June 28, 2018
Last month, we had our first trip ever with all four of us. I’ve taken trips with my husband, and I’ve taken a trip with my daughter, but it was a big family first to have all four of us stay overnight somewhere. Instead of easing our family into The First Car Ride Over 1.5 Hours as well as The First Time Sleeping In The Same Room Together with a nice relaxing cruise or local trip, we took the 6+ hour drive down to Southern California and then went to DISNEYLAND.
Disneyland is not a relaxing family vacation.
…But I’m glad we went. In the end, everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped, and I think we have a lot of great memories to keep with us. There were some things that couldn’t be helped (like my son being two), and other things we’d change now that we know (like not giving him all the snacks he wanted- that ended up being uh… messy =P). For the most part, though, there were a lot of things that were organized well and went right and made all the Type A planning worth it. That’s what I’d like to share with you today!
To be honest, I’m probably the last person you should ask about travel tips with family. I’m probably less experienced than most of you reading this right now! But I spent a lot of time researching what more experienced people know (in person and online), asking Super Disney Moms (like my friend who takes her little ones to Disneyland multiple times each week) for insider tips on Disneyland, and thinking through the details of what would make this a more successful trip for our family. So you can think of this as my research paper, compiling all the info that helped make this trip a success. Plus, some friends have been asking me to share some of my research, and this is the whole reason I started this blog in the first place- to share some of my learnings and tips easily with friends! So here we go :).
First of all, WHY DISNEYLAND? It’s a long drive, it’s crowded, it’s hot, you’re outside all day, there’s wait time for practically everything (even the things you diligently made reservations for two months ago), it’s over-stimulating, and, JoEllen: it’s FULL OF PRINCESSES. Maybe this is not a drawback to some of you, but I am decidedly not the most princess-iest person around, and have been particularly wary of letting my children be influenced by a lot of the princess culture that’s out there. Over the last two years, though, I have slowly been accepting the reality that my daughter is really into princesses, dancing and other super girly things. Lately, I have moved past acceptance and into some form of support. No joke, I’m pretty sure I went through the stages of grief when I realized we weren’t going to have the same childhood- mine being full of rough and tumble tomboy play, shunning all the girly things vs. hers full of sparkly dresses, tiaras, and tutus.
It wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, but I’m hoping to be the kind of mom who supports her passions and who God made her to be, even if it’s not a realm I am very familiar with. So, after much lamenting (only slightly exaggerating) and prayer, I came around and am not only accepting it, but I’m also hoping to add some sparkly magic to this whole phase while she is still young and believes in it all. So actually, the princesses ended up being the main reason why we went to Disneyland. Hah.
The Drive Down
I have a few recommendations for the drive down from Norcal to Socal. If you want to do a straight shot, I-5 is probably the fastest option. We left in the morning and made it to Kettleman City a little before noon. Kettleman City was a great lunch stop. If you only know about gas stations and In-N-Out there, I have some GREAT NEWS for you: there is a relatively new kid spot called Bravo Farms off the same exit! It was built in 2014, and is a great place to get something to eat, stretch your legs out, and let your kids play in the enclosed children’s area. The play area is outdoors with an Old West theme with small storefronts and doorways with slides and ladders. There’s even a sand pit with some toys in it. The bathrooms are clean and there was plenty of seating when we went.
I hear they also sell some toys and books, in case you need to stock up on more items to entertain your kids with for the rest of the drive down. There should also be fruit, ice cream, and candy. You can’t really ask for much more in a rest stop! If you’re looking for a more scenic route, the 101 might be a more enjoyable option for you. Here is a great post which makes the drive down seem like a vacation opportunity in itself!
After lunch, I had prepared a bunch of activities for the ride down, including borrowing and charging a bunch of Playaway View devices and books on CD from the library. In the end, letting the kids watch familiar shows like Daniel Tiger and Angelina Ballerina (which I had pre-downloaded onto two separate tablets) ended up being the easiest. I’m glad I purchased a pair of these volume-limiting headphones, which allowed them to watch without the noise bothering one another. The kids fell asleep before we hit the mountainous and curvy “Grapevine” and slept through most of the traffic before we arrived in Los Angeles. All in all, everything went as planned and even though the drive still felt long, it went as smoothly as we could have hoped!
Where to Stay and Sleeping Arrangements
We were originally prepared to fork out some serious cash to stay at one of the Disneyland Resort hotels for the sake of convenience, but Google Maps showed that the walking distance from the Disneyland Hotel to the entrance (9 minutes) was the same as the walking distance from several hotels just across the street on Harbor Boulevard. So I booked a hotel across the street (through Costco Travel) for a fraction of the cost of a Disneyland Resort hotel. We were very pleased with the location, and only regret that we didn’t get a suite with separate rooms instead of a standard room. Spending four days straight with my kids was
a little too much. Some room to breathe would have made a big difference!
Sleep (or, the lack of it) was my most un-favorite part of this trip. We have been fortunate enough to enjoy kids that have regular and healthy sleep habits, so the co-sleeping… and the not-sleeping… and the poor-quality-sleeping was harder for us to take in stride. One of most helpful pieces of advice about sleep was reading that the first night in the hotel room together would be rough. I had read that the kids would be so excited in the new environment that they would toss and turn and talk and stay up for hours that first night. Reading that advice didn’t change the situation, but knowing what to expect lessened my frustration when it actually happened. Predictably, this made them tired and grumpy the next day… but they also slept much more willingly the next night.
A Few Basic Things to Know About Disneyland
When I first started texting my Disney mom friend for Disney tips, she would say things like “Well, you might want to see if DCA has Extra Magic Hour and get a Fastpass…”
Er… rewind. DCA? Magic hour? Fastpass? I was already overwhelmed. So here are some basics to get out of the way. When you go to Disneyland in California, there are actually TWO parks that each require a different ticket (unless you get a park hopper ticket). One park is the classic Disneyland that was first opened in 1955. It has all the stuff people usually think of with Disneyland: the castle, Dumbo, It’s a Small World, and Main Street. It’s the only park I remember from my childhood visits. Across the entrance from Disneyland is another big park (and the one our family enjoyed more) called Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). It was opened in 2001 and has the newer Disney stuff, including most of the Pixar, Frozen, and Guardians of the Galaxy Stuff. During our visit, it also appeared to have wider walkways and felt much less crowded.
The entire Disneyland Resort is like a little world of its own with its own vocabulary and culture. As I planned for our trip, I kept discovering new layers that were amusing and somewhat complicated. I’m still a relative beginner, but here are some random things I’ll mention for you if you’re even more of a novice than I am:
- The employees at Disneyland are called Cast Members. As my friend says, ask them anything, because “They are paid to be nice.” They really were nice! As a testament to their dedication: I was watching the parade one night with my Disney mom friend and some of her friends, and learned that one of these friends was a cast member who usually worked at a different section of the park. I turned to her, bewildered: Why was she still here when… she didn’t have to be? Turns out she enjoys the park so much that she visits on her off hours and stays to watch (and rewatch?) parades, too! And that’s when I realized how deeply magical Disneyland really is for people, even adults.
- Extra Magic Hour is when the park opens one hour before the official opening time, to allow some people to come in and enjoy the park for an hour before the rest of the crowds are allowed to enter.
- FastPass: Many rides are super popular and can often have wait times that extend beyond 75 minutes. Some rides offer a workaround called a FastPass. You go to a special kiosk and get a printout which gives you a window of time to go to that ride. When you get there, you get in the special line marked “FastPass” and it’s much shorter than the regular line. It feels like going in the carpool lane during peak commute. For example, we took 15 minutes to bypass a 75 minute Radiator Springs Racers line, and 2 minutes to bypass a 30 minute Toy Story Midway Mania line. FastPass is GREAT and costs you nothing. The annoying things to note are that 1) FastPasses can run out, and 2) It can be annoying to search out the FastPass kiosk, which sometimes is not near the ride that it is printing out the FastPass for.
- MaxPass: We were not about to run around a park with two little kids printing up FastPasses… so I was very happy to hear about the relatively new MaxPass option. Basically, you can pay $10 per person to have the ability to select FastPasses on your smartphone (through your Disneyland app). Yayyy less walking. So convenient. If you’re really into rides, then you should seriously consider getting the MaxPass. Not only does it save you from walking around looking for kiosks, but you can even select another FastPass while you’re in line for a ride. Talk about maximizing your time.
One other benefit of the MaxPass is that you can get unlimited Disney Photo downloads for a day. So that hilarious photo you see as you are exiting the ride that shows you and your friends screaming together? Get the photo # and it’s a free download onto your phone. All those Disney photographers with their fancy cameras walking around the park offering to take photos of you and your lovely family? DO IT!! This means someone with a DSLR is going to snap several great photos of your family and it will just be sent to your phone! One thing to note on all the FastPass/MaxPass fun is that it might not end up being that useful if you have a really young child. Many of the popular rides offering FastPasses have a height requirement, so check it out online first and see if it’s worth purchasing for your group.
- The Disneyland App: When I was young, I thought Disneyland was all about the rides. I was very wrong. There is a lot going on at Disneyland, including rides, shows, parades, characters to meet, and food to eat. They are all spread out in different places, and a lot of things happen at different times. It can be overwhelming to navigate, which makes it REALLY handy to have the free Disneyland app on your smart phone. There’s an interactive map where you can filter out to find an age-appropriate ride, a nearby place to get hot dogs, or simply stalk your favorite princess. You can find wait times for all the rides and see what time the next show or parade is going to take place. It’s REALLY handy and useful: I definitely recommend downloading it before your next trip to Disneyland!
- There is a security check before you even get in line for the Disneyland entrance. This security line also applies to anyone who wants to stroll through Downtown Disney. They will check your bags and make you open up your sun glass case. So if you have dinner reservations or you’re hoping to arrive at the park at opening to maximize your time there, consider that you might have to wait in line to get through security (it was 25 minutes the first evening we arrived), then wait in a separate line to get in the park. Seriously, it feels like there is a wait time for everything.
- Kids are free until they turn three. Whether or not it is worth it to bring a “free” two year old along is another matter… 😛
- You can bring outside food into the park, with some limitations.
- Rider Switch is available for some rides. It’s a feature that makes it possible for adults to take turns supervising a child that can’t ride (too short?) or doesn’t want to ride. It’s a little complicated and I don’t 100% understand it myself, but I know it’s something that parents with very young kids and babies often take advantage of! Read more here.
- The park is very, very stimulating. If you have a sensitive child, know that there is music (sometimes exciting, tense music) piped in pretty much everywhere you walk, tons of people (at times I felt like we were walking just inches at a time!), lots to see, and it can get very hot being outside all day. Pretty much all of your senses are being overwhelmed. Pair that with the anticipation of DISNEYLAND!!!!! and even children who aren’t usually sensitive will probably get pretty amp-ed up and act out of character. Mine did!
I think it’d be lovely to just show up to Disneyland and wing it and have spontaneous fun. I wanted to leave space for that, but I also knew that we had to see princesses, catch the Frozen show, watch a parade, and get on the Cars ride. Making sure all these things happened took some research and planning. I didn’t want to wait 75 minutes in line for the Cars ride and then miss the Frozen show, or watch the show but miss the parade. I also didn’t want to walk all the way to Fantasyland to meet Cinderella, then walk ten minutes to Frontierland to go on the Pooh ride, only to jet back to Fantasyland to catch the last Mickey and the Magical Map show. Efficiency, people! Especially with two young kids!
So I planned. I planned enough to make sure we’d be able to get all of our “must-see” activities in, and also enough to give some breathing room for spontaneous things like riding the horse-drawn trolley (which turned out to be one of my son’s favorites!), taking the train around Disneyland (which is a little scary for toddlers, btw), and eating a churro in between.
Here are some ideas for planning:
- You can find a ton of information on the Disneyland website, from parade times to learning which rides offer FastPass.
- It might be helpful to figure out which 3-4 things you really, really want to get in and put the times/locations for that into a spreadsheet, and then add in other “nice to haves” with times/locations handy so you don’t even have to look things up in the app while you’re at Disneyland. For example, our highest priority items at Disney’s California Adventure included meeting Elsa and Anna, the Disney Jr Dance Party show, the Frozen show, the Radiator Springs Racers ride (the Cars ride), and the Paint the Night parade.
I made those items bold in my spreadsheet and used red to show the recommended plan, but also noted other times in case we missed the “optimal” timing. I’m glad I did that, because when we got in, the first FastPass we obtained took place at the same time as one of the shows we had planned to watch, so we ended up bumping things around. But it was easy. It didn’t stress me out at all to say, “Oh, let’s just do this ride and then we can catch a later showing,” because I already knew it would work out since I had set up this spreadsheet beforehand. We had plenty of time to catch a trolley and ride several other unplanned rides that day. Also, I personally think it’s fun to plan and organize stuff in a spreadsheet like this. If this process looks like no fun at all, then skip it and read on!
- Make dining reservations in advance, especially if it’s a nicer restaurant or if it’s Character Dining. I had booked our trip through Costco Travel, so it came with vouchers for Character Dining. Character dining is a special experience you pay extra money for, where Disney characters come up to your table for a meet and greet as you eat! I knew my daughter would love this. When she sees Snoopy at Great America, she zips off to give him a big hug, so seeing Minnie Mouse or Goofy stop by our dinner table would be such a treat! I decided to book it for the evening that we arrived in Los Angeles, so we could still have a taste of Disney magic when we first arrived without actually paying for park tickets.
Some Character Dining experiences are in the park (and you need to have separate park tickets to enter), and some are out of the park (no park tickets required to eat there), so take note if you are planning this. We arrived early for our reservations and then had an additional 30 minute wait, but it was all worth it when we got inside. Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, Chip and Dale all made their way over to our table to say hi, dance, take photos, and sign our autograph book as we ate our dinner.
The next morning, we arrived at Disneyland and as we walked through main street at opening, we saw several different long lines of people waiting. At the end of each line was one of the characters we had just dined with the evening before, and it felt fantastic to breeze past them, skipping hours of lines because we had already met with them all.I should note that this experience is not for everyone, especially if your child gets scared easily. My two year old son was scared of most of the characters and stuck with Daddy, and we’ve heard about other kids crying every time a character approached (I think that would have been me as a 3-yr old…). So consider the personalities in your group before splurging on this experience!
- Ok this might be going overboard but I also made sure to borrow some Mickey’s Clubhouse DVDs from the library and let my kids watch a couple episodes before the trip so they would actually know who the characters were once we arrived for our special Character Dining. It totally worked and I’m pretty sure it made the Character Dining experience about 10x better!
- Make dining reservations with the Disneyland app. We did mostly casual dining, but on our last evening there we opted to have a sit-down dinner and take it slower for a bit. While the kids napped, I checked the Disneyland app and was surprised to find that there were still some early dinner times available. I’m so glad we booked it instead of just “walking in,” because as soon as we got seated, a long line formed and there was a long wait time for everyone after us. If there’s a place you really want to eat, or you know you want to do sit-down dinners, you might want make reservations weeks in advance (up to 60 days ahead of time).
- If you’re concerned that your child might be scared of a ride, the Disneyland website notes the thrill level for rides, like for the Winnie the Pooh ride (“Slow Rides, Dark, Loud”). You can also watch YouTube videos ahead of time (maybe at 2x speed if you’re trying to save time) to see videos of people going on rides so you can gauge if its appropriate for your child.
- I had a whole section dedicated to planning this trip for a princess-loving child, but it’s so long I decided to split it out into a second post. So if you’ve got a little princess at home, keep your eyes peeled for it next week! (And if you’re not into this Disneyland stuff, please ignore it and stay with me! :)).
I probably over-packed, but we drove a minivan down and I managed to fit all of the kids stuff and my stuff into two carry-on sized suitcases, so it wasn’t too bad. In addition to the usual items like socks, undies, and toothbrushes, there are some Disneyland-specific items you might want to consider packing. If you get them ahead of time, you not only have a greater selection, but you can do more research and usually get a better price than what’s offered in the park:
- Autograph book: If you child likes to meet the characters, then it’s fun to have a little autograph book for the characters to sign. Instead of a blank autograph book, I ordered the Junior Encyclopedia of Animated Characters which highlights 150 Disney characters with a description and full color images. It worked out well since my daughter didn’t actually know that many of the Disney characters yet, so a small description was helpful. In my opinion, it’s also more fun to have the descriptions and images to look back on instead of blank pages, and is something she continues to keep close to her and read all the time! Honestly, she wasn’t into the informational genre before this book, and now she is all about it. So for us, it was worth it even for that. This book was only ~$11 on Amazon and small and light enough to carry around in my backpack. I threw a couple of Sharpies into my backpack and always had it ready to bring out. It was fun seeing the characters sign with their own little touches.
Gaston in particular gave us a hard time, insisting again and again that he didn’t know how to write his name… so eventually my daughter had him trace his name instead!
- Glow sticks: They’re only $1 for a few at Dollar Tree, and a lot less expensive than the light-up products available at Disneyland. Great if you’re going to catch the Paint the Night Parade or see fireworks. Too bad I forgot and left ours in the hotel…
- Safety Tattoos: Isn’t this a great idea? It’s a temporary (but durable) tattoo that you can use to put your phone number on your kid, just in case they get lost. I thought it was such a great idea that I bought a pack… which I accidentally left at home the day we left. Gah.
- Princess dresses: If your kid is like mine and is all about princesses, then pack a couple of her favorite princess dresses in with the shorts and t-shirts. This way you won’t feel any pressure to buy a really expensive one at the park! I happened to pack a Belle dress for our Disneyland Day and an Elsa dress for our day at Disney’s California Adventure (I knew ahead of time that Elsa and Anna could only be found at DCA). My friend said the princesses dresses could get uncomfortable for a whole day out, so I also brought along a t-shirt for her to change into, but she ended up keeping her dresses on for a long as she could.
- Mickey/Minnie Mouse Ears: A lot of people wear these at the park, and it’s fun to join in on the mouse-ear fun! It’s also probably more economical to purchase them ahead of time.
For someone who used to only think of Disneyland as a place to go on rides, this trip-planning process was a real eye-opener for me! I really am glad we decided to trek out and visit Disneyland together during these young, magical years. My son had a blast in Cars Land and still talks about the “May-dow wide and twoh-yee” (Mater ride and trolley). My daughter is currently wondering about the logistics of Elsa making it out for the upcoming local Mommy and Me event (where she first met Elsa last year), when she clearly has so many people to greet in Disneyland already. I am also starting to plan when we can get out there next, and I hope this trip gives you some helpful ideas in your planning, too!