Prepare Snacks/Packs the Night Before Going in, we knew we could take outside food into the park so we brought a ton of snacks with us from home. This worked out great for us and we didn't buy any snacks in the park besides a Dole Whip (yum!). That being said, I wish we'd done a better job of prepping our snacks the night before or possibly even at home. The next time we go, I'm going to bring a box of sandwich bags with us and portion out the snacks beforehand and put them in the bags we are taking to the park. I feel like half of our morning was spent getting ourselves ready and the other half was spent getting snacks into bags and sandwiches made and into coolers before we walked out the door. It would have made our mornings run so much more smoothly if we'd done just a little more prep.
Lots of Snacks
As a kid vacationing with my parents, I remember them telling us to eat a big breakfast before we left for whatever it was we were doing that day so that we'd be full. I was a growing girl and I liked food, so eating a lot wasn't a problem for me, but my metabolism was. About two hours after my huge breakfast, I would be hungry and asking for something else to eat. When we were looking for a hotel this time around, we wanted to stay somewhere that had a continental breakfast so we could try and fill up before heading into the park. My kids are pretty good eaters, but even so, they didn't eat a ton at breakfast and I knew they'd be hungry sooner than later. We literally lived off of snacks during our time at the park. We didn't want to spend $5 on a small bag of popcorn or $2 on a banana. So we packed up our little cooler with sliced apples, sandwiches, granola bars, peanuts, fruit snacks, raisins, applesauce, goldfish...and it would be gone by the time we went back to the hotel for a rest and nap time. Then we'd load it all up again for when we went back later that day. With the exception of a few things, all the snacks we had were brought from home, which saved us a lot of money. This is a benefit of driving versus flying (which I discussed in my planning for Disneyland post).
A great tip I learned while planning our trip is that you can ask any restaurant or drinking station with fountain drinks for a cup of ice water or to fill up your bottle. We went into the park with full water bottles/sippy cups and we filled them up throughout the day. But here's the thing: I got kind of tired of drinking just water. Not all the water we got was cold (like from drinking fountains) and after sitting in our bags in the hot sun, it got pretty warm and not very refreshing. My husband ended up going to a local Walmart and picking up some Vitamin Waters for us to drink and let me tell you: it was a lot easier to down an entire bottle of that than it was a bottle of lukewarm water. The next time we go to Disneyland, or any other theme park, I'm going to bring some of the individual packets of flavor crystals, like Crystal Light, or the liquid flavors, like Mio, to put in our waters. I know my kids will drink an entire juice box in a matter of minutes, but getting them to drink that much water in the same amount of time can be hard. We went during the second week of October and with humidity it was at least 90 degrees. Staying hydrated is essential.
Parking at Disneyland is expensive. It costs $17 per day! So when we were planning our trip, we chose a hotel that was close enough to the park that we had the option to walk or take the shuttle. We tried out both options to see which we liked better. On our first day, we hopped on the shuttle in the morning and it took us 7-10 minutes to get to the park. However, it took us 20 minutes to get back to our hotel in the afternoon because we found out that it was one of the last stops on its route. After the kids had rested up, we decided to walk to the park and see if we preferred that over the shuttle. It was later in the day and cooler and we made it to the gates in 12-15 minutes. The second day, we walked each time and didn't ride the shuttle at all. My recommendation would be to find out what your options are for any of the hotels you are interested in staying at. I simply called the hotel's front desk and asked them. Some hotels offer complimentary shuttles, while others don't. For us, the fee to ride the shuttle one-way was $3 for adults and $1 for kids while a day pass was $5 for adults and $2 for kids, with multi-day discounts.
Bringing our double-stroller with us was one of the best decisions we could have made. We have a Sit n' Stand by Baby Trend and love it. It held both kids, our cooler, my diaper bag, drinks, sweatshirts and anything else we needed to throw in. The kids were in and out of it throughout the day, eating snacks or resting or riding as we moved between rides/parks. At night, they both fell asleep in it as we walked back to the hotel. If you're debating about bringing a stroller, just do it. You will be glad you did. (If bringing your own stroller isn't an option, you can also rent strollers at the park.)
One other tip about strollers: There are various places around the park for you to park your stroller, generally around the fences by the rides. I was a little worried about leaving my bag and other items but I didn't have any problems with my stuff being taken. We did have a couple of times where we couldn't find our stroller but it was because it had been moved by a cast member. If you come up to a place where you see cast members moving strollers around, you can ask them if there is a spot they'd prefer you put your stroller so it doesn't get moved around and it's easier for you to find when you come back to get it.
Download the Official Disneyland App
A friend of mine who has annual passes for her family highly suggested downloading the official Disneyland app on our phones. This app gives information on wait times for rides, the location of characters and restrooms, dining locations and menus, parade and event information and photo passes. My husband and I both downloaded it on our phones before we went into the park and referred to it multiple times throughout the day. It was especially helpful when my daughter all of a sudden said she needed to use the bathroom and we needed to find one quickly. It was a lot faster than trying to look information up on our phones and much more efficient. (If you want to keep it on your phone after you leave Disneyland, it's a fun way to show your kids where Mickey Mouse or their favorite princess is.)
I read about special visit buttons you can get for free at Disneyland when I was planning our trip. They have First Visit, Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary and others. According to what I read, you could pick them up at the Guest Services building. When I went to go pick some up, there was a 10 minute wait at Guest Services, but the cast member told me that I could go to any store and ask for one. I'm sure I read this somewhere, but I didn't remember. I had to stop by a couple of stores because they had already run out and it was only 9am. So if you want one, try and get it first thing when you get to the park.
Also, if you're child is wearing their button in the park, the cast members and characters generally try to make a point of saying something about it which makes it even more special for them.
Princesses: My daughter specifically wanted to see as many princesses as possible on our trip so I tried to find out as much as I could about seeing them before we got there. There are two places where you will be most likely to find princesses: at the Royal Hall (to the left of the castle) and by the Snow White fountain (to the right of the castle). If your child wants to see Anna or Elsa, you will only be able to visit them at California Adventure, but there are a couple of shows you can watch them in within the Disneyland side of the park.
Other Characters: By using the Disneyland app, we were able to find different characters whereabouts in each park. There is always a cast member close by the line if you have any questions about the character you are going to see. For example, a couple of times we got in line to see the character that was there, but the cast member told us that if we got in line that we'd be seeing a different character, or if we wanted to see that same character they told us when they would be back at that location. Another time we got in line to see a character and the cast member told us that that particular character would be leaving but that another character would be coming at a different location so we could get in line there. It was so nice to know ahead of time if we'd actually be seeing the characters we were getting in line for because then we could choose if it was someone we wanted to see.
*Note: If a character is out in one park, he won't be out in another park. For example, we saw Goofy in Disneyland so we knew that he wouldn't be out in California Adventure. Disney is very good about being consistent this way and not having the same character out in more than one park or at more than one location of the same park.
Take Time to Rest
Since we have small children (ages 3.5 and 18 months at the time of our trip), we planned out a portion of each day as a time to rest/take a nap at our hotel. I know some kids who can sleep anywhere and others who need to have a quiet room. My kids fall into the latter group. So around 1pm we went back to the hotel. Even though we missed out on about 3 hours of time at the park each day, by allowing our kids (and ourselves) time to rest, we were able to stay a little later at the park and our kids were much happier. Plus, it was pretty hot during the day so we avoided some heat exhaustion by staying cool during those times.
*Note: We had a two day pass which we used consecutively, but you don't have to do it that way. Disney allows you to use your tickets for 13 days after the first visit. This means we could have visited two times within a two week period since we had a two day pass. Same thing goes for a 3, 4 or 5 day pass--you can use up your days any time within 13 days of the first use. So if you have the time, you can definitely break it up a little so you don't get burnt out.
What advice would you give to someone going to Disneyland for the first time that you wish you'd known beforehand?