The toddler years are great ones to experience Disneyland with your little one. I’ve been with both of my children in the 1-3 age range many times and it is truly a magical stage. That said, toddler travel comes with some challenges, even at the Happiest Place on Earth. Keep reading for my best tips from the travel trenches for making the most of a vacation at Disneyland with toddlers.
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20 Tips for Disneyland with Toddlers
1. Stay at a Hotel within Walking Distance
If you’ve read one of my many posts about Disneyland, you probably know how much I recommend staying within walking distance of the parks – especially if you travel with little ones. Being able to come and go as you please is so important. Don’t make yourself reliant on unreliable or full shuttles when you are racing for rope drop or if you have a cranky little one in need of nap time ASAP.
There are a number of hotels that work well for families with toddlers that are also within walking distance. I recommend looking for ones that have features like free breakfast, great pools, and in-room refrigerators. Room layouts that work well to enable parents and young kids to have separate areas are great too. Quite a few have family suites.
The best walking distance locations are on Harbor Boulevard across the street from Disneyland’s pedestrian entrance (stretching from I-5 to Katella) as well as near the corner of Katella and Disneyland Drive (where guests can enter the parks via the Downtown Disney security entrance).
You can check out my top 15 recommendations for hotels within walking distance of Disneyland but here are a few I’d specifically highlight for families with toddlers and young kids for a couple of reasons:
- Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance: Large rooms that sleep 6 with a bunkbed in every room, amazing water park, spacious bathrooms with separate shower and tub.
- Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Water Playground: Pirate-themed water playground, microwaves and mini fridge in every room, family suites available.
- Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort: Incredibly close walking distance location, standard rooms are either two queens or king with a sleeper sofa to easily sleep families, premium Disney themed rooms available.
- Hyatt House at Anaheim Resort/Convention Center: All rooms include den area & kitchen, included breakfast
2. Go in with a Plan
Thankfully, Disneyland doesn’t require as much preplanning at Walt Disney World, which is one reason I recommend it to families with little ones. But having a rough plan of some sort will make the day go more smoothly.
As the parks reopen more fully in 2021 and more guests return, Disneyland crowds are back. You need to plan to avoid lines and get meals at the right time because lots of waiting in line or hunger pangs aren’t going to end well with a toddler.
Use lots of Disneyland wait time apps to watch for short lines. Mobile ordering a meal early is a must-do to make sure you have food when your child is hungry. I also highly recommend getting up and out the door to make rope drop when lines are shorter – your toddler is up at dawn anyway, right?
Be sure to check out all the latest tips, tricks, and new strategies for touring Disneyland in 2021 – I promise things have changed a lot if you haven’t been to the parks since the closures!
3. Book a Character Meal
A great way to have your toddler see a lot of characters in a short period of time with no lines is to book a character dining experience. These meals aren’t that much more expensive than other sit down Disneyland dining options. Getting the character spotting experiences during mealtime saves you time in the parks later.
See my complete guide to all character meals at Disneyland to choose the right one. And be aware that character meal experiences are currently modified in 2021, but our family has still found them worthwhile!
4. Bring Your Own Stroller
Even if you don’t use a stroller much at home, you’ll need one with toddlers at Disneyland with the ground you’ll cover. It’s simply too much walking for even older toddlers and preschoolers in a single day. And strollers can also be an easy place for your little one to grab a nap in case you aren’t able to take a mid-afternoon break.
Disneyland rents strollers, but they are expensive and you cannot take them back to the hotels (even the Disney-owned ones!). They are also hard sided so they aren’t the most comfortable. Having your own is definitely the most flexible option (or at the very least, consider renting from a reputable stroller rental company if you can’t travel with your own).
Disney has size restrictions for strollers as of May 1, 2019. Check out my guide to the best strollers for Disney travel to help choose both single and double strollers that work well for the demands of Disneyland.
4. Look for Toddler Meals
Dining at a quick service location? Disneyland offers toddler meals at a couple of locations like French Market that are cheaper than even the regular kids meals. These are often toddler-friendly mac and cheese that my kids have always enjoyed.
Toddlers often don’t eat a lot, so we’ve also found just having our kids share a meal with a parent (as long as it’s something they like) and maybe supplementing with a snack or two packed in our Disney day bag works well to save money too!
5. Take a Mid-Afternoon Break
The best way to do Disneyland with a toddler is to start early (they are up anyway!) and then plan a mid-afternoon break when lines are at their longest. Go back to your hotel (remember why I told you to book within walking distance?) and take a pool break or a nap. Then, your whole family can be recharged for evening fun and even perhaps push bedtime back a bit.
6. Do Both Parks
The conventional wisdom is that Disneyland park is the better fit for toddlers, and that’s true to some extent. But don’t miss out on a visit to California Adventure, especially if your trip is longer than a single day. There’s so much to offer little ones there too! If you have more than one day, split your time between both parks.
My toddlers have always adored Cars Land. The new Pixar Pier has plenty of familiar characters and even the brand new Avengers Campus is a hit with many kids of this age. My kids have also been huge fans of the Disney Junior Dance Party in California Adventure at the toddler and preschooler stage, and that finally just reopened again in 2021 (see more of the best rides in California Adventure for toddlers and preschoolers).
7. Schedule Free Play in Toontown or Redwood Creek Challenge Trail
Marching from ride to ride will wear out even the heartiest of toddlers, so give them time to engage in free play too. The best place for this in Disneyland park is Mickey’s Toontown. Tucked away in the very back of Disneyland park, it’s away from the crushing crowds and a little more low key.
While not all features and play area are reopened in 2021 just yet, the entire land has so much for kids to explore and discover. A lot of characters make distanced appearances in Toontown now, so it’s an easy place to get some selfies with your toddler’s favorites.
And if you are in DCA for the day, it has a play area all its own – Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. My kids also enjoy taking a play break at the Kugel balls in each park (giant granite balls balanced on a thin layer of water they can spin). There’s one at Pixar Pier in DCA and one in the center of Tomorrowland.
8. Know Where the Characters Are Easy to Spot
Character time is a hit with most toddlers, and definitely well worth some time in the parks – especially if you aren’t planning a character meal or when ride lines are long. Of course, everything has been modified in recent months. The good news is that with a little preparation, you can easily see a lot of characters from a distance in a short period of time with your toddler and even snap some cute photos. Check the map in the Disneyland app under “entertainment” to see the spots listed. Top spots include:
- On the train station platform overlooking Town Square on Main Street USA
- At Princess Fantasy Faire
- On the terraces near it’s a small world entrance
- In front of Carthay Circle theater surrounding the fountain in the square
- In Avengers Campus
And a note for later – while it’s on pause due to health and safety modifications, one of the best character meet and greets for toddlers in Disneyland has always been in the very back of the park in Critter Country. There, you can traditionally meet three characters toddlers know and love – Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger – while needing to stand in only a single line that wraps through them all. Watch for this (or something similar) to hopefully return eventually!
9. Go Before Your Toddler Turns 3!
Everyone likes saving money at Disneyland, and there’s no better way to save than not having to buy a park ticket for you little one! Toddlers are totally free before their third birthday at Disneyland, so be sure to schedule that trip just before your child’s big day. I’ve found that 2-3 year olds can get so much value out of the park at that stage because they start to know the characters. It’s a smart stage to plan a visit for the budget-conscious.
Bonus – if your child turns 3 during the trip, they are still free. As long as they are still 2 for the first day they enter the parks, they don’t need a ticket. I know a lot of families will schedule a third birthday trip for just this reason.
10. Watch Out for Scary Dark Rides
The non-thrill rides in Fantasyland (often called “dark rides” because they are inside) may seem like the perfect options for toddlers, but the reality is that some of them will scare some toddlers.
Thankfully one of the scariest of them all – Snow White’s Scary Adventures – just got a much happier makeover into the very well done Snow White’s Enchanted Wish. Even still, there is an evil witch in it that will probably frighten quite a few more sensitive young kids. Other ones to look out for are Pinocchio and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (which – quite literally – includes a drive through hell).
I recommend starting in this area with Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland in Fantasyland to see how your child reacts to being in the dark before trying the ones with scarier scenes. Or start even more gradually with the very bright and happy dark ride Winnie the Pooh over in Critter Country.
11. Baby Care Centers Have Supplies in a Pinch
Forgot diapers or wipes? Or have a toddler who needs a bandage to make a scrape all better? Make a beeline for the baby care centers (one in each of the parks) which will have the supplies you need. They even have small toilets for potty training toddlers to use more easily.
12. Pack Your Own Snacks
Toddlers will get hungry (especially while you are in line and can’t get to a snack stand) so pack some healthy snacks they know and love for emergencies. It will save you money as well as prevent the Dole Whip driven sugar overload meltdown mid-day.
13. Park Your Stroller Once Per Land
Toddlers will want to walk a bit and not be confined to the stroller full time, so we found the perfect compromise that also makes logistics easy. Use the stroller to get your child quickly from land to land. Then park it in one place in each land and allow your child to walk from ride-to-ride within the land. This saves you a lot of time hunting for the stroller and strapping your kid in and out of it unnecessarily.
14. Go at the Right Time of Year
The huge advantage of having a toddler is that you aren’t yet tied down by your child’s school schedule. Avoid school break periods when crowds are at their worst like summer, spring break, the winter holidays, or even long holiday weekends. Go during low season instead for a more relaxed experience.
My favorite times of year to visit with a toddler? The first week of December between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is usually a sweet spot. We have also loved early March before the spring break crowds arrive in full force. Be sure to check out this guide to seasonal events at Disneyland to help you plan around special offerings.
15. Pack a Bathing Suit
If you are headed to Disneyland during a warmer time of year, don’t forget a swimsuit (and swim diaper). While one park used to have a splash pad, that is now gone. But most hotels in the Disneyland area have really great pools and splash pads of their own, many of which are heated even in shoulder season months. So definitely don’t forget the suit!
16. Understand – and Use – Disney Genie+
Most Disneyland guests are familiar with Fastpass and MaxPass as a way to shorter ride lines – but those are now gone forever! Thankfully, a new system with many of those same features is coming very soon in Fall 2021: Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane. It’s a bit complicated, so I’d recommend reading up first!
Most basically, Genie+ will cost you $20 per person per day, but it will allow you access to shorter lines through the “Lightning Lane” for up to 19 attractions. Some of those include toddler friendly favorites like Toy Story Midway Mania, it’s a small world, and more. For those rides, paying for Genie+ may well be worth it to avoid long lines.
Note however that many little kid-friendly rides like Peter Pan, Dumbo, or Winnie the Pooh aren’t on Genie+. For longer trips with toddlers, I’d therefore recommend buying Genie+ for one day to hit the rides that do have it but using other strategies on other days and saving some money.
17. Take Advantage of Rider Switch
Just because you have a toddler doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the thrill rides. Disneyland has a great program called Rider Switch that lets parents switch off caring for a little one and riding a one of the attractions with height restrictions. The second adult/parent and older children do not have to wait in line again!
To use Rider Switch, be sure to take your whole party to the first cast member at the entrance to an attraction line, who will add the switch pass to your park tickets.
18. Plan For the Worst: A Lost Kid
No one wants to think about losing a child in Disneyland, but it does happen. For toddler too young to memorize mom and dad’s names and phone numbers, use a sharpie or label to mark contact information in your child’s clothing or use a child ID bracelet to ID temporary tattoo.
I know some parents with especially active toddlers will also bring a backpack leash to keep them close. No judgment! Do what you need to do to keep your kid safe.
19. Measure Up
Some rides at Disneyland have height restrictions, so measure your toddler in advance of your trip to avoid disappointment – especially if you have a toddler with a need for speed! You might be surprised how much you can ride. Our little guy was tall enough for Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (32 inch minimum) by 18 months and we were amazed that my very tall daughter was able to ride Radiator Springs Racers (40 inch minimum) on a trip when she was 3.5 years old.
20. Plan for the Weather
Southern California weather can be a bit variable even though it is usually pretty pleasant year round. You may find your toddler needs a jacket in the early morning or evening hours even if you are in shorts midday, so pack appropriately and consider layers. Bring ponchos and a stroller cover when rain threatens. And of course, don’t forget sunscreen and water (pack your own sippy cup or water bottle) for any time of year. Check out my other ideas for what to pack in your Disney parks day pack to make sure you remember the essentials.
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