I grew up in Anaheim, California about 15 minutes from Disneyland. For many of my adolescent years, we had annual passes to the happiest place on earth which meant we could go any time we wanted. And boy, did we go a lot. When I was around 10 years old, the theme park celebrated their 30th anniversary. It was a HUGE celebration. Every time you entered the park, you won something whether it was a pin (there were sets you could collect), free tickets to the park or even cars. Needless to say, we went just about every day to see what we could win. We ended up with a lot of pins, 12 free tickets, 0 cars and a jaded sense of what the perfect day at Disneyland looks like. As we got older, we let the annual passes expire. We slowly used up all those free passes over the next 10 years. And I didn't want to spend an entire day at the park waiting in lines with those crazy crowds.
Then I had kids. We didn't take them to Disneyland right away since the park had become so expensive. We took my oldest for the first time at 5 and had a lovely time. My youngest also got to go when he was 5 and it was fine. Even though we only live about 25 minutes away from the park, the kids had never really asked to go back. So we didn't suggest it either. But being in such close proximity to the park, and remembering all the fun times I had growing up there, made me feel like we needed to plan a trip. Luckily the kids each got a ticket to the park for volunteering with their Cub Scout troop cheering on the runners at the Disney Half Marathon. With two tickets out-of-the-way, I requested 2 media tickets to the park so that our family could have a fun, family day. I was approved for the tickets and we set out to plan our day. The kids were ecstatic and quite frankly, I was too. I had finally outgrown my resistance to spending a whole day at Disneyland.
It was important to me that we all had a great day. I put some thought in to how we could make that happen and looked up tools and resources that would help us maximize our fun. I'm so glad I took the time to do that so that we could have the perfect family day at Disneyland. Here are my tips for helping you plan your day, especially if you are like us, and can't afford annual passes or to go multiple times a year. WHEN TO GO
I'm a huge fan of school, but I knew that if we wanted to get in the most rides, which is what would be most fun for my kids at this age, we would need to go on a school day. I had read somewhere (I could totally be wrong) that Tuesdays are a great day to go so that is when we went. I looked at the park calendar to see what time they opened and closed to make sure that we would have a full day. Depending on the time of year and day of the week, the park may close on the early side, so be sure to check this out when you are picking your day. I also wanted to make sure it wasn't too close to a school holiday which could mean that more people might have traveled for an extended family vacation. September is always a gamble with weather and is often our hottest month. Think about yourself and the kids and pick a time of year when you'll all be the most comfortable. I love to visit the park when they are celebrating holidays. There is something extra special about the elaborate decorations they have throughout the park. Halloween Time is especially fun and they nail the details at every turn. Luckily, they decorate on the early side which means that you can experience the extra decor without running in to the extra crowds. Although it would be fun to attend Mickey's Halloween Party with trick or treating and other awesome activities (separate admission required), it is not in our budget this year. When Halloween is over, they will begin the transition to their holiday decorations. Winter at Disneyland is pure magic.
WHAT TO WEAR
Whatever you wear, make sure that you are weather appropriate and you think ahead to what you might need from morning to night. The day we went it was over 90 degrees and super humid. It was a rather unusual weather pattern for us so I wasn't sure what night fall would bring. I packed one small bag with pants and a sweatshirt for each of us and we kept it in a locker on Main Street, just in case. Although the $13 for the day use of a locker was a little hard to swallow (I remember putting quarters in) it was so nice to know that we had it there and that everyone would be comfortable. I also wore sneakers since I knew they would keep me the most comfortable. Look, I'm all for a cute outfit, but it's not a fashion show. You will literally be on your feet all day so resist the urge to wear your cutest sandals and give yourself some arch support. You deserve it. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE FAST PASS
This was our first experience with using the Fast Pass system. In short, this is stinking awesome. I was a little afraid of them at first, since I didn't know how to use it but it really does cut the waiting time down for some of the big, popular rides at the park. All you do is find the kiosk (most often right across from the ride you are hoping to get one for) and insert your park ticket. It spits out a Fast Pass which gives you a window of when to come back to ride. Do this for each person in your party and when you return to the ride during your allotted time, you get to bypass the long line and wait a much shorter time. After we did this once, we were all about it and began to strategize even more. If you are planning on coming on a busy day, I would research more on the Disney fan sites online to work out the most strategic use of these passes. You really can save a ton of time with a little advanced planning.THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT
There are tons of Disney focused apps (including the official Disneyland Resort app) that you can download that will help you make the most of your trip. I found one called Mouse Addict which I thought was great. I am sure there are some with more bells and whistles but this one had everything that we needed. The thing I thought was most helpful was the wait times for the rides. This helped us manage our kid's expectations and plan out our rides based on wait time. It also had a map of the park and could help you find specific food options.
WHAT TO RIDE
I knew there was no way we'd be able to ride everything in the park. In the days leading up to the visit, I had each person in the family pick their favorite ride or a ride they HAD to go on so that we could prioritize them. For me, it was the old classic, It's a Small World. For my oldest it was California Screaming and for my youngest it was any roller coaster. He was really afraid of Space Mountain when we first road it. But by the end of the day he had been on it 3 times. The day we went was amazing. It wasn't that crowded and we could ride most rides multiple times. Also, keep in mind that sometimes the rides are less busy during the parade time! We had no trouble getting on the rides the family members requested. If you think about it, on busy days, with long ride wait times, you realistically might only be able to get on 4-5 rides. If you don't plan ahead for that, one person might end up out of luck and feel like they missed out on something special. It is also important to think about the rides that might be different to ride at night. I didn't even think about all the things you wouldn't be able to see while on the Jungle Cruise until we were on the boat in the dark. Although they had some spotlights to show you the animals, it was just not the same as experiencing it in the day time. Similarly, riding the outdoor roller coasters at night is a totally new experience. Consider riding Thunder Mountain in the day and at night so the kids can see the difference. We hadn't planned this, but my husband and I each ended up having one on one time with each kid that day. Since the media tickets were park hoppers, I was able to take my older son over to ride California Screaming (luckily this didn't cause a scene with my youngest as I wasn't sure how he would react to not getting to check out the other park too). It was so much fun to get to spend time with him, doing something new. And taking selfies. Earlier in the day, I had taken my younger son on some rides while my husband took my older son to see the Star Wars Launch Bay attraction. This really added to the bonding that we got to do as a family, even though we were sometimes apart.
HOT TIP: Upon leaving California Adventure, literally a step out of the exit gate, I realized that we hadn't gotten our hands stamped, just in case. I approached the Disneyland Cast Member we had just exited near and asked her about the hand stamp. She was not eager to give us the stamp as she didn't remember us. I totally understood. She then told me that if I could show her our park hopper passes and a selfie from inside the park, that she could do it. Boom. Never have I ever been so excited to have a selfie before. We didn't end up going back to CA Adventure that day but we could have if we wanted to thanks to the selfie.
WHAT TO EAT
Or rather, what not to eat. It's all delicious. But know what you really want before you go. When you follow yummy Instagram accounts like @ThingsIAteatDisneyland and @FirstComesLatte, who regularly posts food from her Disneyland trips, you kind of already know what you want to try. There are only so many hours in the day and you KNOW your kids are going to ask for snacks. Since my kids didn't really know what delicious food was offered at Disneyland, I led the way on this. I knew I needed to try the Dole Whip, the Mickey Beignets and some popcorn (the popcorn was always one of my favorite treats as a kid).
HOT TIP: I learned after my trip that you can pretty much skip the line for Dole Whip's and buy them from inside the Tiki Room itself! I'm sure you have to work around show times but my friend told me that she NEVER waits in line for one!
Maybe planning the snacks is a little bit backwards but it helped me to plan out our meals. Since the park didn't open until 10 am the day we went, the boys had breakfast at home. We had an early-ish lunch of hamburgers in Tomorrowland. It was at this moment that my 10-year-old decided that he wanted to eat an adult sized meal, even though he usually doesn't finish a kid's meal. And even with coaxing, he couldn't be swayed. I will tell you that the kid's meals are about $5 cheaper than adults meals and in hindsight, I probably could have ordered a kid's meal and been happily full. Luckily he ate all of his lunch. For dinner we didn't really have a plan but I remembered seeing Mexican food over in Frontierland and so we headed there. Because I knew that we were going to get treats, we didn't need to go crazy with tons of food at dinner. My husband and I ended up each getting an enchilada platter ($15/each) and we split those with the kids. It saved us money, didn't fill us up so much that we wouldn't want treats, and was delicious!
A full day at Disneyland is exhausting so be sure to build in some breaks. Talk about some of the shows you can watch at the park with your family before you go to see where you might be able to sit down and rest. While we didn't have much interest in shows (although looking back I would have been real happy to go to the Tiki Room), we enjoy people watching and found a nice shady spot to chill out for a while. Each time we had one of our treats we also took the time to really enjoy it instead of eating it en route to something else. Breaks are important, especially if you have little kids! CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE
If you only have one day to spend at the Disneyland Resort, I think it is best to choose only one park. When we went for the blogger event a few years ago, it was really hard to juggle both parks. It takes a lot of time just to walk between the two so if you are going back and forth, you are doing a lot of walking but not much experiencing. My media tickets were park hoppers as well, so while my older son and I did go over to ride a ride, doing much more would have taken hours and hours. Instead of splitting your time, I think your kids will value the experience of visiting one park at a time. If you can swing it, do the 2 day tickets where you can do one park one day and the other the next.
I haven't had that many opportunities to really explore California Adventure. It opened when I was in college and I've only been a handful of times. I think that it is a good place for younger kids as there is a full Cars Land and A Bug's Life area. There are also a lot of shows for kids and seems very conducive to letting them run free a bit. This is also where you can get an adult beverage, so that's awesome. The day we were there, we saw a 30 minute wait to sit at one of the bars. BEFORE YOU GO
I made it a point to give the kids expectations before we got to the park. We told them they would not be getting souvenirs (we live really close to Downtown Disney and anything they were desperate for could be gotten for a Christmas present). Plus who wants to carry those around all day anyway! Although they asked a few times, it was really easy to remind them about our policy. We also made sure to let them know that although they had things they really wanted to see or do, we couldn't guarantee that we could do all of them. My oldest son has wanted to see the fireworks on our last two visits and didn't get to each time. I wanted to try to put all that in to perspective for them so that their disappointment didn't negate all the amazing times we had throughout the day.
You'll also need to prepare yourself for the fact that after spending a perfect family day at Disneyland you will now want annual passes. And of course they announced the Disney Southern California Select Passport was back two days after our visit… While we can't afford them now, they might just be something we try to work in to our budget. Seeing the kids have such an amazing time and getting to spend quality family time together was priceless. And while you can have those things elsewhere, there is something truly magical about Disneyland that I hope I can have my kids experience more often.
I was given two Park Hopper tickets.
Here are more great posts to help plan your next visit to Disneyland.
Read why I think Disneyland is pure magic.
Check out why the holidays at Disneyland Resort are so awesome.
You have to eat this at Disneyland.
A guide to playing Pokemon Go at Disneyland.
Insider Disneyland hacks you need to know.