I grew up in a Disneyland family. Living in Northern California, we were only about 6-7 hours away which was manageable enough to drive there about once a year or at least every other year. Everything about it is so magical. They really think of everything and they execute it flawlessly.
While I had fun and I still enjoyed the experience overall, I definitely found myself taking notes on how to cope with the sensory overload that is taking two small people to the Happiest Place on Earth.
- Find the coffee. Coffee has always been in the park, but now there is a Starbucks in both Disneyland and California Adventure. I don’t really order the fancy drinks at Starbucks, but when you’re outside standing in the sun all day, hot coffee is the last thing I want, so an iced coffee at Starbucks was exactly what I needed to get the caffeine in the blood stream without sweating (more than I already was).
- Find the booze. There is no alcohol to be had in Disneyland, but California Adventure is your place if you’ve had just a little too much family time and crowds. Margaritas, Karl Strauss beer truck, wine tasting all there for the taking. Restaurants in Downtown Disney all have bars in them too, which is only a quick walk outside the main gates. It was so hot when we went that I felt like I was constantly dehydrated, so I didn’t ever partake, so have one for me!
- Lower your expectations. There is so much to see and do that it is impossible to do everything. This is hard for me because the tickets are so expensive that I want to be there from the second the park opens until the second it closes so I can do. all. the. things. That worked when we didn’t have kids, but now with two kids under 3, that doesn’t fly. You’re going to hit a point where everyone just is tired and cranky and you just have to embrace it. It’s a slower paced visit now and for them just being in the park and taking in the ambiance is enough for them. Plus, they’re too short to ride all the big things anyway, so it would be impossible to do everything. We can be there from sun up until sundown when they’re older, but for now it’s parades, shows and It’s A Small World until my ears bleed.
- Bring the screens. It really is a sensory overload at Disneyland, and you might think that bringing a device for your kids would be counterintuitive. Isla loves the sensory input up to a point and then she’s DONE. We’ve found for her the best way for her to recharge is to have about 15-20 minutes of screen time. It’s quiet, she’s in control and she can zone all the other stimuli out. Then she’s refreshed and ready to go. It’s a perfect thing to do while you’re holding down your parade spot, waiting in a line or trying to eat. We felt sort of guilty about it, but then we noticed how many adults sat on their phone slumped over on a bench trying to get a minute or two of solace and we realized it’s really not all that different. If it works for a big kid or an adult, why can’t it work for a toddler?
- Wear the yoga pants. Both times we’ve gone, I’ve been very particular about what I wore. Obviously there would be a bunch of pictures and I wanted to avoid the whole “Mom, what are you wearing?!” conversation years from now. Never again. You are sweating all day long either from the heat, wearing a kid, or both and you’re covered in sunscreen plus whatever the kids have wiped on you that day. I kept seeing other moms wearing yoga pants/athleisure wear and kept thinking how smart that was.
- Just say yes. Disney is expensive and I’d venture a guess that every family that goes is on a budget. I totally get that, but just say yes as much as you can. The $20 bubble wand, the $8 lollipop the size of their head, the stuffed Mickey they grab off the shelf and immediately bite the nose of so you feel obligated to buy it…whatever it is, buy it. There is a lot of standing and waiting during a day at Disneyland and whatever sanity you can buy is worth every penny.
- Bring a carrier. In fact, bring everything. We had a double stroller, but the Ergo came in so handy while waiting in line and during naps. If you’re already bringing the stroller, you may as well load it up with crap, so if you think you’ll need it or think you’ll wish you would have brought it, throw it in. Whether you drive in or stay at a nearby hotel, you’re still a solid 30 minutes away from just running back to the car to grab something. But my packing skills tend to err on the side of Boy Scout more than minimalist, so take that for what it’s worth. I’d also suggest a change of clothes for both kids and adults. Just trust me on that one.
- Download the Disneyland app. Wait times, reservations, character locations, photo passes, and show times all in one place. We didn’t find the wait times to be extremely accurate, especially if you were looking at something across the park and I felt it took away some of the spontaneity of the park, especially when it came to finding the characters, but if you’re kid is dead set on seeing a specific character, I think this would be really useful.
- Use the Baby Center. At the end of Main Street is the Baby Center. Every bathroom in the park has a changing area, but it’s the tiniest space ever. I’m talking like a 3’x3′ square, which complicated changes quite a bit. The Baby Center has big spacious, padded changing tables. They also have high chairs, a microwave and gliders for nursing. On one night I knew we’d be staying in the park well past the usual bedtime, so I rocked Nolan and gave him his bottle in a glider and was able to get him to sleep and into the Ergo while we stayed in the park. It was the perfect quiet environment for our little busy body to fall asleep because no way was he going to be able to do it with everything else going on.
- Use the First Aid Center. This is right next to the Baby Center. One day AJ and I had splitting headaches and instead of spending $15 on a tiny bottle of Advil we were able to get some there. The next day Nolan spiked a fever and they were able to take his temperature and even had medicine for him, because who thinks to bring those things to Disneyland.
I won’t lie to you and say Disneyland with toddlers is easy. It’s a physical task (kids in and out of the stroller, chasing run away kids, corralling them in line so they don’t join a new family, etc) and pretty mentally and emotionally draining. But at the end of the day when you’re putting your 2 year old to bed and she says “I love Disneyland!” and then tells you about her favorite ride for days after, it’s all worth it.