Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is THE original Disney theme park, and the only one built under Walt Disney’s direct design and vision. Next door is Disney’s California Adventure, bringing to life Disney and Pixar stories and characters – Cars Land definitely got our vote for the most in-depth theming, I LOVED wondering around there with my camera.
We recently went on a two day trip with our four year old and our almost two year old, here is the complete lowdown on our experience ‘doing’ Disneyland with young kids.
When you wait all day to take a “lights on” photo in this exact spot in Cars Land, and the result is definitely a keeper:
Favourite rides and attractions
Sam: California Screaming, Turtle Talk with Crush
(Turtle talk with Crush was actually all of our favourites, really. Billed as an interactive show, so I guess we were expecting that they’d stick to a standard script with a few interactive tricks. This show was actually a surprise gem, it’s entirely interactive technology left Sam and I wondering “But HOW did they do that bit??”. There were some real laugh out loud moments.)
Chloe: The Little Mermaid, Toy Story Midway Mania (I like the classic rides with the expansive sets, and Toy Story because I get competitive with my scoring).
Arlo (4yrs): Star Tours, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree
Rory (23 months): Casey Junior Train, World of Colour.
I didn’t really think Rory would ‘get’ Disney. We don’t have the Disney channel at home, and neither of my boys are interested in feature length films yet, so they aren’t Disney experts by any means. Also, he was only 23 months old when we were there. Arlo is a theme park / fun fair ride lover, and will go on a lot of the more daring rides too. But, in the past when we’ve tried Rory on rides, he’s flat out refused.
To be honest, I was anticipating a lot of sitting out on rides with Rory whilst Sam and Arlo had their fun (Have I mentioned that Rory screams blue murder when I go out of sight? Yeah, we need to work on that one). But, after expressing some doubts on his first ride, he’d got the hang of the whole thing by the second, and by the third was clammering to “Get on. Get on NOW!” as soon as we entered the queue area.
And it turns out that even little Rory was not immune to Disney fever, as we found out during the World of Colour show. He turned to me with a big grin on his face and said “Mama, I’m happy!!” – a word he has never used before and I wasn’t aware that he even knew (my third ‘best moment’ of the holiday). It just goes to show that no matter what your age, everyone finds their own appreciation of Disney.
You know there are some kids who want to hug every character they see, and some who are…a bit more wary?
Guess which category Arlo falls into:
Wherever we went, there were Disney characters on every corner, with the ‘big guys’ constantly to be found in Main Street. I was under the impression that you never saw Mickey and Minnie walking around anymore, and that the only way to meet them is to go to their respective houses in Toon Town, but the ‘big guys’ were on Main Street every time we walked past. Maybe this is standard for Disneyland, or maybe there were more characters around in lieu of a daily parade.
That was the one let-down for me, and it’s a pretty big one, so I’m going to get it out of the way at the start so I can move on to all the stuff we really enjoyed:
There was no parade or fireworks the whole time we were at Disneyland.
Knowing that midweek is statistically the quietest time at Disney, we deliberately chose our days to fall on a Wednesday and Thursday. Months before, Disney’s website was saying “schedule unavailable” for our visit, which I stupidly didn’t think much of and took to mean that they would update the exact times nearer the date – because there are ALWAYS fireworks and parades at Disney, right? It was only the day before our visit to Disney, when I saw it was still saying “schedule unavailable”, that I did a bit more googling and discovered that parades and fireworks are weekends only in the off peak months at this time of year. I should have looked into the scheduling a bit more, and Disney should have clearer scheduling details on their website so there is no confusion.
We did get to see a Pixar Parade at California Adventure. Watching Arlo’s awed face made me wish even more that there was a ‘classic’ parade we could have watched too – he’d never seen anything like a Disney parade before, and I could tell he was very impressed.
Disneyland photography with young kids
I honestly couldn’t think of anything more annoying than lugging my big camera around at Disney. Amongst the hecticness and exhaustion of a full day at Disney, I knew patience would be wearing VERY thin for posed photos and any group shots that I might have had fanciful ideas about trying. I actually felt like not taking my SLR, but so many photo lovers that had been before me were advocating “TAKE IT! TAKE IT!”, that I got SLR FOMO and packed my basic setup (canon 6d, 50mm 1.4 lens – which is really my only setup these days) in our Disney day bag at the last minute.
Most of the time, it stayed in my bag and I forgot about it. But, I had my SLR to hand each evening during golden hour, and gave it to the Photopass photographers for a couple of family photos (They will happily take a photo with your own camera if you ask, we didn’t have to buy any extra photos). I don’t think I’ll ever be the type of person to have my SLR constantly round my neck for an entire Disney trip – too much hassle and my kids are probably losing a few too many brain cells from being occidentally whacked round the head with my lens (this happens to everybody, right?). But I got what I wanted – a couple of nice shots of the kids in their Disney t-shirts (bought at Primark and H&M, respectively), and a couple of us as a family, and I’m happy I had my SLR to hand for those photos.
My top tip for anyone taking an SLR to Disney would be to utilise all that time spent in line for the rides. There are plenty of photogenic opportunities to be accessed from the ride queues. I got the best photos of the kids this way – their patience for photos was at a maximum because they knew they had to wait anyway and had nowhere to run. (Hah). The photo of Arlo by the dumbo ride was taken whilst in the queue for something else (Casey Junior or Storybook Land, I think), after I asked him to duck under the railings quickly and play a silly game. Taking photos whilst queuing means you aren’t making everyone stop on the way to a ride to take photos, and as the queues were a rare moment of stillness for us in the park, I actually found it gave me more time to focus on how I wanted everything to be framed.
Height restrictions and queuing with young kids
Height restriction wise, we couldn’t have timed it better. Arlo was just over 42 inches, which is the height to ride most of the ‘big’ and popular rides like space mountain, big thunder, radiator springs racers, and splash mountain. Whilst Rory was just over 32 inches, which is the height requirement for rides like Autopia and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree. A child under 32 inches isn’t going to be old enough to care whether they can or can’t ride certain rides, but if you have a 3 – 5 year old, I’d definitely recommend waiting until they pass the 42 inch mark before planning a big Disney trip.
Prior to this trip, I’d been to Disney World (in Florida) three times, twice of those as a grown up. I wasn’t sure whether going with young children would make things more difficult, but utilising things like rider switch and single rider lines makes the queuing system fairly flexible when you have small people in your party. Neither Arlo or Rory were tall enough for California Screaming or Indiana Jones, but using the single rider line whilst the other parent waited with the children meant we were able to bypass the big queue and walk straight onto the ride.
For rides that Sam, Arlo, and I all wanted to experience but Rory was too small for, we’d take turns to wait with Rory whilst the other parent took Arlo on the ride and requested a rider switch pass. When they were back from the ride, whichever of us had been waiting with Rory would take the switch pass and take Arlo back on the ride (if he wanted to go again, sometime he didn’t in which case Sam or I would ride alone using the switch pass – this is allowed too). The switch pass is valid all day, giving an extra element of flexibility if you decide you don’t want to ride again straight away. Switch passes are valid for up to 3 people (or at least, that’s what it said on our radiator springs switch pass), so essentially it means two of your children can experience an extra go on a ride without having to wait in line a second time.
Radiator Springs Racers tip – if you have littles (Arlo is just over the height limit of 42inches) ask to be seated in the front of the car – Arlo was too short to see over the top of the back row and it’s much nicer for them to be able to see where the car is headed during the race segment of the ride.
The all-important child transportation chariot
Being the natural deliberator that I am, this point took quite a lot of consideration, including several in depth conversations with other parent bloggers who have ‘done Disney’ recently (thanks Bryony and Lucy!!)
Arlo is four, but he is a very reluctant walker. That, combined with a need for jet lag naps, huge theme parks, and two impatient parents who like to walk fast, we knew we would need a pushchair option for both children.
The question was: double buggy or two singles? We had two singles at home that we could have taken, but we had a feeling that a double would be easier. There are several baby equipment and pushchair rental companies in the OC and San Diego area with lots of double pushchair options. We could have rented one for approximately £120 for the duration of our 2 week holiday. But then we wouldn’t have it for the all-important airport part of our trip. Sam also reasoned that popular pushchairs keep a very good resale value, and if we were to buy buy on Ebay with a view to reselling again when we no longer need it, we’d get a similar price to what we bought it for, as opposed to the outright cost of renting one for a few weeks.
So, that’s what we ended up doing. We bought a second hand Baby Jogger City Mini Twin on Ebay. We went for the GT version for a couple of reasons. With a two and a four year old, we thought the larger tires would make for an easier push. And the seat backs are an inch or so higher than the non-GT version, which makes all the difference when you are trying to find a pushchair suitable for a four year old with a long torso.
Grumpy children alert:
The buggy was perfect. We were right about a double being better for us at Disney (and San Diego Zoo, etc). It meant if one of us needed to run off for fast passes, food, or the toilet, the other wasn’t left trying to push two single buggies at once. The fold and unfold could not be easier, and it’s a really easy push, even with my two older children in it. The problem is, I don’t really want to resell it now! I seriously wish we’d had this when Rory was first born, I think it would have made a lot of things much easier.
Where we stayed
We were staying at Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. We didn’t see much of the hotel or it’s facilities, as we were literally crashing as soon as we got in, and heading out first thing in the mornings. But having the little Disney touches in the room definitely added a bit of excitement for the kids.
Access to the parks couldn’t have been easier – a 15 minute walk through the Grand Californian Hotel and Downtown Disney – the shopping and restaurant area. When I was little, I always wanted to stay in a Disney Hotel (this was when I thought they were actually inside the theme park itself). Even at the grand old age of 30, it was still pretty exciting to achieve that particular childhood dream.
As for doing Disney with young children, it’s definitely easier staying onsite. Not only do you get to utilise early entry magic hours every morning of your stay, but it takes that hassle out of knowing you have an extra journey to make after the parks close, when everyone is tired, and it’s late. It also means you can pop back for a rest as and when you feel like it – if the kids suddenly reach critical Disney-overload and a couple of hours quiet time would come in really handy right about now, no problem.
How many days do you need?
We were debating between two or three day tickets before we went, but we weren’t sure if we’d need three days, or if that would be overkill. At an extra £100 for our family of three (Rory goes free as an under-three), it was worth careful consideration.
Luckily, we didn’t need to decide on the spot, as Disney make it really easy to upgrade any existing tickets. As long as we went to a ticket gate in the parks or in our hotel before park closing on the last day of our ticket, we could pay the difference and upgrade to a three-day (or more) pass. We decided to see how we fared with our two-day pass and upgrade on the second day if we felt we hadn’t covered enough.
We thought we would follow the advice of everyone who goes with kids and use the afternoon to go back to our hotel and have a break before heading back in for the evening. Instead, the kids were happy to nap in the buggy, Sam and I using that time to take it in turns doing some of the rides that the kids were too small for. Being off season, we found that the parks opening hours were reduced (parks closing at 8.30pm and sometimes not opening until 10am if there wasn’t an early morning magic hour that day), so leaving for a midday break felt like we would be cutting down our park hours a bit too much.
We were in the parks ALL DAY from opening to close for two days, and in that time we covered everything we had wanted to do, plus had time to ride a handful of favourites a second time (Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, Autopia, California Screamin). Plus, after two long days, we were kind of Disney-ed out. I asked Arlo if there was anything else he wanted to do, or anything he wanted to ride again, and when his answer was no, I took that as a sign that a third day wasn’t going to be necessary for us.
That being said, if you need to allow time for meeting characters (everyone we walked past had at least a ten minute queue, but our kids aren’t interested), if you aren’t staying onsite in a Disneyland hotel, or you want to do things at a more relaxed pace and don’t like the thought of such long days, a three day pass (or more) is probably your best bet.
And when you do leave, don’t plan anything major for the day after. We had a real lazy day, and it was really needed. The kids, all of us, were completely tired out and a low stimulus, low maintenance day was much needed.
Off season or high season?
This one is hard for me to answer because we haven’t been in high season. As I said before, we deliberately planned our trip for midweek off season as we hoped that would mean less queuing. With the exception of Radiator Racers, none of the queues were longer than 30 mins. I’m not sure how this would compare to a summer midweek. I would have been 100% happy had there been a parade and fireworks, but in absence of those things, I can’t help weighing up everything else about an off season trip and asking if it was really that much more advantageous. Shorter park hours with no parade or fireworks for the same ticket price does feel like you are getting less value for money.
We also found that many of the queue times were unrepresentative – rides saying 5 mins took 20, rides saying 20 took 10. It seemed that the less busy the ride, the less quickly the wait times at the front of the queue were updated. The busiest, most popular rides had the most efficient queuing systems, whilst less busy rides were less so – cars weren’t being loaded to capacity and there just didn’t seem the urgency or incentive to get people through the queue as quickly as possible. So, in our experience, rides with shorter queues often ended up taking just as long as rides with longer wait times. That being said, I can’t say that the queuing systems we experienced were typical of low season, we could have gone in high season and found similar queuing efficiency but much longer wait times all round.
Is it worth going with such young children?
There are some great bonuses to taking young children to Disney. Under threes go free, which can be a big reduction in the overall cost of your tickets. I liked that our two were still pushchair age, using our double buggy meant we were able to cover far more ground a lot faster than were our children a few years older and on foot. And I LOVED hearing Arlo’s perspective of Disneyland, seeing the little details through his eyes. For example, the Tommorowland toilets have an alien and a human on the male/female signs. I hadn’t even noticed this little touch until Arlo asked “Does that mean that aliens are in real life, then?” I also loved when he asked if we would need our Oyster cards to ride the Disneyland railroad.
My opinion – If you’re only going to do Disney once, do it later on, when they will remember and they are tall enough to ride all the rides (46 inches). But if it’s not the ‘big trip’ you are planning, and you happen to be in the area anyway, then why not? Disney is a great experience with young children. Yes, they might well not remember it long term, but it’s only when they are this young that they see it as real magic. Through their eyes, Mickey DOES live in that house in Toon Town, those aren’t ‘effects’ on the rides, it’s all completely real, and, for Sam and I as parents, it was incredibly sweet to witness.
We loved our time at Disneyland, I’m so glad we got to take the kids there, I loved watching them discover Disney for the first time, and it’s clear to see that their experience at Disneyland has left a huge impression. We are now being barraged with comments like “Did you KNOW there’s a Disneyland in FRANCE? That’s REALLY close to us. Can we go tomorrow?”
A massive thanks to Visit California for sending us on this adventure, and to Quintessentially Travel for organising our activities and helping us plan all the small details. Our accommodation at Paradise Pier was included as part of our trip. Disney Park tickets were purchased ourselves in the usual way. All opinions are honest and are own, as always.