This post is for Jen from The Short Years because SHE ASKED FOR IT. I am not subjecting you people to any more Disneyland than what is absolutely necessary, okay? BLAME JEN. (Also, I just looked through this and DUDE, longest post you have no interest in reading EVER.)
That said, DON'T MIND IF I DO! Because I loved this trip. You have no idea how many times I think back to this trip and smile, and how many times I wonder how we can swing it again in the nearish future. Not only did we Not Die, we had an Absolute Blast.
I did a massive amount of research for this trip, because I am a massive amount of research kind of person (read: very annoying to live with.) The original vision of the trip included road tripping down and staying at one of the Disney hotels for three nights, with two days in the theme park. Say it with me now: KRAZY! Then we went to Vegas with Phillip's family in August and everything changed. Namely 1) I was no longer afraid to fly with the kids, especially on another short flight and 2) we could not would not stay, all four of us, in the same hotel room. (Also, 3) it was going to be CHEAPER.) So we decided to fly instead of drive, stay longer since we could be there longer, and find another hotel because two room suites at the cheapest of the three Disney hotels were three hundred some dollars a night. HOLY HECK.
Guide book The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland - you will need no other. Even though this book gets a bit psycho, even for me (there are FITNESS schedules to get in SHAPE for all the WALKING) it was invaluable when it came time to figure out how to DO things in Disneyland. Not a big deal for a bunch of grown ups with two or three days to spend, but a serious help to those of us with little kids.
When to go We happened to schedule our trip for the last day and three or four days after Labor Day Weekend. RECOMMEND. Crowds are low, weather is perfect, hotel prices were cheaper. Definitely go during the off or slightly-off season. There was a major difference between the last day of Labor Day weekend and the last day we were there crowd-wise, although I should note there were fewer events and parade times.
Where to stay I spent 90% of my trip planning time wringing my hands over hotels. You should see my spreadsheet. I was comparing two different flights, four different hotels and three different flight/hotel packages. It was ridiculous. At one point I had five different hotel reservations and people I NEEDED that spreadsheet to keep track! I was trying to find that perfect sweet spot between affordable and manageable, which for us meant more than one room. The awesome thing about the hotels near Disney is that so many have family suite options. And they're not just two hotel rooms with a connecting door, they're actual suites, sometimes KID suites with bunk beds and activity tables in the second room. AWESOME. My requirements were: at least two rooms, within walking distance of the parks, a great pool and a rate that didn't make me faint.
In the end, after going through every travel site and reading every review on TripAdvisor, our best option was to book everything separately. We flew Virgin America into LAX and stayed at the Howard Johnson. HIGHLY recommend the Howard Johnson. I picked the Howard Johnson over other closer/cheaper hotels because of one thing - the pool. There is an AMAZING toddler spraypark area and since I assumed we'd be spending a lot of downtime at the hotel (we did) this was worth the extra cash and then some. (Manda, I believe, will vouch!) Jack and Molly both loved the one foot toddler pool and the splash area, but they also loved the quieter grown up pool in a completely different part of the hotel. The spraypark also catered to older kids, but the big kid toys were on their own side, which meant my kids weren't getting run over by excited ten-year-olds. The rooms were on the newer side and perfect for us. Nothing fancy, but the second room had a bunk bed for Jack and I requested a crib for Molly. It was hard getting them to sleep in the same room (NATCH) but we managed and it worked out well. It's about a ten minute walk from the theme park, the staff was great and the rooms were quiet and always made up when we returned for lunch. The one and only complaint I have about the hotel rooms are that you can't fit a double stroller through the doorway!
How to get there After nixing the driving option and not wanting to pay for a rental car, we booked our airport-hotel transportation with the Disneyland Express. I was a little nervous about it since it picks up and drops off at numerous hotels and you have to wait at each one, but there were very few families on our bus, the ride was shorter than I expected and it's by far the cheapest option. (And you don't have to worry about car seats.)
Strollers Maybe you remember me freaking about strollers and what kind and if I should rent and blah blah blah. We ended up bringing just our double stroller and of ALL the decisions we made beforehand this one was by FAR the smartest. I was worried about maneuvering a double stroller in the airports, maneuvering it through a crowded theme park, how in the world we would carry it AND all our bags, but this was silly. Yes it was bulky and heavy, but I can't imagine why I ever thought two single strollers would be better. Or one stroller and renting the other at Disneyland. It was a LIFESAVER in the airport - being able to strap two kids down and have one parent wheel them around while the other took care of business was huge. You people who travel a lot are probably rolling your eyes, but wow am I glad I didn't do the single stroller! Renting looked easy, and for a while I thought I'd borrow an Ergo and put Jack in the single when he got tired, but no, a double was so much easier.
Food I was pretty stupid on this point. There are a million places to eat - we passed a dozen restaurants on the ten minute walk between our hotel and the Disneyland entrance - but it is EXPENSIVE. Our hotel, like most of the other hotels we passed, had a little convenience store inside: ALSO EXPENSIVE. We budgeted for food, but I could have thought through this a little better. I brought a ton of snacks with me, but I wish I'd also brought dry cereal for breakfasts, juice boxes, bread, peanut butter and jelly. I ended up buying all of these things almost every day at the convenience store. Food in the park was hit or miss, convenient but always pricey. Oh, and Manda pointed us to these TO DIE FOR French fries at the Cafe Orleans near the Haunted Mansion. We went there twice. Ahem.
Schedule The first day in Disneyland I was so excited I pushed everyone a little too far. Just one more ride! One more ride! We got there when the park opened, but didn't leave until after lunch. By the time we got back to the hotel the kids were beasts and Phillip and I were exhausted. The next three days went much much better: get to the park as soon as it opens (easy to do when you're waking up at six with a one-year-old), ride all the popular rides, go back to the hotel for lunch, play in the pool to ensure an extra long nap, watch a frillion episodes of Greek on your laptop while the kids nap, head back to the park for dinner and the parade. The end. This schedule, which we adhered to diligently after Day One, was perfection.
Rides The guide book was so helpful in determining which rides would have the longest lines, which ones might frighten little kids and how to spend the least amount of time in line. SO HELPFUL. My favorite ride was Peter Pan, which was one of the most popular rides and ALWAYS had long lines. The kids loved it too. But they also loved It's A Small World, Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, visiting Mickey in his house and possibly the biggest hit was the spinning teacups. Phillip and I have a high tolerance for cheese and silly and babyishness, so we had no problem doing It's A Small World over and over and I managed not to barf on the teacups. I would skip Mr. Toad and Pinocchio because they're jerky and scaryish (although J and M were fine) and we skipped Snow White because the guide book said it was bad and we'd rather stand in line for Peter Pan again. The book went on and on about the lines, but we were always there when the park opened and had absolutely no problem riding even the most popular rides, like Dumbo and Finding Nemo, even on the last day of Labor Day weekend. Towards the end of the trip when they'd gotten used to rides in general, we took them on Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. I can't say they had a good time, but I don't think they were scared. What WAS scary was the Finding Nemo ride. It's got great effects, but it's cramped and claustrophobic and DARK. Molly was not a fan.
I was bummed that some of the Fantasyland rides were closed when we were there, and a lot of the things to do in Toontown were kind of boring. J and M weren't impressed with the Jungle Cruise, although that could be because that was the last thing we did on the first morning and they were exhausted. We also poked around Disney California Adventure, the 'sister' park across the plaza, but that one is missing something. The 'magic' of Disneyland, maybe? I thought Jack would love Playhouse Disney Live, but nope, he was not amused. Even the train ride around the park wasn't a hit, maybe because it doesn't look like a train when you're ON it. WHO KNOWS.
Other Stuff In Disneyland Jack and Molly's favorite part, by FAR, were the parades. We saw one the first night and the reaction was so awesome we saw the parade every. single. night. I can STILL sing that stupid song. Singing, dancing, characters far enough away so as not to freak them out, lights, confetti, props - Jack and Molly were FANS. We really wanted to see the fireworks and this other special effects show whose name I forgot, but 9pm was a little too late for the kids so we missed those. The parades were several times a day and only once did we camp out on the sidewalk to save our spots.
We also loved The Billys, a bluegrass group that performed in the Golden Horseshoe theater. We love bluegrass music and it was a really fun (and just long enough) show. The kids loved it and when Phillip bought the CD I made fun of him, but we listen to it all the time. (Sorry people who come over to my house.)
The gift shops were overwhelming, but fun. Our favorite was way back in Critter Country near the Winnie the Pooh ride (which was neeeever crowded). It was a sweets shop with a giant room of stuffed animals and it was fun letting the kids pick out a toy (Jack went with Pooh Bear, Molly liked Minnie Mouse.)
Sometimes we liked just slowing down and looking at the gardens and statues. We had enough time to do this, of course, but we have some great pictures of Jack and Molly with the Disney character statues near the Cinderella castle.
The Verdict Disneyland may not be the best vacation for a toddler and a baby, but you will have NO PROBLEM meeting your kids' needs in the park. There are highchairs and booster seats galore and the "castmembers" don't bat any eyes over any child-centric request. Kid friendly food on every menu. If you are hauling a baby on your hip everyone wants to help. Changing tables in every bathroom (INCLUDING THE MEN'S ROOMS.) Snacks, treats, sights, smiles, help everywhere you look. You stroller almost always fits, and when it doesn't, someone is right there to tell you where to park it. I had real doubts over whether my kids would enjoy ANY of the rides, but they LOVED them. The carnival rides AND the special Disney storybook rides. It wasn't always fun standing in line, but we made sure not to stand in very long ones, and we didn't have any trouble. As long as I had some snacks, a pacifier, sun hats and some leftover confetti from the parade, my kids were good to go. Also, it helps that I am a total sucker for manufactured magic. Phillip is less so, but we both absolutely loved watching our kids experience everything.
Call me commercial, but I love it when Jack wakes up from his nap and I hear him singing 'It's A Small World' to himself over the baby monitor.
If you have any questions, or want to know what other hotels I looked at etc, email me! I'll obviously have no problem telling you about it AT LENGTH.