June 28, 2018

Last month, we had our first trip ever with all four of us. I’ve taken trips with my husband, and I’ve taken a trip with my daughter, but it was a big family first to have all four of us stay overnight somewhere. Instead of easing our family into The First Car Ride Over 1.5 Hours as well as The First Time Sleeping In The Same Room Together with a nice relaxing cruise or local trip, we took the 6+ hour drive down to Southern California and then went to DISNEYLAND.

Disneyland is not a relaxing family vacation.

…But I’m glad we went. In the end, everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped, and I think we have a lot of great memories to keep with us. There were some things that couldn’t be helped (like my son being two), and other things we’d change now that we know (like not giving him all the snacks he wanted- that ended up being uh… messy =P). For the most part, though, there were a lot of things that were organized well and went right and made all the Type A planning worth it. That’s what I’d like to share with you today!

To be honest, I’m probably the last person you should ask about travel tips with family. I’m probably less experienced than most of you reading this right now! But I spent a lot of time researching what more experienced people know (in person and online), asking Super Disney Moms (like my friend who takes her little ones to Disneyland multiple times each week) for insider tips on Disneyland, and thinking through the details of what would make this a more successful trip for our family. So you can think of this as my research paper, compiling all the info that helped make this trip a success. Plus, some friends have been asking me to share some of my research, and this is the whole reason I started this blog in the first place- to share some of my learnings and tips easily with friends! So here we go :).

Why Disneyland?

First of all, WHY DISNEYLAND? It’s a long drive, it’s crowded, it’s hot, you’re outside all day, there’s wait time for practically everything (even the things you diligently made reservations for two months ago), it’s over-stimulating, and, JoEllen: it’s FULL OF PRINCESSES. Maybe this is not a drawback to some of you, but I am decidedly not the most princess-iest person around, and have been particularly wary of letting my children be influenced by a lot of the princess culture that’s out there. Over the last two years, though, I have slowly been accepting the reality that my daughter is really into princesses, dancing and other super girly things. Lately, I have moved past acceptance and into some form of support. No joke, I’m pretty sure I went through the stages of grief when I realized we weren’t going to have the same childhood- mine being full of rough and tumble tomboy play, shunning all the girly things vs. hers full of sparkly dresses, tiaras, and tutus.

It wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, but I’m hoping to be the kind of mom who supports her passions and who God made her to be, even if it’s not a realm I am very familiar with. So, after much lamenting (only slightly exaggerating) and prayer, I came around and am not only accepting it, but I’m also hoping to add some sparkly magic to this whole phase while she is still young and believes in it all. So actually, the princesses ended up being the main reason why we went to Disneyland. Hah.

The Drive Down

I have a few recommendations for the drive down from Norcal to Socal. If you want to do a straight shot, I-5 is probably the fastest option. We left in the morning and made it to Kettleman City a little before noon. Kettleman City was a great lunch stop. If you only know about gas stations and In-N-Out there, I have some GREAT NEWS for you: there is a relatively new kid spot called Bravo Farms off the same exit! It was built in 2014, and is a great place to get something to eat, stretch your legs out, and let your kids play in the enclosed children’s area. The play area is outdoors with an Old West theme with small storefronts and doorways with slides and ladders. There’s even a sand pit with some toys in it. The bathrooms are clean and there was plenty of seating when we went.

I hear they also sell some toys and books, in case you need to stock up on more items to entertain your kids with for the rest of the drive down. There should also be fruit, ice cream, and candy. You can’t really ask for much more in a rest stop! If you’re looking for a more scenic route, the 101 might be a more enjoyable option for you. Here is a great post which makes the drive down seem like a vacation opportunity in itself!

After lunch, I had prepared a bunch of activities for the ride down, including borrowing and charging a bunch of Playaway View devices and books on CD from the library. In the end, letting the kids watch familiar shows like Daniel Tiger and Angelina Ballerina (which I had pre-downloaded onto two separate tablets) ended up being the easiest. I’m glad I purchased a pair of these volume-limiting headphones, which allowed them to watch without the noise bothering one another. The kids fell asleep before we hit the mountainous and curvy “Grapevine” and slept through most of the traffic before we arrived in Los Angeles. All in all, everything went as planned and even though the drive still felt long, it went as smoothly as we could have hoped!

Where to Stay and Sleeping Arrangements

We were originally prepared to fork out some serious cash to stay at one of the Disneyland Resort hotels for the sake of convenience, but Google Maps showed that the walking distance from the Disneyland Hotel to the entrance (9 minutes) was the same as the walking distance from several hotels just across the street on Harbor Boulevard. So I booked a hotel across the street (through Costco Travel) for a fraction of the cost of a Disneyland Resort hotel. We were very pleased with the location, and only regret that we didn’t get a suite with separate rooms instead of a standard room. Spending four days straight with my kids was a little too much. Some room to breathe would have made a big difference!

Sleep (or, the lack of it) was my most un-favorite part of this trip. We have been fortunate enough to enjoy kids that have regular and healthy sleep habits, so the co-sleeping… and the not-sleeping… and the poor-quality-sleeping was harder for us to take in stride. One of most helpful pieces of advice about sleep was reading that the first night in the hotel room together would be rough. I had read that the kids would be so excited in the new environment that they would toss and turn and talk and stay up for hours that first night. Reading that advice didn’t change the situation, but knowing what to expect lessened my frustration when it actually happened. Predictably, this made them tired and grumpy the next day… but they also slept much more willingly the next night.

A Few Basic Things to Know About Disneyland

When I first started texting my Disney mom friend for Disney tips, she would say things like “Well, you might want to see if DCA has Extra Magic Hour and get a Fastpass…”

Er… rewind. DCA? Magic hour? Fastpass? I was already overwhelmed. So here are some basics to get out of the way. When you go to Disneyland in California, there are actually TWO parks that each require a different ticket (unless you get a park hopper ticket). One park is the classic Disneyland that was first opened in 1955. It has all the stuff people usually think of with Disneyland: the castle, Dumbo, It’s a Small World, and Main Street. It’s the only park I remember from my childhood visits. Across the entrance from Disneyland is another big park (and the one our family enjoyed more) called Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). It was opened in 2001 and has the newer Disney stuff, including most of the Pixar, Frozen, and Guardians of the Galaxy Stuff. During our visit, it also appeared to have wider walkways and felt much less crowded.

The entire Disneyland Resort is like a little world of its own with its own vocabulary and culture. As I planned for our trip, I kept discovering new layers that were amusing and somewhat complicated. I’m still a relative beginner, but here are some random things I’ll mention for you if you’re even more of a novice than I am:

Planning Ahead

I think it’d be lovely to just show up to Disneyland and wing it and have spontaneous fun. I wanted to leave space for that, but I also knew that we had to see princesses, catch the Frozen show, watch a parade, and get on the Cars ride. Making sure all these things happened took some research and planning. I didn’t want to wait 75 minutes in line for the Cars ride and then miss the Frozen show, or watch the show but miss the parade. I also didn’t want to walk all the way to Fantasyland to meet Cinderella, then walk ten minutes to Frontierland to go on the Pooh ride, only to jet back to Fantasyland to catch the last Mickey and the Magical Map show. Efficiency, people! Especially with two young kids!

So I planned. I planned enough to make sure we’d be able to get all of our “must-see” activities in, and also enough to give some breathing room for spontaneous things like riding the horse-drawn trolley (which turned out to be one of my son’s favorites!), taking the train around Disneyland (which is a little scary for toddlers, btw), and eating a churro in between.

Here are some ideas for planning:


I probably over-packed, but we drove a minivan down and I managed to fit all of the kids stuff and my stuff into two carry-on sized suitcases, so it wasn’t too bad. In addition to the usual items like socks, undies, and toothbrushes, there are some Disneyland-specific items you might want to consider packing. If you get them ahead of time, you not only have a greater selection, but you can do more research and usually get a better price than what’s offered in the park:


For someone who used to only think of Disneyland as a place to go on rides, this trip-planning process was a real eye-opener for me! I really am glad we decided to trek out and visit Disneyland together during these young, magical years. My son had a blast in Cars Land and still talks about the “May-dow wide and twoh-yee” (Mater ride and trolley). My daughter is currently wondering about the logistics of Elsa making it out for the upcoming local Mommy and Me event (where she first met Elsa last year), when she clearly has so many people to greet in Disneyland already. I am also starting to plan when we can get out there next, and I hope this trip gives you some helpful ideas in your planning, too!

8 responses to “Disneyland with Young Kids”

  1. Laurie K says:

    Great idea for the autograph book!

  2. Rachel K. says:

    This was fantastic! We are planning on surprising the boys with their first Disney trip for Christmas. I got a lot of great ideas from you. Thanks, Jo!

    • joellen says:

      Oh my goodness that will be so fun!! The decorations are going to be so magical! I am excited for y’all! =D

  3. Joanna says:

    This is a great guide! I love planning for Disneyland trips (I was lucky enough to visit both Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland earlier this year), and you included a lot of wonderful tips. I’m definitely with you on the spreadsheet hehe.

    I really like the idea of using the junior encyclopedia instead of an autograph book. (Also, you had me in stitches when you mentioned Gaston. I love how devoted the Cast Members are to keeping the magic real.)

    I’m glad you and your kids had a great time, and I’m looking forward to your next Disneyland post! 🙂

    • joellen says:

      Thanks, Joanna! OOh do you do spreadsheets too?

      Also, Gaston was actually QUITE obnoxious. After we saw Belle, Gaston was hanging around outside chatting with some folks so a little crowd of little kids with autograph books started to form. Not a line, just a couple clumps of family floating around as he chatted. We waited… and waited… and waited… and it was like he didn’t even see us. People gave up and left, but this other mom and her daughters kept waiting there along with us. I think they had been waiting first, so I was waiting for her to make a move and cut in like, “Excuse me, would you mind signing this really quickly?” or something. It had been several minutes, and I know he saw us by now and wasn’t planning to stop, so I figured he wasn’t going to pause himself. The mom just looked annoyed but didn’t say anything, so I cut in. I only meant to obtain a quick autograph with my daughter, but when he saw her in her Belle dress, he played the smitten romantic and only had eyes for “Belle.” She loved the attention, but I felt SO BAD for cutting in. I actually thought cutting in would help move things along for everyone- like here, 5 second autograph pls, kbye. But he kept talking and talking and he refused to sign the book, repeatedly saying he didn’t know how to write his name. When my daughter suggested tracing, he kept saying he couldn’t/wouldn’t. I gave him the big-eyed crazy look of “EVERYONE IS WAITING FOR YOU CAN YOU JUST SIGN IT” and he totally saw it and ignored it and kept playing the part! I felt awful because my, “I’ll cut in to hurry it up” plan was not going according to plan, so I was like, “Ok, nevermind, we don’t want to make everybody wait so we’ll just head out” and reached for the book at which point he finally and reluctantly agreed to trace the letters of his name hahah. And that’s when I realized how devoted the Cast Members are to their roles hahaha. Funny memory I hope she remembers ;).

  4. Maritza says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you hve written your other Disneyland post for princess lovers? I’m taking my daughter for her birthday next week and I would love more tips to add to my planning.

    Thank you

    • joellen says:

      I LOVE that you were waiting for this and I will try to get that out to you by tomorrow! I was gonna post it yesterday but I got hit with the flu yesterday ?. Check back soon! I hope you have the best time!!!