We have been fortunate to take our 6 year old to Disneyland since she was 2. We waited until she was potty trained, which may or may not have been a good idea, but we did it. We had planned a visit for my birthday in March that year, so that gave us three months to prep for the trip. When taking small children to the resort, the more prepped you are, the better time you will have!
As any parent knows, just leaving the house with a toddler or small child does require certain amount of planning, so a Disneyland Resort visit even more so. Whether it will be a one day visit or a multiple day visit, planning to some detail is required to ensure you and your child have a good time. For any visit the following can be useful, especially for a child who has never been.
-Children to the age of at least 5 can benefit from a stroller in the parks, especially if your planning a one day visit. We have visited with everything from a light sun stroller to our larger jogging stroller. What you visit with may depend on your child's age and activity level. As our daughter got older, we found the simple, light sun stroller was the best with all visits. When she was younger, the type of stroller depended on our planned visit. Our one day visits were done with the jogging stroller with shade mount. This allowed her a spot to nap in the middle of the day while we people watched or we switched off on rides she couldn't ride. It also allowed us to carry her necessities and ours without needed a locker. Longer visits where we had a hotel and planned afternoon down time found us with the lighter stroller. Whatever your stroller choice, I highly recommend it folds, so that you can take the train around the park and to take the tram or bus from the various parking lots. This saves your feet too! You can rent a stroller in the park, but keep in mind that if your staying nearby and walking or even leaving the parks, you will have to resort to carrying a tired child when you are tired to0. In the long run, bringing your own will be more cost effective than daily stroller rentals. If you are flying in, this will still be a cheaper option. Purchase a small sun stroller at a local Target or Walmart for usually under $30 and if you use it three days you save on the stroller rental. I have friends that used to fly in from Nebraska each year and bought one locally so as not to have the luggage. They would donate it prior to leaving and still save money on stroller rentals for their week long visits.
-Both parks offer a Baby Care center, where a parent can change diapers, nurse, and find small baby toiletries at low cost. These are quiet centers that also offer small toddler size toilets for children afraid of the bigger ones. The center in Disneyland is located near the end of Main street down a small side street where the first aid center is and the Little Red Hot Dog Cart. The Disney's California Adventure (DCA) center is just behind the Gharidelli Ice Cream shop.
-Water is so important for Disney visits with all guests, and even more so for our little ones. To keep your budget in tact, bring in water for them and keep it filled up all day with free ice water cups at park eateries or fountains throughout the park. When she was a toddler, we brought a sippy cup for our DD. As she got older, we switched that to a small fanny pack that held it's own small refillable water bottle that we had hooked around her waist that allowed her instant access anytime. Now she carries a small Disney backpack that she puts her water bottle in to carry, along with a small selection of snacks.
-As any parent knows, even with Disneyland visits, we strive to provide healthy snacks to our children. Disneyland has taken great strides to offer several healthy snacks for sale throughout the parks. But as with most things Disney, it can be costly to purchase as things like that add up. If you are trying for a budget visit or want to ensure what your child is snacking on, bring your snacks in with you. Disney will generally allow most snacks in as long as you are not attempting to bring in a complete meal. We have brought in whole fruit, cut up fruit, all fruit snacks, carrot and celery sticks, nuts, fruit bars, Trader Joe's fruit squeezes, freeze dried fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, crackers, and other things. As long as it isn't perishable, you can pretty much bring in any snack your child likes. Having snacks on hand makes it easy to keep a child from getting too hungry and thus keeps crankiness at bay.
-If your child has never been to the parks, take time ahead of your trip to prep them for the rides. We read a haunted mansion pop up book and showed our DD ride videos to get her into the mindset. Once there, plan your day around them and how they do with the rides. Depending on your child's interests, try starting with a familiar character ride. With our first visit, since our DD was 2, we started with Fantasyland and were able to judge by her reactions where to go from there. For children 4 and under, your day will go smoothly if you follow their cues for rides and pace. The best ride to begin with will depend on your child. We did Snow White's Scary Adventure. She came off the ride looking a little shell shocked but seemed to recover quickly and went on to ride everything in fantasyland without issue. There are several rides there that would be less scary for a small child, beginning perhaps with Peter Pan's flight or Dumbo.
-Character interactions can be hard for children. At 2 and 3 our daughter would only meet up with Minnie and Mickey Mouse. At that same age, my niece loved the princesses and would hug them and talk to them, but would not approach anyone else. If you are unsure how your child will react, stand to the side of the character interaction and show the character to your child. If they react positively, then try waiting in line and see how they do. I have found that Character cast members go out of their way to seem less intimidating to the smaller children. When DD was so small, Minnie used to kneel and get to her level and she was thrilled with it.
-Bring a camera and at every photo spot with a Disney photographer, ask them to take pictures with your camera as well as theirs. If you wish to purchase the photopass photos later you can, but the photos taken with your camera are free and often just as good. Also this will allow the whole family to be in the pictures.
-If you do not want to carry snacks, toddler meals at the various eateries are usually around or just a little more than most snack items. When she was little, they were a meal for DD. Now at 6 they are a very filling snack. They usually come with a small mac n cheese or chicken and rice cup and include a small applesauce container and a small milk, but we have had them sub water or juice as well. This runs around $4.50 and any spot that takes an AP discount will give a small discount off this as well. With the cost of the average pretzel or churro running $3.50 to $3.70, this is a great child friendly option.
-Most toilets in the parks are auto flush which can startle some children. We used to carry stickers or use our hands to cover the eye of the auto flush to ensure it wouldn't go off and scare my niece. We were luckier with our daughter, who wasn't startled by them.
-On hot days duck into the Cinema on Main street in Disneyland or the Animation building in DCA for some air conditioned relief. While the cinema does not offer seating, it is rarely visited and stays empty for long periods, making it a cool indoor spot where a young child can watch the cartoons and not really disturb anyone. As for the animation building, there are padded benches for seating, it's cool and darker as they have music and constant projections/videos of Disney movies playing. While some of the activities in the animation building are not for small children, there are some things they will enjoy. Show them the toy story zoetrope, visit turtle talk with Crush, visit the Beast's character room and Ursala's lair. You could just relax on a padded bench and allow your child down time to watch the screens and have a break from the crowds and heat.
Please post any tips you feel would be helpful!