We’ve taken our two daughters to Disneyland several times. Our daughters are now 4 and 7 years old. The first time we went was when our oldest daughter was 2 and a half.
We’ve chosen to stay at the more expensive Disneyland hotels, because the time that it takes to get to even the closest hotels takes way too long. Especially since we wanted to go back to the hotel for a little bit in the middle of the day, to see if our daughters would take a nap, before we went back for some evening fun. We found that sometimes they were so hyped that we couldn’t get them to take a nap, and sometimes they just fell asleep in their strollers as we walked around the park. We still did end up going back to the room almost every day, just to have some down time from all the excitement.
The Grand Californian is probably the best due to its location, but the others are also pretty nice. The Grand Californian has direct access to California Adventure park, but even if you aren’t staying there, you can still cut through it to get into the park that way.
If you stay at one of the Disney hotels you get a magic morning (early entrance). Depending on the time of the year and the days you go, they determine which days will be magic mornings. Even on these days, tons of people will be lined up an hour or more before they let the magic morning guests in. We also got extra fast passes because we stayed at one of the Disneyland hotels. I believe these can be used for any fast pass ride any time.
We stayed at the Paradise Pier hotel once, and the kids had a lot of fun at the pool. The pool had a bunch of life vests free for the kids to use, so you didn’t need to bring floaties or anything. The kids put on a life vest, and then bob around in the pool. They also had the 3 story water slide, which doesn’t empty into the pool, but just stops. They only allow one person at a time, so you can’t go with your child on the water slide. They had a life guard at the top and a life guard at the bottom. I don’t think there was a height requirement, they just said your kid would have to be able to stand up in the rush of water once they reached the bottom. We weren’t so sure about it, but we ended up letting even our 3 year old do it, and she had a blast.
We would always bring our strollers, for both girls, even as our oldest got older. Walking through the park and walking back and forth between the two parks is a lot. Having our own stroller, meant we could pack stuff up at the hotel in the stroller, and push the kids from the hotel until we got back. Plus we never had to worry about picking up or dropping off the rented stroller, or someone taking ours by accident. We would always leave our stuff (sweatshirts, food, etc) in the strollers when we would go on rides, and no one would bother with it. I probably wouldn’t leave a wallet or electronics, but everyone parks their strollers with stuff in them, and we never had a problem with anything missing.
For our last trip, we only had one stroller. I looked into the rental fees, and it made more sense to buy one on craigslist and bring it with us than deal with renting. We were going to try to find a double stroller, but found out that it’s pretty difficult to navigate a double stroller through some of the parts of disney. It’s not impossible, we see people with double strollers, and joggers, but they have a more difficult time. I think one of the longer sit and stand double strollers would probably be the best if you have more than two kids.
Everyone’s food preferences are different. We would typically bring breakfast bars, and eat those most days. After going several times we figured out which places were quick and easy and had food us and our kids liked. Several of the food places inside Disneyland have kids power packs which i think are just goldfish, cheese, yorgurt, apples, and a drink. I liked the pizza place in toon town for a quick bite, and there is another place right next door with other options. The other place worth mentioning is White Water Snacks which is not in the park, but in the Grand California (sort of near the pool). They have things like a muffin or a bag of bagels and a few other simple items, almost like a mini convenience place would have, that you could buy at the beginning of your trip and keep in your room.
Generally we found the food/restaurants at California Adventure to be better for us.
We haven’t gone to the big sit down places very often, because the wait time is so long (even with reservations) and the food isn’t that great/expensive. If you want to eat at one of the nicer restaurants, either in the park or at downtown Disney you’ll typically need reservations days to weeks in advanced. We have gone to downtown Disney restaurants and at 5:30pm every restaurant wouldn’t be able to seat us till 9pm.
All the rides (except for 5-7 of the bigger ones) you can bring an infant on. We’re not that crazy about it, but we did strategize getting on some of the longer wait rides. On those magic mornings, if we had two during our trip, we would go do all the little rides first thing, while everyone else went to the big rides and waited. This way we could do a lot with no lines. Then the other day we would get in line and wait at the popular rides. The new cars ride had just opened last time we went. It was a lot of fun, but was difficult to get on. By 10am, all the fast passes were gone for the entire day and the wait in line was over 2 hours. The other ride which isn’t that exciting is the Nemo submarine ride, even what appears to be a short line can take forever, because the ride is so slow, and they dont have fast passes. So we would opt to go and do that first thing instead of waiting over an hour in the middle of the day.
Typically only the bigger rides have fast passes, so we didn’t use them until this last time (thunder mountain and star tours, which our little one was finally tall enough for). The autopia (drive a go-cart) ride has fast passes, but often they would say the line was the same length as the fast pass and so you would just be in the regular line and you would still end up waiting a while. The toy story ride in California Adventure doesn’t have fast passes and is usually a very long wait too.
Parent Passes – We only did it once, but we have friends that are a little extreme and take every advantage they can to get the most out of their trip. You can read more about it here since I don’t know much about it. http://www.disneymouselinks.com/disneyland-single-rider-guide.aspx
They have little shows where you sit on the ground in California Adventure, that are worth looking into. They also have an Alladdin show that is like a broadway show. Our daughters enjoy the Main Street parade and we would get a dinner and sit on the curb and wait an hour or so till it started. My wife would bring some activities like a Disney sticker puzzle to keep them busy while we waited.
We bought two general apps.
Magic Guide and Walkee
They are both pretty good. Both of them have all the food places and their menus. It’s worth looking through them to see where food places are located and what their menus are like, as well as getting an idea of where all the things to do are located.
The other app we have is “DL waits”. This app shows approximate wait times for various rides. It’s pretty good, and is much better than the wait times that are listed in the magic guide app. Most rides have a wait time posted at the line entrance, and that is usually the most accurate.
I also loaded a couple Disney movies on my phone so they could have something to watch during long waits.
I bring my little camera and take a ton of pictures. Our daughters liked taking pictures with the characters at the park. They have stations and you wait in line to see them. Occasionally you’ll see one out walking around that you can get a pic with, but that is not the norm. They have photographers that take photos, which you can see online and buy, but they are really expensive. They always let you take pics with your own camera as well.
We typically throw all our rules out the window and spoiled our kids while at Disneyland.