractions by height and where to find important things like first aid and phone charging stations. I also recently read their Top 10 Disneyland Tips. I suggest you go and do that too. You can also check out their blog
for interesting Disney related tips and information.
Disneyland has several ATMs but I would strongly suggest having cash on hand before you enter the park. This might seem silly until you see hundreds of kids carrying balloons and your child starts begging for one too. There are so many different types to choose from so make sure you make a good choice the first time. While looking through our pictures from the past couple of years I was amazed to discover just how many different balloons we’ve purchased at Disneyland.
A couple of years ago my daughter was sitting in her stroller happily gazing at her balloon when an older kid ran up to us, punched her balloon, and then ran off as the balloon flew away. Really, that happened to us. I remember my husband and I standing there in complete disbelief. Who would let their kid behave like that and not even offer to replace my cute daughter’s balloon? As we were walking away, an employee stopped us and shared information everyone should be told upon purchasing a balloon. The balloons are meant to last at least one full week. If you are at the park and your balloon is “dying,” simply take it back to a balloon vendor and they will replace it for free. Secondly, if your balloon pops or comes untied from the string, bring your string to a balloon vendor and they will replace your balloon for free. Good to know!
You will also probably notice all the kids with giant Disney suckers as you walk around the park. If you don’t, your sugar loving toddler definitely will! We caved in a few times and bought one for my daughter.
We have found that it’s much better to buy a package containing a few small lollipops instead of buying a giant sucker. Common sense will tell you a lollipop that big is going to have your small child bouncing off the walls for days. What were we thinking?
Tinker Bell and the Princesses
If you have a little girl that loves Tinker Bell and the Disney Princesses, expect to wait in really long lines! Or just be smart about when you choose to visit them.
The Disney Princess Fantasy Faire
is where you will get to spend some time with a few princesses and have your picture taken. There is a long list of potential princesses that will be present but only three Disney Princesses are guaranteed to be present when you get your turn to walk the greeting pathway. Be sure you set appropriate expectations! Instead of asking your daughter if she wants to meet Cinderella, simply ask her if she wants to meet princesses. Trust me, this will go over much better if Cinderella isn’t there!
I have never seen either of these attractions with short wait times as we’ve strolled by. The best advice I have is to go here immediately when the park opens to hopefully avoid an incredibly long wait time (seriously, sometimes the wait for the princesses is hours).
If you are staying at Disneyland Resort Hotels
and have magic morning early entry, be sure to make it over to these attractions at least 15 minutes prior to the park opening to the general public. The attractions open at that time and usually a huge crowd forms before you can even start to get in line!
We usually don’t eat meals in the park because my daughter is extremely picky and we don’t want to spend our vacation fund on pricey food she won’t eat. Don’t be shy about bringing your own snacks into the park. I’ve seen plenty of families eating from lunch bags on park benches! Most times we end up stopping somewhere in Downtown Disney to eat dinner. Our favorite restaurant there with our daughter is The Rainforest Cafe
. Unfortunately there is usually a very long wait around dinner time. You can’t call ahead to make reservations so you end up having to wait. The other con is that there is no guarantee you will be seated next to the aquariums or moving animals. We recently discovered something that will make every experience there so much better! For only $10, you can become a member of the restaurant’s Safari Club
. As a member you will receive 10% off entrees or a free appetizer EVERY time you visit. You also receive priority seating. No more long wait times! Best $10 we ever spent last month! We were told our table would be ready in approximately 45 minutes. We joined the club on site and were called to our table in less than 10 minutes! Additionally, we were seated directly in front of a large aquarium! If you plan to eat here, join the club!
Character dining is something we don’t do often but definitely enjoy! Check out all the options here
A Few More Must Sees
Don’t forget about the Disney parades! Watching a parade here is the best way to see all your favorite characters! You typically have to arrive incredibly early to find decent seats. Sometimes there are opportunities to take tours that will give you premium seats for the parades. A few years ago we went on the holiday walking tour and then sat in the front row where the parade started with complimentary fudge and hot chocolate. It was an awesome experience!
You have to see the Disneyland fireworks! There are a few ways to view them. You can sit on the ground close to an hour before the show starts in front of the castle for the best view. We have done this a few times and it was absolutely worth the wait. We bought corn dogs and popcorn before we sat down. My daughter loved seeing Tinker Bell and Dumbo fly over the castle!
You can see fireworks and hear the music at most locations in the park but you won’t be able to see Tinker Bell or Dumbo. We normally sit directly in front of the Small World ride for a pretty decent view. Currently the fireworks show has lights that dance on the front of Small World ride.
The last, and in my opinion, most important tip I have is have cash when you enter the parking structure! You don’t want to be the family with the big “no parking” sticker under your windshield wiper as you follow the turn around route out of the structure (yes, we’ve experienced that). The only form of payment accepted in the parking structure is cash.
Before your first visit you should absolutely explore the Disneyland website
. You will have a much more enjoyable visit if you know what to expect and plan accordingly!