Disneyland Adventure with a 3-year-old

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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!

 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).

Strollers are a great idea at DIsneyland
strollers really are mandatory!

The stroller is an easy place for kids to snack while on the move, and can hold an extra 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.  

Toy Story Midway Mania was a hit!
Loving every ride!

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.  

Toddlers at the Millennium Falcon ride
Brave kiddos ready to drive the Millennium Falcon!

 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.  Using the app, you have a great interactive map, you check wait times on every single ride, check height requirements, check-in with MaxPass, and even order food! Download it before you get there and maybe even get familiar with it.  You don’t want to be another phone zombie at the Happiest Place on Earth! 

And speaking of MaxPass, you’ll definitely want to strongly consider adding it to your ticket.  Yes, it’s an extra cost, but it will allow you to check into FastPass rides on mobile. If you have a ParkHopper pass, you can even FastPass rides in the opposite park, as long as you are inside ONE park and eligible to check-in.  It is a huge time saver and overall worthwhile, in my opinion.  

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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 don’t feel bad for your kids if you/they miss it.  The truth is, they don’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.  

Tow Mater Junkyard Jamboree at Disneyland
The Tow Mater ride is possibly my kids’ favorite at Disneyland!

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 Maxpassing, 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 3-year-old choose the ride sometimes. It feels like we always have our MaxPass rides scheduled, and we need to get to the right place at the right time. So sometimes the kid’s desires to stop at the amazing ride they see wind up getting ignoring. And after all, you are there because of them. Make sure they get to choose what you are doing sometimes!

 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 be 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).  

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. 

Carefully selected toy at Disneyland
A carefully selected toy, after hours of thinking about what they really wanted!

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 you 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!  

Cars Land Disneyland
Cars Land- just as magical as you imagine!

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, for my kids, they 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.  

Exhausted kids after a full day at DIsneyland
Exhausted, way past bedtime, but so happy!

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 were 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. 

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.

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