We had such a wonderful time taking Hudson to Disneyland when he was a toddler. It was amazing to see the surprise and the joy that everything inspired, before too many expectations had been set. I found myself wanting to repeat the experience with Skyler.
It did not disappoint!
Here are some photos and a few (or a few too many, maybe) favorite memories from that visit…
We were very lucky to be gifted nights at the Grand Californian hotel by grandparents. The hotel is a beautiful craftsman-style hotel with a large reception hall of massive fireplaces and arching beams and sweet little rocking chairs facing a TV playing vintage Donald Duck cartoons—they were immediately sucked in.
We pulled them away with the intention of heading to Downtown Disney for dinner, but decided it would be more rewarding to jump in the pool. Isn’t that what you always want to do when you’re a kid? We rushed down and knew immediately it was the right decision. Hudson went beaming down the big slide at least five times before it closed; Skyler flirted with the idea of going on the small one, but ultimately decided she was happier playing cheerleader. She loves to clap and yell “good job, Hudson!” Her admiration for him is pretty incredible.
As soon as the kids were asleep, Aron dashed off to the store to pick up supplies for breakfast and for the day at the park (what amounted to a full-on grocery run), and I did some last-minute planning for how to approach our visit. I realized in horror that Pirates of the Caribbean was closed—the one ride Hudson had been asking about since we left (and telling any adult who would listen that he’d be going on, “riding a boat down a waterfall underground to see the scary Pirates”). The horror! Instead, we decided, would head straight to Peter Pan’s flight and try to pass it off as “the Pirate ride.”
Somehow we survived!
I know it’s silly, but I’ve felt a little emotional both times we’ve first taken the kids to Disneyland. It feels like one of those iconic childhood memories that you can actually feel being imprinted—a milestone, like the first time you look in the rearview mirror to see your child facing forward. And I have so many memories of the anticipation—so much I could hardly sleep—before getting to go to Disneyland for the day, that it feels really special. There are plenty of ways that Disney is very savvy—one could easily be cynical about the resonance that’s fostered at the park—but I have so loved taking them.
On this particular day, because we were staying on the property at one of the hotels, we got to walk there and go in early!
That extra hour (Early Magic Hour) changes parks—from Disneyland to California Adventure—each day, but happened to be at Disneyland the day we were there. It’s a big perk if you’re hoping to get on a lot of rides and beat the crowds, but in hindsight, I think I might actually pass on it for our aged children. Main Street is more or less closed and you’re sort of funneled into the park and around the castle (rather than through). For the preschooler set, everything is so exciting that I really think it’s worth taking a little time on Main Street appreciating the details. Case in point: Skyler was thrilled just to see the horse-shaped posts lining the street! I was sorry that the carriages and characters weren’t out yet. Remember my feelings about the FastPass program at DisneyWorld? One has to be careful that the time savings of FastPasses (and Early Magic Hours) doesn’t turn into time pressure that prevents you from slowing down. “There’s a reason why kids under 3 are free.”
Still, there was music, and our little ones marched down the middle of the road as if they were in a parade. Every now and then someone would pass by with a Mickey shirt and Skyler would call out “Kikki Mouse!”
We headed straight for Peter Pan in Fantasyland—along with everyone else. There was a 40-minute wait, so the kids and I started the day with a ride on the carousel—which really felt right anyway, before getting back in line with Aron to fly over London.
Snow White was actually too intense for Skyler (she would bury her head or cover her eyes in these dark rides), so she and I stayed off of Pinocchio and looked around, while Aron and Hudson continued on. When they came out, we had our only character encounter: it was so charming watching Hudson twisting up his legs and playing with his hands while chatting about dragons, Jake the Pirate, and Captain Hook with Peter.
(The irony of eating large, shiny apples in line for the Snow White ride was completely lost on them, by the way.)
We of course also rode Dumbo, but soon made our way out of Fantasyland and into Frontierland where Hudson rode his first “so fast” roller coaster: Big Thunder Mountain. He first went on with me, and later with Aron—loving it both times.
After lunch at the Mexican spot next door to Big Thunder, emboldened by his brave feat, Hudson and I got in line for Matterhorn. I was a little nervous, but he was excited to try it—such a brave guy. But when we got up to the front of the line, I learned that they’ve switched the Bobsleds to single rider seats. When I last rode it, you could sit with your arms around the person in front of you (ah, high school), but that’s changed and you now sit alone. I kept my hands on his shoulders the whole time, bumping my face against the headrest in front of me when he told me it was too fast and he didn’t like it. I love that ride, but I couldn’t wait for it to end and give him a big hug!
He also went on the Haunted Mansion with Aron (while Skyler and I checked out the beautiful steam train—even though it isn’t running around the park, you can still go to see the engine and toot the horn), and Star Tours with each of us using the rider switch. (“It’s not real daddy, it’s just a ride. But you do go into outer space.”)
After being completely awed by It’s A Small World, Skyler took a midday nap. I walked the stroller back down Main Street and just as she woke up we spotted Minnie.
When Skyler gets a little nervous or starts considering anything intensely, she touches her thumbs and her fingers like so. We watched admiringly from a distance.
The Jungle Book Cruise was a highlight for me. While Skyler was generally delighted with the animals, it was actually Hudson who had the biggest reaction. It seemed to be the surprise of the “animals,” as much as anything else… and we had just come from the San Diego Zoo, where we learned just how deadly a hippo can be. He was ducking for cover and jumping into Aron’s arms. But later he would declare that the animals were not real.
So little and so big, all at once.
Near the Jungle Cruise, in Adventureland is the Tiki Room—which is really sweet and a bit old-timey. It’s perfect for midday break (get a Dole Whip inside the line!) and the younger kids are fascinated by the way everything comes alive. I have a feeling it won’t always be around (that is, unless Pixar soon makes a movie about talking birds).
Rides on the rockets were requested over and over—likely because Hudson wants to grow up and be an astronaut someday—so we made sure to give him a chance to do some high flying.
But if there aren’t specific requests, it doesn’t hurt to pull out a map and see what’s left to do every now and then. We’d almost completely forgotten about Autopia! (And we completely overlooked Toon Town.)
Skyler was initially very excited about the driving (i.e. she refused Aron’s help quite forcefully), but after some rough bumps she decided she liked being a passenger best—occasionally accepting Aron’s offer to co-steer. Hudson, on the other hand, was hot to do some solo driving and took his job very seriously—despite it being so much slower than I remembered!
It was a bit strange for Aron and me to see the extent to which Star Wars has been integrated into the park—they even had storm troopers asking people the “move along”—in the nicest possible way, of course. And while the reported “favorite,” ride of Hudson’s changed by the second, he may have like Star Tours the best because of the tie-in. It’s funny: although he has “studied” Star Wars, picking up trivia from other kids at preschool, he really isn’t very familiar with the story and has never seen the movie. Nonetheless, he’s very interested in it all.
Of course, when you exit from the ride, you conveniently exit past the gift store where light sabers are for sale. After he saw them earlier in the day, it was the only thing he wanted to bring home from the park. We were a little conflicted (Aron recounting how he’d wanted one so badly he fashioned one out of a shower rod), but as the sun sank lower, we made our way back there.
It’s hard to resist the excitement of a four-year-old when something makes then smile from ear to ear and prompts them to tell everyone who will listen: “I’m Obi Wan Kenobi! I fight for peace and justice!”
We ended our rides on the Teacups together—completely dizzying, just like the entire day—before making our way back out to Main Street to snag a spot along the parade route.
After a long day, it can be hard to tough-it-out until the parade, but it was well worth it. Hudson said with excitement, “they are playing all the best songs!,” and Skyler loved waving to all the characters.
We loved watching the two of them beam.
There are plenty of times you go all out for your kids and you just have to be content with the self-satisfaction; there’s not much external payoff. But Disneyland is an exception: They were just really, really happy all day long. It’s the best of both.