*Stay on the Property
Proximity - Everyone claims that it's just as easy to stay at a hotel that is across the street from Disney, but I call BS. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, and because we ended up (by fluke) in the Fantasy Tower, we were literally 50 preschooler-steps away from the entrance to Downtown Disney. The monorail was only another 3 minute walk away, so you can hop on the ride and head straight to Tomorrowland if you wanted. We totally took advantage of this when we returned to the park one night after dark; it was awesome to be able to beeline straight into Disneyland without having to go through the gates again, and walk down Main St. for the umpteenth time. Our proximity to Downtown Disney also meant that we were super close to the shops, and when it was 10:00 pm and we wanted a Starbucks? Easy peasy, thanks to being RIGHT THERE.
Perks - If you stay at a Disney hotel, you get to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours every morning. This means that, prior to official opening hours at 9:00 am, you can head to the park at 7:00 am and wait a glorious 0 minutes to ride the rides that would normally have 2-hour wait times. We didn't take advantage of this, since we are late late risers, but when Little L is older, I fully anticipate we will make full use of Extra Magic Hours. Another perk is that you get discounts and swag; we scored some nice lanyards and pins (there is a whole other Disney world of pin traders, but I'm not familiar with it), plus coupons to discounts on dining and certain shops. When eating at a Disney restaurant is so dang pricey, 10% off is a wonderful thing. A third perk is that if you buy a big bag of stuff at a shop inside the park, you can get it delivered to your room (for free!!). No lugging giant plastic bags back, which is a very excellent benefit for shoppers like moi.
Parking - Specifically, valet parking. I highly recommend this, and while it costs an extra $12 on the day (vs. self-parking, which is nearly $20), it means that you're not wasting precious time trying to find a spot a million miles away from the hotel entrance. It also gives you access to bell services, who (for a tip) will haul your many bags to and from your room. Also included are extra parking hours; on our last day, we had to check out at 11:00 am but bell services held our bags and valet kept our vehicle parked until we finished riding the last of our rides.
Guest Services - So, we originally bought a 3-day park-hopper. Then, after having used up all 3 days, we decided we needed one more day to do Disneyland. Enter the lovely folks at guest services, who happened to be in the lobby of the hotel. We only had to present our tickets to them for them to help us upgrade our park passes. Again, easy (which, when you have a kid, is a huge bonus).
*Make meal reservations 60 days ahead...online.
You're only allowed to make reso's at certain Disney restaurants (both in the park and in downtown Disney) 60 days in advance of your visit. I had it marked on my calendar and set with multiple alerts so that, exactly 60 days before we were set to visit, I could book us some tables at my favourite restaurants (Naples, Tortilla Jo's, Cafe Orleans, La Brea Bakery, Goofy's Kitchen). Even with reso's, there was a bit of a wait time, but for those poor folks who tried to walk in, sometimes the wait was like an hour or more. When you want to maximize your Disney time, and you know you're already going to spend half the day waiting in line for rides, the last thing you want is to also spend another hour or two waiting to eat at a restaurant.
*Bring clothing for every possible weather condition.
This was a big lesson for us, because we mostly packed fall clothing, assuming that Anaheim doesn't get winter-cold. Well, it does get near winter-cold after the sun goes down, especially in December. Hubbs ended up having to buy a Quiksilver lined jacket for the cool evenings, and we had to buy Little L some more sweat pants since we only packed her capri's.
And then it rained. Like, all day rained. :( While we own like a dozen umbrellas and a ton of rain gear because we live in the Lower Mainland, we never thought to pack any of this stuff when we headed down to "sunny California." The end result of this is that we are a little more broke, because we had to drop some serious $ at the store buying low-quality plastic ponchos (that off-gas so badly that you will end up smelling like you were made in a factory in China, too) and umbrellas. Take a page from us; be boy-scout prepared for every possible weather condition if you do Disney anytime other than mid-summer.
*Bring a stroller (or rent one if you dare).
We didn't dare rent a stroller (hello, lice and germs and potential pee accidents!), but we did see that Disney has a lot of them for rent; theirs are even embroidered with Disneyland logos! Anyway, we brought our own Baby Jogger City Mini Zip, which folds up very compact and looked way more comfy to ride in than the rental buggies. The Disney parks are fairly huge, and for a little person, I'm sure the parks would feel absolutely immense. There's no way that even the most energetic kid would want to walk it all day long, so a stroller gives them a reprieve and a rest and an opportunity to save their energy for the rides and the line-ups. A bonus feature of strollers is that they're also great additional storage devices for stuff like your winter jacket, which you won't need during the day but will want to have once the sun goes down!
*Bring noise-cancelling headphones for the noise-sensitive
Little L had no issue with the noise of the people, but she found the rides themselves (and the announcers and music) to be very loud. Understandable, because how else would you hear the instructions above the other competing sounds? For a preschooler with sensitive hearing, however, this proved to be a bit overwhelming. We didn't have any headphones with us, so we would cover her ears for her during some of the rides. I think that before we return to Disney, we will definitely be investing in a pair for her to use while she enjoys the rides.
*Buy Disney "stuff" ahead of time
Okay, this one is a cost-saver. If you buy your kids some Disney clothes from Old Navy online during a summer or fall sale, then you'll have stuff for them to wear when they go to Disney, and you won't be paying $25USD for a t-shirt! The same applies to toys and other Disney items; their merchandise seems to be prolific in non-Disney stores anyway, so it might be worth your while to stock up on a few of these and save them for your trip! We pre-bought Little L a t-shirt, but in her case, she didn't really care about the Disney merchandise anyway, so we weren't in danger of overspending while we were in the gift stores.
*Park Hopper passess are for bigger kids
This was another lesson learned for us. We bought park-hoppers, thinking we might hit up both parks each day of our visit. WRONG. We did California Adventure on the first day, and again on the third (briefly, mostly to use the potty and buy some snacks), but the bulk of our time was spent inside the Magic Kingdom. In hindsight, it would have been better to buy single-park passes, and then we would have felt more committed to riding and exploring California Adventure on the day that we visited it. To clarify, with older kids I would say that a park-hopper is probably a good thing, especially since it seemed that during the "peak hours" at Disneyland, the rides on the California Adventure side weren't nearly as long. For littles, however, save your money and get single-park passes instead.
*Buy souvenirs last
If you're really wanting to stock up on Disney merchandise (I like their tea towels and kitchen/bathroom stuff), or you have souvenirs to buy people in your life, I would recommend waiting until the last or second-last day of your visit. This way, you will have had a chance to see all of the stuff that's available for purchase (and selection does in fact differ slightly from store to store, and park to park). You can then make an informed choice about what you really want to buy, and it will give you time to reconsider dropping $40USD on sequinned Mickey ears that you will likely never wear again.
*Have an excellent data plan in place.
The Wifi at Disneyland (and the hotels) sucks. While reception is pretty good, their Wifi lacks the bandwidth (or whatever you call it) to be able to support all the visitors that are trying to get online for free. In the end, I used my data plan while I was at Disney. It was way quicker, and saved my sanity.
*Use the Disneyland app!
Hence the need for Wifi (or data)! There's a Disneyland app that you can download for free that will provide a map of the parks as well as give you wait times on the rides you're jonesing to go on. We used the app a countless number of times to make sure that we could wait the shortest possible amount of time to enjoy the attractions. In fact, it was because of the rain and the app that we had a 2 minute wait time to ride It's a Small World. The GPS part of the app also helps with navigation around the park, which was a huge help for newbies like us!
*BYO Starbucks (Via)
While there is in fact a Sbux in Downtown Disney, that place is perpetually busy and I don't like waiting a long time for my coffee. Several other shops do also serve Sbux coffee, but they're few and far between. The room coffee is most definitely not Sbux, either. It's not bad, mind you, but for a Sbux addict like myself, it would have been helpful to have had some of those Via packs on hand so that I could get my fix without having to drop a bunch of $ and keep my family waiting.
And finally, the rides that we enjoyed and are definitely anxious preschooler-friendly:
The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh - (15x)
King Arthur's Carousel - (4x)
Casey Jr. Circus Train - (2x)
It's a Small World - (1x)
Alice in Wonderland - (1x)
Chip n' Dale Treehouse
Tuck n' Roll's Drive 'Em Buggies - (1x)
Heimlich's Chew-Chew Train - (1x)
King Triton's Carousel - (2x)
The Little Mermaid - Ariel's Adventure - (1x)
I would have gladly enjoyed more rides, but the line-ups before Christmas were fairly long, and Little L is really not into loud rides, so we did Disney at her pace and within her comfort zones. She is already talking about returning to Disneyland, so I am guessing we will be back in the next couple of years! :)