I’ll start this post by saying that I’m a huge Disney fan. However, I’m on a modest vacation budget, so my desire to visit the parks far outweighs my means…and my husband’s tolerance. He did give in to my request to take the family to Disneyland for my 30th birthday, and it was by far my favorite trip we’ve ever taken.
I sifted through several hundred Disneyland tips on Pinterest before we left and crafted what I believed to be the perfect packing list and itinerary for us. My kids were three and one at the time, and although we came close to an experience that was 100% magical, there were a few choices we made that still have me kicking myself six months later.
Why beat myself up about it, you ask? Well remember the aforementioned modest budget? Yeah…our next trip is a minimum of three years away. Insert all the crying emojis.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “What’s the big deal, lady?” then you’ve clearly underestimated my fandom.
So to save my fellow super fans from the heartache I’ve experienced and, hopefully, have them share in my joys as well, I want to share two lists: the 6 tips that worked wonders for us and the ones that can go jump off Splash Mountain.
Also check out: Top 6 Disneyland tips that ruined the magic!
I’ll start with the happy list today. This is Disneyland we’re talking about, after all, and even though I’ve only been there a measly four times, I’m pleased to confirm that it truly is the Happiest Place on Earth. If you feel the same way, then I know you’ll love these 6 tips to make the most of your trip with toddlers.
1. Rent an amazing stroller
Having two small children, I knew for sure we’d want a double stroller. We have one at home, but it’s a beast, and my husband and I shuddered at the thought of taking it through airports and packing it onto shuttles and trams. Disney has strollers for rent, but they only hold one child, they look less comfortable than your standard models, and they’re $15 a day or $25 for two. Plus who wants to push two strollers around?
We ended up renting a City Mini Double Stroller from the Traveling Baby Company, and it was perfection. It had lots of storage, was comfortable enough for the kids to sleep in, and folded up by pulling on two handles. Seriously—you pull the handles and the whole thing collapses in a fraction of a second. Our stroller cost us $70 for the entire week. So worth it! Even if you have older kids, it’s fantastic to have a place to carry all your stuff or to give the kids a break from walking after a long day at the parks.
When I thought about the reality of renting Disney strollers—wasting precious morning park time by standing in the rental line, having to return them and carry the kids all the way out of the park at night, and losing them in a sea of identical strollers—the choice was obvious.
We saved money by renting our car seats through Traveling Baby as well, and they delivered all our items to our rental car agency. As convenient as that was, having the courier meet us at such a specific time cost us quite a bit extra in fees. Normally they have a four hour window in which to drop your items off with hotel personnel, but they are not able to leave their equipment with car rental agencies or at the airport. We chose to stay in an Airbnb condo and drive to the parks each morning, and this fee was just one of the reasons I’d choose different accommodations next time. But more on that later.
I read this advice in multiple places, but it absolutely bears repeating. Tie a colorful bandana onto your stroller handle for easy identification during the day, and buy a cheap set of battery powered Christmas lights and string them up for night time. It’s easy to lose your stroller, so make yours stand out.
2. Definitely add these items to your packing list
Brita water bottles with built-in filters for the whole family. The water in southern California is nasty, and most of the blogs I read said to ask for a free cup of water at any counter service restaurant if you want something more drinkable. There are two things I really don’t like about that bit of advice. It puts more cups, lids and straws into landfills, and it wastes your precious Disney time. We’ve used these water bottles several times since our Disneyland trip. They’re a must-have.
A roll of Dr. Scholl’s Moleskin and kid scissors to cut it to size. No matter how good your shoes are, your feet are probably not used to walking and standing all day long. Blisters can ruin the magic faster than Space Mountain shutting down for repairs when you’re next in line. This adhesive padding stays in place all day long and gives substantial cushioning and pain relief.
A power bank to recharge your batteries. Your phone does it all. It’s your park map, your weather update, your entertainment while you wait in lines, your park ticket, your camera, and—of course—your phone. Power banks offer low-cost peace of mind. We only ended up using ours for one day of our trip, but it was worth packing it along.
Any costumes or Disney themed gear you’ll want to wear inside the parks. If you research these tips as much as I do, you’ll know that this one comes up a lot. One thing I would add, however, is that we pick up a lot of our costumes and dress up items used by searching Ebay and Poshmark. I shamelessly dressed the whole family to resemble some of our favorite characters (aka: Disneybounding), and we were able to afford it by buying most items second hand. I snagged Riley’s Minnie dress for $12.50, and it’s one of the official Disney Store deluxe outfits, normally around $50.
Oh, and don’t forget your ears! Every adult owns at least a couple pairs, right?
Finally, pack a pocket size parade blanket for saving your spot. These take up only a tiny amount of space, they’re lightweight, and they’re waterproof. A lot of people bring a regular blanket, a towel, or a sheet for this purpose, but the pocket size blanket we brought is even smaller when folded. We’ve used ours almost weekly since we bought it. It’s excellent to take to the park or on a picnic.
3. Do the dang Character Meal
I was on the fence about doing a Disneyland Character Meal, but seeing so many Disney bloggers gush about this experience convinced me to fork over the extra money. I get teary eyed just remembering my kids’ joy at having so many familiar faces stop at their table and make time for them. You won’t get that level of interaction without standing in long lines, and even then, the meet and greets at a Character Meal feel much more relaxed and unhurried.
We chose Breakfast with Minnie and Friends at the Plaza Inn. This was the perfect one for us because it included one of the Sensational Six, was located inside the parks rather than at a Disney resort, and was a less expensive quick-service buffet meal.
4. Find out how much it costs to add another park day to your itinerary
I originally planned for my family to spend four days at Disney parks—two at California Adventure, and two at Disneyland—with two travel days, a rest day, and a day at Universal Studios. However, when I discovered that there was basically nothing at Universal for very young kids, we asked for a refund on those tickets and called Disney customer service to add another day in Disneyland.
Getting our money back from one-day Universal Studios tickets saved us $300, and adding a Disney day came to a total of…
Keep in mind, Riley was just under two years old, so she was free, and we don’t spend extra on park-hopper tickets. But still. $45!
Tickets get significantly less expensive the more days you add on, and at that price it would be worth it to me to add tickets even for the days we weren’t planning to go to the parks. Say your plane lands and you get all settled into your hotel or rental house by afternoon. You have dinner and rest a bit. Then what? If you’re like me, you’ll probably be wishing you could hit the parks immediately.
Is $45 worth it to spend a few hours soaking in that nighttime Disney magic and catching some incredible fireworks before bed? Methinks yes.
5. Consider counter service restaurants
It’s heavenly to rest your feet and eat a good meal at the parks. But sometimes we hear “counter service,” and we think low-quality or fast food. This is so not true when you’re in Disneyland. I was able to find satisfying vegetarian meals wherever I went, and it felt like a little luxury to sit down and eat real food instead of snacks packed in the stroller, all while staying on budget.
I didn’t intend to do this, but looking back over our trip, the only restaurants we went to—including our Character Meal—were counter service. It really wasn’t a big deal to have one parent go find a table with the kids while the other waited in line to order our food. This system worked out well for us.
I’ve heard of some people doing Disneyland on a shoestring and bringing all their meals into the parks. While I can appreciate the savings, I also know that making a meal out of snacks in your backpack gets really old really fast, and when I’m on vacation I plan to enjoy my meals, even if it means saving up a little longer.
6. Get a place with a mini fridge, coffee maker, and microwave so you can bring your own breakfast to the parks
Now I’m going to completely contradict what I said above and tell you to do the opposite. But hear me out.
Having breakfast on the go saves you park time during those glorious slow mornings when it feels like you have the whole place to yourselves. And since the day has just begun, you won’t feel the need to sit down and take a break at a restaurant quite yet. Bringing your own yogurt, fruit, muffins, etc. will save you money, and you’ll have plenty of time to eat while you’re riding a bus, monorail or tram to the parks and waiting in the turnstile lines.
Your hotel may even offer a complimentary breakfast where you can grab a few things to go.
There’s a McDonald’s right across the street from the park entrance. If you book one of the nearby hotels, you can also save some money by walking over to Mickey D’s for a to-go breakfast before crossing the street to begin your day of Disney magic.
I hope you enjoyed reading my tips as much as I enjoyed writing them. They really do work, and I encourage you to incorporate them into your Disney travel plans. Shout out to all my fellow fans out there who start planning the next trip as soon as they leave the parks. We’re a special breed.
Look for my next list: the 6 tips that RUINED THE MAGIC. I’ll be sharing what NOT to do on your Disney vacation no matter what the other Pinterest tips say. Learn from my mistakes, friends!
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