A Disney park vacation is high on the bucket list for many families – in fact, in 2019 alone, over 155 million people visited one of their six locations worldwide. Some families research and plan these trips for years before actually visiting, taking the time to figure out how to maximize their vacation days, stretch their dollars, and even work with specialized Disney planners to strategize how to make the most of this childhood rite of passage. So given all of that effort, does it really make sense to take small children under five to a Disney park?
Often us traveling parents are posed with the question, “why take your kids on such a big trip when they won’t even appreciate or remember it?” We usually ignore those silly questions, but with Disney, it’s a fair point, given the expense and the fact that in just a couple of years the kids will likely get more out of it. But hey, if you, like us, just like going to Disney and are eager to experience it with your kids, it’s worth it!
We took our first child to Disneyland at 18 months and now, at four, we recently made a visit to Disneyland Paris with his two-year-old brother in tow. Though I’ve been going to Disneyland all my life, going with kids is a totally different ride on the teacups. Here are some things that we did right that made our visit more enjoyable, and things that we’ll do differently next time:
- Free! One of the pluses in taking small kids to Disneyland is that they’re free until age 3! You’re not going to come by many free things at Disney, so hey, take advantage of this benefit while you can.
- Avoid Crowds! Traveling with kids under 5 often means that you have a lot more flexibility in terms of schedule, as they’re typically not in compulsory schooling yet. This gives you the opportunity to plan your visit during quieter times. While Disneyland Paris is decidedly more low-key than Disney World and Disneyland, we were able to time our visit with the first week of school in Paris and enjoyed a much emptier park than usual.
- Push It! Even if your toddler is used to walking everywhere, put them in a stroller. We had our two-year-old in his travel stroller and rented one at the park for our four-year-old. No matter what you’re going to find yourself with tired toddlers, but the parks are huge, there is a ton of walking involved, and you can really save yourself from some tantrums by giving breaks in the stroller. There is the added benefit of being able to contain your kid in the crowd, as well.
- Pace Yourself! If you’re a bit of a Disney pro, you probably have your own personal game plan: a sense of what rides you want to go on, places you want to eat, and the best times to do all of that. Be like Elsa and let it goooo, let it go! With toddlers, it’s less “how much can we accomplish in this visit?” and more “what is going to keep everyone happy?” That might mean riding the Flying Carpets Over Agrabah ride four times in a row and missing Indiana Jones (it did for us), and that’s ok. It’s a Small World, the Disneyland Railroad, a steamboat ride: this is your new pace.
- But Plan a Little. That being said, if you’re not familiar with the rides and lay of the land, do a little research to determine what’s appropriate for your kids. We showed our kids a few YouTube videos of various rides to get them a bit familiar and gauge their excitement levels. Downloading the park’s app is a great place to start, too. You can even monitor wait times prior to your visit so that you have a general idea of the most popular rides and how long you should prepare to wait.
- Go VIP. If you’re visiting for multiple days, consider staying at a property in the park. There is the convenience factor, but you’ll also get special perks like Extra Magic Hour, access to the park one hour before the general public. Since toddlers are usually early risers anyway, this is a great way to enjoy a much quieter park at a more leisurely pace. We were able to ride just about all of our “musts” in that one hour! One thing to note, this offer varies from park to park. For example, Walt Disney World did away with Extra Magic Hours but is offering them in a limited capacity starting with evenings in October. Always confirm when making your bookings!
- Take advantage of Rider Switch. One great perk that Disney has for families is the Rider Switch concept for waiting in lines. Toddlers can’t ride the big rides like Space Mountain, but if you can’t bear the thought of missing out, there’s the switch. With this, one parent waits in line for the ride and requests a rider switch ticket before they get on. After they’ve ridden, the second parent can hand over the ticket and go without waiting in the regular line. This is great if you’re with a group because they’ll allow two to ride on the switch ticket if you don’t want to ride alone.
- Burn off some energy! While one parent is in line for a ride, why not take the opportunity to let the kids out of those strollers? There are playgrounds in the parks, like Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom, and Frontierland Playground in Disneyland Paris which are completely age-appropriate, and a good way to get a little climbing and running around in.
Where We Made Mistakes:
- Be sympathetic. Disneyland is a lot for little kids: it’s full of everything they could possibly want but you can’t possibly give it all to them. Put yourself in their unable-to-self-regulate shoes. Be patient, give them a break, and…
- Set some limits. It probably would have been helpful if we gave a bit of thought to our treat-quota comfort-level. It’s not fail-safe, but sometimes having a conversation beforehand to help set expectations can help to prevent meltdowns. Next time, maybe we’ll do something like “one small toy, one bigger toy, one morning treat, one afternoon treat” to help quell the begging and give them some sense of autonomy.
- Listen to your kid. Disney is made for kids, but some things can be a little scary, especially to the littlest visitors. Don’t force your kid to do something they’re not comfortable with. Cajole a little, maybe, but don’t force. If they’re throwing a fit getting on a ride, take them off. And be aware: some of those classic Fantasyland rides can be the scariest. The witch in Snow White and the giant whale in Pinocchio can certainly leave a lasting, terrifying impression, so know your kids’ limits and respect them!
Good to Know:
- Baby Care Centers. All Disney parks have unbelievably well-stocked, comfortable baby care centers where you can comfortably feed/nurse your baby, purchase forgotten items like diapers, sunscreen, and baby food, and even find toddler-sized toilets.
- Changing tables can be found in almost all bathrooms.
- You’re allowed to bring snacks and non-alcoholic drinks into the park, so if you want to try to sneak in some healthy options and save a little money, pack that backpack with some fruit, cheese, and whatever else you feel good about your kid munching on!
- If you get suckered into buying one (or in our case, two) of those expensive mylar Mickey balloons, hold onto your receipt! If it flies away, you can get a replacement.
- And though you hope to never use them, all parks have First Aid and Lost Child Centers. If you or your child requires medical attention, nurses at the first aid center can assist you with advice, bandages, and basic medications. If you become separated from your child, this is where Disney Castmembers will take them. It’s a good idea to talk to your kids about what to do if they get lost, and consider IDing them with your contact information just in case. You can read our advice for preventing and preparing for getting separated from your kid here.
Our family does not know a day without a few toddler meltdowns, and our days at Disneyland Paris were no exception. Despite that, we had a fantastic time and made so many memories that, even if our toddlers don’t retain, we will, and that’s worth it. Weeks later we’re all still talking about it and can’t wait for our next visit!
What about you: would you take or have you taken toddlers to a Disney park? What worked best for your family? Let us know in the comments!