Mar 18 2011

Disneyland without Kids

Before my husband and I sailed on Carnival Splendor recently, we had one free day in Los Angeles.  We debated at length what we should do during that day, and ultimately decided to visit Disneyland.  I know it may seem cruel to go to Disneyland without our kids, but we had joked that we might do just that, and were given the go-ahead by our daughter under the condition that if we went, we’d bring back “princess stuff.”

So, we went to Disneyland.  My husband had never been there, and I’d been there just once, half of Disneyland’s lifetime ago.  A lot has changed since then.

While the day was spontaneous fun for two adults, we were also very observant as we spent time in the parks, as part of our goal was to do some Disneyland research in case we take the kids there some day.  Going to Disneyland as grown-ups has some distinct advantages, and we were able to come up with a pretty concrete list of things we’d do differently on a family trip to the resort.

These are some things we learned about taking the kids to Disneyland, on our trip there without them.

Stay Near the Park

Our hotel was close to LAX, and while this was convenient for some other parts of our trip, like driving to Malibu and getting to the cruise terminal in Long Beach, it was quite a drive from Disneyland.  We were fortunate to find very light traffic on a Saturday, so it was only a 35-40 minute trip, but we wouldn’t want to do it during heavy traffic.  If we take the kids, we’ll stay in Anaheim.  Being close to the park will give us a chance to return to our room to rest mid-day, or at least get us there first thing in the morning without fighting traffic.

As we walked through Disney’s California Adventure, we noticed a special entrance for guests of adjacent Grand Californian Hotel, which would certainly be convenient.  Upon further research however, I learned that not only is the Grand Californian out of our price range, it has no rooms for a family of six.  There are many hotels near Disneyland, and we should be able to find a good combination of price and amenities that fit us well.  If we’re outside of walking distance, we’ll take advantage of hotel shuttles or the Anaheim Resort Transit bus system.

Look at Airports other than LAX

While LAX is the biggest airport in the area, it’s 34 miles from Disneyland.  If we take the kids, I’ll also look at flights into John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is just 14 miles from the park.  Along with considering flight prices and schedules, I’ll figure car rental prices in the mix, and try to find the best combination of savings and convenience.

Have a Plan

My husband and I were happy-go-lucky visitors and pretty much wandered aimlessly about the park.  If we saw a ride that looked interesting, and the line wasn’t too long, we went on it.  We walked past some simply because we didn’t know what they were, and in hindsight we probably would have enjoyed them.  We walked back and forth, zigzagging around the park, from Disneyland Park to Disney’s California Adventure and back.  We were not at all organized.

I’m already doing homework for a Disneyland trip with kids.  I’ve read The Unofficial Guide: Disneyland 2011 from cover to cover and found it to be very thorough in its assessment of not only the Disney parks and nearby hotels, but in its inclusion of Universal Studios as well.  I’d recommend it highly for anyone looking to visit Disneyland for the first time, especially for families.

If we take the kids, we’ll have done our research on the attractions so we know which ones we don’t want to miss and which ones we can scurry past.  I’ve already learned that I don’t do well with 3D shows, as I got closer to motion sickness in the Muppets 3D production than I did on a weeklong cruise.  And while the Haunted Mansion is a fun kind of scary, after going on the ride we determined that it might still be a little intense for our kids.  Those are things we can cross off our return-visit list.

A plan will also save our feet, as we’ll try to be more efficient as we move from ride to ride.  Seeing restaurant menus and prices ahead of time will also aid in our planning.

When Should We Go?

Planning any family vacation is a careful craft.  Work and school schedules, of course, are a big part of the puzzle.  For someone averse to crowds, as I am, it’s also helpful to know when the quieter seasons are.  When my husband and I were at Disneyland on a cool but sunny February Saturday, we found it to be delightfully uncrowded.  As we plan a family trip, I’ll be using the crowd-estimate calendars at to try to find similarly blissful times to visit.


For two adults on their own budget, browsing through the various shops was a pleasant enough diversion.  We were successful in finding something for each of the kids in the shops of Main Street USA, and found that shipping them home directly from the store would be more cost-effective (and a better surprise for the kids) than checking an extra bag at the airport on the way home.  As we wandered through Disney’s California Adventure, I found that I liked some of the things there better than what I’d already bought.  It was an exercise in restraint to stick our souvenirs-for-the-kids budget.  I also found a big, fun mug for myself at Paradise Pier.  The folks in the shop wrapped it up really well, but it created a bulky package to carry the rest of the day.  I know now that there are places where purchases can be checked for later pickup to avoid toting bags of souvenirs throughout the park.  We also learned that when we take our kids, they’ll have a limited budget of both money and time for souvenir shopping, and we won’t go into every store we walk past.

Keeping Up

A day at any amusement park involves a lot of walking and standing.  By midday, my husband and I were using the Disneyland Railroad not as an attraction, but as transportation to our preferred lunch location in order to give our feet a break.  Finding some shows where we could sit for a while was also a welcome way to spend some time.  Though it seems counterintuitive, experts recommend that families take a break in the middle of the day to return to their hotels for a swim or a nap while the lines and crowds in the park are at their peak, then returning for evening activities.  I’m not sure whose stamina I’m more concerned about–that of our younger kids or that of their parents!

Fastpass and Lines

I’d heard the term “Fastpass” before but I was pretty much clueless about it on our recent visit.  I’ve read up on the subject, and we should be able to use it to shorten line-standing time for popular attractions on a return visit, especially if it’s a more busy day at the parks.  There were some rides that we bypassed because we didn’t like the wait times involved.  And there are rides that we’ll steer our kids away from, especially if the lines are long, if they’re just Disneyfied versions of rides at our local theme parks.

Character Sightings and Pin Trading

I have to admit that I was as enchanted as anyone else when we spotted a character, and I collected snapshots of these encounters.  I did not, however, realize that character autograph collecting and trading of collectible pins are popular with kids who visit Disneyland.  Before we take our kids to the parks, we’ll have to decide if we’re going to participate in these activities.  On the one hand, they can be fun souvenirs of the visit to Disneyland.  On the other hand, they can be both expensive and time-consuming.  I need to think about this one.


There are restaurants throughout the park.  Some are sit-down, some are counter service.  Some are indoors, some out.  Menus and prices vary from place to place, and if we’re not careful, food can get to be a big expense in the park.  We’ll have to evaluate our options–eat exclusively in the park?  Pack a cooler and eat in the picnic area outside the park gates?  Take the monorail to the Downtown Disney area and eat there?  Have some snacks in the morning, then eat a late lunch and/or an early dinner outside the park if we return to our hotel midday?  Again, there are many options, and we need to weigh time and convenience against cost.


I know there are moms who are minimalists when it comes to purses and can fit everything they need for a day in a few pockets.  With epi-pens and inhalers that need to be with us at all times, I need to have a purse of some sort to carry the necessities and a few extras.  I found my Vera Bradley backpack (bought on closeout, of course) to be just right for amusement park trips.  It’s lightweight yet roomy, and can be machine washed if it gets dirty.


A stroller is a must for young children, but I’ve heard people say it’s useful for kids up to age 5 or 6.  At that age, there’s a choice between keeping the nearly-school-age child from whining about tired feet and having a place to store your stuff and being able to navigate without having a stroller impeding you.  For those who don’t want to take their own stroller, rentals are available in the park.

A Skeptic Converted

I’ll admit that I’ve been a Disney skeptic for a while, wondering if a Disney trip was worth the distance and cost, tending towards more natural or educational vacation spots.  My adults-only day in Disneyland convinced me that it is a happy place, one that my children would enjoy very much.  I’m looking forward to the day when I can introduce them to the magic of a place that’s purely for fun.

Have you taken your kids to Disneyland? Do you have any tips for success?

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10 comments so far

10 Comments to “Disneyland without Kids”

  1. [...] be checked for later pickup to avoid toting bags of souvenirs … … The rest is here: Disney without Kids | Travels with Children by minnemom ← Leaving the resort on the last day…. – PassPorter Community [...]

  2. Kara @ The Vacation Gals on 18 Mar 2011 at 5:07 pm

    What a thoughtful post!

    I would not even bother introducing your kids to the concept of collecting characters’ autographs. Waiting in line for several photo-ops/close-ups is a pain in the butt — too time-consuming/annoying.

    Same w/ pin collecting. My friend’s daughter who lives in Orlando has an awesome collection of Disney pins – but they have had seasons’ passes, she gets them as b’day gifts, etc. I bought my son one pin as a souvenir (his choice) on our recent Disney World visit, but there was no talk of collecting them!


  3. Heidi on 18 Mar 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Our latest trip to Disney (Orlando) convinced me that a trip to Walmart for souvenirs is well worth the time. You can find Disney brand items that are cute, fun, fashionable and affordable. But if you wait until after you’ve been in a park gift shop, they’ll look MUCH less appealing for some reason… even though they’re the same quality as what you find in the parks.

    We’ve never stayed at one of the Disney resorts, even though I’d REALLY, REALLY like to. :) There are some lower-cost resorts at Disney/Orlando, including one with a camping option. And for the time you plan to spend exclusively at Disney, you won’t need a car. At all. They’ll manage transportation from the airport to your resort AND you can use the monorail/ferry/bus system for any travel within the Disney complex. I haven’t checked to see if the car rental cost would offset the higher price of a Disney resort, though.

  4. minnemom on 18 Mar 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Thanks for the tips, Kara. I think I’d be much happier if we didn’t start the traditions of pins and autographs. My kids might still be terrified of the characters, anyway! I think pressed pennies are more our style. One per park, so that’s $1.02 and two minutes out of our day. :-)

  5. minnemom on 18 Mar 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Heidi, I’ll keep the Walmart tip in mind. I’ve read about a Disney outlet store in LA not far from the parks and thought that might be worth a pre-park stop as well.

    The Orlando resorts seem to have some more affordable options than Disneyland. My friend got in on the free dining plan last year and used the Disney transportation. Like you said, they didn’t need to rent a car at all. She was very pleased with the experience.

    I have other friends who have stayed in vacation homes or condos and appreciate that they can save some money on food. There are so many different options available.

  6. Carolina on 18 Mar 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Oh do I have plenty to say on the topic of Disneyand preparation…. :) and I have plenty of post drafts that I never actually finish and publish. Someday.

    So you’re pretty right on with all the observations. Anaheim is actually one of the cheaper places to stay in L.A. area because of the overabundance of family-friendly lodging.

    I can’t remember what it’s like to go to Disneyland without planning it like a military mission, glad you had a fun and spontaneous day there.

  7. darcie on 18 Mar 2011 at 9:31 pm

    We did DisneyWorld last year – I compiled my top tips here

    But my quick cliff notes?
    Bring food – they let you bring your own food into the parks – we did a lot of pb&j, string cheese, crackers, etc…Sure, we still ate in the parks some…but at least we weren’t stuck with their expensive, limited choices…We were able to just sit down at random benches and eat at our convenience…
    We also pre-ordered our souveniers…from the outlet store online…saved a FORTUNE! – Kids could care less! ;)

  8. minnemom on 18 Mar 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Carolina, I’m glad I’m on the right track.

    If we’d known we were going to Disneyland for the day, I would have planned more, but we weren’t exactly sure what to do with our day. When we woke up and saw that the sun was shining, we decided to go, and an hour later we were there. I rather enjoyed the day, unusual as it was for me to be completely unprepared.

  9. minnemom on 18 Mar 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Darcie, thanks for the link to your post.

    The food policies seem to be a bit different in Florida and California. WDW allows you to bring in your own food. Disneyland officially prohibits it, although they seem to look the other way on small items or allow things in for people with special dietary restrictions. With a food allergy in the family, it wouldn’t be stretching it on the restriction front.

    I’m going to look for the online outlet store. What a good idea.

  10. Susan on 21 Mar 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I’d love to take the girls to Disneyland some time — Kevin and I took our honeymoon to WDW, and then we took the girls there to help us celebrate our 15th anniversary. Planning ahead is the key! I did A LOT of research ahead of time — even had a route mapped out for where we’d go in each park, a plan for which park was likely to be least crowded for each day we were there, best places to see a particular parade or fireworks show, and which rides we needed to get fastpasses for so we could avoid lines. Whatever you do, your family will love it!

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