Traveling to Disneyland as a Single Parent (2015 Update)

A number of years ago I wrote a post on  traveling to Disneyland as a single parent that has proven to be popular, judging from the number of hits I get on the site for the post.  Based in part on that post, I decided to create a new Family Travel section here on the website (and re-post the Traveling to Disneyland as a Single Parent article).  

So when I went back to Disneyland this past summer, I thought it'd be a good time to revisit and update that article to reflect my 2015 experience.  What follows is a report that covers my experiences both times.

One note: as I write this in fall 2015, the resort is scheduled to go through significant upheaval as it works to bring the Star Wars universe into its attractions, so some of the advice here may be, if not out-of-date, at least modified.  But the general gist -- be close, be early, be patient -- probably applies even more...


There are many people for whom going to Disneyland is a lifelong dream, for whom mingling with 50,000 of their closest friends provides a huge thrill.

My wife is not part of that group.  She hates crowds.

So in 2012 when we figured out how to swing a trip to Los Angeles and include a day at Disneyland, I knew that it would be me and the kids and nobody else.  And in 2015, when we decided we'd make Disneyland a part of a longer California trip, I knew that we'd be putting my wife on a plane to fly home while we drove on to Anaheim.

On the one hand, this was exciting: I'd get 72+ hours of one-on-one (or one-on-two) time with my kids away from all the distractions of day-to-day life at home. One the other hand: me, two kids, and a big public place. I'm confident in my parenting and child management skills (not to mention my directional skills), but traveling solo with kids provides a whole different set of challenges.

I should also note that even back in 2012, this wasn't my first trip to Disneyland as a single parent -- in 2007 I traveled with Miss Mary Mack and spent a couple days at the park. We had fun, but I also look back at that trip and see how it could have been improved upon. In many ways, I think this makes the advice I'm about to dole out particularly useful, because I've done the relatively-uninformed traveler thing and while my two subsequent trips weren't perfect, they both went better enough that I know this advice is actually worth considering. So, without any further ado:

Picking a Date

This is step #1, of course, and one that you may have the least flexibility on. For us (like many), we were constrained by the school year and while we weren't totally opposed to pulling the kids out of school for a day or two for a decent vacation-related reason, that was not in the cards for this trip.

I heartily recommend Touring Plans' Disneyland Crowd Calendar, which predicts crowd levels for every day of the year.  You can get predicted crowds for a month out for the subsequent month without subscribing.  Subscribing unlocks the entire crowd calendar, and is well worth the price (which is $0.99 per week, $1.99 per month, and $6.99 per year when done through its Lines app).

Even if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, it's not as simple as picking out the day that has the lowest crowd levels, of course.  Outside of the summer months, park hours are shorter (which may or may not affect your time in the park depending on your kids' stamina) and rides are more likely to be out of commission, either for holiday-related overlays (particularly after Labor Day as they prep for Halloween and Christmas) or major refurbishment (generally starting in mid-January).  And as construction for Star Wars Land (or whatever it'll be called) gears up, there will be quite a bit of upheaval, particularly in the "Rivers of America" portion of Disneyland.

So if there's a particular ride you remember going on when you were a child that you want to revisit or there's some movie or character whose ride you want to make sure your child gets to experience, you can check the Mouseplanet weekly Disneyland update for and other items of note.  But as any parent who has been in a crowded place with their kids knows, it can be a lot easier to keep track if it's not packed like a mosh pit.

I will note, however, that crowds definitely seem to have picked up.  We went on literally the exact same week in the calendar (end of July/beginning of August) in 2015 as we did in 2012, and the parks felt more crowded.  Some of that could have been the 60th Anniversary stuff (new parade, fireworks, general refurbishment) and the fact that in 2012 Cars Land had just opened in the California Adventure side of the park and may have taken crowds away from the Disneyland side where we hung out, but still.  If you don't want crowds, you may have to accept traveling to California some February midweek.

Where To Stay

For those of you traveling to Disneyland and without the advantage of a local friend with a spare bed or three, you'll need to find a hotel.  Actually, even if you have a local friend with a spare bed or three, depending on your budget, you may find it worthwhile to stay in a hotel, at least for each night before your excursions into the park.  That's because there are so many advantages to staying as close as you can that investing the extra $100 per night (or more, particularly in season) could add much more value than that to the hundreds of dollars you're spending on park tickets.

I would suggest that choosing a hotel at Disneyland is like finding a house - pick the best one you can afford in the neighborhood you want. In this case, the neighborhood is called "Within (15-Minute) Walking Distance of the Front Gate." (I know, not very catchy.) I cannot stress enough the importance of being close enough to walk out of the park and being in your hotel room, collapsed on the bed, in maybe 10 minutes. Much longer, and the walk will seem too daunting at 2 pm or 8 pm. And, yes, you can take the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttles, but there is inevitably waiting time at either or both ends of the return/departure swing, not to mention the farther away you are, the less likely you are to return quickly. It's like the Disneyland gravitational field.

For what it's worth, in 2012 we stayed at the Anaheim Plaza Resort, whose rooms were basic but fine, and which has a large pool (which they define as Olympic-sized).  In 2015, we stayed at the Park Vue Inn, whose rooms (and pool) are smaller, but which had a continental breakfast with actual protein.

More importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, the Anaheim Plaza Resort was about a 10-minute walk from our room to the Mickey "compass" smack dab in the middle of the entry plaza, and the Park Vue is literally across the street from the Disneyland sign, or 5 minutes to the "compass."  Most of those close hotels are on Harbor Boulevard, the north-south street that is the resort's eastern boundary.  Some of the hotels on Harbor (like the Park Vue) are actually closer to the Mickey "compass" than the 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, the swanky Grand Californian Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel) for a fraction of the cost.  What you miss by staying in a non-Disney hotel, besides the immersive Disney theming, is the right to go into the park an hour earlier than everyone else.  And if you buy a 3-day pass, you can get early entry to Disneyland Park (not California Adventure) once.   So whether it's worth the $200 or more per night the privilege to stroll into either park early will cost you, only you can decide.

But the being close to the resort, that's non-negotiable.  And I know that there are plenty of hotels that are connected to the resort via a shuttle, either their own or the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttle.  All I'm saying is that we stayed at one of those hotels way south on Harbor (easily 1 1/2 miles from the resort) in 2007, and waiting for the shuttle to arrive, negotiate Harbor Boulevard traffic, and deposit us about a 3-minute walk from the "compass," took us a lot more time and wasn't that much cheaper (especially when you thrown in the cost of the shuttle) than the Anaheim Plaza Resort or the slightly more expensive Park Vue.  And it took a lot more effort to get ourselves back to the park after a mid-afternoon break.

Disneyland Main Street

Disneyland Main Street

Your Day(s) at the Park(s)

Here's where I go all drill-sargeant on you and give you the number one piece of advice for your trip to Disneyland:

Set the alarm.

I know, you're on vacation, your kids are on vacation, you want to enjoy the time together, the last thing you want to do sometimes is set an alarm for a time that might even be earlier than a school morning.

Do it anyway.

I'm telling you, you can get so much done before 11 AM that the rest of the day is almost like a bonus because a lot of people aren't setting that alarm.  Again, one of the advantages of staying close by is that you can set that alarm 15-30 minutes later.  We were probably up and moving by 6:30 AM.  After getting ready and having breakfast, we left about 7:35 AM and were at the Disneyland front gates before 7:50 AM to find... they were open.  That's right, they'll often open up early (remember, there are already some early guests in the park) so that you're almost at Sleeping Beauty's castle at the center of the park.  This means you can spend some time strolling down the Main Street USA section of the park admiring the theming; it also makes getting to the rides that much easier.

Disneyland castle

Disneyland castle

I am telling you, if you do one thing, it's get to the park before it opens.  I assure you, I've done the not-early thing, and it makes a huge difference.  Look at those pictures of Main Street and the Castle above -- those were taken at 7:50 AM and about 10:15 AM, respectively.  On a busy summer Friday in 2012 (the crowds were a little larger in the morning in 2015, but definitely larger by midday).  Get there early enough, and the park is yours.

Here's where I take a detour and tell you that Touring Plans also offers free touring plans available to everyone, paid subscriber or not.  It's well worth your time to plug in the rides and attractions your family is considering to be must-dos and have the computer spit out a suggested itinerary.  For the most part, what it'll probably do is tell you to get "Fastpasses" for popular rides as soon as you are able (those are basically reservations to do the ride at a later time) and to ride the slow-loading rides quickly.  Fastpasses used to have even more flexibility -- you could save them and use them at the end of the day -- but even now with the return window being much more firm, they are useful and will save you time.

We didn't follow the Touring Plans I created to the letter either year -- especially if you and/or your kids are new to the park, you and they will be distracted by certain attractions and telling your kids, "no, we can't ride Astro Blasters now, the Plan says to ride it at 8:15 PM!" is inflexible to the extreme.  But because we were there so early, in 2012 we rode more than half of the Fantasyland rides and navigated the temporary shutdown of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with nary a problem.  While there were rides that I (or Miss Mary Mack or Little Boy Blue) would have wanted to ride (or ride again), we probably went on more rides in one day than in my comparatively uninformed two-day trip with Miss Mary Mack years ago.  In 2015, on our day in California Adventure, we went straight back to Toy Story Midway Mania, got on in about 2 minutes, had such a wonderful time, we got right back on in 3 minutes after finishing... and then waited about 5 minutes to do it one more time.  It was great, and we did in 20 minutes what would otherwise have taken us 2 hours later in the day.

Dole Whip!

Dole Whip!

By about noon or so, the park (both sides) really does start getting crowded, and it is harder to find top-level rides and attractions without significant lines.  That's the point at which finding meals and other ways to help give your overstimulated and underhydrated kids a break is important.  We had a fancy meal at Cafe Orleans for lunch one time, but Disneyland's meal prices, while expensive, aren't dizzyingly so.  (We had a meal at the Golden Horseshoe as well, which featured some entertainment to go along with the air conditioning.)  The food prices are reasonable for a captive market.  And while you're not supposed to bring in food, the bag searches at the entry to the parks will permit things like waters and snacks, so it is possible to keep your kids hydrated and nourished (sort of) without having to spend money on every last snack.  Which isn't to say you might not want a Dole Whip (soft serve ice cream blended with pineapple juice - delish!), just that you can use those opportunities as diversions and treats rather than essential nourishment.

You can, if you wish, leave the park, and on a hot, summer day -- or even other days -- this is a pretty good idea.  We retreated to the hotel for a dip in the pool and TV -- the Olympics in 2012, Steven Universe in 2015.  (We don't have cable at home, so I remember one of Miss Mary Mack's treats on our last trip being able to watch the Disney Channel in the hotel).  Hopefully they're relaxing, taking in some fluids, resting their feet, and just generally "resetting" from a long day (which at that point already included about 6 1/2 hours in the park).  Preschool-aged kids and toddlers may even take a nap -- so much the better -- but even a teenager (as Miss Mary Mack was in 2015) needs some downtime.  Obviously, if the park is only open from 10 AM 'til 6 PM, then you might not want to take a break in the middle if your kids' sleep patterns can avoid it.  But if you're there in the summer months, I recommend the mid-afternoon break highly.

Saving Money in (and out of) the Parks

Disneyland is not cheap.  Kids ages 10 and up pay "full fare," and those between the ages of 3 and 9 aren't much cheaper.  Our three-day tickets limiting us to the use of just one park per day (we chose to go to Disneyland twice and California Adventure once) cost in the neighborhood of $650 for the 3 of us (the prices went after we bought them and before we even made it to Anaheim, and no doubt will rise regularly after I publish this.  Adding "park hoppers" (which permit switching between parks during the day) would obviously drive that price up (and I'm not convinced of their value, particularly if you're watching your budget).

That's one reason why I recommend staying in a close hotel -- we spent probably a total of more than 11 hours in the park each day, and that's something we could only have done if we had stayed in a hotel that close the night before and the night after.  We invested in the hotel (a bit) so as to maximize the value of those tickets.

Beyond the tickets and lodging, your other major cost component is food.  Most hotels along Harbor Boulevard have refrigerators (including the Anaheim Plaza and the Park Vue) and if you're driving in, you should definitely pack breakfasts and other foods in a cooler and use the fridge.  Some hotels have free continental breakfast and some don't (Anaheim Plaza, no; Park Vue, yes), but my sense is that even those who do have a fairly minimal breakfast, low on the protein, and so it's probably worth your time bringing some (even if you're staying at the Park Vue, whose breakfast is better than most).

As for saving money on food in the park, good luck with that.  Like I said, I didn't think the food prices were terribly outrageous, but they're not cheap.  At "counter-service" restaurants, you are more likely to be able to mix and match meals and may find that a single adult meal may be sufficient to feed you and a smaller kid, or that two meals may feed the three of you, particularly if you're taking breaks for Dole Whips and other treats.

As always, bringing waters and snacks will help reduce the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, late night munchies.  Not totally eliminate them, of course, and part of the fun of an immersive environment like that of Disneyland is to try the food.

One way I tried to extend the Disneyland Resort experience without spending money on tickets was to experience more of the resort.  So after we got settled into our room both times, we wandered around Downtown Disney (the shopping/dining/entertainment district just west of the parks) and the Disneyland Hotel.  We ate at Tangaroa Terrace (a "counter service" restaurant overlooking the Hotel's large pool area), then soaked in the atmosphere at Downtown Disney.  ("Soaking in atmosphere" means enjoying the crowds, something my wife definitely would not do.)  I am very much against window-shopping as entertainment, but the LEGO store has some amazing Disney-themed structures and lots of LEGOs for freeplay, and wandering through the World of Disney store is a good way to let off some of that "gimme gimme" steam your kids are likely to have.  (I didn't want to spend our time in the park itself being in shops.)

On that note, I'm sure you all have your own rules for spending money our trips, but for what it's worth I let each kid spend no more than $15 of their own money, and they were perfectly happy with that, even though sometimes deciding what to buy took a loooong time.  Letting them know that the trip itself was their gift drew no whining on their part.

Another way to extend the experience is through a character meal.  There are character meals in the parks themselves, but you can also have character meals in which a variety of Disney characters stop by, interact, and pose for pictures.  The meals are, again, on the expensive side (especially for what tends to be a buffet), but if your kids are particularly into a character, the opportunity to have a relaxed (and air-conditioned) interaction may be worth the cost compared to waiting in line 30 minutes in the park.  Back in 2007, Miss Mary Mack and I had a character dinner at Ariel's Grotto -- princesses, lots of princesses -- and a breakfast buffet at Goofy's Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel.  In 2012, we had a Sunday morning buffet at the Storytellers Cafe at the Grand Californian Hotel.  The buffet was pretty good, Little Boy Blue (and Miss Mary Mack, a little) enjoyed the characters, and it gave us an excuse to go through the hotel, which is a themed wonder.  Again, you don't need to have a meal here to wander through but it was a nice way to extend the Disneyland experience before heading home.  But in 2015, we skipped the character meals entirely, and that was OK, too, with our (now-older) kids.  If your kids enjoy characters a lot, it's probably a good deal, but if they're so-so, then feel free to take a pass.

Other Tips (and Things I Would Do Differently)

Bring water.  It seems like you shouldn't have to remind people, but I'm doing so just in case.  I brought water (those foldable plastic bottles that are now all the rage), but wish I could have brought more.

Bring a small backpack.  What I really wanted to bring was a fannypack, but I couldn't find mine -- maybe I'd tossed it out.  I didn't want to haul around a backpack, which meant my pockets were stuffed full of stuff.  Next time, I'll find a fannypack (or a small backpack) so I could store more stuff, like my sunglasses.

On that point: When they say you can lose your sunglasses on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad -- or Radiator Springs Racers -- they're not kidding.

Assess your kids' maturity level before you go.  Miss Mary Mack is mature for her age; Little Boy Blue not so much for his age.  Just because he was tall enough to ride Indiana Jones in 2012 doesn't mean (in retrospect) he should have.  That sort of assessment is especially hard to engage in if you yourself have never ridden the ride (which I hadn't), though I suspected it would be somewhat dicey.  In some respects, I spent a good part of the day bouncing between ride types -- a slow ride that would be Little Boy Blue's speed and a fast ride for his older sister -- and telling each of them that they would get to do something they wanted to do next.  If your child is mature enough (and certainly in double-digit ages), you may choose to let them ride via a single-rider line, which some popular rides have and which may let the person ride with less than a 5-minute wait.  That's a good way to let the older child have some freedom ("yay! I get to ride by myself and without my younger brother") without too much of a wait as you park yourself outside the ride exit.  And I can say that in 2015, when Miss Mary Mack was very mature, and Little Boy Blue was still intimidated by many of the most mature rides, that the single rider line was a lifesaver.  To my mind, if you can't let your teenaged child go around Disneyland by him- or herself for an hour or so, then you're probably not going to let them go around by themselves anywhere.

Beware of anything more than two days in the parks.  I'm not saying you shouldn't get a 3-day pass -- go ahead, we did in 2012, and it let us get into Disneyland earning one morning.  But that last day -- boy, that was much more of a slog than the first two days, even with a day off relaxing before that third day.  Keep in mind that getting to the park at 7:45 AM (or even 6:45 AM) and seeing the evening entertainment at 9:00 PM or later will exhaust the parent(s) to say nothing of the kids.

But see the parades and evening entertainment.  The Paint the Night Parade brought to Disneyland in 2015 is the single best parade I've ever seen.  Well worth keeping the kids up late for.

Paint the Night Parade

Paint the Night Parade

Finally, remember to have fun.  That goes for you, the parent, too. As parents, we can get so wrapped up in trying to make sure our kids have a memorable experience that we forget to have a memorable experience (and ruin theirs, too).  Have a plan, permit yourself to deviate from it, watch your kids laugh, snap a few pictures, and laugh yourself.  I'd like to think that I did fairly well in that regard.  And considering the kids want to go back, I guess I did.

Pixar Play Parade

Pixar Play Parade

A Guide To Visiting Phoenix, Arizona with Kids

I've been meaning to write a Phoenix travel guide for months now, and with the Super Bowl here this weekend and spring training starting shortly, I'm motivated to share what I know to help you a) decide whether you want to visit Phoenix and Arizona, and b) see and experience the highlights of what the city and state I've lived in for roughly 20 years has to offer.

A couple caveats:

1) If you want a complete soup-to-nuts review of this place, find your favorite travel guidebook and read the 100+ pages it offers.  Instead, this is going to be a narrow and personal take on the city, something you might want to refer to before or after you read those guidebooks.

2) This is a guide for families traveling here, so if you're looking for the definitive guide to visiting Phoenix as a single recent college graduate, you will probably find the overall tenor of my recommendations a little tame.  Which isn't to say a lot of my recommendations aren't appropriate for all ages, just that you shouldn't expect a "Nightlife" section of this piece.

With that, let's begin!

Note: This is a work in progress.  It will be updated over time, so if you see something out-of-date or something you'd like to know more about that I'm sadly underinforming you about, let me know through the comments or via e-mail.

Should You Visit Phoenix (and if so, when)?

Perhaps that's an odd question for someone who might have stumbled across this post -- presumably if you're reading this, you've got a good sense that yes, you do want your family to visit Phoenix.  But I find it useful to think about Phoenix's strengths as a vacation destination, and let you decide if it's for you.

When people from across the country think about Phoenix, they probably think "sunny weather" -- I know I did before I moved here.  And, yes, that's a totally reasonable and accurate thing to think with the sun shining nearly 300 days every year.  So why should you visit?  Because you like great weather and want to enjoy it.  The things that draw visitors of all ages are those activities that take advantage of the outdoors -- baseball's spring training from late February through late March, assorted seasonal sporting events (college football bowl games and PGA golf tournaments) in late December through late January, and lounging around resort pools just about any time of the year.

Phoenix is also a young city -- as of 1950, it only had roughly 100,000 people.  Now it has more than 1.5 million, with the entire Phoenix metropolitan region home to more than 4 million people.

But those 4+ million people are spread out over a wide area.  The Phoenix area has almost as many people as the Bay Area… in nearly ten times as many square miles.  The sprawl and lack of density means that most of the city lacks the vibrant urban life of, say, San Francisco.  All of which leads to...

Where Should I Stay in the Phoenix Area?

As a Phoenix resident, I am poorly qualified to determine precisely where to park your family's heads on your visit here.  I stayed in a nondescript hotel near the airport when I was deciding whether to move here in my mid-20s, and aside from maybe a couple in-town overnights without the kids, I've parked my own head in my own apartment or house.

What I can say, based on the comments above, is that what you want to do is very important to where you want to stay.  That goes for any city, obviously, but even more so here because your options are varied and spread out.

My general feeling is that most folks visiting want to enjoy the sunshine and the outdoors, and if that's the case, your options are definitely more varied, in part because you will have to have a car.  This is an easy call in my eyes -- you can't get to any of the spring training ballparks via light rail, you can't get to any of the resorts via light rail, you can't get to any of the major parks and hiking trails via light rail.  The bus service (as opposed to light rail) does not run often enough, and parking (with the exception of downtown Phoenix) is almost always free.  A car allows you to explore Arizona outside of Phoenix. The benefits of having a car almost always outweigh the negatives.

And once you have a car, you have considerably more flexibility (natch).  Many of the nicest resorts are found in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, generally affluent suburbs northwest of Phoenix, which sits in the middle of the Valley of the Sun.  As a general rule, places to stay are more plentiful and far nicer east of Central Avenue in Phoenix (and that "east" extends into the suburbs like Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Tempe).  You can go too far east, however -- Apache Junction, Gilbert, Chandler, and (parts of) Mesa can feel pretty sleepy and removed from almost any action.  That may be precisely what you're looking for, but, well, it's not what I would want in picking a vacation spot.

It is possible to stay in Phoenix without a car -- the airport is connected to light rail, which runs like a very scoliotic spine from west-central Phoenix all the way through downtown, east Phoenix, Tempe, and west Mesa.  If you're young and childless, you may just want to wander around downtown Phoenix and Tempe and if that's the case, the light rail will probably work for you.  And there are even enough family-centered things to do along the light rail line to make it a not totally crazy idea.  But for a family, it's mostly a crazy idea.

When Should I Visit Phoenix?

As with location, the answer to this question depends primarily on what you want to do (see below).  The high season for Phoenix is, unsurprisingly, about November through March, when the weather here is better (read: warmer and not snowier) than everywhere else.  Add to that timeframe big events like college football bowl games and Spring Training, not to mention the semi-permanent visitors from northern climes (AKA "snowbirds") and there are a lot of people hanging out that time of year.

It gets hot in Phoenix (perhaps you've heard?) and so summer is not the glorious time it is many other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.  (Just ask someone from San Diego, who might complain about all the Phoenicians -- yes, that's the correct name for us residents of Phoenix -- who escape here and overrun their city in July and August.)  That's when the hotels offer screaming deals, with $300+ high season rooms going for half that if not less than $100.  My general feeling is that June is not a bad time of year to visit.  Yes, it will likely be hot during the day -- right around or just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- but the mornings will probably still feel quite nice, 70 degrees or so and pretty dry.

And about that "dry heat."  Yes, it exists.  Just this weekend, I saw a first-time visitor to the Valley of the Sun slathering on lotion on her hands and arms, surprised at how dry she felt after just a few hours here.  

What Is There To Do in Phoenix with Kids?

Ah, the heart of the matter.  My general feeling is that if you visit a place, you should see do the things and visit the spots that make that place unique.  I know, that's not a terribly revolutionary concept.  But that explains why I'll focus on those unique-to-Phoenix attractions and cover those not-so-unique attractions (the zoo! the science museum! the children's museum!) that many metropolitan areas have more sparingly.

Only in Phoenix

This is the core of what I think you should see or is more unique to the Phoenix area:

- Baseball (Spring Training, Fall League): I know, this exists in Florida, too, but scattered across hundreds of miles.  All the ballparks are within an hour's drive of each other, most less than 30 minutes drive.  Spring Training is the big draw, but if you visit in October, you can see Fall League games with some of the game's best prospects with a small fraction of the crowds (and the cost).

- Resort Swimming Pools: There are lots of resorts in the Phoenix area, and as you'd expect in such a sunny climate, all of them have pools and water park areas.  Some of the resorts are targeted more at adults, and therefore feel a bit like a library -- hey, kids, no running, shouting, or splashing! -- so do a little research if that's important to you and your kids.  I haven't been to many of the resort complexes' pools -- I live here, remember? -- but I have enjoyed the pools at JW Marriott Desert Ridge and the Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak's River Ranch and would recommend both if the pools are a deciding factor in selecting a place to stay.

- Musical Instrument Museum (MIM): World-class museum featuring instruments from almost every country in the world.  Kids 6 and under may be a little bored, but there's even a room for them to play on a wide variety of instruments (seriously wide) if you're willing and able to do some trading off of parental duties.  (See my original review here.)

- Heard Museum: World-class museum featuring Native American culture and arts.  The museum has expanded in recent years, and a lot of that effort has gone into making the museum more interactive and more accessible to younger kids.  Like the MIM, kids under 6 may be a little bored -- there are a lot of exhibits behind glass -- but there is a large room with exhibits designed specifically for the under-8 crowd.

- Desert Botanical Garden (DBG): Visitors expecting riots of blooming flowers may not be in the right frame of mind for this tiny jewel in the Papago Park area.  Instead, they should expect lots of cacti and desert trees and plants, which are definitely beautiful in their own right, but an entirely different garden than, say, a lovingly manicured rose garden.  Aside from the butterfly exhibit (open in fall and spring) and a trail with some interactive exhibits for kids, there are fewer specifically kid-friendly things to do.  It's not kid-unfriendly by any means, but I've often wished for a nice playground to let kids blow off some steam.

- Arizona Hall of Flame Museum: Whereas places like the Heard Museum and the DBG fit in with Arizona's landscape and history over the centuries, places like the MIM and the Hall of Flame grow out of Arizona's history of visiting or moving here, and creating something entirely new.  This museum features over a hundred different firefighting vehicles (one of which visitors can climb all over) and other celebrations of all things firefighter-y.  I wouldn't consider this a must-do, but it's unique, pretty cheap, centrally-located, and air-conditioned and if your kids are fire engine-obsessed, they'll think it awesome.

Five Things Locals Do

These are small-scale activities which generally won't take much more than an hour and might not end up on your list of must-do's.  But they're popular with local families (including ours) and so I think they're good ways to explore life as a Phoenician.  (I would note that I'm mentioning a small fraction of all the hiking trails in and around Phoenix, so there's plenty more where these came from.)

- Hike Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain: These two peaks, the highest peaks in the Phoenix Mountain Preserves which dot and ring the city, are incredibly popular with residents (up to 10,000 hikers per week at Piestewa Peak's Summit Trail) and so your most difficult task may be finding a parking spot.  Both peaks' Summit Trails climb about 1,200 feet in elevation and are roughly 1.25 miles in length.  Of the two, I find Piestewa Peak slightly easier, with parts of Camelback's Summit Trail much requiring use of a hand-rail or scrambling on all fours.  Active older kids (e.g., 8+) will think it awesome.

- Visit Hole in the Rock: Hole in the Rock is located in Papago Park, located along the Phoenix/Tempe border and which includes the Desert Botanical Garden (see above) and Phoenix Zoo (see below) and is very close to the Hall of Flame Museum.  In other words, great for stopping by if you're in the neighborhood.  The trail is about a tenth of a mile long and climbs about 200 feet.  You'll get a nice southwesterly view over downtown and South Mountain and Tempe Town Lake.  Think of this as a preschooler-friendly version of the Camelback Mountain climb.

- Walk along the Phoenix Canals / Murphy Bridle Path: What's that, you like your trails virtually flat? Then a walk (or bike ride) along the Salt River Project's Phoenix canals or the Murphy Bridle Path might be more your speed (or elevation gain, rather).  The Salt River Project's canals provide irrigation water to hundreds of thousands of homes.  They're not for swimming, but provide excellent crushed-gravel paths perfect for walking and peering into the backyards of people's homes.  (I'm a big fan of the Arizona Canal.)  And if you'd rather walk and peer into the frontyards of people's (fancy) homes, a stroll up Phoenix's Central Avenue along the Murphy Bridle Path lets you do that under shady trees.  No horses any more, but plenty of joggers and walkers.

- Visit Arizona Falls: A small hydroelectric plant along the Arizona Canal (see above) in east Phoenix, it features an art installation and an opportunity get close to a small-scale, man-made waterfall.  It's wheelchair-accessible in a way that the previous hiking/walking locations aren't.  (The crushed rock and dust Canals and Bridle Path aren't wheelchair-friendly, but aren't totally off-limits to wheelchairs the way the other trails are.)

- Walk Tempe Town Lake: A man-made lake along the Salt River in north Tempe, it features paved paths for walking and biking, not to mention many different types of boat and board rentals if you want to get out into the water.   There's even a splash playground in the summer months at Tempe Beach Park.

Stuff You May or Probably Have Where You Live

Most major metropolitan areas have zoos and children's museums and science museums, not to mention art museums and shopping malls.  And so, if you're visiting Arizona from, say, New York City or Chicago, I would never suggest visiting the Phoenix Art Museum.  It's a perfectly good regional art museum, but why spend your time there when you can go to, say, the Heard Museum and see art that the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn't even have.  So here are some of those kinds of places:

- Children's Museum of Phoenix: I may be biased, seeing as I book kids music shows there, but this really is a first-rate children's museum housed in an old school in downtown Phoenix that's made a few national top-ten lists.  Worth the time if your kids need to blow off some steam (or if the heat is starting to make you go crazy).

- Childsplay: Our family has seen probably a couple dozen productions from this theatre troupe for young audiences located in the Tempe Center for the Arts along Tempe Town Lake and all have been first-rate in terms of their skill and production value.  We've liked some more than others -- there's no accounting for tastes -- but the success ratio is pretty darn high.

- Great Arizona Puppet Theatre: The Childsplay tickets can be a little expensive, so if you're looking for a theatrical experience that's a little easier on the wallet, GAPT, headquartered near downtown Phoenix, might make a nice substitute.  The shorter length and texts are more appropriate for preschoolers than many (if not all) Childsplay productions.

- Arizona Science Center: Located in downtown Phoenix, the Science Center features four levels of exhibits, an IMAX theatre, planetarium, and traveling exhibits.  I've never loooooved the Science Center (I like the Fleet Science Center in San Diego or OMSI in Portland more), but it's got lots of activities and some favorites, like the Forces of Nature exhibit and the water-based play area of the Atrium.

- Phoenix Art Museum: If you're coming to Phoenix with your kids and your first stop is the Phoenix Art Museum, you're doing it wrong.  That's coming from a long-time member of the Museum -- I think it's a good museum, and we take our kids a few times a year (including for their PhxArtKids days).  But it should be about tenth on your list of activities if you're visiting Phoenix for the first time.  If you do find yourself there, however, DO NOT MISS Yayoi Kusama's You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, an immersive mixed-media piece that we visit every single time we're at the museum.

- Phoenix Zoo: The zoo has expanded what feels like nearly constantly over the past 10+ years.  It's a good zoo, with a gradually diminishing number of caged animals and an increasing number of play areas for kids who are tired of walking along the paths and seeing animals.  You can skip the zoo without feeling like you've missed something essential to Phoenix, but if your family likes zoos, you'll enjoy this one.  If you're visiting in summer months, make sure you get there early because by noon it'll feel brutal.

- Playgrounds: Tons of them, obviously, and I'm not going to list them all, or hardly any of them, even.  I like the playgrounds Glendale's Sahuaro Ranch Park and Chandler's Tumbleweed Park -- they're big with lots of structures for kids of all ages, though both parks are considerably out of the way of most of the other activities listed here.  Scottsdale's McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a little more centrally located and features a miniature train ride and train museum in addition to a very nice playground area.  Phoenix's Encanto Park's playground is not as nice as those other three, but does feature Enchanted Island, which features county fair-type amusement rides.  And, finally, I've not been to Mesa's Riverview Park yet, but its brand-new playground is already winning national awards.

Heading Out of Town

- The Grand Canyon: 4 hours drive north of Phoenix, including some significant mountain driving.  Worth the drive if you've got time, for sure -- it's one of the Seven Wonders of the World! -- but it'll a loooong round trip of a day.  Schedule an overnight in Flagstaff or Sedona (below), and you'll all enjoy it much more.

- Sedona: 2 hours drive north of Phoenix.  Some amazing views of red rock formations, along with hiking trails galore to let you get closer.  If you want to "see Arizona" but can't fit a Grand Canyon

- Kartchner Caverns: 2 1/2 hours drive south of Phoenix.  Beautifully preserved caverns without all the interior froo-frah found in the caverns discovered 50 or 60 years ago.  In other words, no snack bar at the bottom.  (Note: This is a good thing.)

Where Should I Eat in the Phoenix Area?

Phoenix is a pretty good second-tier restaurant city.  We're clearly not on the level of San Francisco or New York, but I think we hold our own with places like Portland or Seattle or Austin.  But your kids probably aren't foodies (and if they are, I'm not writing for you or them), so don't expect me to cover all the fancy places or places that aren't designed with kids in mind.

Here's a brief list of restaurants to consider (more details to come):

- Pizzeria Bianco: It's been named the best pizza in America.  Visitors scoff, then try it, and say, "they might be right."  Two locations -- the original one downtown right next to the Science Center and across the street from the Children's Museum but with notoriously long waits, the other about 4 miles northeast of downtown.  (Other good pizza centrally located: The Parlor, Federal Pizza, Humble Pie, and... well, a bunch of others.  We're lousy with good pizza places.)

- Churn (ice cream): Our local ice cream place.  Nothing too wild, just well-made ice cream.  (Other good ice cream centrally located: Sweet Republic)

- St. Francis:

- Postino

- Organ Stop Pizza

Traveling to Disneyland as a Single Parent

Monorail.... monorail... MONORAIL!

Monorail.... monorail... MONORAIL!

There are many people for whom going to Disneyland is a lifelong dream, for whom mingling with 50,000 of their closest friends provides a huge thrill.

My wife is not part of that group.  She hates crowds.

So when we figured out how to swing a trip to Los Angeles and include a day at Disneyland, I knew that it would be me and the kids and nobody else.

On the one hand, this was exciting: I'd get 72+ hours of one-on-one (or one-on-two) time with my kids away from all the distractions of day-to-day life at home. One the other hand: me, two kids, and a big public place. I'm confident in my parenting and child management skills (not to mention my directional skills), but traveling solo with kids provides a whole different set of challenges.

I should also note that this wasn't my first trip to Disneyland as a single parent -- four years ago I traveled with Miss Mary Mack and spent a couple days at the park. We had fun, but I also look back at that trip and see how it could have been improved upon. In many ways, I think this makes the advice I'm about to dole out particularly useful, because I've done the relatively-uninformed traveler thing and while this trip wasn't absolutely perfect, it went better enough that I know this advice is actually worth considering. So, without any further ado:

Lego Store in Downtown Disney featuring Aladdin

Lego Store in Downtown Disney featuring Aladdin

Picking a Date

This is step #1, of course, and one that you may have the least flexibility on. For us (like many), we were constrained by the school year and while we weren't totally opposed to pulling the kids out of school for a day or two for a decent vacation-related reason, that was not in the cards for this trip.

I heartily recommend Touring Plans' Disneyland Crowd Calendar, which predicts crowd levels for every day of the year.  You can get predicted crowds for the a month out for the next month without subscribing.  Subscribing unlocks the entire crowd calendar, and is well worth the price (which is $0.99 per week, $1.99 per month, and $6.99 per year when done through its Lines app).

Even if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, it's not as simple as picking out the day that has the lowest crowd levels, of course.  Outside of the summer months, park hours are shorter (which may or may not affect your time in the park depending on your kids' stamina) and rides are more likely to be out of commission, either for holiday-related overlays (particularly after Labor Day as they prep for Halloween and Christmas) or major refurbishment.  So if there's a particular ride you remember going on when you were a child that you want to revisit or there's some movie or character whose ride you want to make sure your child gets to experience, you can check the Mouseplanet weekly Disneyland update for and other items of note.  But as any parent who has been in a crowded place with their kids knows, it can be a lot easier to keep track if it's not packed like a mosh pit.

Disneyland Main Street.  Look at the total lack of crowds. Get. Up. Early!

Disneyland Main Street.  Look at the total lack of crowds. Get. Up. Early!

Where To Stay

For those of you traveling to Disneyland and without the advantage of a local friend with a spare bed or three, you'll need to find a hotel.  Actually, even if you have a local friend with a spare bed or three, depending on your budget, you may find it worthwhile to stay in a hotel, at least for each night before your excursions into the park.  That's because there are so many advantages to staying as close as you can that investing the extra $100 (or more or less) per night could add much more value than that to the hundreds of dollars you're spending on park tickets.

I would suggest that choosing a hotel at Disneyland is like finding a house - pick the best one you can afford in the neighborhood you want. In this case, the neighborhood is called "Within (15-Minute) Walking Distance of the Front Gate." (I know, not very catchy.) I cannot stress enough the importance of being close enough to walk out of the park and being in your hotel room, collapsed on the bed, in maybe 10 minutes. Much longer, and the walk will seem too daunting at 2 pm or 8 pm. And, yes, you can take the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttles, but there is inevitably waiting time at either or both ends of the return/departure swing, not to mention the farther away you are, the less likely you are to return quickly. It's like the Disneyland gravitational field.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.  Crowded?  Hardly.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.  Crowded?  Hardly.

For what it's worth, we stayed at the Anaheim Plaza Resort, whose rooms were basic but fine, and which has a large pool (which they define as Olympic-sized).  More importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, it was about a 10-minute walk from our room to the Mickey "compass" smack dab in the middle of the entry plaza.  Most of those close hotels are on Harbor Boulevard, the north-south street that is the resort's eastern boundary.  Some of the hotels on Harbor are actually closer to the Mickey "compass" than the 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, the swanky Grand Californian Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel) for a fraction of the cost.  What you miss by staying in a non-Disney hotel, besides the immersive Disney theming, is the right to go into the park an hour earlier than everyone else.  The Extra Magic Hours, however, only apply (at this point) to the summer.  It's unclear whether those Hours will continue.  Whether it's worth the $200 or more per night that will cost you, only you can decide.

But the being close to the resort, that's non-negotiable.  And I know that there are plenty of hotels that are connected to the resort via a shuttle, either their own or the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttle.  All I'm saying is that we stayed at one of those hotels way south on Harbor (easily 1 1/2 miles from the resort) 4 years ago, and waiting for the shuttle to arrive, negotiate Harbor Boulevard traffic, and deposit us about a 3-minute walk from the "compass," took us a lot more time and wasn't that much cheaper (especially when you thrown in the cost of the shuttle) than the Anaheim Plaza Resort.  And it took a lot more effort to get ourselves back to the park after a mid-afternoon break.

Pommes Frites at Cafe Orleans

Pommes Frites at Cafe Orleans

Your Day(s) at the Park(s)

Here's where I go all drill-sargeant on you and give you the number one piece of advice for your trip to Disneyland:

Set the alarm.

I know, you're on vacation, your kids are on vacation, you want to enjoy the time together, the last thing you want to do sometimes is set an alarm for a time that might even be earlier than a school morning.

Do it anyway.

I'm telling you, you can get so much done before 11 AM that the rest of the day is almost like a bonus because a lot of people aren't setting that alarm.  Again, one of the advantages of staying close by is that you can set that alarm 15-30 minutes later.  We were probably up and moving by 6:30 AM.  After getting ready and having breakfast, we left about 7:35 AM and were at the Disneyland front gates before 7:50 AM to find... they were open.  That's right, they'll often open up early (remember, there are already some early guests in the park) so that you're almost at Sleeping Beauty's castle at the center of the park.  This means you can spend some time strolling down the Main Street USA section of the park admiring the theming; it also makes getting to the rides that much easier.

I am telling you, if you do one thing, it's get to the park before it opens.  I assure you, I've done the not-early thing, and it makes a huge difference.  Look at those pictures of Main Street and the Castle above -- those were taken at 7:50 AM and about 10:15 AM, respectively.  On a busy summer Friday.  Get there early enough, and the park is yours.

Here's where I take a detour and tell you that Touring Plans also offers free touring plans available to everyone, paid subscriber or not.  It's well worth your time to plug in the rides and attractions your family is considering to be must-dos and have the computer spit out a suggested itinerary.  For the most part, what it'll probably do is tell you to get "Fastpasses" for popular rides as soon as you are able (those are basically reservations to do the ride at a later time) and to ride the slow-loading rides quickly.  [Also note: the plan assumes that you can bring back your Fastpass at any point once the reservation window opens, including 12 hours after that point, and well after the reservation window closes.  There's always the possibility that that flexibility will go away (it's my understand that Walt Disney World, for example, enforces Fastpass windows more strictly), but for now, it's nice to be able to go back at 4 PM or 6 PM for a Fastpass picked up at 10 AM.]

Dole Whip!

Dole Whip!

We didn't follow the Touring Plan I created to the letter -- especially if you and/or your kids are new to the park, you and they will be distracted by certain attractions and telling your kids, "no, we can't ride Astro Blasters now, the Plan says to ride it at 8:15 PM!" is inflexible to the extreme.  But because we were there so early, we rode more than half of the Fantasyland rides and navigated the temporary shutdown of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with nary a problem.  While there were rides that I (or Miss Mary Mack or Little Boy Blue) would have wanted to ride (or ride again), we probably went on more rides in one day than in my comparatively uninformed two-day trip with Miss Mary Mack years ago.

By about noon or so, the park really does start getting crowded, and it is harder to find top-level rides and attractions without significant lines.  That's the point at which finding meals and other ways to help give your overstimulated and underhydrated kids a break is important.  We had our fancy meal at Cafe Orleans for lunch (those are the Pommes Frites above), but Disneyland's meal prices, while expensive, aren't dizzyingly so.  They're reasonable for a captive market.  And while you're not supposed to bring in food, the bag searches at the entry to the parks will permit things like waters and snacks, so it is possible to keep your kids hydrated and nourished (sort of) without having to spend money on every last snack.  Which isn't to say you might not want a Dole Whip (soft serve ice cream blended with pineapple juice - delish!), just that you can use those opportunities as diversions and treats rather than essential nourishment.

You can, if you wish, leave the park, and on a hot, summer day -- or even other days -- this is a pretty good idea.  We retreated to the hotel for a dip in the pool and Olympics on the TV.  (We don't have cable at home, so I remember one of Miss Mary Mack's treats on our last trip being able to watch the Disney Channel in the hotel).  Hopefully they're relaxing, taking in some fluids, resting their feet, and just generally "resetting" from a long day (which at that point already included about 6 1/2 hours in the park).  Preschool-aged kids and toddlers may even take a nap -- so much the better.  Obviously, if the park is only open from 10 AM 'til 6 PM, then you might not want to take a break in the middle if your kids' sleep patterns can avoid it.  But if you're there in the summer months, I recommend the mid-afternoon break highly.

It's a Small World at sunset.

It's a Small World at sunset.

Saving Money in (and out of) the Parks

Disneyland is not cheap.  Kids ages 10 and up pay "full fare," and those between the ages of 3 and 9 aren't much cheaper.  Our one-day tickets limiting us to the use of just one park (we chose Disneyland rather than California Adventure, which is being overrun this summer by folks wanting to experience the just-opened Cars Land) cost $249 for the 3 of us.  Multi-day tickets and "park hoppers" (which permit switching between parks during the day) would obviously drive that price up considerably.

That's one reason why I recommend staying in a close hotel -- we spent probably a total of more than 11 hours in the park, and that's something we could only have done if we had stayed in a hotel that close the night before and the night after.  We invested in the hotel (a bit) so as to maximize the value of those tickets.

Beyond the tickets and lodging, your other major cost component is food.  Most hotels along Harbor Boulevard have refrigerators and if you're driving in, you should definitely pack breakfasts and other foods in a cooler and use the fridge.  Some hotels have free continental breakfast and some don't (ours didn't), but my sense is that even those who do have a fairly minimal breakfast, low on the protein, and so it's probably worth your time bringing some.  (If you're flying in, I have read that Vons offers free delivery, one-time, if you sign up with them.)

As for saving money on food in the park, good luck with that.  Like I said, I didn't think the food prices were terribly outrageous, but they're not cheap.  At "counter-service" restaurants, you are more likely to be able to mix and match meals and may find that a single adult meal may be sufficient to feed you and a kid.

As always, bringing waters and snacks will help reduce the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, late night munchies.  Not totally eliminate them, of course, and part of the fun of an immersive environment like that of Disneyland is to try the food.

One way I tried to extend the Disneyland Resort experience without spending money on tickets was to experience more of the resort.  So after we got settled into our room on Thursday afternoon, we wandered around Downtown Disney (the shopping/dining/entertainment district just west of the parks) and the Disneyland Hotel.  We ate at Tangaroa Terrace (a "counter service" restaurant overlooking the Hotel's large pool area), then soaked in the atmosphere at Downtown Disney.  ("Soaking in atmosphere" means enjoying the crowds, something my wife definitely would not do.)  I am very much against window-shopping as entertainment, but the LEGO store has some amazing Disney-themed structures and lots of LEGOs for freeplay, and wandering through the World of Disney store is a good way to let off some of that "gimme gimme" steam your kids are likely to have.  (I didn't want to spend our time in the park itself being in shops.)

On that note, I'm sure you all have your own rules for spending money our trips, but for what it's worth I let each kid spend no more than $15 of their own money, and they were perfectly happy with that.  Letting them know that the trip itself was their gift drew no whining on their part.

Another way to extend the experience is through a character meal.  There are character meals in the parks themselves, but you can also have character meals in which a variety of Disney characters stop by, interact, and pose for pictures.  The meals are, again, on the expensive side (especially for what tends to be a buffet), but if your kids are particularly into a character, the opportunity to have a relaxed (and air-conditioned) interaction may be worth the cost compared to waiting in line 30 minutes in the park.  We had a Sunday morning buffet at the Storytellers Cafe at the Grand Californian Hotel.  The buffet was pretty good, Little Boy Blue (and Miss Mary Mack, a little) enjoyed the characters, and it gave us an excuse to go through the hotel, which is a themed wonder.  Again, you don't need to have a meal here to wander through, but it was a nice way to extend the Disneyland experience before heading home.

After fireworks, Main Street is a little more crowded...

After fireworks, Main Street is a little more crowded...

Other Tips (and Things I Would Do Differently)

Bring water.  It seems like you shouldn't have to remind people, but I'm doing so just in case.  I brought water (those foldable plastic bottles that are now all the rage), but wish I could have brought more.

Bring a small backpack.  What I really wanted to bring was a fannypack, but I couldn't find mine -- maybe I'd tossed it out.  I didn't want to haul around a backpack, which meant my pockets were stuffed full of stuff.  Next time, I'll find a fannypack (or a small backpack) so I could store more stuff, like my sunglasses.

On that point: When they say you can lose your sunglasses on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, they're not kidding.

Assess your kids' maturity level before you go.  Miss Mary Mack is mature for her age; Little Boy Blue not so much for his age.  Just because he was tall enough to ride Indiana Jones doesn't mean (in retrospect) he should have.  That sort of assessment is especially hard to engage in if you yourself have never ridden the ride (which I hadn't), though I suspected it would be somewhat dicey.  In some respects, I spent a good part of the day bouncing between ride types -- a slow ride that would be Little Boy Blue's speed and a fast ride for his older sister -- and telling each of them that they would get to do something they wanted to do next.  If your child is mature enough (and certainly in double-digit ages), you may choose to let them ride via a single-rider line, which some popular rides have and which may let the person ride with less than a 5-minute wait.  That's a good way to let the older child have some freedom ("yay! I get to ride by myself and without my younger brother") without too much of a wait as you park yourself outside the ride exit.

Finally, remember to have fun.  That goes for you, the parent, too. As parents, we can get so wrapped up in trying to make sure our kids have a memorable experience that we forget to have a memorable experience (and ruin theirs, too).  Have a plan, permit yourself to deviate from it, watch your kids laugh, snap a few pictures, and laugh yourself.  I'd like to think that I did fairly well in that regard.  And considering the kids want to go back, I guess I did.

Note: This piece was originally published here.