If you are planning a trip to Disneyland and/or California Adventure with your preschooler, you are in for a treat! Disneyland is amazing for 3-year-olds, and amazing for the parents of 3-year-olds as well. Kids in the 3-4 year range are big enough for most everything in the resort, will be familiar with many of the characters or at least will BECOME familiar with them, and will have the stamina to handle the excitement that is Disneyland.
On a recent trip, we got to explore Disneyland with not one, not two, but THREE 3-year-olds. All three kids had an unforgettable time, and were truly a joy to be with the entire time. Having that third – 3 year old there really gave us some great insights into the overall experience of having a 3 year old (not just OUR 3-year-olds) at Disneyland.
So here are our top 10 tips for visiting Disneyland with your 3-year-old, or preschool-aged child!
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1. Use a stroller!
I know, I know. It seems ridiculous for your wild and full of energy preschooler to be riding around in a stroller, but trust us on this one. On a recent trip to Disneyland, we walked nearly 12 miles in one day. We NEVER use our stroller, and my kids are generally full of energy and able to walk quite far, but there is absolutely no way they could have walked 12 miles. Plus, it allowed us to stay out at the resort later, knowing that if the kids got tired, they would fall asleep in the stroller. I feel like we will be using the stroller at Disneyland for a WHILE longer (like definitely YEARS).
The stroller is an easy place for kids to snack while on the move, and can hold a jacket, water bottle, or anything really. Plus Disneyland is MADE for strollers. There are tons of areas designed for stroller parking, and stroller theft is very uncommon.
Looking for a great Disneyland stroller? Check out our post on the best lightweight double strollers (ALL Disney-friendly) here.
In the photo above, we are using the Twin Triumph (double) (the single version is the Triumph) and we LOVE it- it’s lightweight with fully reclinable seats, a full sunshade, plenty of extra storage, and good up to 55 lbs per seat so it works great for big kids too!
2. Go on off season, if you can
If you are taking your trip to Disneyland with just a 3-year-old, or withOUT any school-aged kids, take advantage of the date flexibility. Disney parks are busier whenever school is out, so going during school months, and/or mid-week can mean a quiet park with short lines. It’s just easier for your preschooler to miss school than it will be once he or she is a bit older.
If you aren’t a football fanatic, Superbowl Sunday is typically quite quiet, especially for a weekend. In fact, the last week in January up until the week before Presidents Day are typically the quietest days at Disneyland. Also, after spring break crowds disappear, mid to late April, there is typically quiet until the graduation crowds start to show up the second week of May. As an added bonus, the weather is likely going to be fantastic by late spring. Check out this fantastic Disneyland crowd forecast for specifics.
Of course, park hours are shorter on less busy times of the year, but your preschool-aged kid won’t want to stay out until midnight anyway, so it’s hardly a con. And even on the shortest Disneyland days, you’ll have 11-12 hours to enjoy the park.
3. Know how tall your child is, and be aware of ride height requirements
Disneyland is great for small children because most of the rides do not have height requirements. But as your child gets a little bit older, they might start noticing rides that appeal to them. And some of those rides might have height requirements that you’ll want to be prepared for. Check out this helpful Disneyland height requirement here and keep in mind, MOST rides are not listed because they have no limits at all.
Most 3-year-olds are in the 35-40 inch range, so shorter 3-year-olds may find some fun rides that they are not yet tall enough to ride. That’s ok- Disneyland will not be a disappointment, I promise. Be prepared and don’t hype up a ride until you are sure they are tall enough to ride. There are so many options, and 3-year-olds can be amazingly agreeable at Disneyland. BUT if you need an emergency out, tell them the line is very long. Kids learn quickly that they do NOT want to be standing in line forever, so they will happily find a ride with a shorter line. They might remember later, but you can continue with your little fib as needed.
4. Know the rides, and your children’s fears
If you are new to Disneyland, take some ahead of time to do a little research on rides. There are a million great ride videos out there, plus the Disneyland website attraction guide tells you if there are drops, darkness, etc.
And of course, not all three-year-olds have the same fears. My twins have no fear when it comes to physical rides- drops, spinning, fast movement, etc. However, darkness and loud noises, or something jumping out at them freaks them out. On a recent visit with friends and their 3-year-old, we found her fears are basically the opposite; darkness, monsters, or any kind of psychological scary factors don’t impact her at all, but drops and spinning can be pretty scary for her.
Perhaps you know what scares your child. Perhaps you don’t. Either way, the ride videos, and a discussion ahead of time can help you understand what might freak them out. But don’t worry, kids are resilient. One scary ride isn’t enough to ruin the trip for them. Live and learn, and pick a better ride for your child on the next one.
But, once you arrive, you might push your child just the TINIEST bit if you think it won’t be traumatic. They might find that any fears are nothing compared to the FUN! Plus, part of the fear is the unknown, so repeating a ride makes it less and less scary. For many young kids, a ride that is a bit scary the first time becomes a favorite ride the second and third time. And don’t forget, many Disneyland rides are designed JUST for young kids. Those rides are not intended to be scary and are really enjoyable for toddlers.
5. Use the Disneyland app
It doesn’t matter if you are going to Disneyland with 3-year-olds or 33-year-olds, you need the app. The new Genie service, available this fall, will make the Disney app even more powerful. With the app, you have a great interactive map, wait times on every single ride, you can check height requirements, get in the virtual queue for Web Slingers and Rise of the Resistance, and even order food! You can even add your wishlist of rides and experiences, or even just interests (princesses? Star Wars) into the Genie tool, and it will make recommendations and a flexible itinerary for you. Download it before you get there and so you are familiar with it. You don’t want to be another phone zombie, or miss out on anything huge at the Happiest Place on Earth!
And speaking of Genie, they’ll also be a new Genie+ service that gives you access to the new Lighting Lane for certain rides. The Genie+ service essentially replaces the MaxPass/Fastpast service (with some differences). This isn’t yet available (and MaxPass/FastPass has been unavailable since Disneyland reopened), but I know we’ll add it to our ticket for our next visit. It is an extra cost of $20/day, but it’ll save tons of time and waiting-in-line boredom and frustration.
And I will say, having everything under control will really make your child’s experience that much greater. Short lines, no waiting for meals, no confusion on which rides the child can and cannot do means much less frustration and a happy happy happy kiddo. And let’s be honest- we are spending a lot of money for this trip to Disneyland because we want our kids to have the most amazing time ever!
6. Remember, 3-year-olds DO NOT care about the coolest/biggest/newest ride at Disneyland
Hey, you are the parents and you probably paid for this trip, so if you want to go to Star Wars Rise of the Resistance, you should get to! But the truth is, your preschooler doesn’t care which ride just opened up, or which ride is supposed to be AMAZING. Basically every ride is amazing for a 3-year-old.
And honestly, I’m pretty sure that in the mind of a 3-year-old, a ride that you have done 500 times and have memorized every twist and turn is the BEST kind of ride. I bet if you picked 3 rides, and did those 3 rides over and over for your whole trip, your 3-year-old would be thrilled.
(I can’t blame you if you don’t want to do that- I know I don’t want to ride the same silly ride all day long at Disney. And honestly, I won’t do that but it’s nice to know there is absolutely no pressure on Lighting Lanes, or waiting in line for the most EPIC Disneyland ride, or at least no pressure coming from your 3-year-old).
Also semi-related; let your preschooler choose the ride sometimes. It feels like we always have our rides scheduled, and we need to get to the right place at the right time. So sometimes the kids’ desires to stop at the amazing ride they see wind up getting ignoring. And after all, you are there because of them. Make sure you don’t skip over the amazing ride that you didn’t notice.
7. Bring carefully selected snacks
As you probably already know, Disneyland food prices are HIGH. But the other important thing to consider is that most of the readily available snacks or meals are … not healthy. Sure if you are paying attention, or if you are able to stop at a real restaurant, healthier options are certainly available. However, many younger kids end up so distracted and having so much fun at Disneyland that they likely won’t know they are hungry, or even be able to focus on eating until they are HANGRY. And when that moment hits, you may find that the closest options are popcorn or a churro. Maybe it’ll stop the hangry, but they certainly won’t leave them feeling their best. And if you carry on that pattern for a couple of days, they can end up feeling pretty rotten.
It’s nice to have some snacks that will fuel them up without the stomachache. We prefer snacks that won’t get smashed or have to be kept cold, like z bars (or any kind of protein bar) or dried fruit and nuts. If you are willing to put up with the hassle of packing a full lunch, you’ll be even better off, but we prefer to just bring emergency food supplies.
And when it comes to meals, it’s honestly easy for EVERYONE to forget about real food. Making a plan for one real meal (at a sit down restaurant) a day can help keep everyone on track, and give you a bit of forced downtime to relax a little bit (if you can ever relax at a restaurant with a younger child).
Remember, dining reservations are available 60 days out and they can go FAST. Check out MouseWatcher or MouseDining to get alerts when dining reservations become available. But I’d also recommend keeping an open mind- not getting the most coveted dining reservation isn’t enough to ruin your trip. We promise, you’ll still have fun!
8. Come up with a plan ahead of time on what you will buy your child at Disneyland
With gift shops at the exit of every ride, and around every corner, temptation is HUGE. You can expect your child to ask for a toy or a treat about every 8 minutes. And we all get swept up in the fun and excitement of it, so you’ll want to buy them everything. But, to stick with your budget, and manage your sanity, you’ll want to have a plan you feel confident in. We all know that if you hesitate in the gift shop, or you show any sign that you are buying the toy, and then don’t buy the toy, you are asking for a tantrum.
Perhaps you decide that your child doesn’t need any toys at Disneyland. Perhaps they are allowed one, or one per day, or whatever. Tell them what the rule is, and it’ll be easier to stick with it. In my experience, setting dollar limits just doesn’t work for younger kids. They will spend hours trying to understand the pricing of every single item, and everyone will end up frustrated.
One thing that might work is to have them pick out their toy at the end. That way, they will have seen every toy and only one or two will stick out in their memories as something they REALLY want. It does mean you could end up walking across the park at the end of a long day, but your chances are better of not ending up with some dumb impulse purchase.
9. Familiarize your kids with the characters and scenes
It’s so fun for your younger child to recognize a familiar character. So if your child is not already familiar with many of the Disney and Pixar characters, have your child spend their screen time on the days or weeks before your trip catching up a bit!
For example, Cars Land is super fun for Cars-loving kids. The entire area is identical to Radiator Springs, and will be immediately recognizable if you child has seen Cars a time or two. If they haven’t, they are missing out on some of the fun!
The same is true for Star Wars Land- the sight when you walk into the area is awe-inspiring and so much fun. Star Wars might be a tougher one for your 3-year-old to get into, but we wound up picking a few fun (non-scary) clips of the movies to show them. You gotta know who Chewy is! Plus we found some YouTube videos of Star Wars Land that they were pretty excited about. Or maybe they just wanted to be like daddy who is the ULTIMATE Star Wars nerd! Either way, they loved seeing it in real life.
And it’s not just the scenes. There are TONS of Disney characters out there your kids might not be familiar with. Many of the classics characters, even Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, may not be in the forefront for your child. And for young kids, recognizing the characters and sights seems to be half of the magic!
10. Their Disneyland Stamina May Surprise you
Typically my kids will tell me when they are done with a thing. Even with things that are super fun and amazing, the kids will just let me know when they are ready to go. So I expected that at Disneyland, they’d be pretty exhausted around 5 pm. I thought they’d be telling me they were ready to go. But as it turns out, that does not happen at Disneyland- ever.
There is just nothing quite like Disneyland! My kids never stop having fun, and never seem to feel overwhelmed (much to my surprise). They just keep going, super happy, until they fall asleep (and I’m typically not at all relaxed about sleep and nearly always stay strict on sleep routine, but we are all just happy as clams at Disneyland and can’t make ourselves leave).
So be prepared to stay a bit later. Bring warm clothes for the evening, and maybe even a blanket for cooler months. Don’t make plans to be back at the hotel at 5 pm because you just might not WANT to.
Instead, you might prefer to take a mid-afternoon break. If your kids are nappers, maybe head to the hotel for a quick nap. Then you can head out, refreshed, and ready to go for the evening.
Of course, visiting Disneyland with your 3-year-old has its tricky moments, but with these few great tips, you are bound to have an amazing time!
For more tips on travel with preschoolers, check out our post here.