On a recent trip to San Diego, we decided on a whim to take our two-and-a-half-year-old son to Disneyland for the first time. We bought our tickets online and planned to make the 1.5 hour drive to arrive in time for opening at 8 a.m. — leaving by 3 p.m. — about as long as our toddler could handle. It would also give us enough time to catch our flight home that evening. There's no denying that this was to be a whirlwind adventure.
Since our time was limited, we committed to spending the day as a family, avoiding any extra hours spent waiting in line for big-kid attractions that only one of us would be able to ride at a time. We knew it would be a tease walking past the Indiana Jones Adventure and the Matterhorn Bobsleds to clamber up the winding stairs of Tarzan's Treehouse and chase our speedy toddler through nooks and crannies of Mickey's Toontown, but we hoped witnessing the delight in his eyes would make up for it.
Here's what we learned along the way:
The same toddler rules of thumb apply at the Happiest Place on Earth that do everywhere else.
Bring sunscreen, extra clothes and more diapers than you think you'll need. Pack plenty of snacks, then pack more. A stroller is necessary. You might end up leaving it stationed throughout the day, but you'll be happy to have it when your wee one needs a break. Plus, where were you planning on storing all those snacks?
Go with Plan.
Have an idea of what attractions you want to experience, and prioritize by "theme land" from there. Consult the map upon arrival and check out the day's schedule ahead of time, so you can work around any shows your little one might enjoy. Be prepared to adapt — we all know nothing goes quite as planned with a toddler in tow.
Research rides ahead of time and follow your toddler's cues.
What delights one preschooler may frighten the tail off another. We quickly learned that our son did not like rides with loud noises or darkness. Unfortunately, this includes a fair number of rides deemed "appropriate for all ages," and we didn't know where to avoid them. Attractions that seem unassuming to start (what could possibly go wrong on a "whimsical journey, filled with music and laughter" in the shady forest of Critter Country?) may quickly turn into something more closely resembling a loveable bear's unfortunate (and terrifying) honey-fuelled acid trip. It would have helped to know which rides included such a turn of events, which we could have accomplished by visiting a handy guide I discovered after the fact —disneyland.disney.go.com/attractions — including to-the-point keywords such as "spinning", "small drops" and "dark." We found that open air rides like Dumbo and the Tea Cups were generally safe. With that said, your child might be scared of flying elephants. You'll figure it out as you go.
Of the six hours we spent at Disneyland, our experience was most enjoyable between 8 and 10 a.m., before it got absurdly busy. Toddlers don't enjoy waiting in line. There's only so many times you can make waving goodbye to the ride they so desperately want to be on fun before they start to lose it.
So, upon arrival, despite my nagging need for caffeine, we bee-lined it past everyone waiting to purchase a cup of java on Main Street and headed straight to Fantasyland and a less than five-minute wait for Dumbo. Within half-an-hour we had hit the Tea Cups, Jr. Casey's Circus Train and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. By 10 a.m. wait times had jumped to 20 minutes, and in hindsight we would have repeated the attractions of Fantasyland until that point rather than heading off to explore.
Toontown is where it's at.
With its interactive playhouses and accessible structures to explore, Toontown is a great place to expend energy once waiting in line has taken its toll. Our son did not stop smiling the entire hour we spent here. He also did not stop running. Follow close behind as there are lots of blind spots — I'd guess that a few toddlers go missing in this wacky world each day.
Spend the night.
We knew we wouldn't be able to tackle everything in a day, and if we were staying the night we would have gone back to the hotel for a nap and returned in the evening to take advantage of parades and other night-time events. If we had a "day two" on our agenda we definitely would have checked out Disney California Adventure Park, located adjacent to Disneyland, with the oh-so-popular Cars Land and A Bug's Land. We'd also likely switch off occasionally to enjoy some of those big-kid rides ourselves.
So, at US$105 each (kids under three are free) was it worth it? Honestly, not particularly. At two-and-a-half, so much of what the park has to offer is lost. And although we will return to Disneyland one day, we'll likely wait until our son is in his primary school years. Don't get me wrong, nothing beat the look of sheer joy on his face as he tore around the Chip n' Dale Treehouse, or realized he was controlling Dumbo's flight, but I get the sense if we were to wait a few more years, that joy would come around every corner of the park.
Of course, it would also come at a price. Kids three to nine years old are US$99 for the day.