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upheaval as it works to bring the Star Wars universe into its attractions, so some of the advice here may be, if not out-of-date, at least modified.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.
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 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.
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.
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.