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Disneyland is a magical place. Happiest place on earth, right? Disneyland with a three-year old, well it can be all kinds of wonderful — and overwhelming. We just returned from a fun family trip to Anaheim with our preschooler and his two big brothers. I offer you a few tips from my own experience and a few friends who guided my travels.

Guide to Disneyland with toddlers

Insider tips and things I learned the hard way

Measure your kid before you go

My three-year old is 40″ tall which enabled us to bring him on many age-inappropriate rides that the rest of the family was excited to do, most notably: Radiator Springs Racers and Star Tours. Check the height restrictions and measure your own child before you end up with some tantrums in line. We did think better of dragging him on some of the truly scary roller coasters that he could have ridden. Common sense, people!

Plan ahead and then go with the flow

As with any travel adventure with little ones, you are not the real boss of the itinerary. Amy suggests the Disneyland Attractions section of the website to come up with your must-do list ahead of your visit.

Consider the new MaxPass

Our family was treated to an upgraded feature called MaxPass. Available for $10 per person per day, it allows users with smartphones to easily check wait times and book FastPasses for each guest. Long time Disneyland lovers will know that they often need to jump out of line and run around the park to secure the line-shortening powers of a FASTPASS. This new upgrade aims to keep families hanging out together (which is mostly great). For the fee, you also get access to ALL PHOTOS from photographers and automatic ride machines (which is 100% great). I’d strongly recommend MaxPass for your longest day in the park.

Disneyland MaxPass is pretty rad, available July 2017

Disneyland MaxPass is pretty rad, available July 2017

Is your child afraid of the dark?

Amy reminds us that many of the “everyone” rides at Disneyland are in the dark. If your child is scared when the lights go out, you might want to avoid Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. Even the train has some spooky tunnels. Whitney still feels guilty for taking her son on Pinocchio: it was terrifying for him. Note that many of the California Adventure kiddo rides are lighter and brighter.

Use the performances as down-time.

The staff (AKA cast member) will hand you a schedule of shows and parades on the way in. Grab it! There is a theater in Fantasyland with great stage shows throughout the day. Kristal suggests walking by; even if you choose not to go in and sit down, you can catch a few minutes of entertainment from a distance, perfect for when your parenting brain needs a break from map-reading. We all enjoyed chilling out eating cotton candy at the Frozen show live at the Hyperion in California Adventure.

Frozen ”“ Live at the Hyperion

Frozen ”“ Live at the Hyperion | Photo Disney.com

Leverage the “Rider Switch”

Amy recommends the rider switch program that lets both parents ride some of the bigger rides without waiting in line twice. Visit Growing Up Goofy to learn how the Disney Rider Switch Service works. I can’t believe I forgot to do this. Doh!

Bring a stroller with a canopy

Having a set of wheels enables you to move long distances quickly, shield a napping (or just plain overwhelmed) child, haul your stuff, or eat snacks on the go. Disneyland rents strollers for a $15/day, but just bring one if you still have it. It is not uncommon to see some large children riding along.

Sometimes characters are scary

My kids don’t mind the huge mascots roaming the park and looking for hugs, but yours might.

Preschoolers guide to Disneyland & California Adventure

Being hugged by Chip or Dale | Photo: H Flett

Prepare for potty problems

Our friend Kristal put her potty-trained four-year old in pullups for the day just in case, and it made all the difference when they were just minutes from getting on a ride. She packed a Ziploc bag of extra clothes in the stroller as well as another Ziploc with all of the diapering supplies, and they made frequent trips to bathrooms.

They’re called “cast members”

The Disney staff is super friendly and knowledgeable. If you need to find a lost child, replace a balloon, get to the performance in time and you’re feeling confused, nearly any of the Disney team will cheerfully point you in the right direction. Seriously, I tested it. I also used Google maps walking directions to get to a few places in a hurry (and looked like a huge goober doing it!)

California Adventure has beer

Disneyland is alcohol-free. Plan accordingly.

Favorite rides and attractions for a small person

Just being pushed through the park is a terrific sensory experience. Sawyer saw giant characters — most of which he did not recognize — being friendly and inviting. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he loved every minute of it. Here are a few of his favorite attractions:


Preschoolers guide to Disneyland & California Adventure

If you like spinny rides, teacups are a classic!

  • The monorail runs from near the Disneyland Hotel in Downtown Disney right into the park at Tomorrowland and riding it was a big hit. If you ask nicely, you might even be able to ride up front. Strollers must be collapsed.
  • Once you’re in Tomorrowland, take a dive under the sea with Nemo in a submarine, drive small cars around Autopia, check out Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, and fly the Astro Orbiter (just like the Dumbo ride with a different skin). We took our tall three year-old on Star Tours, but that would not be appropriate for more sensitive sorts.
  • In Toon Town, Sawyer loved running around all over. It’s a great place to explore and climb on the giant play structures. Our kids and adults loved poking around Mickey’s House, though we bailed on waiting in the line to actually meet him. Gadget’s Go Coaster was just on the edge of Sawyer’s comfort zone.
  • Lots more rides like It’s a small world, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant were big hits for us in Fantasyland. Casey Jr. Circus Train also looks fun.
  • Critter Country & Frontierland. We didn’t make it to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh but wish we had. He found the infamous Pirates of the Caribbean ride to be appropriately exciting.
  • The Disneyland Railroad has recently reopened to create a more magical experience; it makes 4 stops along the perimeter of the park. It can serve as a fun relaxing ride or transportation to get back to the main gate. Little ones will love or be terrified by the Grand Canyon and Primeval World ”“ Land of the Dinosaurs. We took the train when our big brothers were on a roller coaster. Stroller ramps are at all stations except the main gate.
Disneyland Railroad, reopened Summer 2017

Disneyland Railroad, reopened Summer 2017 | Photo Disney.com

California Adventure

Preschoolers guide to Disneyland & California Adventure

We love Tow Mater | Photo of us by Disney staff

Did you already know that California Adventure is across a wide courtyard with completely separate admission prices and rides? It is less nostalgic if you grew up loving old-fashioned Disney characters, but if your version of childhood has a little more Pixar thrown in, odds are very good that the Cars characters are your warm safe place.

  • Bug’s Land is the best place to enjoy with your three-year old. All the rides are toddler- and preschooler-friendly. And my nine-year old had fun, too. We rode Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, Francis’ Ladybug Boogie (a gentle spinny ride), Flik’s Flyers, and Tuck and Roll’s slow-moving bumper cars. On a hot day, there’s a splash park, too.
  • Luigi’s Flying Tires and all the amazing characters were just Sawyer’s speed.
  • Radiator Springs Racers was a little more than he wanted, but he said he loved it — and it is my favorite ride!

Cam Bowman, who writes the Growing up Goofy blog, says her toddler’s favorite rides include the Casey Junior Train and twirling Teacups. {More tips for toddler-friendly Disneyland from Cam}

Silicon Valley mom Amy Heinz told me that her three-year-old daughter’s favorites were the Monorail, Mater’s Tractor Jamboree, Small World, Jungle Cruise, and the little water slides at the Disneyland Hotel. She carried her lovey with her and put it over her eyes or ears when she was overwhelmed (smart girl!). {More tips for Disneyland with sensitive kids from Amy}

So, how’s the food?

Nearly every food stand and restaurant has some version of a toddler meal or snack. Many of them are even healthy (carrots, apple slices, berries, hummus, etc.). Most vendors offer some form of souvenir upgrade that you may want to avoid or indulge in. Serve my mac and cheese in a Lightning McQueen lunchbox? Please and thank you (well, not in my family).

You can now bring your own snacks. Do it. Kristal Kupferman, mom of two, suggests packing some favorite healthier non-perishable snacks and interspersing them throughout the day between fun new treats (Dole whip float, Mickey beignets, giant pickle). We had good luck packing a few kid-friendly protein bars and gummy bunnies.

Whitney offered up carrots and goldfish crackers as a distraction during long lines when her son was this age.

I cannot tell you what your picky-eating three-year old will prefer, but Kristal’s family’s food gems were: the Village Haus restaurant in Fantasyland (was tucked away but had a great menu and kids meals including a toddler meal!) and the Bengal BBQ by Indiana Jones serves super yummy skewers my kids ate (even the bacon wrapped asparagus they loved!). Whitney and I swear by those reasonably priced skewers, too.

Note that the toddler servings of Mac and Cheese are truly toddler sized. If your three-year old puts away food like a five-year old, order more. If your three-year-old eats three noodles and wanders away from the table, this is the right size for you.

Preschooler and toddler tips for Disneyland & California Adventure

Other details to plan for at Disneyland with a 3 year old

Disneyland is a magical place. Happiest place on earth, right? Disneyland with a three-year old, well it can be all kinds of wonderful ”” and overwhelming. We just returned from a fun family trip to Anaheim with our preschooler and his two big brothers. I offer you a few tips from my own experience and a few friends who guided my travels. #disney #disneytravel #traveltips #bucketlist #familyvacation

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A portion of my family’s trip was hosted by Disneyland, which enabled us to stay at the fabulous Disneyland Hotel. We are very grateful for their generosity.

Keyword: A three-year old’s guide to Disneyland

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