Disney Vacation: Going to Disneyland Resort with Little Kids
Planning a trip to Disneyland when you’re not local is a lot of work. It’s a huge investment and if you don’t know the parks that well, it can feel really overwhelming. I took my kids to the happiest place on earth for the second time this year. Although I’ve been dozens of times (50? more?) since I grew up in LA. But as an LA native, I only ever visited the park for one day. Since we live in Chicago, I decided to plan 2 days of fun at Disneyland and California Adventure. I’m going to review staying at the resort hotels vs off-property since we’ve done both. And I’ll also share my 3 and 5 year-old’s favorite rides, food, and things to do, planning around naps, the stroller we used, and all my tips for navigating the park with little kids.
Disney Vacation: Going to Disneyland Resort with Little Kids
I first took my kids to the Magic Kingdom when they were 2 and 4, and we went again this year when they were 3 and 5. We planned a few days in Los Angeles, followed by 2 days at Disneyland and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park. It is a must-visit vacation destination for families. And even though I’ve never been to Walt Disney world resort in Florida, I know that Disneyland is smaller and more approachable, so you don’t need to spend a week there. I would even argue that with little kids, 1 day at the parks would be plenty.
What ages are ideal for a Disneyland trip?
Disneyland is a wonderful place for guests of all ages. There are tons of rides that you can take babies on, so it’s really a matter of how much you want to do with a baby or toddler in tow. I’ve now taken kids at 2, 3, 4, and 5, and 2 was by var the hardest. It was not fun navigating with naps and meant a lot of back and forth to the hotel. This trip was easier, but my 3 year-old wouldn’t nap in the stroller and was exhausted pretty early. Babies seem like they’d be easier with stroller or carrier naps, but I opted to leave my 9 month old at home with my husband for ease. I’d say if you want things to be really seamless, 3/4 is great, but from my experience, trips after 4+ are the best.
We let Kate keep going day 1, and she was really tired at the end of the day. Day 2, she went back to the hotel for a nap with our au pair, and the day was great after that. I ended up driving them back and they walked to the park (with a stroller) after she woke up.
Booking your ticket
The first thing you’ll want to do is book your theme park dates and once you do that, make your resort reservations. You cannot book a reservation without a valid ticket, and a ticket without a reservation will not get you into the park. If you’re getting a park hopper ticket, you will have access to both Disneyland and California Adventure in the same day. But – you have to choose which park you want to visit first, and after 11AM, can go back and forth between the parks. Do not forget to make your theme park reservations after you purchase your tickets! We did our first day at Disneyland, and then got park hopper tickets our second at both parks.
Planning your trip
I started both days at Disneyland since I like staring the day on main street. It’s nostalgic for me since that’s the park I grew up going to. CA Adventure didn’t open until I was in college.
Look at special offers – we missed the $50 kids tickets by one day. One. Day.
Where to stay
The first time we visited Disneyland, we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel. The room was around $600 per night and the hotel wasn’t worth it. Sure, you can get into the park 30 minutes early, but that wasn’t worth an extra $300. And it’s still a 15 minute walk through Downtown Disney District to the park entrance. I ended up booking a room at the JW Marriott. I didn’t take any photos in the room but it was really nice and half the cost of the Disneyland hotel.
It’s a 15-20 minute walk to the parks, so that wasn’t really very different. But it’s a much nicer hotel and $300 / night. The first day, we walked but walking home at the end of the day felt exhausting. The second day, we ended up driving and paying $35 to park. It was a much better experience after walking 20,000 steps each day.
The Disneyland App
The official app is a must-have. It’s how you’ll order food ahead of time, check wait times, and get in line with Disney genie. You can also find out where your favorite Disney characters are located, although we’ve had the best luck just passing them in the parks and hopping in line when the lines weren’t too long. We got really lucky and passed Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse just as they were about to line guests up during our first visit. And we saw Minnie on the way out of the park this time.
What we ate
Disneyland is all about the treats for us. Their churros are the best, and we love the Mickey shaped pretzels. And you have to get a dole whip right outside the Tiki Room, but can only place a mobile order via the Disneyland app. The Mint Julep Bar in New Orleans Square has the best beignets.
There are some good options for healthy snacks. The ones I know of are in Toontown, across from Jungle Book, and next to the Casey Jr. Train. Everything’s overpriced, but you can find apple sauce, bananas, oranges, and apple slices.
I’ve since learned (from a few of you) that there is actually some decent food. We typically just grab chicken tenders and pizza in Tomorrow Land, and it’s not great. I also didn’t want to waste a lot of time sitting down for a meal when my kids would rather be on rides, and my kids were fine with those options. I’ve had a few meals at Downtown Disney and wasn’t too impressed with anything.
Here’s the advice I received from a local: Craftsman Grille at Grand Californian has great salads and Mediterranean-style food. Carthay Circle and Carthay Lounge in CA Adventure is great, too. Disneyland’s food isn’t great, but Jolly Holiday bakery has good soup and sandwich options.
I want to be really honest about this since I can’t speak to the Genie + pass. It didn’t exist when I was a kid and I’ve only been 3x as an adult. Once about 20 years ago, and twice with my kids. If you followed our journey over the last few years, you know that one of my kids went through medical treatment. She’s doing great, but we ended up getting a DAS pass (recommend by another family who went through treatment) because standing for 40 minutes isn’t best right now. It is basically like Disney Genie + for those who might have issues standing in line. We were able to wait in line on a few rides, like Small World, but bring the stroller through the line because of how it’s set up, which made things much easier.
We were able to book rides with the app and still waited the appropriate wait time, but did not have to stand in line. I didn’t plan on sharing this but it might help someone.
That said, our friends who went with us at Genie + and booked rides that they wanted to go on. I would focus on popular attractions with longer wait times. You can see wait times in the app which is really helpful! There were times the waits were’t bad on certain rides, and we’d head over there. The big difference was really that we wouldn’t get a time in a few hours – it was usually immediately following whatever we were on. It made it so much easier for her and on me, since carrying her in line would get exhausting quickly.
What to bring to the parks
Someone told me she was advised against a stroller and I cannot imagine Disney without a stroller. I’d bring one as long as possible. We walked about 20,000 steps each day. My feet were tired, and there’s just no way a little kid is going to last that long. It’s also a great spot for naps. I brought our double stroller and it saved us. I have the travel bag for it, and pushed it through the airport before putting in in the travel bag and gate checking it.
Your stroller is a place to keep jackets, snacks, water bottles, and all your stuff. Personal items stayed in my backpack which I wore most of the trip, although a smaller crossbody would have been more ideal because you have to grab your phone so often to reserve rides, check wait times, order food etc… I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. You’re going to want to bring a portable phone charger, too.
Speaking of snacks, I brought the girls’ water bottles, applesauce pouches, bars, and a few other healthy snacks. We got churros, pizza, and popcorn, but I wanted to have a few easy options in my bag.
Single rider and baby switch
Our au pair utilized single rider to go on the Incredicoaster, and we used baby switch to go on Radiator Springs Racers since Kate wasn’t big enough. I was able to go on with Margot, and then when we finished, our au pair was able to go on. Margot could have joined her but wanted to go on Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters with me and Kate.
My Kids’ Favorite Disneyland experiences
There are so many new experiences and fun themed areas for little kids. Fantasyland is located right behind the Sleeping Beauty Castle and is a great area to spend time with little kids. The classic attractions in that area are some of my favorites. My girls loved Mickey’s Toontown!
The Disney Jr Dance Party at California Adventure is one of Disneyland’s live shows and is perfect for little kids in the 2-5 range. We lined up maybe 15 minutes before it started, and there was a Disney Jr. show playing on a TV in line, so the girls weren’t bored at all. Get a spot right in front so your kids can get up and dance! It was only 15 minutes and adorable. They absolutely loved it. My girls aren’t Cars fans (I tried) but really liked the Cars rides.
My girls also loved meeting the princesses at Royal Hall and meeting Minnie Mouse at her house in Toontown.
Rides we didn’t go on
You can see all the height requirements here. Kate isn’t 40″ yet and Margot is 42″, so we had to plan accordingly. It’s also important to consider what might be scary for little kids.
I would avoid Pinocchio and Snow White – they are really dark (like scary dark, not physically dark).
My girls didn’t love Alice and Wonderland last year, so we skipped it this year.
Margot was tall enough for Rise of the Resistance but would have hated it, so we didn’t try. And my kids don’t know what Star Wars is, so we didn’t bother. I did go on that ride with a friend who came to meet me and it was awesome!
My kids don’t know who Roger Rabbit is, so we skipped that one.
We skipped the Avengers campus since they don’t know about that, either.
The rides my 3 and 5 year-olds loved
Kate is only 3 and was definitely more hesitant than her big sister. She didn’t want to go on Ariel because of Ursula and I did not push her to do anything she didn’t want to do.
Mad tea party (teacups)
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
Casey Jr. Train
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
Winnie the Pooh in Critter Country
Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters at CA Adventure. It was so cute!
Jessie’s Critter Carousel
Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind
My 3 year old loved Haunted Mansion and Little Mermaid at age 2 but didn’t want to go on them this time.
The rides my 5 year old went on
Matterhorn bobsleds. She was so excited to be tall enough for this one and hated it.
She loved Haunted Mansion at age 4, but decided she didn’t want to go this time.
She went on Pirates of the Caribbean at age 4 and didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it. Skipped it this time.
Space Mountain. She didn’t love it but didn’t hate it.
Thunder Mountain was her favorite ride. She went on twice!
Chip ‘n’ Dale’s GADGETcoaster (loved it!)
Ariel’s Undersea Adventure was another favorite.
We did Toy Story Midway Mania the first time we visited but I think Astro Blasters is better, and the line is always shorter. They’re kind of similar, and Midway Mania isn’t worth a 45 minute wait.
Mickey’s Runaway Railway was awesome! We all loved it.
Radiator Springs Racers. She was iffy on this one. I think it made her a little nervous but she says she loved it.
Parades and Fireworks
My kids love Disneyland’s parades, and we did not line up an hour in advance, although you easily could. Since we had our stroller, we found a spot on main street behind the curb where people were sitting. The girls just sat in the stroller, and it was fine. If you want a seated spot on a curb, you’ll want to sit down at least an hour before the parade, if not more. I would recommend having one adult save a spot while another takes the kids on a ride, because that’s a long time for little ones to wait.
The fireworks are LATE. My 3 year old couldn’t make it but my 5 year-old really wanted to see them and rallied. They don’t start until 9:30, and 2/3 nights we have been at Disneyland the last few years, they were canceled due to high winds. If fireworks are important to you, go when it’s less windy in CA.
So should you take your little kids to Disneyland?
If it’s something you want to do, YES. I think we’ll try doing just one day next time. We talked about doing LA and Santa Barbara next year, and doing one day at the parks. Sure, we wouldn’t be able to see everything, but it would still be fun!
I was so exhausted at the end of the day and couldn’t believe we were going back for a second day. The same thing happened last time, but I blamed being pregnant and thought 2 days would be fine. It was still so fun – you just need a little more down time than we did. But the good news is that there are enough cute rides that you can knock out in a day, so it would still be fun and magical, and you’re right outside LA and can make a fun trip of it.