Disneyland · Travel

Disneyland Tips from a Disneyland Nerd (and Mom)

Disneyland Tips from a Disneyland Nerd (and Mom)
Disneyland Tips from a Disneyland Nerd (and Mom)

I am an absolute Disneyland fantatic.  I went once as a child, and then again at age 18.  When I went at age 18, I was hooked.  I am 32 years old now, and in the last 14 years, I have been to Disneyland 16 times.  I don’t live in California, so these are actual, expensive vacations that I have taken, and boy, are they worth it.

Scenes like this - magic.
Scenes like this – magic.

There is something so magical about Disneyland, and I really just think it is the spirit of it all.  We all become kids again.  I don’t care how old you are, when you see Mickey Mouse on Main Street, you feel like you’re seeing a celebrity, a friend- not a teenage girl in a costume.  There is something intoxicating about the sounds of the old band music, the smells of homemade candy and ice cream coming out Marceline’s Confectionery on Main Street.  I just can’t fully put into words how much I love it there, or even why, other than all of the above, plus lots of wonderful memories made there throughout the years.

Scenes like this - magic
Scenes like this – magic

Of all the memories though, being there with my kids, especially my kids at age 3 1/2, have been by far, my best trips of all.  People kept saying to me “Don’t you want to wait until they are old enough to remember it?”  I always think that question is so silly.  No, I want to go again when they will remember it.  I want to go now, while they are three, before they know, logically, that Donald Duck is a short woman in a costume.  While they still thinks they are actually flying in a pirate ship on the Peter Pan ride, and actually eating food prepared by Chef Goofy at Goofy’s Kitchen.

Meeting Dale at Goofy's Kitchen
Meeting Dale at Goofy’s Kitchen

My daughter’s face the first time she met Mickey was the purest, most unadulterated look of joy that I have ever seen.  Same with my son, when on the last day of our trip when he was 3 years old, Donald Duck, his favorite character, who we had searched far and wide for but been unable to find that trip, waved at him from the Paint the Night parade.  I thought he would die with happiness.

Daphne meeting Mickey - magic.
Daphne meeting Mickey – magic.

Anyway, people are constantly asking me for tips before they plan their trips, so I thought I’d put it all into one place.  So, here they are, in no particular order.

Planning your Trip:

I have always had the best luck (from Seattle) doing packages with Alaska Airlines vacations (1-800-468-2248) They seem to always have the best price, and I check with Walt Disney Travel Co, AAA, Expedia, and I price it separately, just to verify that I am getting the best deal. I like also that Alaska sells trip insurance for $45 per person that lets you cancel for ANY reason and get all your money back if anything comes up.

With Alaska you will get a good deal on air, hotel, park hoppers, airport transfers, everything.  A five day trip for a family of four (five, but the baby was free) cost us, in September 2015, $3100 before spending money.  For this price we got:

  • roundtrip airfare from Seattle to Orange County
  • Disneyland Express airport transfers
  • 5 day park hopper tickets
  • a premium character breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen
  • 6 nights at the Howard Johnson
  • travel insurance.

Spending money for a family of 4 was between $100-$150 per day, depending on how frugal you are.  We averaged about $100.

By far, the best off property hotel to stay at is the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel. It’s affordable, a really easy walk, and it has a great pool/kiddie water park for the kids.  My kids LOVE the water slides and the splash park.  Aside from staying on-site at a Disney property, this is the best bang for your buck. There is a new hotel next door, I think it’s a Marriott, that also has a water park.  That hotel is much more expensive though.  The rooms are not fancy at all, but they are clean and comfortable. All the rooms have a fridge, and Mimi’s Cafe is in the parking lot, which is a super good restaurant, and it’s cheap too (by Disneyland area standards.)

The terrific kiddie splash park at the Howard Johnson Hotel
The terrific kiddie splash park at the Howard Johnson Hotel

If the Howard Johnson is sold out, other hotels that I have stayed in that are clean and right across the street are the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, The Carousel Inn, and the Best Western Anaheim Inn. All are good choices, but not as good as the Hojo.  I have stayed at several others as well, but these are my favorites.  If you can afford to stay on-property, it is well worth your money.  The Grand Californian is one of the most magical places I have ever stayed in my life.  The Disneyland Hotel is also quite lovely.  (I don’t personally feel like the Paradise Pier hotel is worth the money.)  However, if you are looking to save money, staying off-property is a good way to do it.  Especially considering how little time you spend in your room.

Kiddie pool at the Howard Johnson Hotel (they have an adult pool as well.)
Kiddie pool at the Howard Johnson Hotel (they have an adult pool as well.)

If you are flying, most definitely fly into SNA (orange county) airport and not LAX, especially if you are flying with kids, it is worth the little bit of extra money. It’s 10 minutes from DL instead of an hour, and it is a much smaller airport, your luggage will come out right away, it’s easy to navigate, etc.  The lack of stress alone is well worth the little extra cash.

For airport transfers, if your kids are still in carseats, you have a couple of options. If you’re taking your kids carseats on the plane, you can do a cab. A cab will be the same price as a supershuttle for the 4 of you (around $45 each way) and is much more convenient. You will have to install your car seats. If you don’t want to worry about carseats, you can do the Disneyland Express Bus. It pulls up outside the airport and the kids can ride just like they would on any city bus. It is the *only* mode of airport transportation where you don’t need a carseat. CA has really strict carseat laws and all the cabbies/shuttle drivers follow them.  Supershuttle is a great option if you are traveling without kids, or with booster seats only and you have less than 4 people.  If you have more than 3 people you may as well just take the cab.

You should definitely do a character breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen. It is a bit pricey, but well worth the $$. The food is decent, but the thing that makes it worth it is the characters coming around to your table and interacting with and taking pictures with your kids. It’s so much fun. You can buy this at the park or in a package, but either way you need to call 714-781-DINE up to 60 days before you go and make a reservation. We like to go around 11am, and do it like brunch, then we kill two meals for one price.

Goofy’s Kitchen is well worth the money. Go around 11am and kill breakfast and lunch with one stone.

** A note about Photopass Plus: As of Spring 2016, Photopass plus is only offered for $39 a day.  It is not worth it in my opinion.

With Photopass Plus, we got digital copes of ALL our ride photos.  Definitely worth the $$.  Here is Daphne on Splash Mountain.  She LOVED it!
 Here is Daphne on Splash Mountain. She LOVED it! (She’s trying to “smile” here.)

Other Random Tips from Shannon (please remember that these are opinions, not facts)

No matter what, ALWAYS take a break in the middle of the day. Go back to your hotel, take a nap or swim in the pool, and then head back over to the park.

Pool breaks are necessary for tired babies and parents.
Pool breaks are necessary for tired babies and parents.

Eat at Mimi’s Cafe for meals outside the park. Mimi’s is really good food, large portions, really affordable. Don’t confuse it with Millie’s which is right next door and, in my opinion, gross. Don’t eat at Captain Kidd’s Buffet either.  I walked in there once, after paying, took one look around, and went back up and asked for my money back.  (That is very unlike me, so you know it had to be bad.)  This was several years ago, so maybe it has improved.

You know you've had a full day when your kid's pass out at Mimi's for dinner!
You know you’ve had a full day when your kid’s pass out at Mimi’s for dinner!

My favorite restaurants in Downtown Disney are Naples Ristorante E Pizzeria, and ESPN Zone.  Get a pepperoni pizza and a Caesar salad at Naples, and a Philly Cheesesteak at ESPN.  So good.

Radiator Springs Racers over at California Adventure is one of the best rides in the park. You have to get to Calif Adventure at park opening and get in line for a fast pass. Otherwise you will wait in an hour+ line for the ride. Fastpasses sell out about an hour after park opening.

Radiator Springs was a favorite for US and the kids!
Radiator Springs was a favorite for US and the kids!

Do NOT miss Fantasmic! if it is playing while you are there. Things have changed! You used to be able to bring a blanket and set it out for your family, go get some food, and camp out until the show started to get a front row seat. With the new Fantasmic Dining Packages, sadly, you do have to pay for the privilege of a great seat. The best seats come with the Blue Bayou dinner package.  In my opinion, it is pricey but worth it.  You must call exactly 60 days out to reserve your Fantasmic dining package.  If you don’t want to spend the money on a great seat, line up for a Fastpass at park opening for a reserved seat.  The fastpass machines can be found by the Rivers of America/ Big Thunder Mountain.

Fantasmic! usually plays on the weekends (Fri, Sat, Sun).  Check Disneyland.com for the show schedule and hours for your trip.  *Note: as of Spring 2016 Fantasmic is on temporary hiatus during Star Wars land expansion.

Holding our seats for Fantasmic!
Holding our seats for Fantasmic!

Watch the fireworks on Main Street. You can see everything perfectly, hear the soundtrack, and you can walk up and stand there about 20 minutes before the show starts and still get a great view.  If you time in correctly you can watch Paint the Night from the same location and then watch the fireworks show right after.

Paint the Night is the new nighttime parade and it is not to be missed.  It is amazing. I thought it was as good as The Main Street Electrical Parade and that’s really saying something.

Paint the night parade

Go to City Hall on Main Street when you get there and they will give your kids “First Visit” buttons to wear.  If you’re celebrating a birthday, ask for a birthday button.  Every cast member you encounter will tell the birthday boy/girl “Happy birthday, ______!”

Measure your kids before you go and look up the height requirements for the different rides so they won’t be disappointed if they aren’t tall enough.  If your kid is 40″ or taller, you can rest assured that they will be able to do *most* of the bigger rides.  Splash Mountain, Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain,  Soarin’ over the World, and Tower of Terror all have a 40″ height requirement.

On our 2015 trip, we found Olaf in the Hollywood Studios backlot at DCA.  Fastpass machines to meet Elsa and Anna can be found outside the Animation Building at DCA, with a specific time to come back to the same location to meet them.

Charlie’s dream come true

If your kids scare easily, don’t take them on It’s Tough to be a Bug in DCA. I have seen more kids in tears after that ride than any other ride. Daphne, however, was unphased by it, but you know your kids best.  Other rides that you wouldn’t think would be scary that can be- Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (there is a very short time where you drive through “hell.”, and also Snow White in Fantasyland.

Bring a backpack and your own bottled water into the park. They will let you, and it is much cheaper than the water in the park.  Incidentally, you can go into any restaurant in Disneyland and ask for an ice water, and they’ll give you one- for free. 🙂

If you have two kids, bring two umbrella strollers. Don’t bring a double stroller, it will be too hard to navigate through the crowds. Even for an older kid, like 6 or 7, I would advise bringing them a stroller. You walk several miles a day at Disneyland and it is HARD to carry a kid that big all the way back to the hotel.  I don’t rent a stroller because they are $15 a day and I can’t take them back to my hotel, which is the time my kids want them most.

Best “starter” roller coaster to take a kid on is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. If that is not running, the next tamest “big ride.” is Splash Mtn.  Chip and Dale’s Go-Coaster in Toontown is great for toddlers (but short and boring for anybody over the age of 7)

We rode Gadget's Go-Coaster many, many, many times.
We rode Gadget’s Go-Coaster many, many, many times.

Ride It’s a Small World when you are hot and tired. Or Pirates of the Caribbean. They are air conditioned and are between 15-20 minutes long. A nice break. Don’t be discouraged by a long line at either of these attractions- they move FAST.  Over in DCA, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, It’s Tough to be a Bug, and Monsters Inc. are also great rides for hot/tired people.

Peter Pan’s flight in Fantasyland will always have a long line. Don’t skip it. It’s probably the best dark ride in the park, followed by Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh.   Get to Peter Pan at park opening or Magic mornings for the shortest lines.  Don’t skip Ariel over in DCA- it is also fantastic.

Ariel's Undersea Adventure
Ariel’s Undersea Adventure

Dumbo is the longest. line. ever. Do it early in the morning or late at night.  Same goes for Peter Pan’s flight.

Ride Dumbo first thing in the morning- the ONLY time of day your wait will be short. Same goes for Peter Pan’s Flight.

If you’re tired of walking, take the Disneyland Railroad to get from one side of the park to the other. It’s a nice break.

I bought my kids little fanny packs on Amazon to wear and keep their money, sunglasses, etc. in.  I often see people with their small children wearing lanyards around their necks with their park passes in them.  Do not do this! Your park hopper is like cash.  If it’s lost, if it falls out of your wallet, if it flies out of your pocket on Splash Mountain, Disneyland will not replace it.  They have no records or way to look up what you purchased.  Putting a park hopper in the hands (or around the neck) of a small child is like putting $300 in cash on them.  Put the park hoppers in your wallet in a very safe place.

Get Ice Cream on Main Street, and a churro. Pommes Frittes and Beignets at Cafe Orleans are not to be missed either. If you like coconut, the Matterhorn Macaroon over at the Holly Jolly Bakery is delicious.

I’m pretty sure that seeing Fantasmic in the front row and this churro were the highlight of Charlie’s trip.

Make sure you use fastpass for Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, Thunder Mountain, Tower of Terror, Soarin’ over California, and California Screamin’, and Radiator Springs Racers.

Enjoy your trip to The Happiest Place on Earth!

Have a tip to add or a question? Comment below!

Disneyland Tips from a Disneyland Nerd


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