Now, before I begin, I want to remind you that my tips are for those who travel and plan to spend all day at the park. A lot of locals, and even some non-locals, will head to Disney for just a few hours in the morning. These tips don't really apply to them. Those of us that travel far for Disney tend to stay at the park from early morning until late in the evening. These are tips for surviving that kind of trip to the park with a toddler.
1) Try, if possible, to visit the park in the "off season." The park will be a lot less crowded. This has a lot of benefits for families with toddlers. Shorter lines, kids can run/walk around a little more, and they won't be quite as overwhelmed by all the people. The off season is January and February, late April to early May, and then again after Labor Day until the week of Thanksgiving. The first 2 weeks of December are much less busy then later in December.
2) Strollers and child carriers (like the Ergo) are your friend. While I am not a fan of strollers in general (I much prefer to wear my child or let him walk) they are a must for Disneyland. I actually am a bit hesitant to ever go to the park after The Goof has outgrown a stroller. Strollers hold all your stuff. Before the Goof, we all wore backpacks into the park. They were hot, and annoying. And finding somewhere to stick them on the rides was sometimes a pain. Since The Goof, anything valuable (DSLR, cell phones, wallet) comes on rides, but everything else can stay in the stroller. So nice. And no more wearing backpacks. It is also nice to have all the drink carriers, the tray for the Goof, and we have the Goof nap in the stroller.
As for carriers, I love having them in the park. For a whole bunch of answers to questions about wearing a baby or toddler in the park, you can check out my interview with Jillian from Paxbaby (a babycarrier store). The reason I like to have my Ergo in the park- LINES! Sometimes lines can be long. Especially for toddler friendly rides that often do not have fast passes. If the Goof is getting tired, I can put him in the Ergo. My hands stay free, he is "contained" and gets to rest his legs as well.
3) Don't skip naps! Just don't do it! If your child naps, put them down for a nap. If this means heading back to the hotel- then do it. For us, we use our stroller to nap. We put the Goof in the 5 point harness, lay him back, then make sure he is covered. (see picture above). After he is asleep we crack it open so he gets some fresh air. Then we either sit and rest ourselves, rotate on and off rides (remember, we usually have other "adults" with us), or go through the shops. It is really important not to skip naps. Disney is already a prime place for meltdowns and temper tantrums. Add sleep deprivation to that, it is a nasty mix. This is probably the most important tip I can give you for your Disney trip with your little one. We also put the Goof to bed often if we will be there too late. If we are not going to be back the next morning, we sometimes let him stay up for the fireworks, fantasmic, or another show, but if we are going to be there again in the morning, he is sleeping by 8 or 9 pm. Basically- try and keep close to the same sleep schedule as they would have on a normal day.
4) Have plenty of snacks and water! And I mean plenty. Because it will be the day in the park you only pack granola bars because the last 2 days in the park that is all Johnny would eat, that he will decide he is on a granola bar strike and needs a snack RIGHT NOW! (Trust me on this.) Also, water. Have plenty on hand in a water bottle (or two or three- see why we like the stroller). Take that water bottle and a small snack with you in line for rides. Standing and waiting in line always seems to remind kids that they are both hungry and thirsty. (This tip goes for all ages, not just toddlers.) You can read about my favorite snacks for the park HERE.
5) Have extras of clothes, diapers, wipes, everything. Don't pack light when it comes to your kid. The day you think he won't need an extra set of clothes is the day that he spills something sticky all over himself. The day you bring the exact amount of diapers, is the day he finds the splash park in Bugs Land while wearing the last one. We bring a change of clothes for the day (more if newly potty trained) and then clothes to change into at night (because it does get cool after the sun sets), plus 2 sweaters/jackets. I always bring an extra set of shoes (in case they get wet, or he kicks them off and I lose them) and socks. Other things I suggest having- kid sunscreen, kid sunglasses, hat, a blanket, tissues, and if any allergies- benadryl.
6) Don't expect your kids to love the characters, and don't force them near them. True, you may luck out and have a kid like The Goof who loves the characters and has zero fear, but for a lot of kids, this is not the case. Even kids who are not scared are still weary. Don't force a child to touch a character or be right next to them. See if they are willing to get a picture if mom or dad is in it with them, but don't force it. In the long run, this can do more harm then good. While in line, if your child seems nervous, show her how all the other kids are saying hi. Sound excited with your voice. It will help ease their fears.
7) Remember to make the trip fun for the toddler. If you have older children with you, it is so easy to forget the toddler wants to do more than sit in the stroller while older kids and parents rotate on and off the big rides. Instead of sticking the toddler in the stroller, take him to another attraction that is age appropriate nearby. In Disneyland at Splash Mountain, the adult with the toddler can hit up Winnie the Pooh. Space Mountain or Star Tours- take him on Finding Nemo or Buzz Lightyear. There is usually SOMETHING near by that you can take a toddler on/to while others do big rides.
8) Simple Entertainment. No matter how much you want to just run from attraction to attraction and ride to ride, you will have some down time. While waiting during bathroom breaks, while waiting in line to get in to the park, and so much more. Find an item of simple entertainment for your child. For The Goof, this is usually a balloon. Yes, I know the balloons are expensive (I believe $12) but if you will be in the park for a few days, there are so many benefits. First, they keep the child entertained. Second, they make it easier to spot your stroller compared to the one that looks a lot like it. Finally, if you get it the first day, you can probably get away with not bringing it home. Also, if your balloon pops, deflates, etc, simply take it to a cast member that is selling balloons and exchange it for another one.
9) Be flexible. Remember that schedule for rides I mentioned someone having....don't do that. Even if that is just the kind of person you are...don't do it. Slow down, enjoy the park with your child. See it through their eyes for a change. Disneyland has changed so much for us with having the Goof. Before we rushed from one ride to the next and barely took in everything going on around us. Now, it is just so much fun to see what he gets excited about.
I hope that these tips help you survive the park with your toddler. And if you don't have a toddler, I hope this helps you feel a little sympathy for the parents trying to calm a tantrum at the park.
Do you have any tips you would add to this?