First-Timer Tips for Planning a Trip to Disneyland with Kids

Let me preface this by saying, I love Disney!
I dreamed of taking my kids to Disneyland since before they were born. You’ve seen the commercials showing bright balloons and adorable, happy children greeting their favorite characters and walking through a nearly empty park hand in hand. Perhaps you have fond childhood memories of visiting The Happiest Place on Earth yourself and can’t wait to recreate those memories with your own kids.
When I first told people I was planning a trip with my five kids to visit Disneyland last year, I was surprised by the responses. I received these strange looks of “that poor mom, she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into” and “good luck!” To be honest, I thought these people were just glass half empty types, and thought it was too bad they couldn’t appreciate the magic of a place like Disney. My trip was going to be wonderful and even if it wasn’t going to be simple, I was going to make it fun for everyone.  It turns out they weren’t pessimists, just well-seasoned Disney travelers that understood the reality of taking kids (let alone five) to the parks. I have caught myself making the same “good luck” face when a friend now tells me they are planning their first trip. However, with the right planning, no luck is needed.

I don’t want to scare you. The work was worth it! It really can be a magical place; seeing my 3 year old daughter’s face when she met Cinderella or watching my 7 year old son fight Darth Vader was priceless. Those memories will last a lifetime, and could only have been created at Disney. It can also become a disaster if you haven’t planned well.We took our first trip this past October and I would like to share what I learned along the way. We did some things right, but still managed to make some mistakes that I would like to help you avoid.What to do BEFORE you get to the park:

1. Lower your expectations.

It will not be like the commercials. Well, not exactly. There is magic and joy throughout the park. There are also long lines and meltdowns around every corner. You will meet characters, but you will probably stand in line for a while before you get face to face. When you finally make contact with Mickey, your little one might not even lift their head from your shoulder, let alone smile for a picture. As you can see from the picture above, it is also nearly impossible to get a picture of your family in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle without other guests in your shot. Darn.
You won’t be able to do it all. Not all at once. We had 4 park days (which felt like plenty for us) and still didn’t see it all.

2. Stay Away during peak season.

This is an obvious one.  I also understand it isn’t always possible. Maybe the only vacation time you have is in the Summer. It is just something to consider in your planning. Parents (and kids) dread the thought of standing in line for hours (yes, you read that right, multiple hours…it happens) for a three minute ride or two minute character interaction. We went in mid-October when the crowd forecast was low, but still managed to land on a busy week. I think the longest wait was 90 minutes, though some were only 10-15 minutes.
Also, you need to know that during the slower seasons they shut down and repair rides. I was bummed to miss a few of my childhood favorites, but was willing to trade that for shorter lines to the rides that were open. You can check TouringPlan’s Crowd Calendar and also has good info on dates to avoid.
3. Plan to take your own lunch and snacks.
This was a lifesaver! One of the quickest routes to a meltdown is allowing a child to become “staaarving!” Many people are surprised when I suggest this one, but we passed security daily as they examined our bags of food. They do suggest on their website that you enjoy your food in the picnic area outside the park gates,
but I saw no regulation of this.
If you have a different experience in your travels, please let me know.
We took two soft sided coolers that fit in the bottom of the stroller. You can also get a locker if you don’t want to haul it around. I packed one with sandwiches and the other with snacks (granola bars, apples, oranges, trail mix, cheese sticks). You cannot take glass containers or alcohol. When I started to see my kids’ little feet dragging we found a shady bench and pulled out our coolers. This was also a great time to check out the map and our Touring Guide (more about that later) and plan our next few rides. We also found a great spot to watch the parade and found it was another perfect time to refuel.
I stocked up on snacks and bottled water for a few months before our trip as I ran across coupon deals. We also went to a local grocery store to get fresh items when we arrived.
We still enjoyed plenty of Disneyland treats (more about that in a future post), but this saved us time and money and made those treats just that much more special.
4. Get a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland.

This book was full of useful information for a first-timer. Everything from what shoes to wear to restaurant reviews. What we used the most were the TouringPlans that they offer in the back of the book. You can also get them as an app in your phone with subscription. Basically, it is a schedule of what rides to go on throughout your visit. It doesn’t look efficient at all when you first look at it. It sends you from one side of the park, to the other, and back. To be honest, I was skeptical. We used the “small children” plan and were amazed when we breezed through the first half of our plan in just a few hours. The TouringPlans folks have it down to a science, and it works! You do have to follow the plan in the order they give, no matter how tempted you are to go on that ride that is right in front of you instead of the one across the park that the plan lists. You will come back to that ride later, don’t worry. Print a copy of each day’s plan for every person in your group. This helped us all since the kids weren’t asking “now what?” every five minutes. It also helps if your group splits up, so you know the next meeting place. You can purchase a copy at Amazon. My local library also carries a copy, so you may want to check yours. I have also seen deals on eBay, once a trip is over people may not need to hold on to their copy so you can score a lower price.
5. Book a room as close to the park as possible.
Getting ready for our last walk to the park!

You are going to walk miles and miles. Even if your hotel is just a few blocks (and trust me, those are long blocks) away it will feel like 5 more miles! Especially if you have little nappers, you will be thankful that you can easily get back and forth without eating into too much of your park time. We tried a vacation rental condo that was “within walking distance” so that we would have more room for our group of 8. It was also cheaper than two hotel rooms. The 15-20 minute walk didn’t turn out to be as convenient as I’d hoped. We had to cross a busy street and jump a median; it was a little scary with 5 kids.

My friend recommends the Best Western Plus Park Place Inn for an affordable option. It is literally straight across from the main gate entrance to the parks! They have suites for larger families and offer a free breakfast. Personally, I would love to save up and stay at the Grand Californian Resort & Spa. It is located IN the park and the spa sounds amazing. Every time I heard that magical voice on tram describe the accommodations as we drove past the building I swore to myself that next time we’d be staying there. Hey, a girl can dream!

6. Start Waking up Early and Walking
Yes, I care about your health and well-being, but this is about being prepared for early morning park openings and a LOT of walking. We are already early risers (well my kids are), and the time change from mountain to pacific helped us with the morning routine. You will need to get to the park ridiculously early to pack in all the rides you want.
To take a bit of the shock off, try waking up a bit earlier
throughout the weeks leading up to your trip.
We also start taking family walks about six weeks before our trip. We went down local river trails, strolled main street, you can even walk the mall. Obviously, the toddler and infant didn’t need as much “training” but it was good for Baby C to get used to sitting in a stroller for a good amount of time. You can see from the picture above, that still didn’t happen. Sigh. Thank goodness for my Ergobaby!
Anyhow, you need to train those legs and feet. We tried extending our walks as we got closer to our trip. You need everyone to be comfortable
walking about 6 miles for an average day at Disney.
It helped, especially with the kids, but I still have never had such tired legs and feet in my life as I did after a full day at Disneyland.

I have SO much more to share about our Disneyland wanderings in future posts. These are my planning tips, I will get to the tips for when you actually get to the park soon!
Despite a few challenges, it really did turn out to be a great trip.
Do you have any tips for a family taking their first trip to Disneyland?

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