3 Words: Hotel character dining.
Hear me out.
I know what you’re thinking. “Little Jacoby or Cressida wants to enjoy the rides. How will we get the full Disney experience without actually entering Disneyland?”
I understand. It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that whenever a child starts to walk, their beleaguered parents must take them to Disney. Ignore the costs, the sunscreen, the hassles of wrestling the City Mini onto a tram, the inevitable screaming meltdown because little Heloise LITERALLY CANNOT NAP ANYWHERE BUT HER BED.
You are a good parent. You want your small fry to be happy, to have important life experiences. They do not care about your towering student debt or the physical exhaustion of carrying them through a massive theme park. They just want to meet Mickey and spend time with you.
And ah, therein lies the genius of the Disneyland Hotels character dining experience. Little ones don’t need the rides. The Disney magic is right there, and it doesn’t cost $110 a ticket, sunburn, dehydration, or hangry meltdowns.
Perfect Date at Disneyland with a Toddler:
- Children under 3 eat free. Yup, that’s right. Full buffet with mac and cheese, Mickey waffles, actual food you want to eat, and no cost if they are under 3. The much-lauded PB&J pizza at Goofy’s Kitchen deserves the praise, and there is a dance number. Plus, kids can wander around at a buffet and it is completely acceptable for them to get up from the table 800 times to get one more scoop of ketchup. Win-win-win.
- Validated parking at the Disneyland hotels lasts for 4 hours, so you get 4 FREE hours of parking for one meal. Free parking in Southern California is similar to the Holy Grail or the perfect hair day. Use your time wisely and go to the Lego Store in Downtown Disney so the petits enfants can build towers to work off their syrup high.
- No need to buy a park ticket if you are eating at the hotel. $$$ back in your pocket to buy them the Buzz Lightyear toy they simply must have. It only costs about $34.99 per adult, and again kids under 3 are free.
- You do not have to stay at the hotel to enjoy the character dining experience. You may want to after seeing the hotels. The waterslides look incredible, though my sweet petite is still a little too short for them. Because of the way Disneyland is designed, though, there is actually no need to spend the hundreds of dollars on a Disneyland hotel. Anaheim and the area surrounding the theme park actually has tons of lower-cost hotels that are within walking distance. Do a quick tripadvisor search and you’re done. That being said, Disney has a way with hospitality and they do know exactly how to cater to the un-potty-trained set. Do what is best for you.
- Breakfast starts early. Not something my pre-child self would have valued, but now that my little munchkin routinely wakes up with the roosters, I am grateful for anything that begins before 8 AM. Breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen runs 7 AM-130 pm, at PCH Grill they are open 7-1130. The Chip n Dale Critter Breakfast at the Grand Californian is 7-1130, but on weekends and some holidays they also offer brunch from 1130-2. Characters appear at both breakfast and brunch.
Differences between the different Hotels
PCH Grill and Goofy’s Kitchen are probably better for little kids as the characters that appear are more recognizable (Mickey, Goofy, etc.). Mickey is really only guaranteed at PCH Grill. There are some more unusual characters wandering around the Storyteller’s Cafe at the Grand Californian, like Brother Bear and woodland critters, but they do have mimosas. Yum. All the restaurants have a buffet, and the characters come to you. No waiting in long lines. No secret frustration when you are next in line and Goofy needs to go on a break; or the 42-year-old couple in front of you spends 20 minutes trying to get the perfect photo with Chip and Dale. Everyone rotates to every table. Oh, and there’s occasionally a dance number. Get the little feet moving and teach your toddlers how to jump with Goofy.
In short, you cannot go wrong with any of the options. Choose whichever has an open dining slot.
If you skip the park and enjoy the hotel, you get to see the delight on their little munchkin faces while spending a (slightly) more reasonable amount of your hard-earned cash. I will not forget when we dined at Goofy’s Kitchen and my little V literally shouted across the room, “Pluto! Mama it’s Pluto! I love you Pluto!”
If you really want to experience rides with your little ones (and in all honesty, my girl LOVES amusement park rides), head down the street to Adventure City. It’s a smaller amusement park with a petting zoo and rides designed for the 2-12 set. They even have a Thomas the Tank Engine building area. There is no Space Mountain, but it only costs $20 per ticket and parking is free. FYI: Disneyland parking alone is $20 a day.
So head to a hotel, get out the camera, and enjoy the Mickey dining experience. Fair warning: this may lead to many months of little Suzette or Bernard asking to visit Goofy at “his house.” It’s all worth it in the end, though, right?
Where do you take your littlest kids on vacation? Do you have any money-saving tips at Disneyland? What is your child’s favorite Disney character?
Here are some other excellent resources for planning a Disneyland trip (or hotel dining experience):