We took Hudson to Disneyland for the very first time this past Sunday. I thought we would hold out until he was four or five–or at least asking to go–but I realized recently that I wanted the experience of seeing his reaction to it all, having not yet really been exposed to anything Disney.
I grew up in Long Beach, just 12 miles from Disneyland, so it was a familiar (and fond) part of my childhood. And over the holidays, looking through old photo albums and seeing myself there as a toddler made me start thinking about how I was looking forward to being on the other side.
Here, with more than a few favorite family photos, are the top tips we came away with for visiting the park with a toddler (Hudson is 1-1/2, so I’m sure there are different tips to be gleaned for older children)…
Get there early. Even on a super-crowded day on President’s weekend, it mattered: the crowds really descended around noon.
Lower expectations about how much you can see or do. I had a few things on my wish list: I wanted Hudson to meet a character or two, ride Dumbo, get his own personalized mouse ears, and sit for a silhouette. And we had some preconceived notions of where to head (e.g. Storybookland, Casey Jr., Disney railroad, Tom Sawyer’s Island aka Pirate’s Lair, Autopia, the Tiki Room, etc.) Other than that, we were content to follow our toddler’s lead and skip the big rides this time. Everything was exciting to him–from the horses on Main street to the ducks hanging out around the castle–his excitement was enough.
Announce change when a ride ends. It may not be a magic trick for everyone, but it has worked wonders for us to have Hudson say “goodbye” to things (in all kinds of situations, actually). When something ends, when it’s time to leave a toy, etc., we say goodbye–or “all done.” I really think it gives him a moment to take control of the situation and handle transitions better. He did cry when Dumbo landed, but then we paused and waved goodbye to all of the elephants, blew kisses, and moved on. I’m amazed at how this changes his ability to do so. I loved how he kissed and hugged the horses on the carousel goodbye, above. Sort of gross–but so sweet.
Decide how you’ll handle nap time and lunch time before it’s upon you. Will you leave the park? Sit at a restaurant? We all sat for lunch and then had Hudson nap in his stroller; we used the time to walk through the park, back through downtown Disney, and back to the parking garage to get jackets and such for the evening.
(BTW: You can rent a stroller. Not really using one anymore? Hesitant to pack one but worried about walking all day? Disney rents strollers for $15/day and they looked like really nice, Disney-colored versions of the City Mini.)
Bring some snacks and a thermos–or even an entire lunch. (Along with diapers and sunscreen and those usual amenities toddlers require.)
Use the baby care center if needed. The Baby Care Center is located at the end of Main Street on the right (past the Corn Dog Cart). They have comfy chairs, changing tables, mini potties for potty-training tots, and helpful staff. You can also purchase diapers, formula, pacifiers, etc.
Take turns in line. The Disney cast-members are super friendly and accommodating. Don’t be afraid to ask if you and your toddler can come in through the exit once your partner gets to the front of the line. They don’t usually mind. Hudson and I went on Casey Jr. a second time while Aron braved the line for Dumbo.
There’s a reason why there’s never much of a line to ride Pinocchio in Fantasyland: it’s really dark and scary!
Walk from the parking garage. It’s a long walk, but it’s a pleasant one, and it means you don’t have to fold up your stroller to fit onto the tram.
We were able to get a table for dinner behind the parade route–just past the Penny Arcade–and then slip under the rope as soon as the parade began. We could have also stayed at our table. It was a comfortable way to watch the 6:30 parade and what turned out to be a highlight.
Use the park website. It will tell you about which rides are closed (sadly, It’s a Small World was being refurbished during our visit), height restrictions, dining reservations, hours, typical weather, events, how to use a Fast Pass, etc., and it was helpful in planning our day. I especially appreciated their tips on choosing which attractions are best for little ones.
And finally: Pay your admission and then do your best to forget about how much it costs. Even if you amortize each ride, it won’t add up, especially at this age when you might go on four or five rides, one being the carousel. Still, all studies show that money spent on experiences (as opposed to an object) bring the most happiness–so think of it like that! Just relax and enjoy the experience.
I thought it was pretty wonderful.