This last Christmas, our kids opened up a big box that had balloons, some Mickey Mouse ears, some Disney toys, and a "Countdown to Disneyland" calendar I'd made. They didn't understand what the deal was at first, but it finally sunk in that WE WERE GOING TO DISNEYLAND!!!, and we started counting down the days, slapping stickers on each number, until the time finally arrived.
Those days ticked down fast, and, despite last minute flight problems (We got a text as we were sitting in the car, ready to leave, chanting "Disneyland!" that our flight had been canceled. Thank you, James for finagling a fix.), James and I took the J-bird and Miss V to Disneyland for five days last week. We had a BLAST. Seriously, that place is magic. Five days in a theme park is a long haul though, so here's a list of 20 tips from me to you on how to survive it.
1. Go in the off-season. On second thought, that's when I want to go, so YOU should go in the summer, right after school gets out. Yeah....that's the ticket.
2. Understand and accept that, even in the off-season, there will be crowds, and there will be waiting.
3. Understand and accept that this will be exquisitely expensive. Plane tickets, hotel costs, park tickets (get the park-hoppers), food, souvenirs...it adds up. You may just go totally broke giving your darlings the time of their life. Make a budget, and then build in a generous pad to that budget, and then know that you'll probably get caught up in the excitement and go over that budget. You might go in with excellent, tough minded intentions of buying JUST ONE souvenir. That plan might last through the first day. The week before we left, I went to the Dollar Tree and Walmart and bought some little Disney toys. I wrapped one for each kid for each day, starting with one to open on the plane. This mitigated a little of the, "Oh pleeeeeeeease, Mom!" stuff. Not all of it, but a little.
And we still came home with all of this:
Note: If you live in the LA area, this tip does not apply to you, because 1.)You don't need to fly or stay in a hotel, and 2.) I assume that, living in LA, you have already accepted the concept of going broke in an expensive environment.
4. If you can, stay in one of the Disney hotels. Not only are they within walking distance of the park, but staying there entitles you to the extra Magic Hour at Disneyland and California Adventure. That means you get to go in an hour before the park opens. We took advantage of the Magic Hours every day, and it was absolutely worth it. Besides, we were all "sleeping" in one room, so it's not like we weren't awake at that time anyway.
5. My two year old can hoof it for a good distance, but there was no chance of doing this without a stroller. James thought the airline we flew would probably charge us to check our stroller through, so I didn't want to take ours, and renting one at the park costs $15 per day. I bought the least expensive stroller I could find online ($24) and had it shipped to our hotel ahead of time. The Disney hotels will accept packages in your name for two weeks before you check in. Our stroller was waiting for us when we got there. We used it the whole time, and then I gave it to another family as we were checking out. That family was THRILLED to get the stroller and promised to pass it on when they were done with it. I picked this tip up online before we went, but I can't remember where. If you're the smarty who thought of this, let me know, so I can credit you.
6. Speaking of hoofing it, buy some cushy inserts for your shoes before you go. Trust me. I got some for the J-bird as well and cut them to fit his shoes. Also, pack a bunch of empty Ziploc bags in your suitcase, so that you can fill them with ice at your hotel and put them on your feet and legs in the evenings or during nap breaks. Bring some Advil.
7. Speaking of strollers, you can't take them in the lines. There's stroller parking outside of every ride, and there are Disney people everywhere who keep an eye on stuff. I saw people leaving purses, backpacks, and packages on their strollers and just walking away to go on the rides. I didn't do that, but it seems like a thing, so go with your comfort level.
8. Because you can't take your stroller in line, know that your kid will be touching EVERYTHING, so hand-washing and/or hand sanitizer is good. If it's any comfort, know this bit of info that a Disney cast member passed on to me: everything in Disneyland gets hosed down with high-powered hoses every morning before the park opens. It's also scrubbed down with a street sweeper/zamboni thing. So don't freak out TOO much when your precious child smiles up at you with candy in their mouth that you didn't give them.
9. Miss V is a climber, so I ended up holding her a lot in line, because I got tired of hauling her down off of railings and other people's legs. My arms may never recover, but whatever. Before you go, come up with some good line-waiting activities for you and your kids. We took photos of ourselves making funny faces, played "I Spy" and "20/However-Many-You-Want-To-Ask Questions", and talked about all the best things we'd done so far. This keeps the kids occupied AND helps you stop calculating the incubation time of the tubercular, hacking cough of the kid in front of you.
10. Take breaks. Your kids will need them, and so will you. There are lots of little shows and stuff that give you an opportunity to rest for half an hour or so. I recommend "Turtle Talk With Crush" and "Aladdin" in California Adventure and "The Enchanted Tiki Room" in Disneyland (one of my all-time favorites!). Wear a backpack and jam at least one pouch of it full of snacks. You'll probably still buy some snacks in the park, but you'll have options. Also, try splitting up for a while every now and then. If you're there with another adult, swap kids and go do different rides, and then meet back up. That makes a nice re-set for grumpy kids who want some focused attention. It worked wonders with ours.
11. When you buy snacks, there's almost always an available "commemorative" upgrade. Do it once or twice. It's fun.
12. Go to the parades. James and I went to Disney World together before we had kids, and I have tons of photos of the parade. From this trip, I have a few photos of the parade and tons of fuzzy, dark photos of my kids' full-of-wonder-and-amazement faces. I know I keep using this word, but it was MAGIC. I, being an utterly ridiculous person, had tears in my eyes, watching my kids during that first parade, and I won't go into detail about how I completely lost it when Miss V's favorite princess, "Cindawella" looked right at V and waved. If it hadn't been dark, everyone around me would have assumed I was on a day pass from the funny farm. Laugh all you want. It'll be you. (Or maybe not, if you're cool, which I'm clearly, clearly not.)
12. Stay up late for the fireworks. Just do it. Yes, you are exhausted, and your kids have probably hit that point where they're alternating between crying, bouncing off the walls, and going boneless. Every sound they emit is a whine. I know. Do it anyway. It's awesome. (Another good reason for breaks and for going back to the hotel at some point during the day for them to nap while you ice your sore feet, using the Ziploc bags you so cleverly brought)
13. Expect some meltdowns from your children. We got one good one from each of ours, and they were epic. Don't let it ruin the day though. It isn't that they're ungrateful swine, it's that they're exhausted swine who are out of their schedule and on their feet all day and jacked up on over-stimulation and maybe some root beer. They're just giving voice to what everyone feels in that situation. Howl along with them. You don't know any of these people, so who cares what they think?
14. There are lots of turnstiles, and your little ones may be fascinated by them. When they go through ahead of you, be sure to catch the bar that's flipping up behind them, so it doesn't conk them right on the back of their little head. A head bonk will seriously harsh the happy vibe you're riding from the carousel and Peter Pan's Flight. (Yes, it happened. *sigh*)
15. Fast Passes and Parent Switch Passes. The rides with the longest wait times have Fast Passes available, if you get to them early enough. You stick your ticket into the machine, and it spits out a pass that gives you a window of time when you can return and wait a tiny fraction of the time you would wait without it. You can also do Parent Switch passes on most rides. This lets both parents (or grandparents or friends you're there with, or whatever) take turns riding rides your kids are too small for or rides that only one of your children is big enough to ride (because leaving small children unattended while you ride a roller coaster as a couple is frowned upon). For example, James and the J-bird waited in line to ride the Radiator Springs Racers in California Adventure, a ride Miss V is too small for. While they were in line, Miss V and I rode some other rides and scoped out Cars Land. James got me a Parent Switch Pass and then texted me when they were on their way out of the ride, so Miss V and I could meet them at the Racers exit. James took Miss V, and the J-bird and I were able to go right to the front of the line with the Parent Switch Pass. This way, James and I both got to ride the ride, and the J-bird got to go twice. We also used Parent Switch Passes on Tower of Terror and California Screamin' - rides we did NOT take the children on. If you're smart, you'll get a Fast Pass AND a Parent Switch Pass for the same ride.
16. Bring some fun, costumey things from home. I didn't bring Miss V's full length Cinderella dress, because I didn't want the hassle of putting it on and taking it off all day, but I did bring her little fairy wings and some tiny tiara hair combs, and I brought the J-bird's pirate eye patch, which he wore in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. They LOVED this.
17. Meet the characters. It can be a giant pain in the butt, and you may have to wait a while, and you may get to the front of the line only to find your kid is terrified of giant mice, but the Disney folks do a really decent job of making it as easy as possible. The characters pop up at different places in the park for short lengths of time to sign autographs and pose for photos, and it's very fun. The longest lines were for meeting the princesses. We waited to see Cindawella and one of the fairies in Pixie Hollow, and then we sidestepped waiting by having supper one evening at Ariel's Grotto in California Adventure. The princesses all came around to our table, and it was awesome. It was also awesomely expensive. We had saved a good amount of money by bringing breakfast food with us though, and it really was awfully special.
18. It may rain. Don't panic. You have options. When I was a teenager, my parents took us to Disney World, and it POURED rain. My mom and I went into the bathroom, found the extra stash of clean trash bags, ripped holes for arms and heads, and - hey presto - we had ponchos. Invention? Yes, our name is Necessity, and WE ARE YOUR MOTHER. If you don't want to forage for trash bags, you can buy ponchos in the park that have Mickey's face on them. If you don't want to pay several bucks apiece for those, take my friend, Shelly's advice and plan ahead. Take thee down to the WalMart (Target, Fred Meyer, whatever), head to the camping section, and pick up some flat folded ponchos for cheap. Stick 'em in your backpack, and then feel really smart when it starts raining and you get to pull them out. I got four ponchos for 88 cents apiece, which was a good thing, because it did rain on Day 4, and I was very glad we had them.
19. Let your kids make friends in line. Unless the kid in front of you has the aforementioned tubercular cough and/or obvious plague (in which case, avert your eyes and caper like a monkey to distract your child), a little mini friendship for your kiddo is an excellent way to pass the time. If your kids are anything like mine, and the kid in front of you is anything like yours, they're all bozos and will enjoy one another immensely. You can compare notes with the child's parent/guardian, so it gives you a nice break as well.
20. When you get tired and cranky, when your feet and your children are screaming at you, when you start to wonder WHAT you were THINKING when you decided to do this, when you grow weary of toting the backpack and pushing the stroller and holding whatever sticky thing your child just spit out in your hand, take a second to breathe. Sit down and hold that sweet, tiny hand. Whisper in a little seashell ear how happy you are to be in this amazing place with the people you love the most. Giggle at the ridiculousness of feeling angry and frustrated in the middle of the Happiest Place on Earth. Reclaim your child-like wonder (or just bask in your child's child-like wonder, if yours is too far gone), hold onto your sense of humor, jump up and down, sing a silly song, eat a snack, and cherish the whole dang thing, because it's MAGIC. It's a mountain-top experience, a shining moment in your beloveds' childhoods. It is, like most things, what you make of it. So decide to enjoy it, and then DO.