As semi-locals to the Walt Disney World Resort, we’ve been visiting the parks with Abby since she was 4 months old (recap of her first trip here), but this month marked her first journey (and longest plan ride) to the West Coast and the original magical theme park: Disneyland!
Since this trip was a combined racecation (my sister and I ran the Tinker Bell Half Marathon), there were a handful of decisions we had to make early, including where we would stay, how long we would visit, and how many days we’d dedicate to the parks – a lot easier planning process than Walt Disney World!
Since we were staying Friday through Monday, we went with three park days (plus parkhopper – I love the flexibility of hopping park to park – and since the parks are so close, its actually very easy to do, even with kids), and each of us made our own “must-do” lists so we could have reasonable expectations of what to see and do during our visit!
Now, I cannot say that these tips are “one size fits all,” but they certainly made our trip run a lot smoother, and I personally would recommend them to friends and family traveling with young toddlers! Plus, there are only a few times in life you can go to Disney for free (park tickets are not required for guests under age 3), so why not take advantage?
Tip #1: Set reasonable expectations
I will admit, I used to be an “all-out” open/close park commando! I relished in getting all the rides in (and some, multiple times) but now, traveling with a toddler, I’ve scaled back. For this trip, we focused on two things: classic and “unique to Disneyland” attractions. Since we’ve visited many times in the past, we skipped anything that required fastpass/had a line longer than 45 minutes – this alleviated any stress for long lines, and kept it fun and fresh for Abby, too.
Abby’s favorites? Touring Mickey and Minnie’s houses in Toontown, it’s a small world, the Casey Jr. Circus Train, and the King Arthur Carrousel! I think she was still a little young to “get” Bug’s Land at DCA, and she wasn’t tall enough for attractions in Car’s Land, though she did enjoy walking Route 66!
At 17 months, Abby tends to take just one nap a day, but at Disneyland, we built in two “napopportunities” a day that mimic her daily schedule (around 11 AM, and 2 PM). With the stroller, we could stroll and snack with her, and in the afternoons, we could take the easy walk back to the hotel for her to sleep in the room.
With that rest built in, we were able to rock two longer nights, and even score a slightly obstructed view of the Main Street Electrical Parade (at the Plaza Inn)
Tip #2: Stay on Property
Now, while I have stayed both on and off property at the Disneyland Resort (something I’d never do at Walt Disney World, due to its size), there’s just something extra magical about being “on property” at Disneyland! Sure, some hotels may be “closer” in proximity to the parks, but staying at one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels just adds a little extra. This visit, we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel – my first time, too (see previous reviews of Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa). I was so looking forward to this stay, and it did NOT disappoint!
First off, as a Disneyland nerd, it’s just so cool to check out all the neat details on the grounds. Although the structures themselves aren’t “original” per se (see more here) being at a hotel with a THEME of Disneyland just cannot be beat! Our room was located in the Frontier tower, and we had a nice view of the pool – plus with the gorgeous Jacaranda trees in bloom, it really was special looking out from our room.
The size of the room was a definite plus as well! We had four adults, and one toddler, and had plenty of room for all our stuff, including Abby’s pack and play, and her stroller, too.
Another great benefit of staying on property was being SUPER close to some of our favorite places, like Downtown Disney (just through the security checkpoint – which was a lot less stressful than I had imagined) and Trader Sam’s! In the four days we spent at Disneyland, we were able to get back to the room efficiently for naps and relaxing, or just to change clothes. Plus, we made time to relax at the pool, plus take advantage of fun hotel guest freebies that we learned about in this cool post from the Magic Kingdom Mamas!
Tip #3: Book Transportation in Advance
While some consider the lack of “included” transportation a minus at Disneyland (vs. WDW’s Magical Express), it’s not too bad, as you have many options to transport you from your desired airport to property (Super Shuttle, Uber, etc). However, since we were traveling as light as possible, we didn’t have our carseat with us, so the best option for us was the Disneyland Resort Express, which you can book in advance from both Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and John Wayne – Santa Ana (SNA) – full disclosure: it is not the SPEEDIEST of options, but it is moderately priced (kids ride free with a paying adult) and on a nice, comfortable bus, see more details/schedule here.
Tip #4: Rent a Stroller (but NOT the park ones)
Fun fact: my first job as a Disney Cast Member was in Stroller/Locker and Electronic Convenience Vehicle (ECV) Rental. An even more fun fact? I would not recommend renting a stroller AT the park – they’re expensive, not the most comfortable, and most importantly, cannot leave the park gates – totally defeating the purpose if your little one falls asleep at the end of the day!
By recommendation of my friend Autumn, we booked a stroller through City Stroller Rentals for our length of stay. For just $45, we had a City Mini GT delivered to /picked up from our hotel’s bell services. Not only were we impressed by the efficiency and value of the rental service, but we loved the high-end feel of the stroller, which was easy to steer through crowds, had sufficient under-carriage space for bags, and was fully adjustable to move between upright and full reclined positions.
I enjoyed having access to such a nice stroller, but I loved it even more that I didn’t have to worry about traveling with a stroller! I also toted along our baby carrier (we brought our MJ Baby Carrier) which was nice to wear her for attraction waits, yet easily stowable in a drawstring bag when not in use.
Tip #5: Set a “Budget”
Now, Disneyland is expensive – there’s no getting around that! But, there are ways to keep costs down, and one way is to project out expenses, and set personal limits!
We did this in a few ways:
- We scheduled just one “sit down” meal – Storyteller’s Cafe Storyteller’s Cafe – for post-race brunch. All other meals we did quick service (which are excellent at Disneyland) or my fave: snacks! Abby loved nibbling on some of our must-haves: meat skewers at Bengal Barbecue, lightsaber churros, Matterhorn Macarons, and lobster nachos at the Cove Bar. We also brought a full pack of her fruit and veggie pouches for the “in-between snack” snack times 🙂
- I purchased a $100 Disney Gift Card at Target before we left, with my red card (5% off) and earmarked that for snacks/quick meal use only. That way, I could keep track of those purchases easily.
- I imposed a “one souvenir per person” limit! Since we brought Abby’s costume, autograph book, and other coordinating outfits, we “splurged” on her bubble wand, and for me, a Monster’s University hat!
Although the Disneyland Resort does not have wifi, their app connects quickly with cell service and is really helpful! From the interactive maps, to the wait time indications, and on-the-go ability to check entertainment schedules, it was really nice to have for those moments we realized we forgot to pick up park maps, or needed a quick reminder where the closest bathroom was, hah!
We had so much fun on our visit, and cannot wait til our next Disney adventure!
What are your best tips to a successful Disney trip?