Disneyland is for Babies… No, Seriously

Photo Courtesy of Disney Resort

Photo Courtesy of Disney Resort. Photo by Scott Brinegar

Being from Orange County, Disneyland has always been a part of my life. I went so many times that I’ve memorized the dialogue to the rides, know all of the incongruities, and can spot almost all of the hidden Mickeys throughout the park. I’ve been to Disneyland, Disney World, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. As a new father, I want to share this with my son; but is a year-and-a-half too young to go to Disneyland? My friends and neighbors say, “Are you stupid? Yes!” As proof by this article, I went – and boy, were they wrong. We spent 10 hours in the House of Mouse…and loved every moment of it.

The word “Disneyland” means many things to many people. I have never had a negative experience at the park, but I have always gone in knowing what to expect. As a seasoned visitor, I know where to be, at what times, what to eat, and when to leave. After moving to Oregon I still kept up on the latest news and updates from the park, but haven’t been to Disneyland California in some time; and, in all my years of going there, I never had to plan for a child. The usual trepidations arise – can my child handle the crowds, the lines, the stimulation? If my son wants to walk, will I have to tether him (leash…)? What if he gets lost? What if I spend all this money and he wants to leave after 10 minutes? So I went to researching to see if anyone else has had similar experiences. To my surprise, there were very few articles from people bringing 1 – 1 ½ year olds. Lots of parents bring infants, and then do parent-swaps at the more popular rides, using their offspring as the ultimate fastpass. Others brought toddlers that were 3+ and expressed disdain for the long lines and overpriced food. Even Disney’s public relations lumped my child into the “toddler” category, which I don’t agree with because their recommendations weren’t exactly appropriate for my particular child, but I understand that you can’t customize recommendations for kids across various levels of development. My son just started walking, doesn’t speak, and absolutely loves screaming and running around. Immediately, shows were out (he screams when he’s happy and excited so we’d be a disturbance), and I had no idea if he couldn’t handle a ride yet. As a visitor, I thought that just about settled it. What else is there to do at the parks? I found out that there were plenty of other options, and I had the most amazing visit I have had in my life.

Disneyland has always been about the rides for me. Get in, run like hell to your favorite ride, grabbing a fastpass to your second favorite along the way, and finish the entire park in 4 hours. My only tangents from that were to get a Mint Julep, eat at the Blue Bayou, and see what was in the art gallery above Pirates of the Caribbean. This time around, my only goals of my trip were to purchase a set of embroidered Mickey ears, and meet the mouse himself in Toontown. I planned that, after that, we would return to the hotel room for a nap, and try our luck at Disney’s California Adventure for an hour, and call it good. Now when you take into account the cost of tickets for a family, food, hotel, etcetera, 2 activities don’t make for a fun trip. But I trust that, if I just go to the park, the fun will find itself – I mean, come on, it’s Disneyland! I know families may be reading this thinking, “I’ve never been there, I need to plan my day to get the most out of the park in the shortest time possible.” It’s not going to happen. You can’t plan for ride delays, closures, surges of visitors, or any other mishaps along the way. Pick a few must-dos (but don’t get your heart set on them), and let the day work its way out. We did exactly that, and it was magic.

Helpful Tip #1 – Arrive Early:

Upon arrival (at noon), we realized that we were at the park the same day that the new Star Wars movie opened. That meant that Tomorrowland was out of the picture. Most of the people that were there had stayed up all night going to the theater next to the park that was showing the movie every half hour since 7pm the night before. Had we arrived early, most of them still would have been at the movie, and we probably could’ve snuck in a few extra activities. Noon was still a fine time to arrive, security was fast and courteous, the new metal detectors were fine – no one complained, and it didn’t slow down entrance for those that were selected (well, maybe a minute or two), and the ques for tickets were, maybe, 3 or 4 families deep. So far so good.

Helpful Tip #2 – When you want something, ask!

The park was already incredibly full, so we decided to just stick to our plan, and see what happened. As we entered, I wanted to go to Town Hall and get a “First Visit” button for my child. However, the line was outrageous. I didn’t want to get stuck at Town Hall, and then be stuck in the Main Street area during the parade, so I approached the cast member at the entrance that was directing traffic. I was informed that every store and restaurant has a stockpile of buttons for guests and we didn’t have to wait in line! We walked to the adjacent clothing store, picked one up, and were ready to get our Mickey ears. The cast member at the clothing store informed us that Mad Hatter wasn’t the only store that did embroidery – another thing I didn’t know. She gave us a list of stores, but I still wanted to go to Mad Hatter, as it has a special place in my heart. Twenty bucks and ten minutes later, I had an embroidered hat that encapsulates my personal legacy with the park, and establishes a new one for my child. Well worth it.

There were a few Mickey and Minnie sightings as we walked around, and people were clamoring to get their autographs and take pictures with them. Forget that – just go to Toon Town! Mickey and Minnie have their own houses that you can que-up in, and have a nice meet-and-greet that isn’t rushed, and gives the kids something to do while waiting to meet them. Other characters are in the area as well, and as Toon Town isn’t the most heavily occupied section of the park, lines are short and you can spend more time with them.

In one hour, we accomplished everything I wanted to do at the park…and my son was out like a light. This was the perfect opportunity for the parents to get a nice meal, while the kid’s asleep in the stroller! We high-tailed it over to California Adventure, and went to the Wine Country Trattoria. We had a wonderful time. The outdoor seating is shaded, quiet, and well-suited for a napping infant. Lunch was delicious, and they had the best Focaccia bread! After finishing our meal, our child woke up and wanted to nurse. As luck would have it, the nursing station was nearby Adjacent to the Ghirardelli store, lies a “Baby Center.” Inside, you will find a reception area, where parents and siblings can watch movies or play games while mom nurses, a changing area with (I think it was something like) 5 or 6 stations, a child’s restroom, a kitchen with microwave,  and a private nursing area. My child hates changing stations, and this was no exception. He cried and fussed; but a cast member swooped in with a sticker bearing the image of a certain mouse, and my child immediately changed his tune. While baby nursed, I got chocolate. I was worried about leaving the stroller, and I purchased a bike lock to tie up the wheels, but I didn’t. Strollers were left with changing bags, purses, and purchased items. Between park security, and other patrons with strollers, any person that suspiciously approaches a stroller has 2 or 3 people to answer to. After getting my chocolate, I went back to the stroller to put my camera down, and a woman approached me and asked why I was there. She was nowhere near the baby center, but when she saw a man with a shaved head and a t-shirt of an English spoken word artist (Scroobius Pip), she sprang to action. She only relented after I showed her my driver’s license matched the name and city I wrote on the stroller. So know that your stroller is relatively safe at the park (I’d still lock it and take my stuff at Pirates or the more heavily populated areas). The nursing area must have been nice because my wife and my son were relaxed and ready to go. We decided that, since we didn’t have any plans, we would check out the various “Lands” and see what caught our fancy. Cars land was amazing. The neon must have been such an undertaking, but they were as faithful as they could be. Just looking at the shops, taking pictures at the Cozy Cone with Lightning and Red (the firetruck), and the Cars ride – do what you can to get on that ride. The single rider line is always short, and parents can take turns marveling at the scenery while the other goes on the ride. It was the only ride I went on, and it was the only ride I needed.

By this time it was evening, and the neon really took my breath away. We leisurly strolled through it, meandered through Hollywood, and got baby a chicken dinner at the barbecue restaurant, Smokejumpers Grill. Great value, and a full burger bar made this a favorite of my wife and my child. Satiated, we headed back to Disneyland proper, and did some shopping. Just walking though the shops, and seeing all of the merchandise is an undertaking. There’s so much! Art, collectibles, jewelry, clothing, glassware – too much to list. We took one more leisurely stroll around the park, and then realized it was 8pm – dinner! For dinner we went to downtown Disney and ate at the Jazz Kitchen. Another triumph – music was fun but not obnoxiously loud, food was delicious, and we were treated wonderfully. There was a photographer selling photos, but he wasn’t pushy. He did see my DSLR and commented that it must have cost a fortune because… it did, and that was a bit awkward, but he was friendly enough. I would say that this is a tip, but it’s more of an insistence – order the dessert soufflé. Chocolate decadence.

After dinner, we popped over to California Adventure, and rode Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train with my child. He absolutely loved it. I guess he could go on rides after all! But, by this time it was already 10pm and we were ready to call it a night. Tired and fulfilled, we headed back to the hotel and went right to sleep.

For first-timers and families, Disneyland isn’t about rides; It isn’t about expectations and disappointment, and it isn’t about cramming in so much that you are fighting other guests for a better view of the parade. No matter where you go, what park you’re in, what country you’re in – it’s always about sharing an experience with your family. It’s about introducing your children to a place that you loved as a child, and allowing them to create their own memories. Just taking in the space, the ambiance, the characters, was worth it to my family. Granted, the tickets are expensive. But you are responsible for your own visit. If you have questions, ask. If you have a poor experience, let them know (don’t be mean about it though – if you are calm and polite, the staff appreciates it!). If you need anything, let them know. Disney goes out of their way to hire a wonderful cast, and they are happy to know that they are bringing joy to families from around the world. If you go in with no expectations, and are just happy to be with your family, fun finds itself, and a “short trip” turns into a very, very full day or happy memories.

Mark Johnston, a native Californian, has travelled the world with various circuses, sideshows, and arena rock tours. As a musical monkey he has delighted fans the world over. Upon his return, he has since founded the Atomsmashers Publishing Company, written 2 books in the company's Warm Horchata series, created a weekly comic strip based around LA's more "colorful" characters, written reviews, articles, and rantings under various pseudonyms; this has since culminated in Johnston being named Captain Fabulous by the Superhero Association of America.