I just wrote this up for my boss, and figured, “Hm. Other people may like this information in a handily Googleable form.” These are just my tips, other people will have different tips.
The trick that’s worked for my family for sixty years of dragging small children to Disneyland:
Check the park hours. Look! Handy link! Get there before or at rope drop (park open). Grab a map, it’ll have the fireworks and parade times. A lot of characters will be at the front of Main Street. Go right past them (and the inevitable crowds) to it’s a small world. Get it over quickly, one because, well, it is it’s a small world and twere best to get that horror done quickly, and two because the lines can get three hours long later in the day. Disembark IASW and head immediately for Finding Nemo. After that, pretty much you’ve done the rides all little kids love that get massive lines, so wing it from there.
Along about noon-1-2-3pm, when the kids are cranky, get a readmission handstamp and head back to the hotel for a nap and some swimming pool time, along with dinner. Mosey back to the park after 6pm to a much cooler and less crowded experience.
Pack a carryall or stroller bag with snackyfoods. This will keep you from spending $4 for an apple. But spend the $4 for a churro. Seriously. Wear very comfortable shoes and socks. Hats all around, along with sunglasses. Apply sunblock liberally, the light colored concrete will magnify the sunburn.
Use Fastpasses for any ride that offers them. Collect them early for things like Indiana Jones. Be aware Indiana Jones breaks down constantly.
Rider Swap: Parent 1 goes through the queue and asks the first Cast Member they see for a Rider Swap pass. Parent 2 goes to the exit to the ride and waits with the children. When Parent 1 gets through the ride, hands the Child Swap pass to Parent 2, who presents it to the Cast Member at the line and gets to cut.
Splash Mountain caveat: Use the single rider line, which is accessed through the exit. While waiting in that line, Other Parent can take the kids on Winnie the Pooh (which has to be one of my favorite new rides in Disneyland, and I’m not all that fond of Winnie the Pooh).
Parades cut the park in half. They’re also a good time to go on rides, as the lines get shorter. Best place to watch the fireworks are towards the Plaza Inn.
Things to do when it’s hot and/or your feet hurt:
+ ride the train.
+ Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
+ Main Street Cinema (shows a bunch of the early b&w cartoons, air conditioning is fantastic, my favorite place in the park to hide as a kid)
+ The Enchanted Tiki Room.
+ Sailing Ship Columbia/Mark Twain Riverboat
+ Jungle Cruise
Cast members are required to address any female of any age wearing a tiara as “Princess” and any male wearing a pirate hat as “Captain”.
California Adventure is an odd duck, as they’re in the process of completely redoing it. However, the things not to miss are the Toy Story Mania! Ride (FASTPASS) and the It’s a Bug’s Life area for gentler little-kid rides. Heimlich’s Chew-Chew train, by the way, is my mother’s favorite ride at California Adventure.
Don’t cover —-‘s head with a coat so she doesn’t see the drop coming on Pirates of the Carribbean. This is directly related to my own experience as a five year old and is why I’m terrified of falling.