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Disney. Chances are the word alone evokes some kind of response. Maybe it’s joy, nostalgia, or excitement…OR maybe it’s an eyeroll or smidge of nausea! One thing’s for sure – going to a Disney park is a memorable experience.

I’m gonna be real honest here. I didn’t grow up with strong Disney feelings either way. Wasn’t big into Disney movies or characters, and my family certainly didn’t have the budget to fly to either of the U.S. Disney parks for a week of fairytales and $10 slices of pizza. But I did jump at the chance to see Disney World when I was on the color guard squad for my high school and our band traveled there to march in a main street parade. Granted, at that time I was more concerned with which friends (ok – boys) I’d be walking around and riding space mountain with, but hey, I do love to travel and had to experience it once, right?

To my surprise, I had a great time, and not just because I was there with all my high school friends. I was amazed by the details and use of technology that went into the attractions. Were there lines? Yes. Were there screaming toddlers to avoid? Yes. Was the cost of one meal more than a week’s worth at home? Shockingly, yes. But there were also unique, story-telling attractions that transport you to another place. It’s like Disney takes the latest tech and ingenuity, and instead of using it to try to make grocery check-out quicker, they use it for pure fun. And I think that’s cool, even as a roller coaster junkie.

But enough about my high school trip to Disney World. Let’s move ahead to Fall 2009, when my son was four and I was pregnant with my second son, due in December. We were living in Colorado and wanted to do a fun trip with our son while he was still an only child. We figured Disneyland was the perfect choice, and it was a short flight from Denver. We decided to go for 3 full days, and I decided to plan it all myself because I’m a masochist. Just kidding, I planned it myself because I’m very Type A when it comes to travel, and wherever we go I must do All The Things. It really was not too bad to plan on my own, and I’ll explain how I did it at the end of this post, if you’re looking for tips. Disneyland is definitely easier to plan than Disney World, and there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Since sticking to a budget was a priority, we stayed off-site, which is very doable for Disneyland. There is a whole street lined with hotels directly across from the park entrance. You can easily walk right into the park, or take your hotel’s shuttle – we took the shuttle in the evenings when we were pooped and cranky, and once we used it to go back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. Which, incidentally, was a complete waste of time since our 4 year old much preferred jumping on the beds to laying down and napping. Pro Tip: just push through the afternoon energy slump in the park, and let the kid pass out in the stroller when he’s tired. I don’t know who all these Disney “afternoon nap” pushers are, but I don’t think they have real children. It didn’t work for us at all.

We chose to stay at the Howard Johnson, because the water park of course. This hotel is affordable and has a little “water park” called Castaway Cove – great for filling in any downtime with the kids, and making it a popular choice for families visiting Disneyland. We didn’t have a ton of downtime ourselves, but the water park was perfect on arrival and departure day.

Our room’s balcony, 2nd from the top, had a view of the park

Walking into the park Day 1 was a little…overwhelming. I had done a ton of research, and was armed and ready with my touring plan, map, and FastPass strategy. We got up bright and early to arrive at the gates before opening, and found that a gazillion other people had the exact same plan. Not gonna lie. There were a few minutes there, contemplating our position in the cattle herd, where we really questioned how much we wanted to do this…

The march – in some cases, sprint – back to Fantasyland at opening

But then we got into the park, and our little guy was enthralled. I’ll admit it, his smiles and excitement turned me and my husband into big Disney suckers. The shows and parades were so top-notch, truly next level compared to other theme parks. We made great use of Disneyland’s FastPass system, which allowed us to do everything we wanted without waiting in the longest lines. We had never seen our preschooler so enchanted, and he totally got into meeting the characters, which was unexpected since we weren’t a big Disney family at home. He was downright smitten with them and gladly waited in lines to collect their autographs.

We all had such a wonderful time, even as Disney non-fanatics. I really think Disneyland is worth experiencing no matter who you are, and if you don’t have the time to plan the trip, by all means work with a travel agent who specializes in Disney. It won’t cost you anything to work with a pro, and they can set everything up for you. However, if you are a planner by nature, or just like to understand everything about your destination so you can make decisions/adjustments on the fly (like me), here are some tips to get you started.

How to Plan a Trip to Disneyland

  1. Know when to go and how long you can stay. If you have schedule flexibility, consider crowd calendars, holidays, and weather. You may also want to check which attractions will be scheduled for maintenance during your dates.
  2. Make a list of your priority attractions and shows. We were able to do everything we wanted in 3 full days, but half of Disney California Adventure was being remodeled when we were there and Galaxy’s Edge didn’t exist. You probably want 3-5 days if you want to see and do “everything”, although you can certainly hit a lot of highlights in 1-2. This also helps you determine what kind of park tickets you need.
  3. Decide where you want to stay. On-site to splurge in the full Disney experience, or off-site to keep costs lower. Both are great options for Disneyland.
  4. Understand the FastPass and MaxPass systems. This is very important for making the most of your time. It can be the difference between having a day full of fun experiences and a day wandering around feeling discouraged because you can’t find lines short enough for your child to tolerate. You’re paying way too much to not get to do anything.
  5. Make a plan for food. Decide if a Disney dining plan makes sense (it doesn’t for us) and if you prefer to stay somewhere you can cook meals. We were on a mission to see as much of the park as we could, so we had breakfast in our hotel room (cereal, fruit, etc.), and took snacks into the park. We were able to do one sit-down meal a day in the park, and another quick-service or sometimes just snacks between attractions. I’m pretty sure we were even able to have our food items delivered to the hotel by a grocery service before we arrived.
  6. Know the park layout and plan attractions and meals accordingly. Do not skip this; spend a little time looking at a map of Disneyland and consider location when planning your day. You don’t need to plan out every hour, but you should have some idea of where your must-do attractions and your must-eat restaurants are. Don’t plan to ride Indiana Jones, then hit ToonTown, and then come back to eat at Pirates of the Caribbean. You will waste a ton of precious time, and energy.
  7. Pack for a themepark. Moms, you know the drill. Sunscreen, snacks, water, diapers and extra clothes if necessary. Something to entertain little ones when waiting for a ride or meal. Decide if you need to rent a stroller (we had our own since we wanted it for the airport), and think about a safe way to carry cash and cards.
  8. Download the Disneyland app and familiarize yourself with it. Also read up on Disney PhotoPass so you can use it effectively. Their photographers do a great job capturing all those smiles and character interactions you struggle to get on camera, plus you get some really fun ride photos. We ended up purchasing a few of the PhotoPass photos individually after our trip, but there was also an option to purchase a CD with all the photos.

Where to find Disneyland Planning Info

OK, so where do you go to find all the information for the above steps? Online, of course! That is, if you haven’t already given up and decided to go with a travel agent. No shame in that at all. If, however, you are still feeling ambitious, read on…

There is a plethora of websites on Disney parks and planning. You would be surprised to see how many people do it for a living! I’m serious. There is no way to keep up with them, so just glean from their wisdom when you are planning your trip. Try to stick to the big, well-known sites that have teams of people working to stay up-to-date on the latest Disney news. You only need a few of them; don’t get lost in the endless little fansites – and obviously you can get a lot of the basic info on the official Disneyland website. Here are my favorites:

  1. Undercover Tourist – this is a great site to purchase your park tickets at the best price if you have no other discounts.
  2. Disney Tourist Blog – these people live Disney. Tons of info on hotels, sample itineraries, planning guides, FastPass strategies, and crowd calendars. They really stay up-to-date on the latest Disney news, too.
  3. Touring Plans – this is only for the most hardcore planner. If you want to get into the serious nuts and bolts of crowd calendars, this is the place to go.
  4. The Dis message boards – I planned all my trips with help from people on these boards. Every time I’ve posted a question, someone has answered within 24 hours – usually less than 1 hour. INVALUABLE resource. The Dis also posts weekly podcasts on the latest news for each park which are extremely informative.

Hopefully that points you in the right direction. There is just SO MUCH Disney info out there; it can be hard to weed through it all. It’s worth it, though! Honest. Even from a former Disney NON-fanatic. 🙂