Stress-free Disney: How to do Disneyland, California with young kids

IMG_2824If you’re in California and in two minds about visiting Disneyland, let me help you make a decision. You should go. Bite the bullet, take the hit on the wallet and go. Because, despite the prices, the queues, the out of control materialism and folks wandering around inexplicably gnawing on overpriced turkey legs (really) – there is something surprisingly charming about Disneyland; something of the old fashioned, vintage Disney from your childhood that makes it quite special. And I say this as a total cynic. Do it right and your kids – and your inner child – will love it. If you don’t all spend the day rampaging around eating sweets, screaming on roller coasters and whooping at Disney characters then you’re doing it all wrong.

Now here’s the thing. Your kids will be counting on you to make this work. And by making it work, I mean making sure you go on all the good rides whilst simultaneously keeping queueing times to a minimum. It could just be your biggest and most important parental challenge yet. To do it well , you’ll need to approach your day like a military operation – fail to plan and I guarantee you’ll all be weeping and clawing at your faces by lunchtime.

In preparation for this Herculean task, we spent Disneyland Eve pulling together everything we’d read on Disneyland so that as soon as the gates opened, we knew where we were heading, what rides we were going on and critically, what our Fast Pass strategy was. You need your Battle Plan and only then, can you start the wild Disney rumpus.


The Parks

There are two parks each opposite one other to allow for park hopping i.e. crossing between sites to go on more rides. Disneyland is the oldest of the two and Disney California Adventure Park, built on the old carpark for Disneyland, is the newer one. For budgeting purposes we chose a one day ticket for Disneyland only and purchased them online. Given that we went in the Christmas holidays, this was classed as Peak Time and we paid an eye-watering $484 in total. Your children’s ages will dictate an element of this decision – make sure they are old enough to go on the rides and not too old to think all the rides are rubbish. For guidance, our 6 and 10 year old loved everything – and could go on everything – at Disneyland.

Where to stay?

You must get to Disneyland before the gates open at 8am. You will then have a good two hours to charge around getting value for money until it starts to get really busy. This means you have to stay in Anaheim the night before you hit the park. We chose to stay in the Hyatt Regency, Orange County as it has large family rooms, kids eat free in the restaurant and it provides a shuttle bus to and from the park which takes about 10 minutes. We think it was really good value. Just a tip though – make sure you buy your tickets for the shuttle bus the night before as there will be a queue in the morning for them and if you’re in military mode, it can tip you over the edge before you’ve even begun.

It would be much easier and nicer and less faff generally to stay in a hotel on the site itself as you have an hour of the ‘Magic Morning’ where you can go on the rides before the park opens, plus you can go back to your room for lunch and use the pool. You can then pop back into the Park to ride the rides when it’s quieter and see the evening fireworks display.  The Paradise Pier Hotel is the cheapest of the Disney hotels and by cheapest I mean similar to a mortgage for a studio flat in central London. It’s definitely worth considering though if you can make it work i.e. stay midweek/off peak/rob a bank.

What to pack in a day bag and what to wear?

You’ll need ponchos/bin liners if rain is forecast, water, sun cream, snacks, wet wipes and anti bac gel. Bring sweets to encourage your children’s goodwill in the queues. Do not wear a heeled, suede boot – we walked 10km during the day so wear a comfortable shoe. I’d also recommend layers so you can peel off in the midday sun and layer up in the evening for the fireworks.

Arriving at the Park

Aim to get to the park at 7.30am. I know this sounds ridiculously early but if I’m spending that amount of money on something that I can’t even wear, I’m getting maximum bang for my buck. Gates open at 8.00am and, the quicker you get in, the shorter the queues are meaning the more rides you can go on. Disneyland is divided into seven ‘lands’ but the site is relatively small meaning you can walk between them with ease. When you arrive, you will be given tickets and a map – keep both safe as you will need them throughout the day.

The Fast Pass system

Disneyland operates a free Fast Pass system which sounds confusing written down but isn’t when executed in real life. Nail this early on and you’ll be sorted for the day. The  rides that have a Fast Pass are the most popular and have the biggest queues (they are indicated with a FP on your map.) To get the best use from this, decide which Fast Pass rides you want to go on and aim to get Fast Passes for them in the morning allowing you to ride them later without queuing for 25 years. The ones in bold are the ones we got Fast Passes for and the starred ones are the rides we queued for (all under 30 minutes in the morning)

Bug Thunder Mountain Railroad *

Indiana Jones

HyperSpace Mountain

Roger Rabbit’s Weird Car Toon Spin (not its official name)

Splash Mountain

Haunted Unscary Mansion (not its official name)

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters *

Star Tours *


Here’s what you do:

Go to the ride that has Fast Pass system, find the machine and insert your Disneyland Tickets into it (the ones you are given upon arrival to the park). You will get 4 tickets back for that ride (plus your Disneyland Tickets back) with two pieces of information:

  1. What time you can come back and go on the ride. This may be in an hour, two hours or even five hours time. You’ll need to adjust your day accordingly.
  2. What time you can get another Fast Pass. This may be in another 45 minutes or another two hours. You need to keep this in mind as soon as you can get another one, you should.


The Battle Plan

This is a breakdown of our day from 8.00am till 5.00pm when the heavens opened and we decided to call it a day. It involves quite a bit of walking to and from different lands to make full use of the Fast Pass system. It is obviously not perfect and misses out some rides e.g. Pirates of the Carribean, It’s a Small World and the one where you get soaked and have to walk around the park with wet knickers.  It’s annoyingly and deliberately detailed as its designed to be a foolproof guide to getting the best out of your day.

Are you ready? Right….let’s go!

Upon Arrival at Main Street, take a right and head to Tomorrowland. Go on Star Tours –  a fun Star Wars themed simulator ride. We went straight in at 8am and there was no queue. It’s quite intense for a smaller child as you wear 3D glasses and there’s lots of explosions and crashes. But if your kids love explosions and crashes, they’ll love it.

Get a Fast Pass for Hyper Space Mountain – come back and ride it later.

Go on Autopia – one of the original rides from the 1950s and fine for any age. Designed to make kids feel like they are driving, it’s good old fashioned fun. The cars do break down at times and it feels a bit like you are being choked by petrol fumes, but hey – it’s the 1950s, that’s how they rolled back then.

Ride the medium-fun Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster and blast baddies with your ‘laser’ blaster. IMG_2806Head to Adventure Land and get Fast Passes for Indiana Jones Adventure.

Next up, make you way to the Wild West themed, Frontier Land (next door to Adventure Land) and go on Thunder Mountain, a pretty gentle, gold mining themed roller coaster that’s fine for four and up I’d say.

Head back to Tomorrowland, ride the rockets and enjoy the views over the park. Don’t forget to make them go up and down using the gearstick (this is not immediately obvious.)

Using your Fast Pass tickets, go on Hyper Space mountain. I’d say is not really an appropriate ride for smaller kids. We didn’t realise this until we were on it. In the dark. Hurtling through ‘Hyper Space’ on a piece of industrial machinery in what is essentially a warehouse. Proceed with caution. Our mid-ride souvenir photo of four ashen faces is a dream.

Time for elevenses. Have a coffee and snack and consult the map. Good churros in Adventure Land if you’re in need of a sugar high.

Wander up to Fantasyland and go on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride or Peter Pan’s Flight.

Head to Critter County to eat at the Hungry Bear Restaurant, it’s more ‘tucked away’ than the other places to eat and you’re more likely to get a seat. On your way, grab Fast Passes for the Haunted Mansion.

Ride the Haunted Mansion if you dare! A medium to low fun and zero scary ride. Fine for little ones although they might feel a little claustrophobic at the start.

halloween pumpkin Use your Fast Passes to go on the Indiana Jones ride – one of the best in the park with all the fun of the films – creepy crawlies included.

Climb the stairs and bridges of Tarzan’s House – it’s not a ride, just a more like something your children might go on in a park, but our kids loved it and there was no queue.

Head to Toontown and get a Fast Pass for Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. Have a play in Mickey and Minnie’s houses in Toontown. Have another coffee/churro/turkey leg.

Ride Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. It’s quite weird and what the hell actually happened in that film anyway? The whole ride makes no sense but you can make your car spin as you mull Bob Hoskins fancying a cartoon character and how sexist 80s cartoons were generally.

By this stage in the day, both you and your partner will resemble two collapsed athletes trying to help one another across the finish line. This is the point, where, if you’d stayed in a hotel on site, you could return for a nap. You might want to hit some shops or watch the parade if you haven’t already.


Finally, make like Jay Pritchett and family (from Modern Family – if you haven’t watched the show then you must) and walk down Main Street to go and see Great Moments with Mr Lincoln for a bit of patriotic, cultural history and a bizarre, slightly spooky animatronic version of the man himself.

IMG_2828If it wasn’t raining so much, we would have hopped on the Monorail, popped to Downtown Disney, eaten an overpriced pizza, had some wine (no wine in the park itself alas) and stayed and watched the fireworks. As it was, we weren’t ponchoed up enough, our shoes were wet and the hot tub at the hotel was growing more appealing by the minute.

Would we go again? We totally would. We’d stay at a Disney hotel, get a park hopper ticket for both parks and meet a character or two. We’d book a better place for lunch (maybe blag our way into the secret dining experience at Disneyland, Club 33), see the fireworks and spend lots of time in the Star Wars themed land, opening in 2019. Although I’m not convinced I could do more than a day at a time, there’s a timeless charm to Disneyland and if you go prepared, you might just find yourself having more fun than your kids.

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