Doing Disneyland with a 4-year-old is honestly some of the most fun you’ll ever have. Seeing the magic of the park through their eyes, watching them give giant squishy hugs to their favorite characters and letting them go cray cray inhaling yumtastic treats out the ying yang. With all that said, tots are finicky folks, so I highly recommend making two words your mantra during your time at the Magic Kingdom – BE FLEXIBLE. Naps may be needed, snacks and meals will be crucial and potty emergencies will undoubtedly happen just as you’ve reached the front of an hour-long line. Yikes! But the point is to have fun, go with the flow and just enjoy as much of the park (or parks) as you can without feeling like you have to conquer every single ride and show in existence.
Just like Gioconda, we’ve been extremely lucky knowing someone who can sign us into Disneyland and California Adventure most of the time. One of my best friends (and Jack’s awesome godfather) works for the Walt Disney Company and occasionally gets free passes that he generously shares with us or he’s driven down to the park more than once to personally sign us in. We appreciate it more than he’ll ever know because with Disney’s skyrocketing ticket prices, we certainly wouldn’t be able to go nearly as often as we have. So find a pal who works at Disney or get a job there yourself! Personally, I think you’d make an exquisite Elsa.
When you’re hitting Disney with little ones, get there early! Like “open, open, open” early. One of the perks of that comes with staying at Disneyland hotels is that they usually offer magic hours for hotel guests – gaining you entrance to park up to two hours early! That’s two extra hours of no lines, first dibs on FastPasses and swell photo ops before everyone packs in like sardines. And bring a stroller, people! No. Really. You’ll thank me later.
The first thing we like to do upon arrival at Disneyland is get Jack a new autograph book from one of the vendors on Main Street. That way, he always has it with him throughout the day to collect autographs from his favorite characters as opportunities arise. We’ve been known to stand in line for a decade just to give Jack the chance to hug and high five Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Chip and Dale. These are the moments that really make coming with tots so special – seeing their wee sugar-crazed eyes light up as they get to meet the Disney gang – there’s nothing like it.
If you’re trying to tackle both Disneyland and California Adventure in one day, Godspeed. It’s hard to conquer both with wee ones, but not impossible with a little extra planning. Before you get to the park, ask your kiddos what rides they’re looking forward to most and make those attractions (and the park they’re located in) a top priority or FastPass them for later so they’re guaranteed. Our son’s fave is It’s a Small World so we usually try to head there first and ride a couple times before lines get too long. He also loves King Arthur’s Carousel, Dumbo, Pirates of the Carribean, Peter Pan’s Flight and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Hyperspace Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror are my personal favorites, but will have to wait until Jack’s older or has lifts in his shoes.
Pack some bottled waters and healthy snacks in your bag to dole out throughout the day. They work great in a pre-meltdown pinch, will save you money and can even help pass the time in line. Speaking of those lines, I also recommend packing a few small toys to help keep tikes entertained when lines start to linger a little too long. Action figures, toy cars, small dolls are all groovy, as well as verbal games like “I Spy,” “Which Disney Character am I” and “Never Have I Ever”… oh wait. TIP: If you don’t feel like lugging around bottled water all day (and who could blame you), all Disney restaurants offer park guests cups of water and ice for free! Huzzah!
After you’ve hit some rides, seen some shows and cuddled some characters, it’s probably creeping up on lunchtime. For tots, there’s no better place to eat than ToonTown. Pluto’s Doghouse is a family fave of ours – quick, easy and tasty hot dogs. Afterwards, tikes can burn off some energy (how do they have any left?) at nearby ToonTown playground. They’ll be able to crawl through tiny houses, run, jump, slide and play with other drooly kids for a while. Believe me, this playground has been a lifesaver for us many a time. A similar option at California Adventure is the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail – kids can run through caves, scamper across bridges and slide down the hillside. Simply put, it’s ah-mah-zing and will wear your kids out. Holla! You’re welcome.
If your kiddo’s starting to fade and needs a nap, hopefully they can just crash in their stroller for a while. (See? I told you you’d need one!) But what do you do while they’re snoozing? If you’re at Disneyland, I totally recommend checking out the Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple show where aspiring Jedis use their newfound lightsaber training to battle it out against the dark side. TIP: If your child is interested in playing Jedi for a day, register at the attraction first thing when the park opens as spots fill up quickly. I’m not gonna lie, if adults could sign up, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Disney, are you listening?
And if you happen to find yourself over at California Adventure during naptime, you can always grab a mid-afternoon cocktail at Bayside Brews, Rita’s Baja Blenders or enjoy a flight of wines and cheeses at Mendocino Terrace while your rugrat slumbers. Yaaaas sleep, little one, sleeeep…
In early evening, we end up watching the Mickey’s Soundsational Parade. It’s filled with all the best characters, really fun music (a jamming drumline!) and lots of high energy. Tikes go bananas for it! After the parade, we try to squeeze in a couple more rides in before dinner.
And now that we’re talking dinner – finally! We like to go a bit swankier with a nice meal at California Adventure’s Wine Country Trattoria. The food is crazy delish, the wine selection’s even better and you get to enjoy a stunning view of Paradise Pier at sunset. It’s a nice (and much needed) breather at the end of a loooong day. Ahhhh…
If you’ve made it to the end of the day with your sanity intact and most (if not all) children still accounted for, congrats! There’s no better way to top off your Disney adventure than catching California Adventure’s incredible World of Color show. Don’t get me wrong, the fireworks at Disneyland are gorgeous too, but there’s something truly magical about World of Color. Your favorite Disney movie clips and music scores dancing among the fountains as bright colored lasers shoot high into the starry sky. It’s pretty unforgettable.
If you decide to stay overnight at one of the Disney hotels or somewhere nearby, be sure to check out one of the character breakfasts the following morning. It’s well worth the money – at least one time. We dig the one at Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel. The breakfast features a full buffet of fantastic kid-friendly foods (Mickey waffles, hello!) and various Disney characters stop by each table and greet kids individually. It’s the perfect time to snap those photos you may have missed during your visit, get autographs and meet characters like Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter who are harder to track down in the park.