The Insider's Family Guide to Disneyland

How to navigate this wonderful world with your children without losing your marbles.

Disneyland Characters at Sleeping Beauty Castle

Taking a small child to Disneyland, especially for the first time, can truly be one of those preeminent childhood experiences. Awe and wonder. Unbridled joy. Pure delight. It’s a head-spinning adventure for both children and their “big kid” parents as favorite animated characters come to life, exhilarating rides deliver you to fantasy lands, and scintillating parades and shows of color carry you away. Okay, so it’s the happiest place on earth, but any parent knows that moments of heightened intensity can breed all-time meltdowns, especially when dealing with a sprawling populated setting with endless choices and magnetic pulls. Those who traverse this landscape frequently know there are some insider tips and tricks to navigating this Magic Kingdom. Here’s what we discerned from our own personal experience and from the experts at hand, so you and your family can have the best possible adventure in this other dimension called Disneyland.

Purchasing Tickets
Start your trip hassle free by buying your tickets in advance online, so you can skip the first wait of the morning.  We strongly suggest that you get a resort hopper pass for both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure as it’s great to travel back and forth from the parks with each one offering a totally unique experience.  And on those days when the lines prove to be really long at Disneyland, escape to California Adventure as you do not want to miss Soaring Over California or the spectacular World of Color, to mention a few.

Multiple Days
Do not try to do it all in one day. This creates unnecessary stress and an unsettling feeling of missing out. Disneyland and California Adventure offer far too many amazing experiences to cram it all into a single day. With two days, you can explore the park and discover your favorite rides and spots, and master the art of the FASTPASS. By the second day, you will feel like a pro and actually feel sorry for the people waiting for 60 minutes for Space Mountain, as you speed by them with your FASTPASS. (More on these time-saving vouchers below.)

Matterhorn at Disneyland

Best Time to Go
Peak season tends to run mid-June to Labor Day, the two weeks around Christmas and New Years and over myriad Spring Break weeks. Obviously a Tuesday in February will most likely be less crowded than a Saturday over Fourth of July, but there are added bonuses over the holiday and high seasons like longer hours, special parades, additional shows and festive decorations.  Also, all of the rides will most likely be operating during those times. In the off-season, the best news is that the lines are shorter, but some attractions may be closed for maintenance or “rehab” as the Disney pros call it. But the good news is that you can check online in advance to find out what is going to be shut at what time, so you don’t arrive to big disappointments. Park hours are also reduced in the off season, which once again points to the idea of not going for a single day. Some enthusiasts proclaim that May and October are the best months to go as the Spring-breakers and summer crowds have thinned and the weather is ideal—warm but not too hot. Dedicated Disneyland aficionados will also swear by rainy days. The park clears out and you can loop through Space Mountain eight times in a row for the ultimate adrenaline-filled afternoon.

Where to Stay
If you stay at one of the park’s three hotels: Paradise Pier (the more moderately-priced), Disneyland Hotel (the most famous) or the Disney Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (the best location), each gives you access to “Magic Mornings”, early entrance to the parks several days a week. You and your family can slip right on into the line-less park for an easy start to the day.

Personally, we think the Grand California Hotel & Spa is the ideal location for families as you can enter the park directly from the hotel. This, of course, also means that you can exit out of the park right into your hotel room for naps, change of clothes, down time or snacks. Families can hit the park early then sneak off to the hotel’s pool during peak midday hours, then return for afternoon parades and evening fireworks. This can be a key element to diverting tantrums and explosions, especially after you and the kids go whitewater rafting on the Grizzly River Run and get soaked. At the time it’s hilarious, but walking around the park with wet pants while getting chafed undoubtedly leads to whining and tears. Another note—last time we visited the parks, the line was upwards of 60 minutes at Splash Mountain, so we headed over to California Adventure and had a blast riding the Grizzly River Run three times in a row with lines less than five minutes. Luckily, we brought clothes to change into for our young daughter as the wet clothes meltdown occurred but quickly ended with a new outfit.

In order to maximize fun and minimize waiting in long excruciating waits where your child asks every 30 seconds, “How much longer it’s going to take,” you have to work the FASTPASS system. Any D-land pro will tell you that the first thing you should do when you enter the park is head straight for your favorite ride that has a long line to get a FASTPASS (i.e. Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain, etc.).  FASTPASS machines are outside certain attractions, and by inserting your park admission ticket, you are given a voucher with a time slot to return to that ride for fast boarding. While you can only have one FASTPASS active for a certain amount of time, the bottom of the voucher will reveal when you are eligible to get another one. That way you can flit around the park, scooping up FASTPASSES and avoiding those insanely massive lines. Some hard-core Disneyland experts spend the first two hours of the day just collecting FASTPASSES. Another note: Nemo—the do-not-miss ride for the younger set—does not have FASTPASS, so be prepared to wait.  This is a good time to break out the snacks or little surprise toys—some distraction as it’s absolutely worth it! Also teens and parents may opt for the single rider lanes on some rides like on Splash Mountain as you enter through the exit and go right up to board.  Find Rides with FASTPASS here.

World od Color at Disney California Adventure

World of Color
According to Matt Artson, a devoted Disneyland fan and park connoisseur, this must-see attraction at California Adventure “makes Bellagio look like sprinklers.” The World of Color, a mega-scale, after-dark celebration of Disney storytelling. Powerful fountains create a giant water screen where animated sequences that span the history of Disney are projected into it with a great play of light, fire and music.  It’s such a popular show that it also calls for a strategy. Visitors should either get a FASTPASS ticket (at Grizzly River Run), first thing in the morning, or if you order a picnic boxed meal online, it comes with a reserved viewing pass for the show. You can also reserve dining at Ariel’s Grotto or The Wine Country Trattoria and, after the meal, you get a ticket for premier reserved viewing for the amazing show at Paradise Bay.

Alice and the Mad Hatter at DisneylandRides for the Younger Set
Fantasyland is the biggest draw at the park as a chance for the little ones to soar to Never Never Land, visit the Sleeping Beauty Castle or fly with Dumbo. Before you arrive at Disneyland, re-watch some of the classics, as it will enhance the overall magical experience with greater recognition value. But please be advised there is a reason why it’s called Snow Whites’ Scary Adventures. Some children find Pinocchio’s Daring Adventure frightening too. You’ll have to gauge your own child’s fear factor. As an aside–on a recent visit my six year old went on Indian Jones and said, “That was the scariest thing in the whole wide world. Let’s do it again!” It’s a Small World was recently revamped and worth a nostalgic trip as well.

Princess alert: The Disney Princess Fantasy Faire is a crucial experience for many young aspiring royals bedecked in their finest costumes, but the wait can be very lengthy, especially hard with the under four group, so again, plan a strategy where one parent waits while the other entertains and distracts. For the older kids, the best time to hit Fantasyland is late at night as hopefully most of the little monkeys have gone off to bed. ToonTown and Frontierland are great places to burn off energy where you can climb and race about, so if you have some over-sugared hyper children, a visit to either spot has your family’s name on it.

Cool Down
Almost inevitably, there will be a point on your adventure when a child will get frustrated, overtired or unreasonable, demanding more candy or more gifts (or is this just my child?). It helps to determine a budget for shopping prior to entering the park so it’s not a day of endless bargaining and saying “No,” in regard to buying everything in sight. And we all can hit the wall when surrounded by mass quantities of humanity no matter how much fun we are having. This calls for Tiki Time. Immediately go to Adventureland, grab a Dole Whip and head inside the Enchanted Tiki Room for the greatest old-school Disney show. Amazingly, many people have never entered this inner sanctum of pure entertainment and mood elevation. I will not reveal what happens inside these walls, as I remember vividly my first time and the joy on the face of my friend who let me in on the secret of this sanctuary where you can sit back, enjoy your pineapple ice and let the show begin. Any age will love it. Afterward, when all of your party is once again refreshed and convivial, head over to the Jungle Cruise where there is nary a line on the most hectic day for some laughs as your jokemeister boat captain tells you the same ones you’ve heard many times before but they still make you laugh.

Minny and Mickey at DisneylandWithout a doubt, there are myriad more insider tips to the parks that your family will discover with each visit. That’s part of the fun. And remember, sometimes the smallest of moments prove to be the most memorable. On our last trip just before exiting the park, we snuck into a Main Street shop and tried on the silliest hats we could find, snapping photos and snorting with laughter. Sure, watching my daughter’s wide eyes on Nemo’s submarine stands out as a sweet recollection of that trip, but the sound of my daughter’s belly laughs at her father sporting a long-eared goofy hat might just have been my favorite moment of all.

You can have a never-ending cup of coffee, meaning free flowing refills at the Market House on Main Street all day.  A little caffeine comes in handy when maneuvering small fry through the park.

The bakery by Winnie the Pooh is divine and less crowded than Main Street.

There are free lockers (for first 2 hours) at the Grizzly River Run so you can stash your dry clothes before getting soaked on the log flume ride, then change into dry ones!

That you can find your favorite characters easily around the park as each guest info hub has a list of where Mickey, Ariel and Donald are hanging out, so you can go directly there, rather than hoping to randomly bump into one of them.

If you put a brightly-colored ribbon or scarf on your stroller, you’ll find your rig more easily when you exit into a sea of similar strollers, once again saving time and diminishing annoyance.

Each attraction has a “hidden Mickey symbol.” It’s a great game to play as a family, to see who can find the most or who can find it first. Hint: In the Haunted Mansion pay close attention to the table in the ballroom.

If you are traveling from out of the area, order a complimentary Disney Vacation Planning CD. It has lots of tips and allows you to get familiar with the resort before arriving.

Photos courtesy of Disneyland Resort.

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