How to take your kids to Disneyland and sort of not hate it: A parent's survival guide

Last summer, I was at a family wedding where a guest told a story that caught my attention. It was about a trip to Disneyland his family and the groom’s had taken when the groom was about eight.

The groom, my husband’s cousin Victor, was determined to go on the Dumbo ride, but the wait time was two hours. The friend tried to reason with him.

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“Victor,” he said. “You’re young. You’ve got time on your side. I’m 45 years old. I can’t afford to spend two hours in a Dumbo lineup.”

It didn’t work, of course. Disney is a land where the eight-year-old is king.

I could relate to this story.

For years, I have resisted taking my kids to Disneyland, because for the money, I would rather be virtually anywhere else. Happiest Place on Earth? More like one of the outer circles of hell.

When they were toddlers, I resisted on the very reasonable grounds that they wouldn’t remember it. But as they finished the elementary-school years, it became harder to justify saying an outright “no.”

After all, my own parents had taken me and my three brothers to Disney when I was 10. (At that time, of course, you didn’t have to pay the equivalent of a week-long Mexican all-inclusive vacation for a three-day pass for a family of four. And we camped at the KOA adjacent to the park, which shut down in 1996.)

When friends who live near San Francisco offered to drive down to meet up with us, it seemed like a good compromise. At least I’d have company in hell, by which I mean the It’s a Small World ride. I should point out that there is no alcohol in Disneyland.

But there were decisions to make. And in making them, I’ve learned a lot about how to keep the money-bleeding and general parental pain to a minimum.

If you own more than one mouse-ear headband or “I’ll be your Minnie/I’ll be your Mickey” matching T-shirts, this is not the article for you.

These tips are for the rest of us, the Disney-resistant or even hostile, who just want to do something nice for our kids (then make them pay for it in guilt and/or forced adult-friendly vacation destinations until such time as they leave home).

When to go — the make or break question

I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is to the success of your endeavour. What you’re aiming for is that sweet spot between uncrowded but potentially rainy and cold January, and the scorching heat and soul-destroying crowds of summer. If you do it right, you’ve discovered the true magic of the Magic Kingdom.

In consultation with a travel agent, we settled on mid-April — post-spring-break season for the L.A. schools, and prior to Easter.

This proved to be a pretty decent guess, but there was one problem. Disney still considers this peak spring-break season and charges accordingly. If we’d waited until the last week of April, prices would have dropped again.

Price aside (and I’ll get back to that later), there are multiple websites you can check by Googling “how busy is Disneyland” that will give you an idea of days expected to be quieter, based on local holiday schedules and past experience.

Our first day, a Friday, was not uber-busy, which is exactly what the sites predicted. Our average wait time for rides was 30 minutes or under — and given that there is lots to entertain you in most lineups, it generally flew by.

If there is one thing Disney does extremely well, it’s crowd management.

We managed to do 13 rides or attractions and didn’t even stick around until the end of the day (while I admire those who can stay from opening until the closing fireworks at 9:30, by 6 p.m. I was ready for a long-line helicopter rescue).

The following day, the Saturday, we got a taste of what busy really means. We went to the California Adventure part of the park and did three things all day.

Wait times were in the 90-minute range unless you could get a fastpass, but the fastpasses for the Radiator Springs Racers ride everyone wanted to do were gone by early afternoon. I’ll get back to fastpasses later.

Buying tickets without using a line of credit

Disney raised its ticket prices by as much as 10 per cent early this year, only 11 months after a similar increase last year, and another hike is rumoured to be on the horizon with the opening of the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction May 31. None of this has apparently had any impact on ticket sales, which is astonishing.

My plan was to go to Disney for one day, a Friday, spend two nights in Pasadena and see a little more of L.A., then hit Universal Studios on the Monday, thus avoiding the weekend crowds.

And then I discovered the cost of one day at Disney — $149 US per person. In other words, $800 Cdn for a family of four. There are no discounts for one-day passes, a clever way of making you spend more.

I did seriously suggest the idea of bailing out and sending my husband on his own with the kids and our friends, but even super-budget-minded Times Colonist news editor Phil Jang raised his eyebrows at that.

So, back to the drawing board. I contacted an online site that sells discounted Disney and Universal Studios tickets, Get Away Today, and spoke to a very helpful agent called Jill who, after selling me my $102 US each Universal tickets, shot down my one-day Disney plan, in the nicest possible way. Together, we looked at alternatives and agreed Disney’s deal (since ended) of $207 US each for a three-day pass for Canadians looked like the best option.

Of course, that was still $1,200 Cdn for the four of us.

The only way for me to make this kind of outlay and still enjoy myself is to undergo a Harry Potter-style “obliviate” memory wipe.

If you think about the cost, you will constantly be asking yourself: “Are we having $400 Cdn worth of fun?” This is unproductive. You paid the money, you’re there: Just pretend it was all free and the fun factor will rise exponentially.

Get Away Today, by the way, has been around for a while and is the largest wholesaler for Disney. It will match or beat any other deal you find online. Our San Francisco friends found a deal that GAT matched, which included two days at Disney and one at Universal for about $290 US per person, so they ended up paying slightly less than us, although they didn’t get the third day.

Which brings me to the next question.

How long should you stay?

This depends entirely on how successful you were at hitting that sweet spot — good weather but not too busy.

Everyone told me you can’t do Disney in one day. This isn’t entirely true — you can, but it has to be the right day. Our Friday in the main park we did everything we wanted to. If you’re OK with skipping California Adventure, you’re good. You will pay dearly, but $800 is definitely cheaper than $1,200.

My one caution is that California Adventure is actually pretty fun. It’s not just a midway-style amusement park. It’s got some cool elements and a 1950s vibe, with sections devoted to national parks, Hollywood and the Cars movies, along with the Pixar Pier, styled after a traditional pier amusement park.

We were there on the day of an outing by the Dapper Day group, which meant lots of guests were walking around in 1940s outfits, including vintage hairdos and hats.

For me, two days, one park per day, was plenty, although the third day allowed us to catch the rides and shows we missed on the first two. The magic factor wasn’t quite as high on our return visit, although we had a better idea of how to work the system. Which brings me to …

Fastpasses are your friend, mostly

Fastpasses allow you to basically book an appointment to do the ride. You won’t necessarily walk right onto it, but you won’t usually wait more than about 10 minutes. Disney staff have their own mysterious system for loading rides involving a mix of fastpass and standby queues.

The “free” way of getting a fastpass is to walk to the ride you really want, find the fastpass machine, stick your Disney pass into it and it will spit out the time for you to return, a one-hour window.

This is just a receipt — when you return, you put your Disney pass into the machine and join the fastpass queue.

You can also pay $15 US a day per person for a Maxpass, which allows you to do it all on your phone. I didn’t do this because paying an extra $180 US would have caused me actual physical pain and very likely bleeding from the ears.

The main down side of fastpasses is that you can only have one at once — even if your return time is in six hours. So you’re constantly having to calculate the best use of your time — if I stand in this line for 40 minutes, I can get a fastpass for another ride that has an even longer standby queue.

But if the fastpass return time is too far away, it might be better to suck it up so I can get a fastpass for something else later.

It’s a lot of mental gymnastics, although the Disney app helps by giving you current wait times. Often, wait times get longer as the day progresses, but not always. We sometimes asked staff members for advice based on their experience.

And of course, there is no guarantee that the ride won’t break down before you get to use your fastpass.

Still, it’s the best way to go, especially given that many rides are super short, which can leave you feeling ripped off if you spent 90 minutes in a lineup for it. You don’t want to walk out saying “That’s it?” Although you will — I guarantee it.

Food, lockers and other essentials

I was told by several people that Disney does not allow you to bring food into the park. This is not true. You can bring in a packed lunch, although they don’t want you to bring in a whole pile of ingredients for a family potluck.

A packed lunch is a good idea, beyond the fact that you’re saving money. When you’re hungry, you just find a nice shady place and eat — no fuss, no muss, no spending half an hour looking for a suitable restaurant, which, when you’re a group of seven, is a painful process.

You will also see families gnawing on large turkey legs, which are available on the premises for $12 US. This is very strange, but apparently popular — they sell about 1.6 million a year.

There are lots of places just outside the park to pick up lunch — drugstores, Subway, pizza places, a falafel joint. That way, when the kids bug you for ice cream or a $5 US box containing 15 cents worth of popcorn, you can afford to be magnanimous, reasoning that another $15 for the Mouse is better than $60.

For California Adventure, I packed some cheese and a small tub of pesto and bought a large loaf of sourdough from the onsite bakery for $5.50 US.

Another option is to stay in a hotel near the park and take a break in the early afternoon — eat lunch, swim in the pool — then come back later and stick around for the fireworks. This is a tremendous idea, if you can talk your family into it. I, alas, could not, but if your kids are youngish and still listen to you, it might just work.

If you go in April, like us, you’ll probably experience warm days and cool evenings, which can mean hauling around jackets and long pants. Luckily, there are lockers to stow this stuff and save your back. Unluckily, but somehow not surprisingly, they are $10 US a day — however, think of it as two boxes of nearly worthless popcorn. And unlike the popcorn, you won’t regret getting a locker.

Stay in a budget motel and don’t apologize for it

Just because you’re going to Disneyland doesn’t mean you have to splash out on a $500-a-night room at the Disneyland Hotel. We stayed at the Kings Inn Anaheim about a 15-minute walk from the park, and it was clean, nice and had a pool and breakfast, for an average of $139 Cdn a night (rates changed by day of the week).

If your kids point to fancier hotels in the neighbourhood and ask why you’re not staying there, tell them they’re lucky to be there at all — that your idea of a fun vacation does not include extortionate mice, jostling crowds of people in fake-mouse-ear headbands or a never-ending overhead soundtrack.

Tell them to suck it up, or the next family vacation will be a road trip to the Yukon. In November.

Take a day off in the middle

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, which is why it’s a good idea to set aside a day to appreciate other attractions in the LA area, preferably smack in the middle of your theme-park schedule.

Since our time away from the resorts had been whittled from two days to one, I was determined that we make the most of it. We were with another family, so we crammed two agendas into one, and somehow did almost everything we wanted to over two nights and one day while staying at the 1950s-vintage Saga motel in Pasadena. All our activities were free, incidentally.

• Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park on Mount Hollywood to see the Hollywood sign on the hillside. You can park your car for free and climb up to the observatory, where the views are stunning. (It’s also the site of the dancing in the stars scene in the movie La La Land.) The sign originally said Hollywoodland, which was — not surprisingly — a real estate development that began in 1923. It wasn’t all fancy, then, either — they sold small lots and large, to modest families and movie stars. Eventually, the sign, falling into disrepair, was taken over by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in 1949 and the “land” part was removed.

• The Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, which turned out to be a seedy and crowded strip rife with hucksters selling pictures of you with your own facsimile star (the ultimate selfie-generation souvenir), as costumed superheroes inexplicably capered around. For kicks, I stomped on Donald Trump’s star. I certainly wasn’t the first — it was by far the grungiest-looking star I saw. The movie stars’ handprints and messages in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre were pretty cool, though.

• We picked up a picnic lunch at Trader Joe’s near Hollywood and Vine and headed to the Getty Centre, the hilltop art museum, architectural marvel and gardens built from the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s estate and unveiled in 1997.

We ate our picnic in a grape arbour before boarding the shuttle train up the hill to the centre, a palace of dazzling white walls set against a blue sky, surrounded by rows of cacti and succulents, with a panoramic view of surrounding hills and downtown. It’s one of the most popular spots in L.A. to take a selfie, judging by the number of young women in flowing gowns.

Oh, and there’s art inside — as in, European masterpieces and stuff like that. Van Gogh, Manet, Degas, Rembrandt and ... OMG, you look gorgeous in that dress!!!!

One thing that is critical to the success of a day in Los Angeles is renting a car. This is not a city for transit — it was developed by real estate speculators not master planners, leaving a spidery network of highway-connected neighbourhoods.

It seems like everywhere you want to go, you have to take a 10-lane freeway (unless it’s the corner store — then it’s only eight lanes). On the bright side, u-turns are legal.

In summation

Did I enjoy my enforced stay at the Happiest Place on Earth? Actually, I did, more or less.

Would I go back? Not a chance. This is a one-and-done operation. Next stop, the Yukon.

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