After my Walt Disney World trip report earlier this year, I had gotten some emails asking about trip-planning for Disneyland! It’s been a few years since our family has headed west. (Our 2014 Disneyland report is at this link.)
For a fresh perspective on Disneyland, I sent my sister and her family on assignment for my blog. Lynn is a public school teacher and mother of two preschoolers. This was her first trip to a Disney park with her children, her first trip to Disney as an adult, and her first trip to Disneyland since 1988! Enjoy this 2016 Disneyland and California Adventure trip report from my sister, Lynn Peto.
Disneyland in one day… with preschoolers.
By Lynn Peto
Disneyland in one day.
Both Disneyland parks in one day.
Both Disneyland parks in one day with a three-year-old and a four-year-old.
This is exactly what we did.
I’m a math teacher, a very logical thinker, a list maker, and also a very high-strung, easily-stressed-out individual. I love my family and wanted nothing more than to have a memorable, exciting vacation with them before I went back to school this fall.
In early spring, I Googled “toddler friendly vacations,” and San Diego, California was one of the first destinations to pop up. Neither my husband nor I had ever been to San Diego, so from that point on, we were headed there.
My oldest daughter is beyond obsessed with dolphins, so Sea World was a must-stop. I wanted to go to the San Diego Zoo too, and for a couple months that was the extent of my trip planning until I started asking people that had been to the area what else we should do. Several people immediately said “Legoland!” Knowing nothing about it, I assumed it was similar to our local Legoland. (On the contrary: it is essentially a Six Flags for toddlers.)
It wasn’t until my sister said, “Well, you have to go to Disneyland,” that the notion had ever crossed my mind. She assured me we could cover both parks in one day, which is amusing because she knows my children and still said this!
Prior to leaving for our California Vacenture, as I like to call it, I did a decent amount of research. One of the biggest concerns of ours was how to transport our three and four-year-old girls. After comparing costs for stroller rentals from each location, a stroller rental from a company in San Diego, and shipping a cheap stroller to our hotel from an online retailer, we opted to purchase a stroller (City Mini Double) from Craigslist with the intention to resell it after the trip.
The stroller was a tremendous blessing. In all my “research,” I neglected to consider trekking the girls from the parking lots to the entrances of each destination. Disneyland did not rent double strollers, and we would have had to rent either two singles or had the girls take turns.
Since Disneyland was added to our itinerary about a month before our departure, I panicked and started trying to make lists of how to do Disneyland the right way and how to do it all in one day! We planned to get park hopper tickets, and we wanted to cover as much as possible. I have never been to a Disney park as an adult, so having to plan a trip like this seemed overwhelming. Ultimately, I didn’t do too much research and decided to leave it up to whatever the day brought.
Our Disney Day:
We were staying in Carlsbad for the duration of our trip, which meant we had a little over an hour’s drive to Anaheim. We woke the girls up early, and off we went. The night before I had packed some snacks, fruit, and lots of water to bring with. The website indicated we could not bring food into the park; however we had no trouble getting through the bag check with the items I packed.
I was not at all prepared for the parking situation. Traffic backed up a little as we moved closer to Disneyland. We were funneled into a large parking garage, paid $18 for parking, and parked on the 3rd floor. We rolled our stroller packed with girls and goodies to the elevator and ended up in a large parking lot with a lot of other people. There was a mob of people boarding a tram. Knowing we would miss that tram and need to wait for another one, collapse the stroller and get the girls situated, we opted to walk to the entrance. The walk wasn’t bad. The weather was lovely, and we were in good company as many others were also walking to the gate.
Since we weren’t staying on Disney property, the parks opened at 9 am (California Adventure opened at 8 am for Disney guests). We arrived and were through the gate around 9:30.
I had a few “must dos” on my list, but I was hoping to see as much as we could. I asked the girls what they wanted to do:
“See Elsa and Anna, because they live here.”
So, we started in California Adventure.
Disney California Adventure Park:
Frozen – Live at the Hyperion premiered May 27, 2016. It was supposed to have some amazing special effects, so thinking this would be an adult-friendly way to check Elsa and Anna off the list, I headed right for the theater to get Fast Passes. My husband took the girls to a Monsters Inc. ride close by while I waited in line. I was nervous that getting the fast passes would be difficult or confusing, but it could not have been easier. I was thrilled to get 1:35 pm passes. We had to return to the theater between 12:20 and 1:15, which meant we had all morning to explore the park.
I had downloaded the Disneyland Resort app and spent much of our day checking ride times. It was absolutely essential, but it drained my battery quickly. I had purchased a Jackery Giant before the trip, which kept both our phones charged all day. We also did quite a bit of bonding with our paper maps! I had considered contacting Disney ahead of time and requesting maps so I could lay them out on my dining room table and mark them up, but I ultimately didn’t want our trip to be that scheduled.
After getting Fast Passes, we found ourselves in “A Bug’s Land”. This land had so many cute rides that were perfect for our daughters. We rode Ladybug Boogie, Tuck n Rolls Drive ‘em Buggies, Flick’s Fliers, and then Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train.
I had read that the Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers were located in “A Bug’s Land”, so I sent my husband to go get those while the girls and I rode Flick’s Fliers. He was back when our ride was over with Fast Passes for 3 – 4 pm. The lines were very short, which was essential with young girls. I was thankful that our Fast Passes did not conflict with our Frozen show, but I don’t wonder if Disney has conflict prevention built in. With those times, we hoped Radiator Springs Racers would be the last ride we went on before crossing over to Disneyland.
We went to watch “It’s Tough to be a Bug, “ the 4-D short film, before leaving “A Bug’s Land”. My 3-year old was entertained by the butterflies, but when it started getting “scary,” she was over it. Thankfully, it is less than 10 minutes long.
From there, we headed to Paradise Pier and walked right on Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. It was very cute, and I was feeling less and less guilty for having shown my girls so many Disney movies. I thought to myself, “Good thing they have seen The Little Mermaid, or else they wouldn’t understand this ride at all.” As a teacher, I know how important prior knowledge is when being introduced to something new!
My girls had never been on a Ferris wheel and wanted to ride Mickey’s Fun Wheel. Some cars roll on an elliptical track, and we thought the stationary car was a better option for our family. It was in this line that it happened: Someone had to go to the bathroom. This happened so often and is the biggest downside to traveling with small children. Most times I was able to take one or both girls while my husband waited in line, and we would then just board the rides when our family was whole again.
Only once did we all end up exiting a line at Disneyland. We were very near Toy Story Mania, which I had put on my list of attractions I was interested in; however, we were at a point in our day where we needed to be mindful of our Frozen Fast Passes as they said they were invalid after 1:15 pm. The line for Toy Story Mania was 35 minutes, so instead we opted to hit Goofy’s Sky School, Jumpin’ Jellyfish, and the Golden Zephyr. The girls were happy riding anything! They didn’t care how popular the rides were, so we chose shorter lines when we could.
Back in Hollywood Pictures Backlot, we went to line up for Frozen – Live at the Hyperion. It was 1:00 and other than the snacks and water we brought, we hadn’t eaten. We were trying to cover as much ground as possible, and we really didn’t take time to eat. My husband bought the girls Mickey Mouse ice cream sandwiches to eat in line while we waited to enter the theater.
Our tickets were for the Orchestra section, and we sat in the 6th row stage right. I plugged my phone into my Jackery for the first time and settled in to relax and enjoy the show. I very proudly told my eager daughters that it was here that we would see Elsa and Anna.
The theater was great. The backdrop was a realistic-looking view of Arandelle on an LED video wall – even the water moved! The sounds in the theater were like those you would hear outside on a nice day. The lighting was ever-changing overhead to mimic clouds passing. So far, we were impressed.
At 1:37 (two minutes past curtain,) an announcement came on overhead: “Due to technical difficulty, today’s performance has been delayed.” We didn’t think much of it, relaxed and tried to keep the girls settled knowing they would be enthralled when it started.
Ten minutes later another announcement came on: “Due to technical difficulty, today’s performance has been cancelled. Please join us for another show.”
I am not sure who was most upset. The girls were very upset that they wouldn’t see Elsa and Anna, my husband was baffled as to what type of “technical difficulty” could prevent a live show from happening, and I was very sad as I was looking forward to seeing something so new and sharing it with you as well. With only one day here and the entire Disneyland park yet to explore, I knew we were not going to see the show at all. We simply couldn’t spend any more time waiting in a standby line hoping to get into a later show. The Frozen Fast Pass booths were closed for the day too (of course I checked!) and we had now wasted an hour.
This was certainly the low point of our day. I still wonder if the remaining shows that day were also cancelled.
According to my Disneyland app, which not only shows attraction wait times but also shows you where characters are located, we saw that Elsa and Anna were in the Disney Animation building. I had read that seeing Elsa and Anna was one of those things you needed to rush to do right away to avoid standing in a long line. The building was close to the theater and I feared that the theater full of disappointed people would all run to see Elsa and Anna, so I was hesitant to even go in there.
I left my husband out with the girls, and I ran inside to assess the situation. Larry, the line leader, told me it would be a 20 minute wait. There was a big sign: “Character Close Up: Elsa and Anna.” I was expecting to see them with a line of eager little girls snapping pictures. A Character Close Up offers a much more personal and private visit with the characters.
Meeting Elsa and Anna was the absolute highlight of my daughters’ day. I was beyond impressed with the thought, kindness, and sincerity of the characters. We had the opportunity to witness their interaction with two families in line ahead of us, and they were authentic, patient, and interested in everyone. We have some great pictures from that moment. My oldest kept telling me how nervous she was to meet Elsa and Anna. It was cute seeing her star-struck!
We hung out in the Animation building for a short time after the close up and played in the Sorcerer’s workshop. We then ran into Doc McStuffins on the street and took some pictures with her. My girls said she “wasn’t the real Doc McStuffins” because she didn’t talk! That statement made me wonder how much time we should spend trying to meet the characters.
It was time to start making our way to Cars Land to get to Radiator Springs Racers. You’ll realize we still hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and we were hungry, but with the passes and all of Disneyland yet to explore, we decided to just eat an early dinner as soon as we arrived in Disneyland.
On our way, we stopped and rode Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters at our daughters’ request. This ride just opened in March. It was cute, and my husband loved how unique each car’s dances were as they continually switch paths. This ride was anything but predictable and would definitely be on my “must do” list.
We waited in line for 15 minutes for Radiator Springs Racers. This ride and everything surrounding it is remarkable. The scenery, the radiators blowing cool mist on you in line, and the cars you ride look like the movie was brought to life. The premise of the ride is that you are preparing for a race which you run against a car in a parallel lane. Your car gets ready for the big race, runs the race, and then wins, or loses.
Our car was a winner, luckily, but the unpredictable nature of who will win made it exciting.
After the race, these racers loaded up the stroller and made our way over to Disneyland at 4:15pm.
Off to Disneyland:
If you’ve never been to Disneyland and are contemplating doing both parks in one day like we did, it is very easy to travel between parks. You exit through turnstiles, get hand stamped, then enter through another set of turnstiles and have your hand stamps scanned.
Walking into Disneyland was spectacular. Disneyland is celebrating its 60th diamond anniversary, so the castle was beautifully decorated. Disneyland was more crowded than California Adventure. I suspect this could be of the anniversary celebration. Because of this anniversary, there was a special Paint the Night Parade and a special anniversary fireworks show. We wanted to end our night in Disneyland for these reasons, but also because Disneyland is open until 12:00 am, whereas California Adventure closed at 10:00 pm.
We had already planned what to eat for our lunch/dinner. Corn dogs had been highly recommended by friends who are Disney regulars, and we believed this would be a budget-friendly meal. However, there was one stop to make before we ate. Hyperspace Mountain was a “must do” for our family. I walked ahead of the family to Tomorrowland to get Fast Passes for Hyperspace Mountain, and our Fast Passes were for 8:25 – 9:25pm. The timing wasn’t the best, as the first Paint the Night Parade was at 8:45pm with fireworks beginning at 9:30pm. We had more important concerns at this time though: We needed to eat.
We saw that Stage Door Café in Frontier Land had corn dogs, so we went to finally sit down and eat. We have nothing to compare it to, but the five corn dog meals and four large drinks we ordered cost $59!
From the café we could see Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain. These were both rides we wanted to go on, so we headed to Pirates of the Caribbean next. The wait was 25 minutes. Our girls did not enjoy Pirates, as it was too dark for them. Tarzan’s Tree House was right at the exit of Pirates, though, and the girls were eager to explore. The tree house was cute, and the traffic flow was designed quite well.
Big Thunder Mountain had a very short line. My app said 15 minutes, but it was only 8. We all loved this ride. It’s exciting, smooth, and long. We considered hopping back in line to ride it twice, but there was so much park yet to explore. Knowing we would never see and do everything we wanted to do, I suggested we go to Fantasyland to ride as many of the “classic” rides as we could.
Wouldn’t you know it, Dumbo the Flying Elephant had a 25 minute wait! We had ridden similar rides before, but they weren’t Dumbo. The girls love the Dumbo movie and were elated to fly their elephants. From their Dumbos the girls could see the Storybook Land canal boats, so we had to ride those next.
Next, we rode It’s a Small World. Our mom tells me that on our first trip to Disney World, when I was two, I cried through the entire ride. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen with my slightly older girls.
We ended up riding It’s a Small World in pairs, as my younger daughter and I left the line for yet another bathroom break. The cast members are so understanding and were happy to let us enter through the exit to board the ride afterward. Riding this with her was, perhaps, my favorite “mom” moment of the day. Watching my daughter’s eyes widen, her face smile, and her little body move to the music as she tried to sing along was priceless. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband, who then echoed the same reaction from our four-year-old. Nostalgic warm feelings were in full effect on that ride, for sure. Should we return to either Disney park, it will be a “must do” every time.
My sister insisted that we get Dole Whips while at Disneyland, even buying our family a gift card (thanks sis!) to ensure we would enjoy them on our trip. With our hectic day quickly passing us by, we needed to squeeze those in. It was time for me to make a Tiki Juice Bar run and get the family their treats! My sister would have never allowed this oversight had I forgotten. Where had the day gone?
We found a bench, sat and indulged (YUM) and then were off to Tomorrowland to use those Fast Passes. On our way, we rode Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. It was in this line that my husband and I discussed our options for the rest of the night. The girls were quickly tiring, and it was dark. We debated on leaving and heading back to our hotel.
I was extremely torn between what I thought was the right decision as a mom and what I wanted to do as a Disney guest who had not been to Disney in nearly 25 years. I remember my hubby saying “Let’s just keep the girls busy and on rides and keep them awake. They won’t know what time it is.” This sounded like a good plan to me, as I selfishly wanted to see the Paint the Night Parade and knew that the only timeslot that “fit” into our night was at 10:45.
Off to Hyperspace Mountain we ran. We were on the ride within 15 minutes. The line had consistently been over an hour all day! Space Mountain was given a makeover to a Star Wars-themed Hyperspace Mountain in late 2015. My husband had no idea, and he was both elated and impressed.
Our girls, on the other hand, were not. Makeover or not, they did not like the completely dark ride. I am certain their extreme lack of sleep was also a contributing factor.
Luckily we still had time to see the fireworks — in fact we thought we had a little extra time — so we got in line for Nemo’s Submarine Voyage. As we neared the front of the line, I exited the line with my younger daughter to search for yet another bathroom. As soon as we walked out of the bathroom about to head back to the line, there stood my husband and 4 year old waiting to use the bathroom.
Since our place in line was lost, we asked a cast member where we should go to get the best view of the fireworks. He directed us to Fantasyland by It’s a Small World. Scenes are projected on the It’s a Small World building during the show, and we had a great view of Tinkerbell flying through the sky. The fireworks were themed to many of Disney’s movies with the music, and scenes. During the Frozen portion, “snow” fell from the sky on us. The girls thought this was the absolute best. Had we stayed in line for Nemo, we would have missed the fireworks. (My husband would later learn that the voyage was a long one!)
We went back to Nemo’s Underwater Voyage, but by the time we arrived we had only one awake daughter. Our youngest was asleep in the stroller, and I knew I could not wake her. I then joined the row of parents sitting with sleeping children in strollers while my husband and 4-year-old got in line for the voyage. She was quickly asleep in his arms too. It was about 10:15pm, and the parade would be starting in half an hour. They remained in line, and at 10:30 I texted to say that we were going to roll our way to find a spot to watch Paint The Night.
The Paint the Night Parade “lives” at It’s a Small World. The earlier performance starts there and the later performance ends there. I found a spot on the curb, parked the stroller behind me, and sat down. From here I would be able to enjoy the parade and watch it coming toward me from all the way down the street. The parade route is lengthy, so I could hear it had started but it had yet to make it my way.
I’m so glad I left when I did. The Nemo ride was long, so my husband and only awake child didn’t make it to meet me before the streets were closed, but they found a spot on the other side of the street closer to the start and watched the parade from there.
I cannot give enough praise for this parade. The floats are remarkable, the dancers are captivating, and the music, well… hubby and I have differing opinions on the music, but I thought it was great.
“Put your hands up because the night is young… I gotta know, when can we do this again? I never want this to end.”
Hubby saw this as a brilliant marketing opportunity for Disney, while I, of course, was bouncing around with my hands in the air and singing loudly with a huge smile on my face. Because, like the song, I didn’t want this to end! He had the unique opportunity to watch our daughter as the floats went by. I was watching a sleeping child, who I knew would have also loved this more than her mom did, but I couldn’t wake her up. I knew she needed sleep more than she needed to see this parade.
As the parade was passing by, I got a text saying “we are now IN the parade!” Sure enough, at the end of the parade many guests march and dance right behind the last float, Sorcerer Mickey. It was another amazing “mom” moment to see the wonder in my four-year-old’s eyes and watch her flailing her long limbs as she skipped and bounced to the music IN the parade – absolutely worth the long day. In fact, as I write this, I am listening to the parade soundtrack while my girls are dancing around me.
Now that the three of us were wide awake, leaving seemed silly! We had been eyeing Peter Pan’s Flight all day, and the wait was consistently 35 minutes, but hubby really wanted to ride it. We hopped on the carousel for a quick ride, then my 4 year old and I waited in line to ride our flying ship.
I knew Disney closed at midnight, but what I didn’t realize was that they close the lines at midnight and the stores at 1 am. (When do these cast members sleep?) We boarded our ship just after midnight. Our daughter loved it, of course, and so did I. After we got off, I asked the cast member at the exit if my husband could ride, since he had been waiting by the stroller with our sleeping daughter. She was very kind and told me send him up through the exit. So he and our eldest boarded their ship. The first cast member I asked when we boarded had told me they didn’t rider swap on this ride, so I am glad I asked again.
Our day was complete. Finally, we made it on Peter Pan’s Flight. We could go home. And we had to, as the lines were now all closed.
After a stop at Starbucks on the walk to our car, we were on our way. Finding our car was laughable. It was the only one on the entire floor of the garage!
To say we squeezed every drop out of our day is an understatement. Would we do it again the same way? I’m not sure. We would certainly have a better idea of what to expect, but keeping our minds open and having a small list of “must dos” made our day very flexible and fluid. We didn’t see many characters throughout the day. I wish we had seen more, but our focus was on attractions.
Characters are easy to find with the Disneyland app. The few we did see always had lines in front of them. I naively expected to just see many of the characters roaming the parks and walking up to us!
The girls had a wonderful time and survived the insanely long day. If you’re wondering why we didn’t ride the iconic Matterhorn Bobsleds in Disneyland, the height requirement was 42” and our youngest was barely 40”. With only one day, we wanted to focus on rides for the entire family. The only other ride we really would have liked to make it on was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Had my daughter and I made it off Peter Pan’s flight prior to midnight, my husband was at the ready to enter that line. It didn’t work out, but at least he was able to ride Peter Pan.
We did buy the Disneyland photo package from our day at a cost of $39. I purchased these through the app and was able to link ride photos too! I simply handed the Disney photographers my phone and they scanned the QR code to link my photos to my account. Spending $39 for a day of pictures, even though we only had a few professional photos taken, seemed worth it, as our only family photo of the day with everyone in the picture was taken by a photographer in “A Bug’s Land.”
Yes, indeed… they did!