Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families (Part 2 of 2)
In part 1 of this article, you prepared and researched for your trip. Now it's time to head to Anaheim!
Once you have arrived at Disneyland, you enter through the gates at the end of Downtown Disney. There is no fee to enter Downtown Disney, but there are a hundred ways to spend your money there. It is basically a large, outdoor mall of Disney-themed shops and non-themed restaurants. The restaurants are all excellent and there is a great variety to choose from. Be aware of shops that will draw your kids in that you may not be interested in them going to. For example if your kids like to build teddy bears or RC cars, keep pointing at the other side of the street and asking if they see the Mickey logo. They will eventually find one and you will have avoided another large expense. Downtown Disney is also full of (somewhat expensive) activities that you may be interested in. In the winter, there is an ice-skating rink (you can even get cute little training skates for beginners and kids). There is a boutique shop where your child can get fitted in a custom princess dress and receive a full makeover to be made to look like their favorite princess character. There is the obvious financial expense of going to these places but there is also a much larger hidden expense. If you plan to do these activities, get there hours in advance and experience them when you are not paying to be in the park. If you have already paid for your park ticket, don’t waste your time outside the park. Consider instead doing these activities in the evening or even scheduling an additional hotel night so that you can spend the day at Downtown Disney. Do not make the mistake of wasting your morning getting your child made into a princess so that you can then constantly remind them throughout the day to avoid not smearing their make-up or snagging their new and expensive dress.
I was once told that one of the most amazing experiences that a father can have is witnessing the look on the face of his children as they behold the spectacle that is entering Disneyland on their first time. I prepared, ran ahead of my group and videotaped it so that I might experience it again. After taking it all in, my family and I rushed to the back of the park and hopped on to Dumbo. As I acknowledge earlier, not all families prepare as thoroughly as mine in advance of a trip like this. I recognize that not everyone holds a family meeting, reviews which rides all family members need, want, accept or do not want to experience. I also recognize that I went to extremes to purchase additional software to plan my day so that we could go on the most potential rides possible (accounting for foot speed, time of year, magic morning, eating, breaks and day of the week).
If I learned nothing else from all of this planning, it is to get to Dumbo and the Submarine first. These are two of the busiest rides in the park and also have the two worst line queuing systems. Next, I recommend getting on to the Tea Cups if it is open. This ride closes often for maintenance and hygiene reasons. Finally, It’s a Small World is right in the vicinity, can get extensive lines and you may as well get the inevitability out of the way early. This will also put you right outside of the princess show. This is good to know if you are planning to (or not to) attend. Likewise at California Adventure, the newer rides will fill up quickly. For our family, this meant the new Carsland cars ride. The other ride that fills up quickly is Souring Over California.
From here, the rest of the park is more or less a gamble. Indiana Jones will have a long line at just about any time in the day. It’s a good ride and everyone enjoys it, but there will be a line as a result. There are two major ways to avoid standing in this line or others in the park without buying and preparing extensively. First, your ticket is also your “fastpass.” Fastpass is not available on all rides but when it is, it will give you a time window to return to the ride and use an express line. For example, if it is 9am and your fastpass time window says “10am-11:30am,” swipe your ticket and go to another ride or two. When 10am rolls around, you can go to the front of the line (often using a fastpass line.) There may be a line of other fastpassers here as well, but it will be nowhere near as long as the standard line. Additionally, I highly recommend one of the Disney line apps for your smartphone. These can tell you (usually with accuracy) how long the lines are throughout the park. I found the official Disney version of this app to be less helpful than independently-programmed apps, but this may eventually change.
Another tip for families and lines – you may need to temporarily split up the family. If your group stood in line the entire time, even at a ride where your kids cannot go, you can let the gate attendant know that you want to split the group. They will escort one parent and the kids to the side while the other parent rides ahead. When they come back, the parent babysitting gets to trade in. This way, everyone gets to ride and your children don’t go temporarily abandoned on Tom Sawyer Island.
If you have any money left in your account after all of this, consider one of several character breakfasts. This is a large and somewhat expensive buffet whose food is not necessarily better than a buffet might be in your home town. There is one very large difference that accounts for the difference in price: Disney characters. It’s not every day that your kids get to eat French toast and then be interrupted by Aladdin. If you go, schedule a reservation way in advance and plan to be there for a while. I recommend doing this on your last day (on a day that you will not be in the park but right before you head out). You have the option of going to the breakfast in the lobby of the original Disneyland Hotel for standard Disney characters like Donald at Goofy’s Kitchen. Alternatively, the Grand Californian has the Storyteller’s Café, which is mostly filled with the woodland creatures or jungle creatures from your favorite Disney movies. If you stay long enough, you may be encouraged to do a conga line with these characters. Make sure that your camera is charged before going in as the characters expect a million pictures. Doing this also frees you up not to chase down Mickey (and waste your time) in the park. Unlike when we were younger, the characters do not roam the park with as much frequency. There is a third character restaurant in California Adventure named “Ariel’s Grotto.” You literally go underwater to get there – well themed. Unfortunately because it is in the middle of the park, you must have a California Adventure ticket (and waste park time) to attend. If you have a child that simply cannot be without a princess fix, there is no substitute. Many of the princesses tour, talk to your kids and stop for pictures. The food here is also quite good and served family-style instead of buffet. Do not hesitate to ask for additional scones or honey butter after you have filled your face (and secretly your backpack) with the originals provided.
If you are staying at one of the Disneyland hotels, after a busy day in the park, and supposing that you are both in a position where money is no object and your children are over the age of 5, you have the option to drop your kids off at Pinnochio’s Workshop. Inside, Gepetto will not teach them woodworking and toy-making. Instead, perky staff members will serve as daycare and provide supervised TV, crafts and games. Meanwhile, you and your spouse can slip away to the Grand Californian for a couples massage at the Mandara or a meal and glass of wine at the Napa Rose. I have been told by friends that the more expensive wine can be purchased by the glass saving you from having to purchase the whole bottle.
Finally, you’re exhausted and ready to go home. Before you leave, you may be reminded by a family member that you really never stopped for souvenirs. This, after all, never made it into your master plan. The good news is that there is a souvenir shop in Downtown Disney. This shop has most (but not all) of the exact same items as in the parks. If you have multi-day park hopper tickets, I recommend making a list of potential souvenirs as you see (or your kids grab) them. Then, at night, hit up this store and see if it’s in here. The price will be the same if it is here and you won’t have wasted any valuable park time. You can even go after you put the kids down to sleep at night or on the way out of the park on the way back to your hotel. Now you don’t have to carry that “Worlds Goofyest Dad” mug through the park. Also consider checking your phone’s prices with your Amazon app if it’s something pricy. You may find the exact same toy or item on Amazon for less expensive and have it shipped to your house ready for you when you get home. If you need a toy or trinket while you’re staying there and have little ones, consider the bucket of army men or bucket of toy story aliens. My kids are still playing with these years later and integrating them with play in other toys. For under $10 a bucket, you could do a lot worse.
Though long and detailed, I hope that this article clears up any of the mystery for parents considering a trip to Disneyland, especially those traveling this holiday season. While my tips may not apply to everyone, hopefully you learned something new and can gain some additional enjoyment from your trip. After all of my research and effort, I was able to do a 3-day Disney trip for 5 for under $1000 all inclusive (with the Grand Californian and the concierge room). I’m very interested in any other tips that you may have. I recommend and applaud mousesavers.com for all of the tips that they and their readers gave me in preparing for my visits!