When To Go
The best time of year to go to Disneyland (or California Adventure) is in either late January, early February or September. During these times, most kids are in school after the summer and winter holidays, most rides are open and the weather is almost always nice. Outside of these times, you can expect the parks to begin getting busier as the Halloween decorations go up in October. There are lulls between Halloween and Thanksgiving, but it begins to ramp up around Thanksgiving and doesn’t let us until the holidays are over in January. Early March can also be nice before out of those with early spring breaks arrive. Attendance numbers begins gaining towards April coinciding with California’s spring break and the Easter holidays. May can be acceptable, but once the summer starts, steer clear if you can help it. June is packed and July it becomes unbearable!
If you have an option, weekdays are almost always better than weekends, with Tue-Thur being the best during the non busy times. Contrary to what you may believe, during the busiest summer months, going on a Saturday or Sunday can often be less crowded as people tend to fear the weekend crowds and stay away.
Check out the crowd prediction calendar for a decent estimate on crowd levels. It has been wrong before, but overall we have had great luck with it.
Tip: You can also get a sense of crowds based on the parks operating hours. If the park opens at 10 a.m. you can usually expect it to be a bit lighter than when it opens at 9 or 8 a.m., but you also have less time to pack everything in.
Also, if you are a local and can manage a last minute trip, going on days when it’s a little rainy outside can mean an almost empty park. Don’t forget to pack the rain boots and poncho.
Which Park Do We Go To?
Choosing which park to visit on a one off visit, really depends on you and your family’s interest. On our first visit, we went to California Adventure and loved it. Our son was too small for the main rides, but this actually made the park feel quite manageable. It is smaller than Disneyland, and the lines for the rides tend to be quicker for the most part even on busy days. We find that our experience at California Adventure tends to be more focused on rides rather than the “Disney Experience”. Don’t get me wrong though, you will still see characters (although very few if any princesses), musical performances and shows.
=> => => If your child is super into the classic Disney characters, princesses, and fairy tales, then Disneyland might be a better bet for you.
=> => => If you have only one day, the best is to choose just one park and focus on that.
Either way, if you have a limited amount of time at either of the parks, I recommend you read up on the rides/attractions to map out what you definitely want to see or do. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the parks, check height requirements and whether fast passes are offered for the rides you must do. See our posts for Disneyland & California Adventure with our favorite rides for toddlers mapped out for you.
If you really must see both parks in one day, I recommend starting with California Adventure. Lines are always shorter and it’s much smaller, so if you move quickly you can get a lot done before mid-day, arriving at Disneyland in time for the afternoon parade.
What To Bring
Disneyland and California Adventure both allow you to bring in your own food and drinks, so why not! Bring lots of snacks, fruits and even packed lunches. If you are in a pinch for time, stop by Subway on the way and grab sandwiches. The food at Disneyland and California Adventure is not great and it is way over priced, so this is one area that you can save some cash.
Also, bring refillable water bottles and/or an extra cup to share drinks or ice cream.
Tip: Most restaurants/cafe’s will give you a cup of ice for free if you ask. This is great on hot days to refresh and cool your water bottle down.
If you have a little one younger than 4 (maybe even 5), bring the stroller. Sometimes it ends up being a pain, but it is also useful for when they are tired, or you are tired of carrying your bags. There will be lots of time standing in long lines, so letting the little ones rest their legs between rides will be much needed. I’ve seen many parents with strollers packed full of their belongings more than as child movers!
There are a few splash/water areas where kids can cool off at California Adventure, so it’s wise to bring a change of clothes, small towel and water proof shoes (kids must keep shoes on) if you are going there and plan to get super wet.
Bring long sleeves or a hoodie. It can be very hot during the daytime, but cool down considerably once the sun starts to set, so plan for all seasons.
If you plan to stay through the fireworks, bring your child’s pajamas and change them before you head to the car. More often than not they will be fast asleep before you exit the parking lot! Also, consider bringing noise canceling headphones for kids who are sensitive to loud noises. The fireworks echo quite a bit and sound much louder than normal.
It is hot at Disneyland and California Adventure even when it’s not a super warm day. The sun beats down on you, so make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen. Remember to re-apply often even if the air feels cool out.
Cell Phone Charger
Cell phone batteries run out quickly, especially if you use your phone to take photos or for entertainment in the lines. Here is an amazing list of free outlets to charge your phone at Disneyland and California Adventure. Also, look in the plants as there are usually covered outlets there somewhere. The staff won’t always let you charge for free, but if you are just hanging out, they may not even notice! Alternatively, purchase a power bank to provide extra charge for your phone when the battery starts to run low.
Fast Passes & Rider Switch Passes
Fast passes are invaluable if you want to hit the bigger, more popular rides. You can only have one fast pass associated with your entrance ticket at a time (for most rides, however there is an exception for Radiator Springs & World of Color), so you will need to plan in advance what you want to do.
Fast passes for Radiator Springs are usually gone within an hour of the park opening. If you want one, you will need to go to the Fast Past line (near the entrance to Bugs Life) as soon as the park opens. Be prepared to wait in line there for a while.
As soon as you get your fast pass, which will most likely be for much later in the day, head over to the ride to check the wait time. Often in the early morning lines are 30-45 minutes. Trust me, if your kid is tall enough to go on this ride, they will want to do it twice!
Fast Passes for the World of Color at California Adventure usually run out by mid afternoon (and can be held with other passes). The location for fast passes is near the large bear near the Grizzly River Run.
Tip: If you really want to go on a ride, even if there are several of you, you can always go through the single rider line. You won’t get to sit together, but you will get to go on quickly. This only works if your child is NOT riding the ride.
Rider switch passes are available for many of the more popular rides. This means that you can go through the single rider line and get a pass for another person in your party who can then go on directly after you get off. This is great if there are just two adults with children. As you enter the single rider line, make sure to ask the attendant for a rider switch pass. When you get off the ride, hand the pass over to your partner/family member/friend so they can go straight through.
Arrival At The Park
Plan to arrive to the park approximately 1 hour prior to when you actually want to get inside. From getting through the lines to pay for parking, parking, getting to the tram, through security and getting into the park, you are looking at anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hr. Parking structures open 1 hour before the actual park opens exactly for this reason. We move quickly and it usually takes 30 minutes once we have parked the car. Remember to write down which level you park on – you would be surprised how hard it is to remember after a long day in the sun. And do not trust your phone since it is likely the battery will be dead by the end of the day!
If you can/want to fold up your stroller you can get in any line for the tram, if you want to leave it open (all children must get out), the only lines that accept strollers is one at the back of the tram and one at the front.
If the lines are too long at the tram, you can walk in about 10-15 minutes. Cross the road where the trams go and follow the hoards of people. You can enter the park in Downtown Disney if you already have your tickets with a much shorter line and you get to ride the Monorail first thing.
Eating & Restrooms
Eating at the park can be expensive and a bit of a disappointment. There are a lot of options though, which can be overwhelming when hunger strikes. For kids, Disneyland offers a cheap (around $5) Kids Power Pack that includes yogurt, a banana, goldfish, carrots and apples. All things most kids will eat! At California Adventure they have a similar kids meal at the hot dog stand opposite Disney Jr Live. It includes a hot dog, choice of apples or chips and a drink.
If you have any particular dietary requirements, check out the offerings before arrival so you know what you can get and where. There are not a ton of vegetarian options, but there are becoming more options as it becomes more common. DisneyDiva has made a good list of options for Disneyland. There are also a few vegan food options that can be found at both of the parks. And it never hurts to ask even if you don’t see something on the menu.
Our favorite family friendly place for food at Disneyland is Red Rockett’s Pizza Joint near Space Mountain. At California Adventure we grab a veggie burger from near Soaring Over The World. For quick on the go kid friendly food (usually before a parade), check out the corn dogs stand at the end of Main Street.
Restrooms are all over the place, all equipped with baby changing facilities. However there is only one place in each park that has toddler size toilets. At Disneyland it is at the end of main street, just behind the corn dog stand in the “Baby Care” Room. In California Adventure it is in Pacific Wharf near the Ghiradelli Soda Fountain Shop.
Also note, many of the restrooms have automatic flush toilets which can be frightening for newly trained toddlers. The Baby Care rooms are also great to feed or if you need a quiet place to rest with your baby for a few minutes.
There is so much to share about making the best of a visit to Disneyland. For more detailed information on our favorite toddler friendly rides at both parks check out my post with recommendations for attractions/rides for Disneyland and California Adventure.
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We would love to hear your tips for visiting Disneyland/California Adventure with toddler, so please share in the comments.
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