My husband and I are major Disney FANatics! No. I take that back... We are Disney FREAKS! We are all about everything Disney. We have been going to Disneyland about twice (or more) a year for the last 16-17 years. The benefit of living in central California!
In the beginning we used to make fun of my husband being a Disney vacation drill Sargent. We would leave around 2 am to head South. We would make one stop for breakfast and then head straight for Universal Studios where we would spend about half the day, have some dinner and then head to our hotel. Our hotels are usually within walking distance of the park. In the morning we would head to the park to arrive just after opening and would stay until closing. Exhausted, we would do this for anywhere from 3-4 days. Now, I had been to Disneyland quite a few times in my life before I started going with my husband, but from that point on I can tell you that Disneyland isn't just magical when you go, it's amazing to watch the transformation imaginations create! I have pictures from when they broke ground where Disney's California Adventure now resides. My husband was there for the opening of Tower of Terror and even got to go on a test ride before it officially opened!
We started bringing kids about seven years ago, with my nephew. He was (counting on my fingers) about four months old. Now I hear what people "normally" say... "Why would you bring them that young? They aren't going to remember anything!" Someone actually said that on our second trip with my daughter. We were taking a picture with Mickey Mouse, she was (counting on my fingers again...) about seven months and this dude says "Why are they wasting their time? That kid will never remember!" To which I replied "First of all, it's not about her, this is for me. Second of all, she's free admission, why not?"
My nephew will be seven this year and he has gone to Disneyland about twice a year since he's been born. My daughter just turned two and she has been to Disneyland five times, one of those being on Christmas day! Why do we do anything when they are that little? If we are that worried about them not remembering why do we celebrate holidays with them? Why bother having birthday parties? Because it is about the parents! It's about our memories...
With that said, the next questions have more to do with how to bring a kid to Disneyland, what is a good age and what do you do?
First rule of thumb, be aware of your kid! I have seen so many parents that push their kids past their breaking point because they want to get every last cent of value out of that ticket price. If the price of the ticket is more important than the fun of watching your kids explore the magic of Disney, then don't go. And please don't get so wrapped up in your own thing as to lose them. I've taken my fair share of kids to the nearest Cast Member, sobbing, because they don't know where their mommy or daddy is. Disney is about the kid in all of us, but it's about remembering your inner child through the wonder of that little piece of you that holds your hand. The first time I walked my other nephew through the entrance it was an amazing thing! We didn't tell him where he was, he was so enthralled with the colors and the music and the magic!
Second thing to remember, your kid does need a nap. While there are quiet spots around the parks, and you do have to look for those, once your precious angel passes the point of no return everything else is a slippery-slope down hill... If that means you have to leave the park for a good rest, so be it! Trying to calm down a kicking, hitting, screaming ball of crazy child is much worse than simply missing a parade or show.
Third, feed your kid! Disneyland does let you bring in food, but do check their website prior to arriving so you know what types of food are permitted in the park. We like to bring fresh fruit, dried fruit, crackers, regular snack foods that the kids can not only eat in their stroller, but also when you are in line for a ride. Keeping a full tummy also helps kids to relax in that hectic environment while keeping them busy. It also cuts costs while at the park. While Disney has gotten better at food service for children, bringing in your own kid snacks (and drinks) plays a big role in keeping costs down. When my sister-in-law goes to the park she brings a gallon water bottle in the bottom of the stroller. They also carry a regular plastic drinking bottle. This way they can fill up bottles or cups with their own water while keeping the cost down. If you don't bring your own stroller, this may not be helpful...
Four, pack a good bag and extras... I made my diaper bags for our trips, so I know I have plenty of room for everything I will need throughout the day. Of course there are all the "regular" items you bring, diapers, wipes, what-have-you's... I also pack two to four small blankets (usually 1-2 per kid) and quiet things for the kids to do, like a small board book or two. Generally we go in large groups, so there is always someone to entertain the kids, but if you are just going with your own family unit, I would suggest bringing small items while waiting in lines for rides or for parades to pass by. Even little key chains that light up or make noise are great for small interruptions! Maps are free at all entrances and from many Cast Members and kids love the bright colors! We also play games and sing quiet songs while in line.
Five, pick your time of year carefully! While I understand that going on vacation generally means the rest of the world is on vacation as well, really think about what you are putting yourself through. Bringing a small child to Disneyland in the middle of summer may not be the best plan of action if you want to do a lot! Make sure to take advantage of the Fast Passes though! And early admission, if you get it! Fast Passes can be picked up at many rides (near the exit) that will give you a time later in the day to return and ride. You will not always get right on the ride. This is a pass designed to get you closer to the actual ride, it will not get you on the very next car! The nice thing is, you get your pass (using your admission ticket) and then you can get in another line, go get something to eat, watch a parade or show and then come back later. One thing people don't tend to know is that you can get a new Fast Pass either when the time is up to ride that ride or after two hours! And if you miss your Fast Pass time slot, you can still use the pass the same day! Basically, if you get a pass first thing in the morning, say at 9 am for Space Mountain, and the time slot is for 12-2, at 11 am you can get another Fast Pass! Then, if you are running late from lunch and you don't get back to Space Mountain until 3 pm, you can still use that Fast Pass for that ride! There are also Parent Switch passes, but you have to ask for those at the entrance of a ride. The Cast Member will usually ask you to see the other person and the child with you that can't ride the ride. Like when we go on Soarin' Over California and my little girl is too small to ride, one of us stays behind with her, we get the Parent Switch pass, and when the first person gets off the ride you switch places and the parent that didn't get to ride can take the pass over to the Fast Pass line. There are some rides I don't go on, or couldn't, like when I was pregnant last year. In those cases when only my husband wanted to ride you can also ask the Cast Member if they offer single rider on that ride. Sometimes that means you will sit next to a stranger, so I don't advise it for children, but a lot of the time they are looking to fill seats on a ride. We've had my husband on and off of Space Mountain within 15 minutes during an hour or more stand-by wait time!
Finally, while you can plan the trip down to the second, make sure to follow your kids lead! My cousin used to work at the park "escorting" the characters around for picture taking. She and I both agree that it was heartbreaking (and a bit annoying) when parents would yell at or belittle their children to get that "perfect" picture! I always tell the photographers, "She's rarely looks at or smiles for the camera, so please just get a few and we'll move on." For my daughter it's more about getting to interact with the character! When you take their lead, you end up with better photos, a happier child and wonderful moments!
Oh! Something we found out on our last visit... We like to visit the hotels, even if we don't stay in the actual Disneyland hotels... They really do have some great shops and things you can't find in the park or anywhere else! One thing we found this last visit is that if you are shopping in the Disneyland Hotel gift shop you may very well bump into some of your favorite characters! Not only do you not have to stand in line for pictures, we had them fighting over who got to take pictures with our daughter! Of course they aren't really fighting! They are on break from Goofy's Kitchen restaurant next door and they are wonderful fun!!!
It is best to try and plan things ahead of time that you want to see and do. And of course it's always best to eat during "non-regular" eating times.
If you don't think it's worth it, it probably isn't for you... My daughter is infatuated with Disneyland and she's only two. She's not afraid of the characters, as long as she gets a little nap she lasts all day and I have some wonderful memories of the little things she did during visits!
Please feel free to leave comments about ideas or things you've done to make amusement parks more enjoyable for your family! If you have questions please feel free to leave a comment or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to reply!