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Surviving Disneyland with Small Children (and on a budget!)

This is kind of a departure from my typical blog content, but I'm going to talk just a tiny bit about saving money, too, so it all kind of ties in:) There is a lot of info on the web about "surviving Disneyland," but not a lot on how to do it with very small children. Now, I am a huge fan of the happiest place on earth- seriously, I want to move in. I always say that if only the entire world were operated like Disneyland and Ikea it would be a happier place. However, your trip can easily be sucked of all it's fun if you are not prepared- especially if there are children involved.

  •  Pay attention to when you go.  The best times to go to Disneyland are September, January, and February.  The rest of the year is busier because there are either specific event going on (Halloween and Christmas themed activities) or it's Spring break or Summer vacation.  Pick a weekday(or days) over weekends.  And go early- the park fills up in the late afternoon and evening as the locals' kids get out of school.  If you go early you can do everything you want to do before lines get long and either leave before it gets more crowded or hang around.  But rest assured that things run so smoothly (normally) at Disneyland that the ONLY time I have ever had an issue with traffic coming into or going out of the park was on the first day of the Christmas Fantasmic show (and the last day for local passholders to see it).  On that day it was a little crowded walking out of the park, and the tram line was insane- I opted to walk to the parking garage while my friends got in line, and I beat them back.  And it's a long walk.  But my point is that is the only time I have had that issue (and it was immediately after the fireworks show, as well, when the park was about to close).
  • My next tip for ANYONE going to Disneyland (this applies to any theme park, or any trip for that matter)- LESS IS MORE! I feel so bad for the people I see at the park lugging around tons of extra junk that they just don't need. This seems to be doubly true for parents of very young children. For example, there was a couple with an older baby in the tram line with us, and they had their oversized stroller, the infant carseat/carrier, and of course the overpacked diaper bag (oh, and the baby!) and the two of them could barely hold it all. Keep in mind, especially in this instance, that there are several times you could want/need to colapse your stroller, so everything your stroller is holding (including the baby!) needs to be easily held by whatever capable people you have with you (and yes, this could include older children). I personally hate infant carrier seats- I think they are a poor substitute for actually holding your child, and I'm sure that my personal prejudice colored the pity I felt for these parents. Here is what WE take to Disneyland: Two medium sized bags (not large, and neither are overstuffed, and it mostly has to do with our stroller and the size of it's baskets), our Combi double stroller (because I got tired of rotating the kids for naps, and often it is far too hot for Ollie to sleep in the carrier), and one baby carrier, whichever one I like best on the particular day we go. I also shove both kids' blankies into the very bottom of the stroller basket- they don't have to be removed when the stroller is folded up. These aren't functional necessities, but they are my kids' security items so I don't like to go on long trips without them. While technically we had just a tad more stuff than this other couple, all our stuff was more easily managed- to get on the tram, or anytime we needed to collapse the stroller, I had Ollie in the carrier and one bag slung over my shoulder- TA DA, two free hands to corral my older child. And Scott had the second bag across his body and the stroller collapsed and slung over his shoulder by the handy strap(one of the many reasons I love the Combi), also giving him two hands. When packing for the day, think about each item and try not to pack too much extra. What I usually pack- three water bottles (to refill at the park), snacks (think compact- dried fruit, cereal, nuts... things that are filling and don't take up too much space), sunscreen, one very tightly rolled extra set of clothing for each kid, and the bare minimum of diapers (easy for me to say, though, I've never had more than one at a time in diapers!).
  • Make a game plan! Read descriptions of rides and attractions, check out the map of the park, look at the show schedules, and discuss what you want to do and in what order. I highly recommend hitting the following rides early, as they have the longest lines (and the lines only get longer as the day goes on): Nemo's Submarine, the Matterhorn, It's A Small World, Space Mountain, Soarin Over California... and most of the larger rides. And this is only a personal recommendation, but if the line is long I would skip Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Carribean(unless your kid has a thing for pirates), and the Haunted Mansion. They are mostly about the animatronics and effects, which I guess if you're into that thing they're all right. And I also think that Indiana Jones is really bumpy.
  • Use FastPass. I didn't understand how fastpasses worked at first, so I didn't use them. Don't let this happen to you! Here's what you do- at rides with fastpass (which are clearly marked near the ride and on the map) you feed your ticket or pass into a machine and it spits out a fastpass to be used later (usually an hour or so later).  Then you go do whatever and come back at that time and get in a MUCH shorter line.  BUT you can only have one fast pass at a time- you can't get another until after time on your current fast pass has expired.  Also, remember to look at the return time before you get the fast pass- it's on a sign near the "fastpass" sign.  You don't want to get a fastpass you won't be able to use.  Also, if it's an adult ride and you plan to use the rider switch pass (below) you only need to get one fastpass- the first rider uses the fastpass (remember to ask for the rider switch pass at the entrance!!!) and the second uses the rider switch pass to get in the same line.  So hypothetically you could get two fastpasses, one for each parent.
  • Pay attention to the height requirements on rides. You don't want to wait in line for 45 minutes for a ride and find out that your kids are too short. Similarly, you don't want to skip a bunch of rides that you think your kids can't go on, when they really can. Yesterday my 7 month old when on the Zephyr at the peir in CA Adventure- all that's required for that ride is that they are able to sit up by themselves (they can't sit on your lap). And my 2 year old went on the Matterhorn (the height requirement is 35", which she clears easiy) and LOVED it. All the height/age requirements are listed on the map and on a sign near the entrance to each ride. If there isn't a height/age requirement, then it means they can probably ride on it no matter how old. When in doubt, ask.  
  • Three words- RIDER SWITCH PASS!!!!!! I was so stoked when I found out about this. I have never seen it talked about anywhere on Disney's website or other literature. The only reason I found out was because the very first time we took Izzy to Disneyland (when she was 6 months old) my friend's brother, who works at the park, told us about it. It works best if there are three "riders" (adults or children who are old/tall enough to ride on the ride), because one (an adult, of course) can stay with the baby/young child while the other two go on the ride. FIRST ask the very first ride attendant that you see (usually at the entrance to the ride) for a rider switch pass- they need to see all the members of your party (riders and non-riders), and they will give you a colored card, which the non-rider holds. Then, after the first two have gone on the ride, the person who stayed with the kids and one of the other riders (the lucky person who gets to go on the ride twice) takes the pass to either the handicapped entrance or the fastpass entrance (and on some rides they just let you in the exit, like the Maliboomer). It basically eliminates the necessity of waiting in line TWICE if you have small children to attend to. Like I said, it's best to have three adults, but you can do it with only two, it just means that you'll each have to ride alone. (If that explanaition is confussing, feel free to ask questions and I'll try to explain more clearly).
  • Baby Care Centers... another well kept secret at Disneyland. These are on the map, but unless you're looking for them they don't really jump out at you. It was one of my mom friends who told me about these- seriously, Disney has it all figured out. They provide high chairs, private little areas for nursing (if you're modest about nursing in public- I most certainly am not), child sized furniture, rocking chairs, an area for just hanging out and chilling for a while if your child needs to rest, a changing room with large, padded changing tables, a cloth diaper rinser (don't know what it's technically called- it's like a sink that flushes!), a sink, and two child sized toilets. AND they have baby items available for purchase. Forget/loose baby's binky? They have those. Run out of the house without baby food or formula? They have those, too. I believe they also have little packs of wipes and diapers. Of course, everything is a tad overpriced so don't rely on these if cost is an issue, but I'm not complaining, because it so rocks that they have these things for us sometimes scatterbrained parents:) There is one in each park- in Disneyland it's at the end of mainstreet opposite the gate, right before the Plaza Inn- you should see a sign. In CA Adventure it's by the Mission Tortilla Factory. Both are labeled on the map (with a little pacifier symbol).
  • Best attractions for very small children: I HIGHLY recommend the jungle cruise in Adventure land- it's right next to the Indiana Jones ride (the entrances are easy to confuse, too- the jungle cruise seldom as a longer than 10 minute wait, though). I love it because the line is never long, it's an exciting thing for little kids (what little kid doesn't love boats and animals?), and 9 times out of 10 the tour guide is pretty darn funny. Well, I think they're funny, but my sense of humor is a little dry. And I do like that not every tour guide tells the same jokes, so it's still funny to me now and I've probably been on it like 15 times (except for "the backside of water" joke, which I still think is funny). It's also kind of historical because I don't think they've changed it in the 53 years the park has been open (is that a good thing, or a bad thing though?). Also good for little kids- the roller coaster in Mickey's Toon Town (which has a height requirement, but it's only 35"), almost everything in Fantasy Land (the teacups, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, The Princess Faire, etc), Flik's Fun Fair (in CA Adventure in A Bug's Land- 5 or 6 rides just for smaller kids), the water at Bountiful Valley Farm (also in A Bug's Land, and the reason to pack an extra set of clothes OR a swim suit!), and the Disney Junior show in the Hollywood Backlot. Really there is so much to do, though, don't limit yourself to what I recommend- I mean, I've been to Disneyland so many times I can't count, and I can name 10 things off the top of my head I've still not done (like the It's a Small World ride- the line is always long, and it kind of scares me:).
  • Saving Money: alright, here's my tie in. The easiest way to save money on a day trip to Disneyland (you'll have to look elsewhere for hotel tips- I live too close!) is to bring your own waterbottles (which you refill at the waterfountains, and if you're a fellow SoCal'er you get over it because tap water won't kill you) and bring your own snacks. The policy stated online is that no outside food is allowed. However, I know they don't enforce it even a little bit. Even if they did, parents with very young children usually get around that rule. Don't pack a cooler full of food, of course, but I've seen lots of people carry in small soft sided coolers, and I don't hide the food I have shoved in my bag. They do have bag inspections before you go in, but I'm pretty sure they're looking for weapons, not food. We usually eat lunch at the park and are each allowed one treat besides, which we can usually do for under $30 (depending on where we eat lunch). However, depending on the amount you eat and the age of your children (really depending on how much they eat and how pickey they are), if you brought a little cheese and lunch meat and some crudites (ie, baby carrots, other cut up veggies) you could eliminate the need to buy lunch as well- just do the Mission Tortilla Factory tour, then ask for a bag of tortillas at the end, and you could make little wraps! I've never asked for one, but I've read/heard that they will give you a bag of about 20 tortillas for free. And if that doesn't pan out they sell good sized Mickey Mouse shapped loaves of bread at the little Farmer's Market Stand in a Bug's land, which isn't far (not sure how much those cost, though). But the key is to set a budget for everything and stick to it- possible things to budget for would be lunch, snacks, and souveniers. One of the good things about very small children is that they don't realize they can ask for all the junk that is sold on every corner. But if your child is extra bright and you envision this being a problem, talk to them ahead of time and make it very VERY clear what they can/can't have- ie, they can have one thing and it has to cost under $X. Then encourage them to check everything out before they choose one thing at the end of the day- otherwise they might blow their budgeted money right away then whine every time they see something else they want. Just keep in mind that a $5 souveneir budget isn't going to buy you much- balloons are $8. Personally I just refuse to buy my kids anything because I'm a BIG FAT MEANIE!
  • Schedule naps and meals! This is admittedly a little harder with older children- there is so much going on, it's hard to tell them it's time to rest, and it's hard for them to block things out. Try anyway! You can always tell when it's 2 o'clock at Disneyland- all the toddlers and preschoolers start to melt down. Try to stick to whatever your normal routine would be concerning eatting and sleeping times, and do what you have to do to get your kid to nap!  For Izzy this means in the stroller, covered up completely so she can't see out, in a relatively quiet part of the park (I like the far corner of the boardwalk), while I keep the stroller moving.  Thankfully Oliver falls asleep much more easily.
  • Know how your child reacts to characters. Sure your kid loves Mickey Mouse when he sees him on TV or in a book but how will he react in person? You don't want to scare them, and you don't want to wait in line for 30 minutes to see Mickey just to have your child start screaming when you approach. If your child has done alright with Santa, the Easter Bunny, or any other large costumed individual in the past, you're probably fine. If they see Mickey across the way and beg and BEG to see Mickey, then you're probably fine. But don't force them! My own dear sensitve two year old is not exactly scared of the characters- she just reacts to them the same way she does to all strange adults. She comletely clams up and sticks her fingers in her mouth. But she let us take her picture with Mickey.
  • My biggest tip to parents, though, is so simple- Just roll with it and have fun! Don't get cranky because the lines are long, or because the park is crowded, or because everything is SO EXPENSIVE, or because your three year old keeps asking you to buy him things. My family and I went on a lot of vacations when I was young, and I can't tell you how many ENTIRE DAYS of vacation were ruined because my Dad, who hates crowds, traffic, stupid people, waiting in line, and paying too much for anything (sounds a little like me when you spell it out like that, although traffic doesn't really bother me that much) would get annoyed, get cranky, and in turn make the rest of us cranky. Don't complain about the lines- play a game while you wait. Don't complain about how much it all costs- if you think it's too much, don't buy it, otherwise MAN UP. If you don't dig crowds don't even THINK about going to Disneyland anytime from mid June to late August or October throught December- the rest of the year it's totally manageable, and even if one area is crowded you can easily escape to one that isn't so bad. Don't complain that your feet hurt- just sit down and rest. If you get cranky and whiny, your kids will probably get cranky and whiney, and then you truely are wasting your money because no one is having any fun. Personally I don't see how anyone could be unhappy in the happiest place on earth- but every time I go I see and hear parents cranking about whatever, often at their kids, an I just want to tell them to leave because they're killing my buzz!
I think that's everything I know to make Disneyland a fun experience when taking very small children. I'm sure there's more, but contrary to popular belief I don't know everything:)


SonyaAnn said...

We are going in October and these are are wonderful tips. The good thing is my kids are now teenagers so not as much to carry around. And if they want it, they carry it.

cait said...

The fastpass works because of the little barcode on your ticket- it scans it into a system and once you have one fastpass, you can't start stockpiling. You get one at a time, but as far as I remember you can get as many as you want. I've been begging Zac for days to take me. And I personally heart the Jungle Cruise as well, I'm usually the one cackling to myself at the bad jokes and the tour guide makes fun of me for laughing so hard.

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