Family Travel: Disneyland with a Preschooler and a Kindergartner

We first took Hudson to Disneyland when he was 18 months old—and loved it! Who knows how I’ll feel when the kids are 8 years old (maybe that’s the best), but I’m such a fan of Disneyland for the under-5 set: it holds so much magic for them!

Skyler turns three this weekend, so we decided on a last-minute trip for her birthday present this year. She could meet Mickey, and we could get her in for free one last time.

Here are some photos and some tips we took away to share…

The fact that kids are free until they’re three should tell you something about how many rides most preschoolers will be too little to go on. I think one of the highlights with little kids is Main Street—they’ll love the vignettes in the shop windows; the street fills with music and characters in the morning; and old-timey horse-drawn streetcars and double-decker buses pass by every few minutes. Unfortunately the train that travels around Disneyland is out of commission right now during the Star Wars park expansion, but it’s always a highlight to see the steam train pull into the Main Street station and announce itself. Not much has changed here since 1955 (or so I’m told).

We usually try to come back at some point during the day—and I intended to return to the silhouette shop (one of my favorite Disney souvenirs)—before the streetcars stop running and the parade route is set up, but time flew by!

The carousel is the first thing you see when you pass through the castle, so it’s not surprising that it was the first thing Skyler asked to ride.

And on our way there, I ran slightly ahead and detoured briefly into Tomorrowland with all of our passes to get Fast Passes to Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters rides. (Here’s how to use the fastpass service and a list of rides they’re available on.) In general, you can only get one Fastpass at a time, but Buzz is an exception: you can generally hold it and something else at once.

I had checked the crowd-calendar estimates online, and it was suggested that this particular weekday in January would be a low-crowd day, but no such luck. It was packed! To be honest, now that there are price-incentives for visiting on typically low days, I wonder if such things exist.We re-set our expectations early on for how many things we would go on and enjoyed the atmosphere. But if you had an older kid for whom more rides were musts, you’d really want to fine-tune your fastpass and line strategy. Or hope for rain!

Some of the best rides for the under-5 set are in Fantasyland—Storybookland, Casey Jr., It’s a Small World, Teacups, etc.—but some are pretty dark and scary. Hudson and Aron rode on Pinocchio and Snow White while Skyler and I met some characters and got in line for Dumbo.


Lines for Dumbo and other single-load rides (like the rockets, teacups, Goofy’s Go-coaster…) can take a surprisingly long time, but those flying elephants are worth it! We usually use the waits for bathroom breaks and snacks.

One thing that surprised me: Hudson, at age 5, was almost too old to be excited about Dumbo. It’s just one more reason I’m happy we came when the kids were younger. Age 4 is probably a nice sweet spot—they’re starting to remember things, they’re tall enough for most rides, but they’re (usually) not old enough to have too many requests or really know what they’re missing if you skip something. It’s nice to be able to say “oh, the line looks too long,” and no one gets upset.

Star Tours was our first fast-pass ride. If a ride offers a fast-pass and there’s any kind of crowd, try not to get in line without one. Hudson and I got through quickly and requested a rider-switch pass at the front; that way, another adult who waited outside with a younger sibling could go right to the front of the line. And Hudson got to ride twice!

Astro Blasters, right across the way, turned out to be the surprise hit of the day. I’d never been on it, but both kids loved the shooting aspect of the ride. I was shocked when I heard two-year-old Skyler announce to her grandfather “I played with guns and shot at robots, and I saw two Mickeys” when asked about the day.

Tip: If you have a child who is a Star Wars fan and wants to be in the Jedi training camp show, head directly to Tomorrowland (bring him or her with you) and get them signed up at the launch ramp (ask for directions) first thing in the morning. The camps fill up quickly! They battle Darth Vader with light sabers, and it’s adorable.

The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and Autopia are at the back of Tomorrowland. The other thing Skyler has talked about most was going “deep, deep, deep underwater” and seeing Nemo and Dory. Both kids loved it.

Disney recommends visiting this one earlier in the day as the lines get long and there’s no fast pass—they have some other tips, here. I ended up waiting most of the time by myself and letting Aron and the kids join at the last minute. You can (and should) also download a Disney App to your phone that will constantly update wait times along with giving info on character sightings and the day’s Entertainment schedule.

Toon town is another good area for the really little ones. And with Tom Sawyer’s island closed for most of this year, it’s the best place for letting kids run around and climb (in designated playgrounds—technically not on cars as shown here).

We brought two strollers, and even though Hudson is really too big for one, it proved helpful. You can also rent them for $15/day. You end up parking it a lot and I never worried about theft, but we kept all of our valuables in one bag and our jackets in another so that we could leave the latter with the parked strollers. Here are Disney’s packing list tips. We brought a ton of snacks—dried fruit, cheese, crackers, fig bars, apples, nuts, water bottles… even cheese curds.

Pirates was probably the scariest ride Skyler went on. We told her the boat went on a slide and demonstrated how everyone would say “Whee” and scream, but I still wonder if it were a bit too intense for her. Seeing the content through adult eyes… it’s a really disturbing ride! But Hudson loved it, just as I used to.

When we went to DisneyWorld a few years back, Hudson loved meeting Mickey Mouse in the dedicated “Meet Mickey” space. There, Mickey would meet you privately and talk to you! The experience is a little different at Disneyland. You go through Mickey’s house in Toontown (a charming way to keep the line interesting) and then get to watch an old Mickey cartoon before they bring a small group (4 or 5 kids?) into a studio. I’m sorry to say, however, that Mickey doesn’t talk. It’s so strange to meet all of these silent characters!

Skyler was ready to run right up to him then and watched in awe as she waited her turn. But when her time came, she declined to say hello. We started to leave and then suddenly she ran over and hugged him. It must have been so overwhelming for her!

That was her big moment of bravery. For Hudson, it was the roller coasters. He went on Big Thunder twice in a row (which he LOVED) followed by Matterhorn twice (with each parent using the rider switch)—each in the dark! I think Matterhorn is still a bit scary for him (he asked me to tell him when we’d passed the monster), but he was definitely proud of himself. When I was a kid, you sat in Matterhorn bobsled with your legs around the person in front of you. Today each seat is divided and you can’t hold on to each other. It must make it so much harder for first-time riders!

The parades and fireworks have been one of our favorite parts of coming to Disneyland with the kids. Right now, however, the parade is the Main Street Electrical parade. I know everyone loves it, but I just don’t think it’s quite as thrilling, so we didn’t make it a priority and—I couldn’t believe it—they actually announced about 30 minutes ahead of time that all of the viewing spots were full! I’ve never heard that before a parade.

So we took our time in the shops along Main Street (you can still find a few of the old viewers in the Penny Arcade for 1 cent) and timed our exit for during the parade to catch a glimpse on our way out, waving farewell to the Magic Kingdom once more!

We haven’t taken our kids to California Adventure yet, though I’ve heard they may love it even more. I figure we have years to go, still. But if you’re on the fence about taking a too-young child to Disneyland and you’d like to go, I’m happy to encourage. It’s such a memorable day—if not for them, surely for you. I wrote a longer list of suggestions for the toddler years in my first post, and shared some impressions from last year’s visit.

Also, we stayed across the street at a Fairfield Marriott and it was comfortable and an easy walk (past some options for breakfast on-the-go) for a lot less than a Disney-branded hotel. We noticed that the Courtyard Anaheim just next door had an incredible rooftop water park and playground, if you’re looking at that area and want somewhere to play on an off-park day. It was being used even on a fairly chilly morning—by Southern Californian standards.

What tips would you add? 

P.S. DisneyWorld and the Disney Aulani.

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