Travels With a Toddler: Tips for Theme Park Fun

I have an admission to make:  I used to think I wasn’t a Disneyland person.

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely a DISNEY person.  I grew up on the movies and love all the music, played my role as various princesses as a child, and have a collection of Disney stuffed animals that could fill a small dump truck. I just never saw myself enjoying the Disney Parks as much as I saw other people doing so. It was always too crowded, too overplayed, too much effort, etc.

But all of that changed last April when we took our not-yet 2-year-old to Disneyland Park for the first time. Yes, I know we are INSANE. I used to scoff at people who took kids to theme parks before they would remember the experience at all. But Lu was SO into several of the movies and we just knew it would be magical for her.

And oh was it magical! She pointed and smiled at the wild animals on Jungle Cruise, drove (and laughed) like a maniac on the race car ride, saw some favorite Pixar friends in the Play Parade, and ended her day with a sweet hug from a mermaid. My husband and I spent the whole drive home talking about when we could go back again!

So go back we did, a few weeks ago in mid-August. We had awareness of all of the land mines we could face on our way. This time, we were armed with a battle plan to make the day smoother than our first trip and emphasize the magic rather than the mania.

Here are the best things I can recommend to you for enjoying a theme park with a young child:

  1. Lower Your Expectations: Sorry, friends, but if you choose to take your toddler to a theme park, you will not get to ride all of the big, fun rides with lengthy waits that you want to. They probably won’t reach the height limit and if you are there for their enjoyment I’m gonna bet they won’t enjoy waiting in long lines to watch mom or dad ride. We chose 1-2 adult rides we each wanted to go on and someone took Lu on another while we rode. On both trips, we stuck to the ride meant for littler visitors. They usually had shorter wait times and no height limit. Sure, we weren’t screeching with delight, but Lucy loved them…so we did too! You’ll have more fun if you aren’t battling disappointment over not being able to do as much.
  2. Do Your Research: Before we went the first time, I looked into which rides would be appropriate for small children. Disneyland, at least, has a list of attractions that are best for small children. This is helpful, but I also learned (pretty much from scaring my child to death on our first trip) to check with attendants before boarding a ride about whether the ride is dark, loud, or had ANY scary parts. We had zero mishaps of a terrified child on our second trip!
  3. Download The App: I know at least Disneyland, Disneyworld , Legoland California, and Knott’s Berry Farm have apps with maps showing attraction wait times, amenity locations, and show times. The Disneyland app allowed us to check which rides may have a short enough wait time for Lu and also which were gaining momentum so we could plan to go to those first. On the Disney app, you can also see where characters are at any given moment. It was super helpful!
  4. Allow For Rest: This recommendation aligns with my “lower your expectations” tip. If at all possible, I would stay at a hotel nearby the park you are visiting. On our second trip, we were able to walk back to our hotel so Lu could nap and we could refresh before heading back to the parks for the evening festivities. It made the evening that much more enjoyable. I know it’s not always possible to get a hotel, though, so I would just make sure to plan some time for little ones to nap or rest. Unless your child is s super human angel, it is likely they will be cranky without rest during your day and that can put a real damper on everyone’s fun. Have a stroller available or…
  5. Babywear, Babywear, Babywear: if you have a 1 or 2 year old and you’ve ever even thought of babywearing… this is a GREAT time to try it out! Strollers aren’t allowed in the line areas of most parks and if your child is like mine and thinks she is on a mission to escape her captors at all times, wearing her in line is invaluable stress relief. My daughter has always tolerated her Tula well. It goes up to 45 lbs and you bet I will be wearing her as close to that weight as possible!
  6. Bring ALL THE SNACKS: If you’re already a parent, you’re probably already a pro at this. A hangry toddler is nobodies friend!
  7. Take Advantage of Amenities: I know that at least Disneyland and Legoland have baby care centers for parents of little babies. They have diaper-changing and nursing stations and microwaves. We also stashed our stuff in the lockers on site, which helped when we bought souvenirs we needed to stash or grew tired of carrying things. Finally, there are also often child location areas in case of an emergency.
  8. Find the Magic: This has got to be my most important tip. Sure, you didn’t get to go on every ride (or maybe even most of them) and managing your toddler in line was like wrestling a rabid alligator, but I know at least for us these things didn’t take away from our joy. Instead of trying to push our own agendas, we paid attention mostly to what filled Lu with that magical awe. On our last trip, this happened to be the lame little kid rides, wandering unencumbered through Carsland, watching her favorite characters from a safe distance, and these leaf-shaped chairs in Bugsland. Yep, that’s right…she thought these chairs were something to write home about! My point is, the magic doesn’t have to be big. EVERYTHING is big for our little ones. I find that following her lead shows me little bits of wonder that I wouldn’t have cared about otherwise, and that, my friends, is why we do this stuff for our little people in the first place, isn’t it?

So, there is my (probably incomplete) list of tips for theme park travel with tots. We ended up buying annual passes this last trip, so maybe I can add to it as we become more experienced visitors! I guess I was a Disneyland person all along…

(What Lu Is Wearing:  Romper, Zara; Bow, Elle Belle Baby)

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