Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure was a highlight of our trip with our 2.5 year old. Photo credit: Disney’s PhotoPass

We had an amazing opportunity to go on our first trip to Disneyland last week! We went with our friends (one of whom is an employee) so we were able to explore the parks for free and get amazing discounts. Next time we might not be as lucky and I kept that in mind while writing this blog post.

The awesome part about bringing a toddler to Disneyland is that they are free all the way until 3 years old. That means they enter the parks for free and also can eat for free. Disney has typical children’s meals (pizza, nuggets, etc) but they also have several healthy options (grilled chicken, veggies, etc). And you can get milk almost anywhere you go (which made our 2-year-old very thrilled!)

Before our trip, many people told us to wait until Owen was at least 5 years old. I’m glad we didn’t listen because we would have missed out on being able to take our time and do Disney at a toddler pace, complete with schedule down time, i.e. nap time. Our trip was surprisingly low stress and a lot of fun.

Mickey Mouse at Disneyland

We held our 2.5 year old so he wasn’t scared to meet Mickey for the first time. Photo Credit: Disney’s PhotoPass

Tips for lowering stress with a Toddler at Disneyland:

  • Use the PhotoPass service. The PhotoPass photographers will take photos with your own camera/phone, but they will also take photos with their camera and post them so you can decide if you’d like to purchase them. If you purchase after you see the photos, it’s about $40/day. The nice thing is you can share an account with everyone in your group and it’s the same price. This service was especially handy when I was away from my husband (who has a nice camera) and wanted to get a few photos with characters when the lines were short. If I were to do Disney solo with the kids, I would solely use the PhotoPass and my iPhone for simplicity.
  • Stay on property (or really close by). It was imperative that we had the option to go back to the hotel to nap in the afternoon. With all the excitement of Disneyland, it’s easy to stay up late each night. It may seem like you are wasting money by not being in the park the entire day, but overtired toddlers (and frustrated parents) don’t make for a happy trip. We stayed at the Paradise Pier Hotel (we got a great rate) and the hotel was lovely! If you toddler typically takes short naps and you are staying off-property, you might consider napping in the lobby of the Grand Californian, the dark Animation Studio at Disney’s California Adventure, or in the stroller. Personally, I also needed some quiet time where I could rest before continuing the day.
  • Do Character Meals, if your kids are excited to meet characters. I’d recommend doing Character Dining on days you will not be in the park just so you aren’t cutting into park time. These are great to do on travel days to extend the Disney experience. Some characters (like Stitch) only seem to be available at Character Meals. Others have really long lines to meet them in the park, so this will save you time.
  • Have some sit-down meals. Sitting at a restaurant provides a great break from all the activity of the park and can help toddlers (and parents) de-stimulate. You can make reservations for restaurants up to 60 days ahead. We appreciated being able to sit down, eat a more substantial meal and rehydrate while talking about what we were enjoying most about the parks. It also gave us time to clear our heads and think realistically what our next steps should be.
  • Learn about Magic Hours/Magic Mornings. Because we stayed on property, we were able to enter the parks a full hour before the general public using Magic Hours, meaning the Dads were able to do some of the crazy busy rides in under 5 minutes (which were later hours long lines). Many of the multi-day passes include one day where you can use Magic Hours. They alternate between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, so make sure you know which park has them each day so you can plan accordingly. We took full advantage of Magic Hours at Disney’s California Adventure and our toddler was able to get photos with all the Cars characters, do all the Cars rides he was tall enough for multiple times and head to a Bug’s Life all before the park opened to the public. It saved us a lot of time!
  • Find out about Ride Refurbishments. Especially if you go in the off-season, several rides will be closed do to refurbishments. When we went, the Train and the Monorail were both under refurbishment. I knew this ahead of time, so I didn’t plan on using either of these for transportation or for down time at the park. It also gave us a heads up that my husband’s favorite rides were going to be closed. As kids get older and have favorite rides they look forward to, it’s nice to be able to manage their expectations and let them know if their favorite ride will be unavailable so they have time to process.
  • Travel with another family. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to travel with another family whose kids are the same age as yours. We were able to switch off nap duty so the Moms could stay in the park one day and the Dads could the next. It also meant that Moms could take the kids on toddler rides while the Dads did FastPasses for other rides and vice versa. Plus the kids were able to play in line together to help pass the time.
  • Listen to your kid. If your child seems scared of Mickey Mouse, it might not be worth it to wait in line for a photo (where your kid may be crying or nestling into your arms). Same goes for rides. If your child is afraid of a certain movie, character, or type of ride, don’t force it. The goal is for your child to have a fun time. My son LOVES trains and didn’t mind the wait to get to ride one. He also loved It’s a Small World and it was such a special experience for both of us because he was really awed by the ride. I pushed him to do the Flik’s Flyers ride, even though he said he didn’t want to, and it ended up being one of the only rides neither of us enjoyed.
  • Learn about Rider Switches. If you have a small child who is unable/unwilling to go an a ride, you can get a Rider Switch pass so both adults can go on the ride on after another without waiting in line again. This is a great way for both adults to go on favorite rides. This would probably be most helpful if you had an older child because then the older child gets to go twice. Because I’m pregnant and couldn’t go on some of the rides, we never needed the Rider Switch pass, but I can see how this will be very handy in years to come.
  • Download the Disneyland App. This Disneyland app saved us so many times! Not only does it give you the wait times for the rides, but it also tells you where characters are, where the nearest bathrooms are, where restaurants are and serves as the portal for your PhotoPass.
  • Get a battery-powered cell phone charger. We got so much use out of this phone charger. Because you may be splitting off from your group or using your phone to take lots of photos and videos, your battery might drain more quickly than usual. This is also the case if you are constantly pulling up the app or letting your kids watch videos/play games on your phone in line.
  • Set expectations. The most heartbreaking thing about Disneyland was seeing parents yelling at their crying kids. Most of these kids looked exhausted and possibly hungry. I know first-hand how stressful it is when your toddler is not on best behavior when you are doing something special. This is why it’s so crucial to set realistic expectations for your trip. We went in knowing this trip was primarily for Owen and it was a scouting trip for future trips to Disneyland. With that mindset, it was easy to tell ourselves that we’d had enough each day and we would do the rest another time. We also knew that the nighttime parades and fireworks would probably not be in the cards for us this trip because it was past bedtime. Our main theme was this was a fun trip and if someone wasn’t having fun, we needed to change what we were doing.
  • Make a schedule. Disneyland is not a good place to “wing it” when traveling with a toddler. Ask everyone in your group what their priorities are. I made sure that my husband had time to do some of his favorite rides from his childhood, that we hit up the classic photo spots, and that Owen got to go on lots of rides! It’s really nice to group the rides/attractions by section of the park. That way, you can park your stroller and walk around and do everything you want in that area and move on to the next.

Goofy Photopass photo at Disney's California Adventure

My husband and I enjoyed meeting Goofy while our son was napping in the stroller. Photo credit: Disney’s PhotoPass
Ok, now that you know some of my tips, let’s get on to how to plan your day. Here’s what our itinerary looked like:
Day 1:

  • Arrived at Paradise Pier Hotel in the afternoon
  • Walked around Downtown Disney and had a light meal
  • Did the 5:30pm Goofy Character Dinner at the Disneyland Hotel. The restaurant was pretty empty since it was early and there was no wait for our photo with Chef Goofy and we got to see all the characters pretty quickly
  • Entered Disneyland and did It’s a Small World and the Casey Jr. Circus Train and caught part of the parade. It was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the park and we got our first taste of Disneyland churrosWe only did this because we had free entry into the parks. Normally, we would have gone back to the hotel to rest

Day 2:

  • 8am Reservation for Surf’s Up! Character Breakfast with Mickey and Friends at the Paradise Pier Hotel. In hindsight, we should have saved this for the day we flew home because it meant we missed the Magic Hour and didn’t arrive to the park until 9:30am, when things started to get busier.
  • Headed to Disneyland and did the following rides in this order:
    • Moms and toddlers did Storybook Canal ride while Dads did Matterhorn (5 minute wait)
    • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage This was a deviation from our itinerary and it put us across the park, but my husband really wanted to do it. Flexiblity is also important.
    • Silhouettes on Main Street For $10, you can get a silhouette cutout of your child and it’s finished in mere minutes. We did this right before our lunch reservation across the street
  • Lunch at Carnation Cafe
  • Moms took toddlers back to hotel for nap time while Dads did the following:
    • Space Mountain
    • Star Tours
  • Moms and toddlers joined Dads after nap time for the following:
    • Jungle Cruise
    • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  • Dinner at Cafe Orleans This was my favorite restaurant! I had the beef crepes and pureed peas and shared a Monte Cristo sandwich. Both were excellent!
  • Then we headed to Toon Town
    • Mickey’s House We did this twice within 15 minutes and got PhotoPass photos with two different Mickeys!
    • Chip and Dale’s Treehouse This was really lame
    • Goofy’s Playhouse This is an indoor and outdoor play area with a padded floor. Great for kids to run around while parents sit down
  • We did It’s a Small World again There was no line
  • We grabbed churros on our way out of the park, making sure to leave before the parade
  • Downtown Disney
    • World of Disney store
    • Haagen Dazs

Day 3:

  • Disney’s California Adventure during Magic Hour at 8am
  • Headed straight for Cars Land and parked the stroller
    • PhotoPass photo with Red
    • Dads tried to do Radiator Springs Racers since there was a 5 minute wait, but the ride closed when they got in line
    • Moms and Toddlers got in line for Luigi’s Rollicking Roadsters and Dads were able to join us before our turn. The boys loved it so much that we hopped right back in line.
    • PhotoPass photos with Lightening McQueen, and watched Mater arrive
    • Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree
    • PhotoPass photo in front of Cars Land sign
    • Dads got Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers Timing was for after dinner
  • Grabbed the stroller and went to A Bug’s Life
    • Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train This is a very short ride, but the toddlers loved it
    • Flik’s Flyers We should have listened to the toddlers saying they didn’t want to do this ride
  • PhotoPass photo in front of Mickey’s Wheel
  • 11:20am Character Lunch at Ariel’s Grotto
  • Dads took toddlers back to hotel for naps while the Moms did the following:
    • PhotoPass photo with Buzz Lightyear
    • Learned to draw Sulley at Animation Studios
    • Mike and Sulley to the Rescue
    • PhotoPass photo with Oswald
    • Trolley
    • PhotoPass photo with Walt Disney statue and Newsboys
  • After naps, the Dads and toddlers joined us:
    • PhotoPass photo with Goofy
    • Mike and Sulley to the Rescue again
    • Pixar Parade This was fabulous for adults and toddlers alike!
  • Dinner at Wine Country Trattoria
  • Shopping for sweatshirts
  • Headed back to Cars Land
    • Adults used Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers while I watched the toddlers
    • Watched Radiator Springs light up
    • PhotoPass photo in Cars Land
  • Then we headed back to the hotel in time to watch the World of Color show from our hotel room

Day 4:

  • We grabbed coffee at Starbucks inside Disneyland and took advantage of the Magic Hour at 8am
    • We waited 40 minutes for Peter Pan’s Flight
    • No wait for It’s a Small World
  • Then we headed to Toon Town which opened at 10am
    • My husband did the Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Ride while I took Owen to sit on all the cars in Toon Town
    • We got in line to see Minnie in her house and get photos (line was about 15 minutes long)
  • We had a late check-out of Noon, so we went back to the hotel to pack up and check out. Then we grabbed a taxi so we could get In N Out on our way to our other hotel (Paradise Pier was sold out for our final night).
  • After Owen’s nap, we took the free shuttle to the parks and went to Disney’s California Adventure
    • Animation Studio: learned to draw Winnie the Pooh
    • Turtle Talk with Crush
  • At this point, Owen was exhausted, so we took the shuttle back to the hotel and ordered room service for dinner and called it a night.

We had such a fun time that we are already trying to figure out when we can go back. If anyone has tips for doing Disneyland with a Newborn/infant and toddler, please let me know!

More Posts about Disneyland
7 Ways to Prep a Toddler for Disneyland
Disneyland Character Meal Reviews
Disneyland’s Paradise Pier Hotel Review

Like us on Facebook to keep in touch

Picture

Author

55 Comments

  1. I was searching for “disneyland for preschoolers” and your website came up. I can’t believe no one has commented yet on how this is a tremendously useful post! Many thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Hi Paolo,
      Wow! Thanks for your comment! It really made my day! I’m glad you found it useful! Enjoy your trip and let me know if you find any other useful tips!

  2. Hey i loved your post. My wife and i have been to Disneyland together about a half dozen times in the last 8 years but we are taking our two year old next month for his birthday. How old were the kids you took?

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Hi Kevin,
      Our son was 2 years and 5 months and our friend’s son was 2 years and 2 months. They were a great age to do many of the rides and festivities. Have fun!!!

  3. Camille Hunt Reply

    So we will only be able to do one Character dining. We bought the premium dining experience. In your opinion which place has the best food and which one had better interactions with characters? Ariels Grotto or Goofys Kitchen?

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      If you are hoping to see Disney princesses and don’t want to wait in line, I’d do Ariel’s Grotto. However, if the princesses aren’t on your must-do list, I’d definitely do Goofy’s Kitchen. The great thing about Goofy’s Kitchen is that you’ll see a lot of the classic Disney characters and since it’s at the hotel, you don’t need a park pass to do it. So, you could do it for dinner the night your arrive. Plus the food is surprisingly tasty and the environment is really fun!

  4. This is really helpful! I remember going to Disney World when I was a toddler and it was a lot of fun! Though I don’t think I wanted to have a naptime while I was there 🙂

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      It will be interesting to see if my 3.5-year-old will nap when we visit this summer!

  5. Omg, this is so helpful!
    We’re taking a trip to disney world next year! They’ll be 9, 3 and 2 by that time. I cant wait!
    I was also told to wait till they’re like school-aged, but i feel like all the excitement is different by the time they’re a bit older!
    I saved this post, so i can make a list of your suggestions to remember!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      I think it depends on if you plan to do multiple Disney vacations with your kids. If you were just going to do one, I can understand waiting until they are a bit older. But, if you think you’ll go a few times, it’s so fun when they are little!

  6. Thank you so much for the FANTASTIC tips! I love that they are so specific and not generic. We have never attempted anything big like Disney with our crew, but I am definitely bookmarking this for when I do.
    Caitlin
    http://www.rogerspartyof5.com

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      I couldn’t believe how amazing the customer service was everywhere! It really made traveling with kids fun!

  7. Thank you for these helpful tips! I especially love the idea of traveling with another family, it makes for double the memories with friends and your children.

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      YES! We hadn’t done much traveling with families before, but we have since done it frequently! Our boys had a blast entertaining each other and it was nice to be able to split up a bit more!

  8. While this post isn’t extremely relevant to me personally (I’m a 22-year-old solo traveler without children), I know it is an extremely useful resource for your intended audience. They’d definitely appreciate your tips and information. 🙂 And, actually, it did give me a different perspective for Disneyland. I’ve been there several times, when I was a little kid, and as an adult, and this post made me realize how different the experience is for everyone. Even though you’re on the same rides and seeing the same awesome sights and characters (and fireworks!), it’s vastly different experiencing it for yourself and when you’re there mainly for your child to experience the magic of Disney. Thanks for sharing!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Exactly! I’ve only been as a parent and so I wondered what it would be like without kiddos. I love how magical everything felt when I saw my son experiencing the rides and characters. It helped me stay in the moment with him!

  9. Stacy- Taylor411 Reply

    That’s amazing that you guys got to your for free. If we ever go, I definitely want to have lunch with a character. That sounds like so much fun!!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Yes! We are so lucky to have a friend who got us in. We’re heading on our own this summer and the ticket prices really add up!

  10. Brittany| Memoirs Of A Good Thing Reply

    Oh wow this looks like such a blast! I have yet to take my 4 kids to Disneyland. I have only been once myself and it was so much fun. I don’t know when we will finally decide to take them but I definitely need to keep this handy. These are some really great tips! I think listening to your kids is a big key. They are pretty efficient at conveying what they need without actually saying it! Thank you for sharing all this great info!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Yes, it’s a fine line between doing everything you want to do (getting the most bang for your buck) and sitting back to enjoy the experience. We’re heading back in June and I actually just added an extra day to our trip to make sure I don’t rush everybody.

  11. Wow, what a great list! I had no idea about the photo pass, I haven’t been down to Disney in a few years so I missed that update. That’s a nice new feature that they have.

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      The Photo Pass was awesome! It’s great if you can designate one day as “picture day” so you just buy that one day’s worth of photos.

  12. I’m dying to take my one year old next year and everyone says wait! I think we will go anyway!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      They are free until they are 3, so take advantage! It’s a great way to explore the park before they have strong opinions on which rides they’d like to do!

  13. Jessi Joachim Reply

    We like to go to Disney World quite often since we live so close here in Florida. I am also glad we didn’t wait for our daughter to be older. She has so much fun starting at 2 years old.

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      We’re hoping to hit up Disney World next year. I’ve heard we’d need a full week to really explore!

  14. As someone who doesn’t have kids, I have to say I never would have thought traveling with an under 5 would be stress-free but you convinced me and as someone who LOVES pictures I had never heard of the photo pass. Which if and when I head to Disneyland again, I will deff be using that!!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      So much about travel is about attitude. If you think you’ll have a miserable time traveling with kids, you will. Otherwise, if you take it as it’s own adventure, you may be surprised how smoothly it may go. Plus, Disney customer service is excellent and really helps with the stress!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      I’m bringing my Mom for her first trip this summer and I’m excited to see her experience as a Grandparent!

  15. We are past the toddler age. But we are looking forward to someday taking both of our boys to Disney.

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Each age/stage is so different! We’re heading back with our son who will be 3.5-years-old and I already can tell he will want to do some things differently.

  16. maria criselda maquiling Reply

    I loved that the trip was centered on the child and not on Disneyland. I think most crying episodes happen because the parent want the toddler to adjust to Disney instead of vice versa. most helpful blog I have read about Disney. I especially love the rider switch option

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      We saw a lot of parents snapping at their kids because they kids were tired and the parents wanted to do more rides, watch parades, etc. It was kind of heartbreaking. I know the cost of Disneyland is a lot and it makes sense to want to get the most bang for your buck, but pushing kids beyond their limit makes for a very stressful experience.

  17. Definitely keeping this for reference! We would love to go soon, but the thought of taking four young ones is a little intimidating. Thanks for all the tips that will make planning it so much easier when we go!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Yes, taking four little ones would be difficult! If you’re able to bring along extra adults, that would make it much more manageable!

  18. I cannot wait to go with my little one to Disneyland! We just went to Universal this year with her and I told my husband that Disney was next! These tips will be perfect for us, too

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the experience! It really is magical to see Disneyland with kids!

  19. This has so much useful info!! I didn’t know most of these things. We have a four year old and a 16 month old and the idea of traveling with them to Disney is pretty terrifying to be honest! I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned setting expectations and remembering the trip is for the kids and if they aren’t enjoying themselves, no one will! I can’t wait to take our boys to Disney! Thanks for all of the great insights.

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Glad I could help! I’m heading back this summer with my 3.5-year-old and 6-month-old, so it will be interesting to see how it is with 2 littles.

  20. This is a fantastic post! I can’t wait until my little one is old enough to finally do disney (he is still under a year). I remember all the times I went as a kid and can’t wait for him to have that experience. You posted some INCREDIBLE information here. I can’t wait to refer back to it once we are ready to take the Disney adventure!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      Glad to help! Two and a half was a great age because he was tall enough to do a lot of the rides and his meals were free!

  21. I don’t know if I will ever brave Disneyland with my toddlers! Haha. I know one day I will have to, though so thanks for this guideline <3

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      It’s totally your call! If doing Disney with toddlers will stress you out, wait until you feel more comfortable! It’s so important that everyone enjoys themselves!

  22. Thanks so much for the detailed info! By far the most helpful review I’ve read. Planning to take our 2.5 yo there this fall:)

  23. Jaclyn Bree Reply

    Wow, I never knew so much planning could (or should) go into a Disneyland visit! I’ve only ever been to Disneyland once when I was a teenager. We certainly didn’t have a plan! If I ever take my kids to Disneyland, I’ll remember to plan properly!

    • Marcie in Mommyland Reply

      It’s usually best to have a plan when traveling with kids. And then know that plan is just a plan and can be altered at any point 🙂

  24. Pingback: Disneyland Character Meal Reviews

  25. Pingback: Disneyland's Paradise Pier Hotel Review

  26. Thanks for the tips. I am planning a family trip in a few weeks. I’ll be sure to buy a portable phone charger… and a DuckTales t-shirt (love it!)

    • marciecheung Reply

      Yes, the phone charger is a MUST! My husband loves DuckTales so he was stoked to find that shirt at Kohl’s!

Write A Comment