How To Do Disney for Little Kids

Jan 24 2011

I’ve had several requests for some very specific “how to do Disneyland with little kids” information.  I’m reluctant to post the info to my blog for the simple reason that it’s detailed and overwhelming, even for the people who are actually interested.

It’s a dilemma, I tell you.

Here’s what I’m going to do:

I’m going to post the Disney info below.  And then I’m going to immediately post a new entry.

Hopefully, in doing so, I’ll retain a modicum of blog-integrity and y’all won’t run away screaming in Disney horror.

So, for those of you interested in Disneyland nitty-gritty, read on.

BUT, for those of you who’re looking for things more broadly family-related, STOP READING NOW and wait for the next, imminent post in which you’ll learn everything you needed to know about cussing.

Hmmmm… Disney or swearing.  So hard to choose, isn’t it?

……

Here you go, ladies and…,

Well, only ladies have ever asked me for this.

So, here you go, ladies!

Thoughts on Disney with little kids, in no particular order.

Disney with Younger Kids:

  • The biggest thing my under-10-year-old kids teach me at Disneyland is to slow down and really see the magic. Going with adults or older kids keeps me running from ride to ride with the idea that I have to “get it all done” to make it worth my time and money.  Going with little kids is a treat!   They’re so open to the magic wherever and however they find it: the parades, the characters, the joy of a swirly, brightly colored lollipop.  I just have to keep reminding myself… they don’t know all the stuff we’re not doing.  It’s OK to not get it all done.  Hmmm… maybe I need to think about that related to the rest of my life.
  • With the little ones, we focus on one area/land at a time to avoid running all over the place.
  • We take advantage of parades and shows, which are great times to sit down and relax.  The kids always love them, and I’m always surprised.  (Sidenote: Even though people stake out spots hours in advance, I’ve never had trouble finding a place to watch any show with the possible exception of Fantasmic.  I try not to let all the advance-planners in the crowd stress me out; part of my slow down and relax strategy.  If there’s a spot later, great.)
  • The Monorail: You can catch the monorail in Downtown Disney close to the Rainforest Cafe and ride it into Tomorrowland.  Or you can catch it in Tomorrowland and ride it to Downtown Disney.  Or you can be like us and take a round-trip because we like it so much.  A little known fact is that you can ask to ride in the front of the monorail with the pilot. This is SUPER COOL and the kids love it… if you do it mid-morning or mid-afternoon, there may not be a line to ride in the front.  Just ask a cast member on the platform at the monorail about how to ride up front and they’ll tell you all you need to know.
  • Note on Photos: Anywhere there’s a cast member taking professional photos, the photographer will also happily take a photo with your own camera.  This is a great way to save money and get some excellent family photos.  The cast member will take a picture with his or her camera first (hey – Disney’s paying them, so that’s OK by me), and then with your camera.  You’ll get a card with a scannable code on it so you can go online later and see/order the professional photos.  The photos we’ve had cast members take with our camera are nearly always as good as the professional ones.

Food Ideas for Saving $:

  • Downtown Disney dining can be pretty expensive with a few exceptions:  1) Try the take-out windows at the Jazz Kitchen (beignets… hello, doughnuts!… and po’ boy sandwiches that are STUFFED) and Tortilla Joe’s (delicioso tacos, burritos, and nachos); the sit-down restaurants attached to these take-out windows are expensive, but you can get all the great taste at a reasonable rate if you forego the sitting and being served.  Plus, with small kids, it can be fun to let them run and play while you sit on a bench and try to make them eat.  2) If your kids like chicken nuggets, have them share the Chicken Fried Chicken at the Rainforest Cafe (right next to the Disneyland Hotel in Downtown Disney.) It’s a double chicken breast pounded flat, breaded and fried.  Not at all healthy, but very delicious. It was too much food for my 11-year-old and 15-year-old to share. We asked for fries instead of mashed potatoes… no problem.  Also, the Lettuce Wraps appetizer is easily a meal for 2 adults, and it’s delicious if you like Asian food with peanuts.  No split-plate charges, either.
  • Character Dining, which is where you pay an arm and a leg to dine with Disney characters, on the face of it, seems way over-priced at $15/child and $22-25/adult.  We pinch our pennies in other areas, though, so we can do this once per trip.  (Although we didn’t the last time, so you see how hard and fast my rules are.)  If possible, plan a character meal toward the beginning of your trip.  Here’s why I love them… the characters come to you, interact with your kids one-on-one, sign autographs, and have time to hang out and play.  You can wait in extraordinarily long lines at the parks to meet the characters, but if you’ve done a character meal, the pressure is off.   If you have a choice about which of several character dining places to do, my all time favorite is the Storytellers’ Cafe at The Grand Californian Hotel.  If you have girls who simply must meet the princesses, then Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure is worthwhile… the food, however, isn’t very good there.  I also have thoroughly enjoyed the Plaza Inn in Disneyland.
  • In my opinion, the kids’ meals at Disneyland Resort are rarely worthwhile. They cost a lot for the relatively little food the kids get.  I usually buy 2-3 adult meals for the 4-5 people and we share ’til it’s gone… we can always buy more if we’re still hungry… but I’ve found this ratio of adult meals to our family is often more than enough as adult portions are generally large.  Then again, I detest throwing away food that just cost a bundle, so take that with a grain of salt!
  • One of our favorite “value for the buck” dining locations is at the California Adventure Pacific Wharf.  There’s Chinese food, Mexican food, and soup bowls/sandwiches available in close proximity.  1) The Lucky Fortune Chinese restaurant has a $10 HUGE take-out box available… you choose the meat and the sauce, and it comes with rice and stir-fried vegetables, as well.  It’s hard to get those veges in on vacation, so we like this meal!  We get the teriyaki chicken and fed our family of 5 the last trip on 2 boxes.  That’s less than $5/person, which is amazing by Disney standards. 2) At the Pacific Wharf Cafe, if you order your soup/breadbowl with the soup on the side, they’ll give you the soup + a whole loaf of fresh sourdough bread for $9… easily shared w/ 2 people, and there are 3-4 different soups/chilis from which to choose.
  • We take snacks with us because park snacks are expensive.  As you see in the blog, that worked for my little ones (ages 4, 4, and 9) but not my big kids (11, 12 and 15).  Snacks that we pack include Z-bars, granola bars, fruit snacks, and M&M’s (the little ones don’t bug me for treats when I hand out fruit snacks and 6 M&M’s every once in a while), and fruit.
  • We take a 32 oz. Nalgene water bottle with us.  California water is gross.  We pack Crystal Light singles, fill our water bottle with tap water, pour in 2 Crystal Light singles packets and take it with us.  It’s sugar-free, the kids think they’re getting punch, they stay hydrated, and it saves us tons of $ on water bottles and other drinks at the park.  If we’re going to be in the park for more than a couple of hours, we bring a few extra packets with us so we can refill as we go.  It’s heavy to carry the water bottle, which encourages us to make the kids drink it.
  • If you decide to go to a sit-down meal anywhere in Disneyland, California Adventure or Downtown Disney (except Rainforest Cafe), make a “priority seating” arrangement.  You can do this by calling 1.714.781.3463.  You must call for a priority seating at least an hour in advance (although you can do it as early as 3 months in advance), and it will get you to a table much, much faster than just showing up for a table and waiting.  Priority seating is like a reservation except that it gives you the “first available table” for your party size rather than holding the table for you… just about as quick as a reservation.
  • If you’ve always wanted to try the famous Monte Cristo sandwich… that gooey, deep fried, turkey, ham and cheese sandwich sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with blackberry jam… at the Blue Bayou restaurant, I should tell you that Cafe Orleans (right across the alley from Blue Bayou) serves the same sandwich minus the sides (but plus grapes and strawberries) for less money.  It’s an expensive sandwich at $17.99/person, but it’s so rich and decadent that two people can (dare I say “should”?) share it easily, and, again, there’s no split plate charge.  You can make priority seating arrangements for Cafe Orleans.

Fastpass:

  • If you’re not familiar with the Disney fastpass system, available on some of the most popular rides, I highly recommend learning about it.  It’s FREE, and one of the best ideas Disneyland has ever had for crowd management.  Using fastpasses effectively will save you hours of waiting in line.  Here’s a great link w/ more information on exactly what it is and how to use it.

Things worth doing at Disneyland:

  • Magic Mornings:  If you purchase a park hopper ticket or stay at a Disney resort hotel, you’ll receive one or more magic mornings.  They entitle you to get into Disneyland an hour earlier than the general public on select days… make sure you find out which days.  Magic Mornings are a GREAT thing to have, especially if you go during high season like school holidays.  This is the time when you’ll go on the most rides because the lines will be doable.  I believe that they always open Fantasyland during these mornings… use your time to get on the rides that’ll otherwise have super long lines, like Peter Pan, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland.
  • Characters: If your kids have a must-see character, you can ask at City Hall (at the very beginning of Main Street to the left of the Fire Station) which characters will be at various locations in the parks and the time of their appearances.
  • Disneyland Fantasyland1) Peter Pan,  2) Dumbo,  3) Alice in Wonderland,  4) Tea Cups,  5) Matterhorn,  6) Fantasy Faire princess showbest show if you have girls or boys who like princesses.  Lines are usually reasonable year-round for the Carousel, Casey Jr. Train, and Storybook Adventures.  CAUTION: some of the Fantasyland rides are scary (which my kids love, but not all kids do)… Snow White, Pinocchio, and Mr. Toad are the scariest.  If you get into a scary ride and have a “whoops!” moment, tell your kids to yell “boo!” at the scary things and see how fast they go away… a cast member taught us that trick on our most recent trip and it make Pinnochio their favorite ride.  They felt so empowered!
  • Disneyland Tomorrowland: 1) Buzz Lightyear Astroblasters… interactive and fun, fastpass it if the line is long,  2) Space Mountain, fastpass it if the line is long… Reader Rebecca tells me that fastpasses go quickly for this ride, so get while the gettin’s good (if they like roller coasters and they’re tall enough… note that the Honey I Shrunk the Audience 3D Show is cute and a great opportunity to sit and rest, and it’s right next to Space Mountain… it may not be worth seeing if there’s a long line, but it’s a good thing to take your 5-year-old to see if you have bigger kids going on Space Mountain… Captain EO is playing for a short time, much to my husband’s delight, but Honey I Shrunk the Audience is due to return sometime in February 2011, I hear.),  3) Nemo Submarine ride (CAUTION: HUGE lines for this one… no fastpass available… get there as soon as the park opens… it may even be open during Magic Mornings, so ask a cast member… waiting in an hour long line for this may not be worth it),  4) Jedi Training show… best show if you have boys or girls who like Star Wars (get there 1/2 hour early so your kids can be picked to trained as Jedi Knights and fight Darth Vader or Darth Mal… it’s amazingly great!  A real memory-maker),  5) Autopia… fastpass this if the line is long; every kid loves this ride.
  • Disneyland Toon Town:  1) Gadget’s Go Coaster… great little coaster and even very little are often tall enough, extremely short ride-time, so don’t wait too long in line for it, 2) Buy Mouse Ears – I know for sure this is one place to get customized Mouse Ear hats.  I think there’s another place in the parks or Downtown Disney to do this now, so ask a cast member for more information.  In the middle of ToonTown is a retail shop… at the back of the shop are the hats.  You can choose a classic hat or you can mix and match hats, ears (which snap on/off the hats), and patches.  A few years ago, we let each of our kids pick his or her own hat/ears.  We limited our kids to one patch only to cut costs… they didn’t seem to care.  3) Visit Mickey/Minnie… Mickey’s almost never at character dining, so chances are you didn’t see him at your character dinner.  During low season, your chances of catching Mickey on Main Street for photos is high.  During high season, it’s harder.  You can always catch Mickey in his house… tour the house and there’ll be chances for photos with him at the end.  (Same for Minnie’s house.)  Secret Note: there are actually 3 rooms of Mickeys at the end of his house… Sorcerer Mickey, Steamboat Willie Mickey, and Classic Mickey… if you prefer photos with a specific one, whisper to the cast member something like “gee – we really hope that Mickey’s on his Steamboat today” and they’ll try to get you to the one you want.  This is your best shot for good Mickey photos.  4) If your Magic Morning includes early Toon Town entry/Citizenship Ceremony, it’s worth attending.  There’s a special citizenship pledge and the chance to spend quality time with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto, get an exclusive button and have extra ride time on the coaster and Roger Rabbit’s cartoon spin.  It’s cool.
  • Disneyland New Orleans Square/Adventureland:  I actually don’t like most of the stuff over here and I find it the worst for the crowds, but Greg would insist I plug 1) the Jungle Cruise.  It IS cute and fun… I just don’t think it’s worth the line. 2)  Greg also loves Pirates of the Caribbean.  I admit, it’s a classic.  If you’ve been before, you already know.   3) Splash Mountain is my favorite thing in the area, and kids only have to be 40″ to ride (my 4-year-olds are tall enough, but I didn’t think I could supervise them well enough by myself, so they missed this one).  4) The Winnie the Pooh ride is cute but incredibly short, so don’t wait long for it!  5) You can also see all the Winnie the Pooh characters by the exit to Splash Mountain if your kids like them.  My opinion… avoid the Haunted Mansion; it’s really cute when it’s Halloween/Christmas and they transform it into the Nightmare Before Christmas set, but the rest of the time it’s just creepy.  Again, if you’ve been, you know whether this is a classic not to be missed, or something to avoid.  I didn’t take my little ones on it, but I did take my big kids who’ve been on it before… they didn’t like it, but insist we do it!  Go figure.
  • Disneyland Frontierland: OK, I know how weird this sounds, but waiting in line for 1) the Steamboat or... even better, the Pirate Ship (but they only run it for park guests during high season)… is worthwhile with little ones.  They’ve loved riding around the lake.  I don’t know why, but it’s a hit!  2) Thunder Mountain if they meet the height requirement,  3) Shows at the Horseshoe Saloon (in the past, this has been Woody/Jessie… if still the case, worth seeing… ask a cast member what’s playing).
  • The Fireworks show at Disneyland is my favorite show.  It can be kind of late for little ones, so we didn’t see it with ours, but it’s the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen… perfectly timed to music, magical, and features a real Tinkerbell flying around the castle.  Cool!  You can stake out a spot on main street or by the castle ahead of time if you want to (some people do it 3-4 hours ahead of time, which I’ve never been willing to do), but I’ve found perfectly good seating/standing room between the castle and the Matterhorn within 30-45 minutes of show time.  Make sure, wherever you are, that you can see the castle and the Matterhorn (obstructed view is fine… it’s all so high up in the air it doesn’t really matter) because that’s where Tinkerbell flies.
  • The Fantasmic show is excellent.  If you want to go, you may actually need to stake out a spot for that one an hour or more ahead of time… or you can look into the “dine and show” options (see Disney Dining phone number under “food”) where you reserve a meal at one of the nicer restaurants in Disneyland and get preferred seating for the show.  I’ve never been willing to front the cost for that when free seating is available, but, hey, I share an $18 sandwich, so who am I to talk?  CAUTION: Fantasmic has some really scary parts to it, so if your kids are sensitive to scary things, this isn’t the show for them.

Things Worth Doing at California Adventure:

  • Do California Adventure on the days you anticipate being the busiest for both parks… it’s always less full than Disneyland, so we usually save it for the weekend days.
  • The Disney Pixar Parade is 100% worth watching if it’s still running when you’re there.  Reader Rebecca tells me this is not running during park construction (it was heavy while we were there this month – January 2011) but that they’re doing mini-shows throughout the park.  Ask a cast member for details on where to catch these shows.  This parade is a true delight.
  • Hollywood Backlot: 1) A great place to meet off-the-beaten-path characters (we’ve seen Mr. & Mrs. Incredible, Cruella Deville, Handy Manny, and lots of others) with few lines, 2) Monsters, Inc. ride… usually a short line (otherwise not worth it) and cute,  3) Muppet Vision 3D Show totally worth seeing if you haven’t seen it… my kids saw it for the first time this trip and LOVED it,  4) Turtle Talk with Crush is a big favorite for my older and younger kids… ask a cast member for how to find it… very funny and interactive show,  5) Tower of Terror is only worth it if you have kids who aren’t scared easily and like big thrill rides… I didn’t take my little ones, but my big kids love it… and there’s a back route right by Tower of Terror to get into Bugs’ Land (finally!  yay!),  6) Adorable street shows/singing groups make very regular appearances here… it’s the best place in either park for serendipitous street-dancing and fun moments with kiddos… I recommend stopping when you see something interesting happening… it’s usually entertaining and worthwhile and the reason I love Disney.
  • Bugs’ Land is full of cute little kid rides… 4 or 5 rides, usually short lines.  Think Dumbo and Tea Cups for even smaller kids.  My 4 and 9 year olds love this land and had a blast, but if yours are into thrills, this may bore them.  Bumper Cars was definitely the highlight.  CAUTION: The show, It’s Tough to be a Bug, is a 3D and live experience that can be too scary for little ones.  I didn’t take my littlest ones this time, although they probably would’ve been fine.  Definitely wouldn’t take 2- or 3-year-olds.
  • Paradise Pier has mostly rides for big kids like the super cool roller coaster, 1) California Screamin’. I definitely recommend it for grown-ups and any kids who’re tall enough and like thrill rides.  If you want to take turns riding it, there’s 2) King Triton’s Carousel for the little kids right next to the coaster entrance/exit.  Leave one parent to ride the carousel a katrillion times while the other parent rides the coaster.  3) Toy Story Mania is not to be missed, but it’s tricky… there’s no fastpass option and the line can be very, very long. I recommend going early in the day soon after the park opens to see if lines are any better.  4) Under an awning on the lakeside of the carousel is a great place to meet characters from Toy Story.  5) The Mickey ferris wheel is definitely worth it and fun as a family… be sure to watch how wildly the swinging cars swing before you decide whether you want a stationary one or a swinging one ( we like to swing! )  6) Other rides in Paradise Pier are fun, but not worth lines or all that exciting… symphony swings, golden zephyr.  7) Goofy’s Sky School was being rethemed while we were there – cute, fun little coaster, 8 ) Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is opening in 2011 and if you get a chance to go, I hope you’ll tell me about it!  It looks cool!
  • Golden Gate: 1) Soarin’ Over California is SO SO worth going!  This is a unique, very fun, not scary ride.  It’s equally engaging for all ages.  I don’t want to give away what it is… it’s just cool!  Don’t miss it.  Also – directly across from Soarin’ is a character greeting place for Lightening McQueen and Mater… they’re always there, and there’s usually only a small line.  2) The Grizzly River Run raft ride is fun for the whole family, but only do it if you’re prepared to be SOAKED; a huge advantage to being at a nearby hotel is that you can ride this and then go change clothes… note that there are free lockers for your stuff if you don’t want to have to replace your waterlogged camera.  3) The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is a fun place for energetic kids to run and explore… rope walls, wobbly bridges, high towers… my only hesitation with this area is that it’s hard to keep track of the kids with the number of directions they can quickly run.  The nice thing is that the entrance/exit is small, so you can always station yourself by the exit and let them have at it.  This is also a good spot to meet characters from Brother Bear and has a COOL story time if you want to get the schedule from a cast member.
  • The NEW World of Color show is worth watching at California Adventure.  If you want to see it and don’t want to pay for dining at a nicer restaurant (the dine/show packages), then go to California Adventure when it opens and get Fastpasses for preferred show seating. World of Color fastpasses are free and totally worthwhile, and you can still get fastpasses for other stuff throughout the day.  These will go quickly, so make sure you get your fastpasses early.

Souvenirs/Savings on “Stuff”:

  • My biggest tip for saving $ on Disney “stuff” is to buy it ahead of time.  On our last trip, I found clearance Toy Story toys at Target ($6.97 for a packet of 3 toys from the newest movie)… I bought 2 different packets and brought them with me to Disneyland in my suitcase.  When my little ones wanted to buy something, I said, “Wait to see what I have for you at the hotel room!”  I asked for bags at one of the Disney stores, stuffed the toys I bought into the bags, and gave them to the kids as surprises.  They were thrilled, I didn’t have to buy anything at Disneyland, and I spent less than $14 on 3 kids.
  • The other thing I’ve often bought ahead of time (but didn’t have time on the last short-notice trip) is t-shirts.  I go to disneystore.com and click on the sale section.  You can usually find t-shirts that were priced at $20-25 originally (they’re definitely this much at Disneyland) for $5-10.  I like it when my kids have matching t-shirts or sweatshirts at Disney because it’s easier to see them in a crowd – but that may be just me.  And of course, I save these as “presents” for our first day, too!  Get as much mileage out of things as possible, right?
  • If this is your kids’ first trip to Disneyland, you can stop by City Hall and get them special “1st Trip” buttons.  They also have buttons for anniversaries, birthdays, etc.  You can write the kids’ names on the buttons and then the cast members greet them by name and ask them how their trip is – it’s really sweet.
  • Disney pin trading is huge.  You can spend a lot of money on pins (~$7 each at the parks), but I’m sure there are places you can buy them on sale ahead of time.  The advantage of finding some on sale before you go (perhaps Craigslist?  Ebay?) is that your kids can trade with any cast member while they’re at the parks.  So you don’t have to start out with pins they like… they DO have to be Disney pins, though.  You can also buy a set of 4 pins (usually 2 sets of 2 identical pins… so 2 to keep and 2 to trade) at the parks for ~$15.  My kids have been trading the same sets of pins for years now.  When we’re at Disney, they trade every couple of hours… it feels like they’re constantly getting something “new” which is fun.  Any cast member wearing a lanyard of pins will trade with kids, but some wear specially-colored (light blue?) lanyards which indicate they’ll ONLY trade with kids.
  • And, last but not least, AUTOGRAPH BOOKS!  Kids love getting characters’ signatures, and the characters are trained to sign in really cool ways, so it’s fun to see how they all differ.  Disney will charge you $12 each if you buy autograph books there, but you can make them at home with your kids as a project for way, way cheaper.  I take brightly colored 3×5 note cards and hole-punch a stack of them (one or two holes in the left side works).  Then bind them together using those metal rings that clip shut (are they called book rings? you can find them at any craft store).  Add a Sharpie, and, voila!, an autograph book.  Kids can decorate the front, add stickers, their names, etc.  It’s important to have a thick marker so characters wearing thick gloves can actually sign.

Whew!

There you have it.  Everything I can think of off the top of my head.  Poorly written and executed, but it’s here for the taking.

Let me know if you have any questions, topics I forgot to cover… or other tips!  I’ll update as I have new info.

Wishing you magical memories… no, not just at Disneyland (that would be pitiful!)… ALL the time,

Beth

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Updates from readers:

  • Thank you, Shalimar, for this tip: “Another cheap souvenir option is flattened, stamped pennies. At 51 cents apiece, and with at least 50 different pictures around the park, that’s our treat of choice!”  I love 51-cent souvenirs!
  • Thanks, Rebecca, for corrections (added to the body of my message above) and these additional tips:  “And I got this tip from a friend of mine who does have kiddos!  She buys glo sticks at the $1 store at home to give to the kids after dark when all the light-up balloons and toys go on sale around the parks.”  Love this buy-ahead trip!  Read the comments section for more great information from Rebecca.