Friday, September 25, 2015

Disneyland with a 2 or 3 year-old child: Yea or Nay?


This is the first (logically, not chronologically) in a series of posts related to Disneyland with young kids. We've visited four times in the past 18 months (and have two more visits planned in the next four months), so I have lots of ideas and tips, and my readers have chimed in with plenty as well. Hope these posts help you decide whether a Disneyland trip is right for your family and, if so, help you prepare for your trip and enjoy it while you're there!

The topic for today: Is 2 or 3 years old a good time for a child's first trip to Disneyland, or should you wait a few years?

This is a question I hear debated all the time in moms' groups and among friends -- and you'll be surprised to hear that I personally had a complete change of heart as to the answer over the course of the last two years.

So, what are the two sides of this debate? Some Disney lovers claim that no age is too young to cherish a Disney trip -- that the magic of Disney, though different in many ways from what a 5 or 6 year old will experience, is just as incredible for a 2 year old. Others attest that there's no point in visiting before a child is 4 or 5 years old, able to ride all but a few of the "big kid" rides at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure (DCA -- though I'll just generally refer to both parks as "Disneyland" in this post) and not in need of naps, diaper changes, early bedtimes and the like. Moreover, the latter group claims, Disneyland is an expensive vacation -- why invest in that for a child who won't even remember it later?

Obviously, there's no "correct" answer here. Some families -- ours, for instance -- will have a wonderful Disneyland experience with a young child, and will be planning their return to Disneyland before they've even left the parks. (Heck, Toddler X will have traveled there six times before his fourth birthday!) Others will will find the experience to be average at best (miserable at worst), and will be turned off to Disneyland for the next eighteen years or so. How do you know which type of family you will be?

Although I can't answer that for you, I can give you some considerations that might lead you to the best result for your family. Read on for some questions to ask yourself before you book your trip.

(Oh, and if you do decide to travel to Disneyland, please consider doing all your pre-Disney shopping via my Amazon affiliate link -- it helps me out, at no additional cost to you. And if, after reading this, you decide that Disneyland is not the right call for your family -- well, think of all the money I've saved you! I'd love it if you'd shop via the link as well. Thank you!)

Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine if a Disney Trip is Right for You

1. Do you like Disney?

That's right, mom and dad -- I'm asking about you. Have you been to Disneyland or Disney World as an adult? Did you enjoy it, or was it a chore just getting through the day? Did you return home thinking, "I can't wait to bring my kids here some day," or "Please don't ever make me come back"?

If you haven't been as an adult, how do you remember childhood trips -- with whimsical delight, or as a miserable barrage of crowds and waits and grumpy family members and creepy characters in costume? Do you view pictures of those long-ago vacations with nostalgia or nausea?

And if you've never been to either Disneyland or Disney World at all, how do you feel when you see pictures or hear friends talk about their trips? Excitement and anticipation for your own first trip ("I finally have a child -- an excuse to go!") or disgust and dread ("I finally have a child -- oh god, does that mean I have to go?").

How about Disney movies and shows -- do you enjoy watching Finding Nemo or Frozen or Cars with your toddler, or do you sneak out of the room (or refuse to let your toddler watch altogether)? Do you know the words to "the hot dog dance" or "Under the Sea", or could you not pick Buzz Lightyear or Elsa out of a lineup?

In my opinion, the answers to the questions above are the single most important determinant of whether a Disney trip is right for your family. You are the parents here -- your feelings about a vacation and your mood during the trip will have a huge impact on your child's experience and behavior. You know how when you're stressed or upset at home, your toddler seems to sense it -- and decides that's the best time to push all your buttons? (Ah, the joys of toddlerhood.) And you know how when you're happy and relaxed, your toddler is a delight as well? 

Well, any characteristics, behaviors, or inclinations your toddler has at home will probably manifest themselves tenfold in the charged (positively or negatively) atmosphere of Disneyland. If you're stressed and unhappy there -- you don't like crowds, for instance, or you hate cutesiness or branding or having little people crash into your knees and strollers crash into your ankles -- your toddler will pick up on it and behave accordingly. This, of course, will cause you more stress, and your toddler;s behavior to worsen, and...well, you know that cycle. 

Conversely, if you talk about your Disneyland trip with eagerness and anticipation, and you walk around the parks with genuine wonder and delight, it's highly likely your toddler will too -- and though you still may deal with some frustration and meltdowns (they're toddlers, after all), you'll probably return to the hotel each evening thinking, "How awesome was that?". And, if you're anything like us, you'll get into the car or onto the plane heading home and starting wondering when you can do this again (incidentally, Disney's parade theme song right now...).

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You see, Mr. X and I both love Disneyland. (That's yet another consideration -- do you and your partner answer the above questions in the same way?) We started dating in college, and our first vacation together, a few months into our relationship, was an (admittedly very irresponsible) mid-finals jaunt to Disney World. (Yep, we each had a final on Monday and one on Thursday -- so we decided to fly down Monday afternoon and return on Wednesday night. Don't tell our parents.) We returned to Disney World the following year during Fall Break, and hit Disneyland and the brand new DCA a few years later when I was working at a firm in LA. When our Virgin Islands honeymoon was canceled at the last minute in 2003 -- literally, hours before we were to leave for the airport -- by the imminent arrival of Hurricane Isabel, we decided to drive down to Disney World for a spontaneous honeymoon (hey, we had a week off and lived within driving distance -- what else were we supposed to do?). Every single trip has been a blast.

Even so, we didn't plan to take Toddler X until he was older -- we were both of the opinion that 5 or 6 was the best time for a first Disney experience, as we were envisioning our recent Disney trips -- full of Space Mountain and Splash Mountain and the Tower of Terror and Epcot (most of our trips had been to Disney World) -- which wouldn't be appropriate for a young child.

But when a work trip took Mr. X (and us) down to Southern California for a week shortly after Toddler X's second birthday, we decided to give it a go -- Toddler X loved Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, after all, and was a pretty flexible, happy-go-lucky kid who had no problem with crowds or characters. We decided to visit Disneyland for one day...okay, maybe two...alright, three, thinking that we'd return in kindergarten or so, when he was old enough to ride all the rides. 

And here we are, planning our 6th trip in under two years. Wow.

Want to know why we go so frequently? Because now we all love Disneyland -- I genuinely think it's an inherited trait. It is seriously Toddler X's favorite place in the world -- his "happiest place on earth." Everyone says that a 2 year old will never remember a trip to Disneyland. Well, tell that to Toddler X, who talked about it nearly every single day after our return, built Disneyland with his Magna-Tiles and Tegu Blocks, and started sleeping with his Mickey doll every right. Following three subsequent trips, he can still remember moments from that first one, and will ask about them frequently. When he throws a coin in a fountain, and I tell him to make a wish, he says, "I wish to go to Disneyland." When I ask where he wants to have his birthday party, he says Disneyland. Occasionally he wakes up in the morning, and the first words out of his mouth are, "Mom, can we go to Disneyland today?" (and how awesome a feeling it is when I can say "yes"!). He wants nothing more than to be Mickey for Halloween.

Now, maybe he would love Disneyland even if Mr. X and I had been nonchalant, or even miserable, there on our first trip, but somehow I doubt it. I think it was our eagerness and happiness that encouraged him to be eager and happy, and I think the fact that he is eager and happy makes him exceptionally well-behaved during our trips (seriously, better than he is at home on a daily basis), which makes us happy and eager, and the cycle continues. 

But what did this happy cycle start with? The fact that we -- Mr. X and I -- enjoy Disney. We expected that our kid would, and that expectation was fulfilled. If you and your partner truly enjoy Disney as well, I think there's a good chance that your kids will. And if you don't -- if the words "dread" or "annoyance" or "horror" popped into your mind as you considered my initial questions -- well, then my advice is that you not take your toddler. Seriously, find another vacation that will be a better fit, or even just stay home and visit a playground or something. You will all be happier as a result.

And if, despite your own personal objections to Disneyland, you feel that all kids deserve to visit, then I suggest you wait a few years. When your child is seven or eight years old, his or her feelings and emotions will be less a direct reflection of yours than they are now, and he or she will be able to generate his or her own anticipation and joy in the trip. You'll (hopefully!) be a lot less likely to deal with the typical toddler behavior that could make your trip even more uncomfortable that you'd otherwise expect, and at that age, you might even be able to send him or her with relatives or friends who enjoy Disneyland a lot more than you do. So breathe a sigh of relief, and leave the Disney trips to those who actually want to go. No need to be miserable at the Happiest Place on Earth.

2. What is your toddler's personality?

There's no "right" personality for Disneyland -- I have friends who are energetic and outgoing, and friends who are quieter and more reserved, who equally love visiting the land of Mickey -- but certain personality traits in a toddler will make it more or less likely that he or she will have fun on a trip. None of these things is a deal-breaker, of course, but they're all worth thinking about. Things to consider:

  • How is your toddler with crowds?

    Even on its best day, Disneyland can produce bigger crowds than most toddlers are used to seeing in their daily lives. While the parks are large and the crowds do spread out, when you're entering the gates in the morning, waiting in line for rides, or watching parades or fireworks, you're likely to be in the midst of a sea of people. A toddler who gets overwhelmed in crowds might not be happy.

    Consider how your toddler feels at crowded malls, for example, or indoor play places like Billy Beez, or amusement parks close to home (Gilroy Gardens, Happy Hollow) in evaluating how he or she will do at Disney. Does she charge right into any crowd, or get nervous and hang close to mama? Does the presence of a bunch of other little people energize him, or does it seem to deplete him?

    While any personality type can enjoy Disneyland, parents of an introvert, who is more reserved and prefers quiet play, will have to be more intentional about making sure their child's needs are met at the parks -- perhaps with frequent breaks in less crowded spaces, or downtime on the train or in a show. And parents of an extrovert, who loves being around people, be aware that you little one might get hyper-energized at a Disney park, and even be prone to running to check things out without looking back at you (trust me on this one -- you need to be on guard).

    As you decide if your toddler will enjoy the trip (and, likewise, if you will), consider these personality traits and how they'll impact everyone's experience.

    • How flexible is your toddler in terms of routine (sleep, meals, wake up time, etc.)?

      There's no "right" way to raise a kid, and there's no "right" way for a kid to be -- but where your child falls on the spectrum of flexibility or need for structure might determine if Disneyland is a good fit at this age. Toddler X is a very flexible kid (which is really what's allowed me to engage on all the adventures that make up the content of this blog -- if he needed naps or meals or bedtime at a specific hour, there's no way I could do this). Other families we know find that they (and their toddlers) are much happier with breakfast, lunch and dinner being served at specific times, a well-defined bedtime routine, and lights out at 7:30.

      Both family types can have a great time at Disneyland, but the family whose toddler is used to structure will have to plan around that, and may miss many of the things that make Disney so much fun (parades and fireworks and the like)...or risk keeping a toddler up past his or her normal bedtime, and dealing with a total meltdown. At Disneyland, we often have to wake Toddler X up in the morning to get to the parks before opening (he always wakes up on his own at home), we feed him breakfast in the stroller on the go, snacks and meals can take place at various times, naps might start anywhere between 1:00 and 3:00 (and of course take place in a strange hotel bed, in a room that never gets quite as dark as his room at home), and bedtime might be 11:00. He rolls with that -- no questions asked, very rarely complaints. If he required more structure, our trips would be completely different -- perhaps just as enjoyable, but completely different.

      Think about how your toddler has done when other vacations or events have messed with his or her normal schedule to get an idea of how he or she will do at Disneyland. Has he been able to sleep in hotels are other unfamiliar beds? Does she need to sit down for a full meal three times a day, or has she been okay snacking through some meals, or eating on the go? What happens when a late evening forces you to skip part of the bedtime routine, or push sleep back a few hours? The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about how you'll need to structure your Disneyland trip to achieve the greatest level of family contentment -- and if the idea of a firm schedule sounds unpleasant, then it might be best to wait a few years, to a point where kids are usually a bit more flexible.

    • What is your toddler's usual energy level?

      Anyone who knows Toddler X knows the kid can go, go, go. He has a battery burning somewhere in there that never seems to run out of juice -- until he finally falls asleep, at which point he crashes, hard. At the parks, he goes excitedly from one activity to the next, for hours at a time -- hilariously, we actually try to find places where he can burn energy (like Tom Sawyer's Island or the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse), as if simply being at Disneyland were not enough -- then crashes hard for a 3 hour nap, before returning for another session of continuous movement in the evening.

      A child who is generally calmer, with less energy, can still have a great time at Disneyland, but the parents need to be sure to build more periods of rejuvenating downtime into the day to accommodate a more relaxed temperament.

      • Does your toddler enjoy new experiences, outings and adventures?

        Is your toddler a homebody, enjoying the comforts of familiar places and being slow to warm up to new situations, or does he or she charge right into every adventure he or she encounters? Both types of kids may love Disneyland, but the former might take a while to warm up to it (maybe taking an hour or two to cruise the parks in a stroller, before even checking out the rides, could be a good intro), so if you only have one or two days, it may be better to wait until you have a longer period where you could allow him or her to acclimate.

        If you do want to plan a Disney trip with a slow to warm up kid, perhaps plan a few months out and take some time in the interim to work on new adventures so he or she gets used to welcoming the unfamiliar, rather than shying away from it.

        • Does your toddler enjoy rides?

          Happy Hollow, Gilroy Gardens, Great America, the Boardwalk -- there are lots of spots with rides in the Bay Area. If your toddler is willing to try them out and has a blast, she will probably love Disney rides too. If they terrify him, the Disney rides probably will also. (One exception: if your toddler's discomfort is at the prospect of going alone on rides, know that Disney rides are all parent and toddler -- try some of the parent/child rides at Gilroy Gardens or the Boardwalk to see if that solves the problem.)

          A child who doesn't generally like rides might still like Disneyland -- after all, there's a lot to it besides the rides -- but unless you are okay just watching shows and parades and the like, perhaps wait a while before you head south, or you might be in for a good amount of parental (and toddler) frustration.

          • Does your toddler scare easily?

            Like Disney movies (seriously, is there one in which some beloved character doesn't die?), Disneyland rides are not all happiness and cheer. Like the song says, "It's a world of laughter, a world of tears. It's a world of hopes, and a world of fears." Many of the most popular rides -- particularly the original ones -- have scary elements, and a toddler who frightens easily might not do well.

            Snow White and Pinocchio are known to be scary (and the Snow White queen peeking out of her castle window up above the Fantasyland main square is creepy enough as it is!), the judge in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride has always frightened me, Alice in Wonderland has the Queen and the cards, Buzz Lightyear has Zurg, The Little Mermaid has Ursula, Monsters, Inc. has monsters, Pirates has pirates and flames and floating vapor heads, and The Haunted Mansion...well, that one speaks for itself.

            If your toddler frightens very easily, there are still plenty of rides to go on -- it's tough to get scared on Dumbo or Small World or Autopia or Winnie the Pooh (though those Heffalumps and Woozles are kind of creepy!) -- but you may want to just wait a year or two so that you can add a bit more variety without any nightmares.

            • How does your toddler feel about people in costume?

              Some kids are terrified of people in costume. Just a tip: there are a lot of them at Disneyland. If you're constantly going to be shielding him or her from Mickey or Donald or Pluto-sightings, it might be best to wait a while.

              • How does your toddler do in a stroller?

                A stroller is a life-saver for us at Disneyland. We always stay within walking distance of the parks, so we expect to walk to and from twice a day. The parks themselves are also huge, and if you spend a full day there, you're likely to walk several miles. This is more than most (all?) toddlers can handle on foot.

                If your toddler refuses to sit in a stroller, you may have a problem. Strollers at the park are great not only for transportation, but for downtime, allowing toddlers to tune out the sights and sounds a bit when they start to feel overstimulated. (We bring our BOB, which has a great shade that cocoons Toddler X a bit.) They're also great for containment -- if the crowds get thick or your highly energetic toddler wants to run off in every direction and you need a breakit's awfully nice to have a place to strap him down/  If your toddler will be too tired to walk, but will throw a fit if you put him in a stroller, you may want to wait until he is a few years older and can be counted on to move under his own power.

                • Is your toddler prone to meltdowns?

                  Some kids are prone to meltdowns when they get hot, tired, overstimulated or frustrated, and some kids express those feelings in different ways (Toddler X's is getting wild and a bit manic -- he's never had a fall-down-on-the-floor-kicking-and-screaming tantrum in his life, but when he's at the end of his rope, trust me, you'll know).

                  If your toddler has epic meltdowns at home, he or she almost certainly will at Disneyland as well -- and that can be extraordinarily stressful for you, as a parent. If you know the triggers, you can seek to avoid them, but common ones -- like hunger and exhaustion -- have to be carefully managed during a Disney trip, where your usual routine might be turned upside down. If the fear of meltdowns, or the meltdowns themselves, are going to create an incredibly stressful trip for you, why not wait a few years until this stage is over?

                  • Does your toddler get overstimulated by noise, colors or lights?

                    Like with crowds, some kids don't react well to places that are noisy or visually intense or too bright. Disneyland can be all three. Just something to think about when deciding whether your toddler will enjoy himself or herself.

                    • Can your toddler express wants and needs?

                      This is an important one for younger toddlers. At home, with your normal routine, it may be easy to anticipate your toddler's wants and needs and meet them before the situation gets dire. At Disneyland, where you'll be spending full days in a place totally different from your normal setting, your toddler might have different needs at different times than you're used to. If he or she can't express those needs, you may be looking at a very unhappy child. Toddler X was a very early talker, so during our first Disney visit, a few months after he turned two, he was already quite capable of expressing exactly how he was feeling and what he needed at any given time. If possible, I'd wait until at or near that stage before taking a toddler to the parks.

                    Again, no single aspect of your toddler's personality guarantees he or she will have a wonderful time at Disneyland, and likewise, no single aspect is a deal-breaker. And heck, sometimes the "bigness" of Disneyland will bring out character traits you never knew your child had -- for better or for worse. But remember that all children are different, and just because your friends' toddlers have had a blast on Disney trips doesn't necessarily mean it's a good vacation for your child. Taking some time to think about the situations and experiences your toddler might encounter on a Disney trip, and how he or she is likely to react to them, can help you decide if now is a good time to go, or if you'll be better off waiting a few years.

                    3. Is your schedule flexible, so that you can visit at uncrowded times?

                    The Disney experience can vary wildly depending on the time of year you visit (which of course impacts the crowd levels and weather). For a first trip especially, visiting during a terrible heatwave or a day with massive crowds can turn a positive experience into a negative one fast. A toddler who might enjoy a trip when the temperature is 75 degrees and the lines are short (making rides frequent) might be prone to breakdowns when the temperature is 95 and the wait for every ride is an hour. For subsequent trips, when you have a better idea of what your favorite attractions are and what you don't mind skipping, big crowds or unpleasant weather isn't such a big deal, but for an initial visit, it's a huge plus if you can go at a pleasant time of year.

                    So, how do you know the most pleasant times of year? Fortunately, there's a site for that, and it's great -- "Is it Packed?" has a Disneyland crowd calendar that categorizes each day of the year based on likely crowds using historical data. From "Ghost Town" (blissfully empty, to the point that you can walk onto many rides) to "Hey, it's alright" (comfortable, and still fun) to "Yep, it's packed" (verging on misery) to "Forget about it" (abject horror), the calendar offers a glimpse of what your experience might be, crowd-wise. We've used Is it Packed? since our very first Disney trip, and I've found it to be spot on. You can look out about 6 months in advance (right now the calendar is populated through April 2016), but even if you're planning farther afield, the previous year's dates remain populated, so you can glance back a year to see if, for example, the week between Christmas and New Year's is likely to be crowded (one guess as to the answer to that question!).

                    As a general matter, we try to book our trips only when there's a stretch of "Ghost Town" days peppered with some "Hey, it's alright" (which is the level for most weekend days except for busy seasons). We lucked out with timing on our first visit -- it was tied to Mr. X's work trip, so we didn't really have a choice but to go the first week of May, which happily is a "Ghost Town" time of year -- but since then, we haven't booked a trip before consulting the calendar.

                    We're fortunate in that we have that flexibility. Mr. X's job doesn't have any particularly seasonal upswings or downswings, Toddler X is still in preschool (which he can miss anytime), and, as you know, I stay home. If the week after Labor Day is usually empty (it is), then we can book then. If almost the entire summer is crowded (it is), then we can avoid it completely. We generally hit the parks mid-week, with travel on the more crowded weekend days. 

                    So, what times of year are the least crowded? Looking at the "Is it Packed?" calendar, here's a summary of what the year looks like:
                    • January: Packed through the first weekend with holiday crowds, light crowds through the following week, then "Ghost Town" Mondays-Thursdays for the rest of the month, with heavy crowds on MLK weekend and light crowds other weekends. (Incidentally, this is when we're planning our first trip of 2016.)
                    • February: Lightly crowded the first two weeks (up until Valentine's Day and its related weekend, when it's packed), packed for Presidents' Day week and related weekends, and almost empty the following week during the week.
                    • March: Quiet on weekdays for the first week, but PACKED every weekend and even weekdays for the rest of the month, as spring breakers take advantage of one of the best times of the year, weather-wise, for a Disney trip.
                    • April: Packed for the first few weeks (more spring break -- this will vary somewhat depending on the date of Easter) and on weekends, but the last two weeks it's lightly-crowded to empty on weekdays, and that carries into early May.
                    • May: For the first two weeks, excepting Saturdays, it's either at "Ghost Town" status or very lightly crowded (we've had two early May trips, in 2014 and 2015, and both have been great). Then, as schools start to get out and summer vacation travel begins, watch out! Memorial Day weekend, the park reaches "Forget about it" status, and then it's packed through the second or third weeks of August. Temps may also spike in mid to late May, and when combined with crowds, that's a bad thing.
                    • June - July: As you can expect, it's packed, with 4th of July weekend and a couple other days reaching "Forget about it" status. And boy, can temperatures soar!
                    • August - September: Crowded for the first few weeks of August, but then school starts, and ka-pow! Peace and quiet! Weekdays during the last week of August and all of September (excepting Labor Day weekend and a day before/after) are either "Ghost Town" or "Hey, it's alright", though the weekends are packed. (We can attest to the Ghost Town Status of the week after Labor Day -- though the lack of crowds was somewhat negated by the 100 degree temps.)
                    • October: Generally "Hey, it's alright" on weekdays and "Yep, it's packed" on weekends (and a few Thursdays and Fridays around Fall Breaks) -- but with some of the best weather you'll find all year, and Halloween decor to boot!
                    • November: Quiet weekdays the first three weeks and packed weekends, leading up to a full "Forget About It" week over Thanksgiving (though Thanksgiving itself is slightly less crowded).
                    • December: Quiet weekdays the first two weeks and packed weekends, packed the third week, and full out "Forget about it" status the final two weeks of the year. If you can visit during those first few weeks, it's great, 'cause you catch Christmas decor without the crowds.

                    If your schedule is not flexible (you have an older child in school already, or you're a teacher, for example), and your only realistic times for a visit are during "It's packed" -- or, god forbid, "Forget about it" -- days, don't despair -- you can still have a great time! Expectation management will be huge though, as you can't expect a toddler to wait in a 25 minute line for a 1 minute ride, and then do it again a few minutes later. Places like Tom Sawyer's Island or Toontown are great for toddler activity when it's packed, with a few rides interspersed.

                    If you do really want to visit, and you can't go any time other than the "It's packed" or "Forget about it" seasons (almost all of which are tied to school holidays), I'd recommend picking one of the fall/winter/spring holidays (excepting the two weeks around Christmas) to visit, rather than the summer. Obviously any time schools are out, it's going to be more crowded, but crowds can be tolerable if they're not accompanied by 90 degree temperatures (or worse!). Fall break (Columbus Day or Veterans' Day), MLK day weekend, Presidents' Week or Spring Break will be better than Memorial Day, 4th of July or Labor Day, in terms of the crowd/heat balance.

                    One final note: Disney knows when crowds are high, and when they're low. The misery of a packed park is usually balanced out by longer hours, more parades and fireworks, etc. Some of the times we've gone, when it's been empty, the parks open far later in the morning (on our recent trip, the parks opened at 10:00 a.m. most days -- I would have loved to have been there at 8:00) and close far earlier in the evening (on our recent trip, Disneyland closed at 8 p.m. on two nights, and stayed open 'til 11:00 only on Friday). For us, the lack of crowds matters more than the shorter hours -- I've never felt like we haven't gotten enough Disney in on the shorter days -- but if you do need to go at a more crowded time of year, do know that there are some benefits (though things like later hours might not be much of a benefit with a toddler).

                    4. What do you want to get out of the trip?

                    Before you book a Disney trip with your toddler, take a minute to ask yourself what you'd like to get out of it -- in other words, why do you want to visit Disneyland? There's no wrong answer, of course -- the parent who wants to ride Space Mountain or Radiator Springs Racers and check out the late-night parades and fireworks isn't selfish, anymore than the one who's willing to forego any "adult" fun and just focus on her toddler's wants is a martyr. They're just parents with two different sets of desires and expectations for a specific trip, and thinking about where you fall on this spectrum might help you decide if taking your 2 or 3 year old to Disneyland is a good idea, and if so, how to structure the trip.

                    If you fall into the first group, don't worry -- your desire to check out some of the "big kid" attractions is not totally incompatible with a great first trip with a toddler. There are plenty of solutions that will allow those two to co-exist -- bringing along family or friends, for example, so that some adults can break off for adult time, or hitting the rides by yourself while your toddler naps or eats with your spouse -- but you may decide that it's best to just wait until your child hits the 40" mark (usually at 3-4 years) that allows them to get on almost every ride at Disneyland (a few are 42" and one is 46", but you can find plenty of thrills once you hit 40"). That way you won't have the sense that your child's wants and yours are at cross-purposes throughout the trip.

                    If you're in the second group, then go ahead and plan a trip with your two or three year old -- you'll have a blast riding the myriad all-age rides at the park and taking in some of the shows and attractions. At the same time, though, be sure to manage your expectations. If your whole trip is devoted to making sure your toddler has an absolutely perfect time, how are you going to feel if your toddler's experience is not so perfect? Toddlers are unpredictable, and are often not the best communicators -- despite your willingness to ride Winnie the Pooh ten times in a row, your toddler still might have a meltdown, and that could be incredibly frustrating. I'm definitely not saying not to go -- I'm just saying to take a moment beforehand to manage your own expectations for the trip so that everybody can have the best possible time.

                    And One Question You Shouldn't Worry About

                    Is anyone thinking that there's one very important question that I forgot to pose above? You know, that one question that seems to drive more discussions than any other about whether to plan a family trip to Disneyland: How old is your child?

                    I didn't pose that question, because I don't think it's determinative. Everyone talks about the "perfect age" for a first Disney trip, and I simply don't think there is one. Yes, I do think there is a minimum -- I wouldn't plan a Disney trip just to take a child who could not walk or talk yet -- but after, say, two years old, I think the child's and parents' interests and personalities are so much more relevant than the child's age. 

                    Toddler X is a kid who would have loved his first Disney trip at any age -- it's just in his personality, and ours. Another child -- maybe one who dislikes crowds, who gets overstimulated easily, who does best with routine or structure, or who doesn't enjoy rides -- might not enjoy Disneyland even at that age 5 or 6, which many people seem to see as the "perfect age" to visit Disney.

                    Here's how I see it: the "perfect age" is the age at which your child will have fun at Disneyland, and you, the parents, are eager to go. 

                    The "perfect age" isn't necessarily the age at which your child can ride every ride. Disney has dozens of rides and attractions with no height limits at all -- in fact, there are very few that a toddler can't ride. Many of the toddler-friendly rides are absolute gems (and almost all have shorter waits than the big attractions) -- when the bigger rides are out of the picture, you get to cherish the smaller ones.

                    We actually had a bittersweet moment during our most recent trip, as Toddler X stood next to the measuring pole at Splash Mountain and almost reached it. We realized that by January (our next family trip -- the upcoming one is with a friend), Toddler X will have hit 40" and be able to ride most of the park's "big kid" rides -- Space Mountain and Splash Mountain and the like. Toddler X loves fast movement, and I know that once he experiences the biggies, Gadget's Go Coaster just ain't gonna cut it anymore. Gone will be the days when he'd get absolutely giddy at the thought of moving a Dumbo elephant up and down by himself, or be blown away by the excitement of spinning in a teacup. Mr. X and I are going to miss the innocent days when Dumbo and Alice and Teacups and Small World and, of course, Winnie the Pooh (seven times over a 4 day trip) were the focus of our trip. Our future trips will be fun too, but they won't be the same. I'm so glad we had our toddler trips -- if we had brought him for the first time at age 6, when "better" options abounded, Winnie the Pooh might not even have made the agenda.

                    So trust me: while there's lots to consider when deciding if your child is the right age for Disney, the inability to ride every single ride shouldn't be the deciding factor. 

                    The "perfect age" also isn't necessarily the age at which your toddler is forming life-long memories, which I've heard as a reason many people want to wait until their child is 5 or 6. A 2 or 3 year old is a sponge -- every single thing they see and hear and experience is absorbed, expands their mind, alters their perception of the world, and becomes a part of them in some way. Though your 2 year old may not specifically recollect the details of her first Disney trip 20 years later, a wonderful, magical vacation with her family, where she saw and heard and tasted and felt sights and sounds and tastes and sensations she'd never experienced before, will remain a part of her. In the years to come, you'll continue to tell your child stories about those early trips -- from the way he tried to pull off Mickey's nose when he was two, to how much he loved being a pirate on Tom Sawyer's Island when he was three -- and they will become part of your family lore -- stories to be told at graduation parties and weddings, pictures to be looked at fondly in generations to come.

                    And while it's true that by waiting until 5 or 6 years old, you'll have experiences that you wouldn't be able to have with a 2 or 3 year old, the converse is also true: if you bring your 2 or 3 year old, you'll have some wonderful and unique experiences that won't be quite the same when they're 6. I will never forget how, on our very first trip, 2 year old Toddler X ran up to Donald Duck, threw his arms around him, and refused to let go (Donald's assistants and the Disney photographer were loving it!).

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                    I won't forget how on our second trip, he spotted someone with "Mickey hands" on, decided that those were the only things he wanted in the world, and then proceeded to wear them for the whole vacation, even during nap.



                    I won't forget how he serenaded Mickey with the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse song in front of a room full of people, or how he panicked in the anteroom at the Haunted Mansion when everyone screamed, and we had to duck out a side door with our hysterical 2 year old. I won't forget the absolute terror/joy on his face during his early rides on Gadget's Go Coaster, a relatively tame little 30 second roller coaster ride.


                    These were special moments and reactions (which, incidentally, he does remember and talks about all the time) that were definitively toddler -- I'm pretty sure we would not have had any of them with a 1st Grader. 

                    The purpose of these anecdotes isn't at all to convince everyone that 2 or 3 is the right time to take your toddler to Disneyland. For some of you, for some or all of the reasons I discussed above, it might not be. But for some, it is the right time, and I urge you not to discount the idea of visiting with a toddler who will love a Disney vacation just because of some perceived "perfect age" for a Disney visit. The perfect age is whenever your family will have a wonderful time -- not just forming memories, but living the experience in the here and now.

                    If your child is at that "perfect age" -- well, Mom and Dad, start saving up, because it sounds like you are going to Disneyland!


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