Updated 10/18/18. When it comes to traveling with kids, things can easily turn into a National Lampoon Family Vacation sideshow. But with some advance preparation, things don't always have to look like a Chevy Chase movie. Unless that's what you want then full steam ahead, Griswolds.
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It terms of traveling with babies and small toddlers, our extensive guide for visiting Disneyland with Babies will have you covered. But when it comes to school aged or younger kids, there's another level of preparation that goes into your visit.
With that in mind, here are our top tips and tricks for avoiding catastrophe and having a magical vacation when taking your kids to the Disneyland Resort.
Prepare for Traveling
If this is the first time your kids will be on an airplane have them watch the TSA security clearance video at home and make sure to get the FREE Disney provided planning videos (these are a fantastic overview for visiting Disneyland). This can help prepare them for the hectic security lines at the airports and avoid meltdowns. TSA agents have a bad publicity rap but in my personal experience (and we fly often!) they are always kind to kids. Kids typically get to keep their shoes on which helps with the hassle. Also, make sure to check out our full guide to transportation to Disneyland to help you travel with less stress.
Be prepared with a backpack full of activities, gum, and snacks for your kids on the airplane. I usually purchase these items at the Dollar Store before we head to the airport to avoid those high airport prices. If I'm really worried about my son behaving on the plane I might buy him a new book or coloring activity and then hide it until our trip. This way when they open it on the airplane it's brand new and will keep them occupied for longer.
Seating kids by the window seat is the best option so you don't have to worry about them bothering the passengers directly next to them. If you have an electronic device, load a movie onto it in advance (make sure it works without WIFI!) and let them watch movies. To be honest, I let my kid have all the screen time and candy he wants when we're traveling. If he's happy, everyone around him is happy, and then I'm happy. Vacation is not the time to lay down the law. Especially on an airplane!
If you're driving to the resort, I salute your bravery. Most of these tips work just as well in the car as they do on the plane. I would recommend doubling the amount of activities and movies you bring in the car. Be prepared to make plenty of stops and account for that in your estimated driving time.
Check Height Requirements
This is an important one! Take the time to measure the height of your kids at home, with their shoes on, and see which rides they can ride. If your kids are older and tall, you will probably be all set! But it's always good to double check.
Disneyland is strict about height requirements– if you're not tall enough you won't ride! Even if you just waited an hour in line. There's no bigger match to cause a fire than having a kiddo endure the long wait in line just to get to the front and find out they can't ride. Avoid that mess by planning in advance!
And you didn't hear this from me but I've heard of guests using taller/platform shoes for the parks if their kids are just a hair shy of the required minimum.
Make a Souvenir Plan
The Happiest Place on Earth can easily become the most expensive place on Earth when visiting with kids. The shopping at Disneyland is amazing: there is so much to see and so much to buy. This can be overwhelming for adults so now imagine what it is like for kids! If you head into those shops without a game plan you're going to have a horrible case of the ‘gimmies!' going on before you can even make it past Main Street U.S.A.
There's a good two step process to help avoid those store meltdowns. Make a chore list, or add additional chores to the current one you have, at home. Tell your kids they will earn a certain amount of money (whatever works for your family) by doing those chores for your Disneyland vacation. Then buy a Disney gift card and load the amount onto the card.
When you're in the parks, give them (within reason- perhaps just let them hold it when they are shopping!) the gift card and remind them what amount of money is on it. Make sure the kids understand that when the money is gone, it's gone! This can really help kids from going crazy on wanting souvenirs and get them to slow down to think carefully about purchase decisions. And we all know, kids are more frugal with their own money.
And speaking of avoiding meltdowns, remember that you know your kids best! If you think they can't handle the stores at the end of the day, gift card or not, then don't go in them! Have one parent take the kids to do other things while the other parent shops. I think we all know that shopping with tired kids is miserable regardless of where you are. That is going to be no different at Disneyland. Avoid it at all costs! Take them for their souvenir shopping early in the day while they're fresh and calm.
Check out our full guide on timeless Disneyland souvenirs here to help you plan your shopping list in advance.
Prepare for Scary Attractions for Kids
Some rides are Disneyland can be scary even for school aged kids! Being prepared in advance for what rides might spook your kids can help you plan for alternatives. Again, you know your child best! Check out our full guide for scary attractions at Disneyland for a breakdown on rides that might be a bit spooky outside of the usual thrill factor.
And just because your kid is tall enough to go on some of the thrill rides doesn't always mean they are ready. If you're worried about a certain ride being too much for your kiddo, watch a Youtube video of that ride in advance with them to gauge their reaction. Especially if this is their first major theme park visit!
Kids can surprise you with what they find scary. My son didn't bat an eye on any of the major thrill rides his first visit. From Space Mountain to Splash Mountain he barely even uttered a peep and just sat there in calm serenity. It was wild how much the thrill rides didn't even phase him! But when it came to Haunted Mansion, that was another story. He was absolutely terrified of that ride which was a real bummer for mom since that is one of my favorites! The lesson here? It's good to be aware of the rides that are spooky in case that's the fear factor for your kids.
Be Realistic About Your Expectations
This is one of the hardest Disneyland tips to stomach for parents. Just because this is the Happiest Place on Earth doesn't mean that all the normal struggles of having children just vanish. Even for school aged children, a long day at Disneyland is a long day indeed. Be realistic about what your kids can handle and how a lack of sleep can seriously impact a park day.
I learned this the hard way on my son's first trip to Disneyland. We stayed extra late one park night so we could watch the Main Street Electrical parade's second viewing because there was hardly anyone waiting for the parade. I couldn't resist! I needed to see it twice! My son, seven years old at the time, was extremely tired but I figured we could rally the next day and be fine. By the time we got back to the hotel it was after 11PM and way past a seven year old's bedtime.
The next day, I still got him up early so we could make it for rope drop at California Adventure and away we went. He was okay at first and we made it to the parks on ‘schedule.' The meltdown, the most epic meltdown he's had in years, came when we were waiting at the Visa Meet and Greet hoping to see Stitch. Stitch, his absolute favorite character in the universe, unfortunately wasn't there to greet him when we passed the rope. It was Minnie Mouse, the character he is always the least excited to see. Cue the meltdown, folks! We had to get out of that park so quick my head was spinning and I was ready to have a meltdown of my own. We promptly returned to our hotel, had a two hour nap, and we were able to return after lunch with a fresh start. The takeaway from this story: let them rest when they're tired and run as fast as you can when those meltdowns happen.
It's funny now but at the time I was so stressed and disappointed. I had put so much effort into our park plans I forgot, for a moment there, that my kiddo was just plain exhausted. There was no way he could handle disappointment after a night with lack of sleep. Going to the parks now, I am more realistic about my expectations. I know my kid turns into a grizzly bear when he's tired so I make sure he gets his sleep no matter what. He's happier, I'm happier, and it's a realistic plan.
This is the key to being realistic at Disneyland, understanding that you may have to slow down. You may have to take breaks when you don't want to. You may need to leave earlier so your kids can get some rest to be fresh for the next day. I hate to say it but disappointment happens at Disneyland too. Rides could break down, characters might not be available, or fireworks get canceled. Having a rested kid helps them cope with these things.
Of course, this is all more applicable if you have more than one day planned at the parks. If you only have one day planned then it makes sense to rally and show up with a solid strategy! Spend the afternoons cooling off in one of the indoor AC attractions or head out to Tom Sawyer's Island to get a break from the crowds.
If you have park hoppers and are staying for a few days, use the afternoons to go back to your hotel and swim. Take a break from the heat and the crowds. You will come back more refreshed and everyone will be happier. Afternoon time can easily become meltdown time at Disneyland, get out of there and come back later.
Have a Strategy But Enjoy the Moment
I'll be the first to recommend having a touring strategy in place for Disneyland from day one. Using a touring strategy is the best way to ensure that your family experiences all the top attractions with minimal wait times. If you follow a good strategy, you can have most of the major high wait time attractions finished by lunch. Planning out your day before arriving at the parks is also helpful for preventing arguments about which ride to go on first or other similar sibling squabbles. Go over the plan at the hotel so everyone has an idea of what to expect.
Just don't forget to enjoy the moment with your kids! It can be easy, easier than you might think, to get caught up in touring plans and dining reservations and characters times that you end up missing those small moments. Take a breath and find the time throughout the day to just stop. Take in the beauty of Disneyland and your child's happiness. These are the moments you will remember the most. Don't plan too much that they pass you by.
More Disneyland Planning Tips
There is always a lot of information to consider before planning an Disneyland vacation. Make sure to spend time planning your days in the theme parks and become familiar with everything Disneyland has to offer. Don’t forget to subscribe to our FREE Deals Newsletter to stay on top of the current planning tips, strategies, and deals.
You can discover more about planning your trip to Disneyland from these links:
- California Adventure Touring Strategy: Guide to Maximize Your Mornings
- Disneyland Morning Touring Strategy: Guide to Maximize Your Mornings
- How to Plan Your Disneyland Trip
- Disneyland in the Summer
- 40+ Places to Find Cheap Food in Disneyland