Disneyland with Toddlers

How to Do Disneyland with Toddlers

Our family took our first trip to Disneyland last week! Growing up in southern California (technically),  we have both been to Disneyland dozens of times. As a college student in Orange County, Disneyland was practically an after school activity. I bought my first pass in October of my freshman year at UCI and loved going whenever we had the time. So, of course, I was very excited to introduce the magic of the Magic Kingdom to my own little ones. Doing Disneyland with toddlers is challenging, but also delightfully enchanting.


How old should kids be?

We went a week before Reagan turned 4 and Noah is 2. I wanted to make sure that we went this year while Noah is still free. And when Disneyland says children 2 and under are “free,” they actually mean it! He entered the park free and ate for free (even premium character meals with special dietary restrictions!). The only thing that wasn’t free for him was souvenirs.

Were they too young?

No, not at all. While it is true that Noah probably will not remember this particular trip, he still enjoyed a lot of things and got a lot out of it. It wouldn’t matter where we went on vacation this year, he probably would not remember it, and at least he was free at Disney. Reagan probably will remember at least some of this trip. I have a couple clear memories of going to Disneyland when I was 4.

Noah . . . was a little bit of a handful. He did not like waiting in lines or waiting for a turn at anything. He is two after all. So, there were a few times when a  hot and sweaty mom was trying to man a handle hot and sweaty little boy, to keep him from running away. You know those kid leashes that were popular about 15 years ago . . . do they still make them?

Our Schedule for Disneyland with Toddlers

Theme parks are tiring and I did not want to go overboard. I also did not want to pay extra for park hopper tickets (this was a mistake – I’ll get to why you NEED park hopper tickets). We drove down on Sunday afternoon and checked into our hotel. We did not stay in a Disneyland hotel because, well, we couldn’t afford to. If you can, I highly recommend staying in one of the three on site resorts. If you can’t, that’s fine, there are a ton of places nearby. Since I am familiar with Orange County, the freeways and getting around, we actually stayed in Buena Park across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm and next door to Medieval Times.

We went to Disneyland on Monday. Tuesday, we took a break from theme park stuff and went to the beach for the day. I chose Corona Del Mar because the waves never get too big there, it’s a little more secluded and my favorite beach from my college days.  In the evening, we went to Medieval Times. I had not planned that in advance, but the kids were begging to go inside the castle. Wednesday, we headed back down the road to Disney, but we went to Disney’s California Adventure instead of Disneyland itself.

I enjoyed this schedule because it gave us a bit of a break from crowds and lines. We were able to take a day to relax and I will say that our Wednesday was a far more enjoyable day. I think some of the reason for that was that we were well rested.

Character Experiences at Disneyland with Toddlers

With kids this small, we were not going to be getting on most of the big rides. What enchanted my kids the most was seeing their favorite characters in real life. We spent the majority of our time, meeting characters and watching shows. Right inside the gate, we met Pluto, our first character of the day. We made our way to the castle where we met Aurora. The Evil Queen from Snow White was also by the castle, but Reagan refused to meet any of the villains that were out and about.

Next we went to the Fantasy Faire Royal Hall. This was a great first stop because we got to meet three princesses in a one on one environment and IT WAS INSIDE! There was a short line, we waited about 15 minutes to get inside and we met Belle, Cinderella, Snow White. Each princess really took their time talking to the kids, this was not a take a picture quickly and move on kind of experience. All in all, I would say each princess gave the kids about five minutes of time, which is plenty.

Similarly, at Pixie Hollow, we were able to have one on one time with the fairies. We were able to meet Fawn and Tinkerbell. Both of my kids have been obsessed with the Disney Fairy movies recently, so this was a big deal to them. I really appreciate that Disney trains their staff to make each kid feel special. With hundreds of kids waiting in the heat to meet their favorites, it would be easy to rush everyone through, but they still make sure to take their time and connect with each child. I though Tinkerbell was ready to take Noah home. The characters also have a knack for engaging the kids in way that provides great pictures.

We met Anna and Elsa in California Adventure with another personal meet and greet. Reagan was dressed as Anna that day and naturally ended up talking to her well Elsa cuddled Noah. This is also where we discovered the  Animation Studio. This room is magical and the best reason to get a park hopper ticket. It is huge with giant screens all around the room. Even better than that, it is cool, dark, and has comfy couches. It was the perfect place to rest in the middle of the day and even take a little nap. Instead of lasting until a meltdown at 5:30, we made it all the way until 9:00 at California Adventure and only left because the kids were quickly falling asleep. When we decide to come back, we will a) get a park hopper ticket in order to make use of this room and b) probably stay at an onsite or across the street hotel within walking distance.

Rides at Disneyland with Toddlers

As far as rides, our kids really enjoyed that Grand Carousel, the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Carribean and the Railroad. At California Adventure, we went on Mickey’s Fun Wheel, Flik’s Flyers and the bumper cars. We went on a few more, but actually skipped the long lines at most of the Fantasy Land rides. Like I said, rides were not our priority on this trip. We did go to Toon Town and let the kids explore the houses. We didn’t get over to this part of the park until around 4:00, at which point we were all very tired and a little cranky. Shows were almost as big a hit with our kids as character experiences. We saw two different Frozen shows (one in Disneyland, one in California Adventure) and the Disney Jr. show in California Adventure. All of which were engaging for the kids and had just enough humor to make it fun for the adults as well.

What We Packed for a Day at Disneyland with Toddlers

Contrary to popular belief, Disneyland will let you bring in your own food and drinks. I brought plenty of snacks, bottles of water and some capri suns for when we were just walking around or needed a break. We still planned to eat most of our meals in the park, so believe me, Disney still got a good chunk of money for feeding us. Also, since my kids need a special medical formula, I brought a can of that and bottles of water to mix it up to make sure they were getting what they needed for the day. You can also leave items in the lockers just outside the park, but if you need a big locker for a small cooler, plan on getting there very early. We lost our cooler because I couldn’t get it into a locker.

We took an umbrella stroller for each child. Reagan walked the majority of the time, but when we wanted to get somewhere quicker than four year old legs could walk or she got tired, it was great to have the option. You can rent strollers there, but that’s an added cost and they all look the same. You cannot take strollers into most of the lines. You will need to park them next to the attraction in the designated stroller parking areas. I wanted something that was light, didn’t take up much space in our car and was easy to spot in a crowd of strollers. These fit the bill.

Another item that was invaluable was a giant pen. Since we spent most of our time meeting characters and having them sign autograph books (we made our own with dollar store supplies), having a large pen that was easy to find in my bag and easy for the characters to hold was a must.

Eating at Disneyland with Toddlers

So, our family has a unique problem when we travel. My children have PKU and the treatment is a special, low-protein diet. That means: no meat, no dairy, very limited grains, very limited high protein vegetables and . . . well, let’s just say that it’s hard to feed them on the go. At home, we order special low-protein foods, but when we travel, it’s a little more complicated.

Here is the amazing thing about Disneyland: they REALLY want to take care of their guests. Before we left, I found out that they actually stock LOW-PROTEIN foods at several of their restaurants specifically for guests with PKU. I emailed guest services before our vacation and let them know that our children had special dietary needs. We scheduled two character dining experiences, both of which were able to accommodate us.

We had breakfast at the Disneyland Hotel at “Goofy’s Kitchen.” With all you can eat buffets, I didn’t even get to try half the things I wanted to because I just couldn’t eat that much. All the classic characters came around during breakfast, signed autographs, and danced with the kids. The best thing about character dining is that they will come to you. You don’t have to wait in lines, you just enjoy your meal and the characters make their rounds. Here, the chef (the real one, not Goofy) came and checked on us and made sure that they were making the right thing for the kids. They made Cambrooke’s pancakes (mickey ear shaped of course), and for once, my kids were able to eat out with us without worrying about only being able to eat one thing.

For lunch, we did the princess lunch at Ariel’s Grotto. It is a similar concept: you enjoy your lunch next to the beautiful lake in California Adventure and the princesses come around to your table and talk with you. Here they had a low-protein pasta available for the kids. Since spaghetti is their favorite, this went over perfectly. The character meals seem expensive, but they are only slightly more expensive than other dining options in the park and the value is much, much more. I will do it again every time we go, until the kids are too old for characters.

The meals we did not have scheduled were a little bit trickier. In those cases, we had to look carefully at the menu and options. Since toddlers don’t eat much, if you can get away with feeding them off your plate, that could be a way to go. Another option is to find places that sell small portions of fruit or sides of french fries individually. Or just let them eat cake. Just kidding. Maybe.



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