Take a break between rides and snack on straight-from-the-fryer corn dogs or beignets. // © 2015 Chelsee Lowe
Feature image (above): Visit must-do rides early in the morning to avoid long lines. // © 2015 Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland
When it comes to visiting theme parks, parents of toddlers fall into two camps: those who avoid the parks, calculating that it’s not worth the cost and effort required to bring someone so young; and those who don’t think twice about toting a tot from ride to ride.
For many, including myself, Disneyland Resort is a particularly hard park to pass up — it was the great escape for me when I was young. One of my favorite vacation memories as a kid involved my best friend, little brother and mother driving through the night in a 1967 Mustang to the Anaheim, Calif., park, and I love the idea of making it my daughter’s happy place, too.
That said, bringing a 2 year old to Disneyland has its obstacles. Following are tips for keeping the Magic Kingdom magical for everyone.
To spare your family from long wait times, get to the park right when it opens. That’s usually 8 a.m. during the busy summer season and 9 a.m. the rest of the year. In my experience, those first 60 minutes make up a sort of golden hour — Main Street, U.S.A. is just waking up, and your favorite rides might have five-minute-long lines.
This past July, our party of eight, including four under the age of 3, managed to ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the whirling tea cups of the Mad Tea Party, King Arthur Carousel and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters in the first hour and a half of the day. After that, the lines lengthened rapidly.
Set Reasonable Expectations
Even if you’re the first family to enter the park, it’s best to prioritize. To start, create a mental list of your top rides, then head directly for the one you know tends to have a longer queue — Peter Pan’s Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, for example. And when you need a break from the lines, check out other attractions such as Enchanted Tiki Room or the petting zoo at Big Thunder Ranch in Frontierland.
Moving at the right pace for your child is key. In my experience, riding five to seven rides and watching a show or two counts as a successful park day with little ones.
Download a Wait-Time App
What did parents do before the digital age? They walked from Fantasyland to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad only to discover an impossible-to-wait-in, hourlong line. Today, stewards of fragile toddlers can avoid the fiasco altogether with free apps such as MouseWait or Disneyland Wait Times, which display regularly updated wait times for all of the park’s most popular attractions. They’re a theme-park version of Waze or Sigalert. Use them to steer your group in the right direction.
Pack Snacks and Bring Friends
Even with an app, it’s likely you’ll stand in a long line or two at some point during your park visit. When this happens, I advise that you distract with snacks. Don’t pack your tailgating ice chest, of course — like selfie sticks, large coolers aren’t permitted in the parks — but a backpack brimming with pretzels, popcorn and pear slices is perfectly fine.
Park hopping with other families that have kids of similar ages is also a great way to make the experience more pleasant, as the children are likely to entertain each other as the line moves along.
Don’t forget the Stroller
Though Disneyland and California Adventure are notably smaller than their counterparts in Orlando, using a stroller is still advised. Sure, when you get stuck in a human bottleneck thanks to parade route ropes, having a stroller can feel inconvenient, but they come in handy when you want to move from land to land or park to park with a bit more urgency.
If you are ride hopping in one small area, ditch your buggy in a nearby stroller parking lot for as long as you need.
Book a Resort Hotel
Parents of toddlers are at the mercy of their child’s nap schedule. If your kid can sleep on the go — in a carrier, a reclined stroller, etc. — you’re among the few and lucky. If your son or daughter is anything like mine and needs a quiet place to slumber, a resort hotel can make for an awesome midday break for everyone, no car required.
On a recent visit, we enjoyed rides from 9 a.m. to noon, retired to our Disneyland Hotel room for a brief nap (parents included), then headed back out for the rest of the day, well-rested.
Boogie in A Bug’s Land
The kiddie rides in California Adventure’s A Bug’s Land are just right for children ages 4 and under, and in my experience, the lines tend to hover around 10-minutes long. We love Flik’s Flyers, a set of “hot-air balloons” that circle in the air, and Francis’ Ladybug Boogie, which spins as wildly as the Mad Tea Party cups. On super-hot summer days, pack a swimsuit and let the kids cool down in Princess Dot Puddle Park, a water feature in the same area.
Catch a Show or Parade
No matter what character your child is enamored with, you’ll likely be able to spot him or her during one of the resort’s many parades and stage shows. Fans of Elsa and Anna, for example, can see the princesses and put their lyrical knowledge to the test during For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration. Performances run nearly every hour at California Adventure’s spacious Crown Jewel Theater in Hollywood Land.
In the same area, Disney Junior - Live on Stage! brings beloved television shows “Doc McStuffins,” “Sofia the First” and “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” to life. If you have children with a later bedtime, don’t miss the new evening shows rolled out for Disneyland’s 60th birthday: Paint the Night parade, World of Color - Celebrate! and the Disneyland Forever fireworks spectacular.
A well-timed turkey leg or Dole Whip never hurt any hardworking parent. When my patience has be tested — heck, even if it hasn’t — my daughter and I love to celebrate our successes, however simple, with some sort of treat. Corn dogs (sold at Little Red Wagon in Disneyland and Corn Dog Castle in California Adventure) and deliciously warm beignets from Mint Julep Bar in New Orleans Square are our go-to choices.
If said bites leaving you feeling guilty, skip the tram ride back and walk to the parking lot for an extra calorie-burning session.