Even the youngest child can tell you that theme parks are some of the most magical places a modern family can visit today, and a place where lasting memories are made. Unfortunately, from a parent’s perspective, they can also be a royal pain in the vacation planner and pocketbook – unless you know a thing or two about navigating these storybook kingdoms. Luckily for millions of families planning to make the pilgrimage, a little more planning and forethought is all it takes to get the most from your vacation. Following are a few inside tips and tricks, courtesy of the experts at SELECT: Your City’s Secrets Unlocked (the fastest way to get to know any city and live like a local), that can help you and your kids get the most from any amusement park, and return from the trip happier and with more fun stories to tell.
1. Invest in a stroller
Packing along a stroller may seem like an added inconvenience up-front, but helps kids rest, conserve energy, ride in comfort, and enjoy extended time on the go – potentially saving you a great deal of frustration on the back end. Don’t want to haul one across the country? Many popular destinations now offer rentals on-site. While prices may seem steep at certain locations, the time and trouble they can save often far outweigh the financial cost – doubly so when you factor in fewer rest breaks and extra time to enjoy your destination.
2. Inquire about swap programs
Before visiting a theme park, be sure to inquire re: family or swap programs. These options may allow parties which include younger children to skip to the front of the line, or for you to cut down on time spent in line for rides by allowing members of your party to take turns without having to deal with extended waits. Leveraging these opportunities also allows you to pepper the day with downtime, so that some family members get chances to rest up and recharge their batteries while others rack up rollercoaster or free-fall time.
3. Leverage fast passes and line skips
Several parks now offer “fast pass” or line-skipping options which allow you to cut straight to the action without waiting in line, or hop on quickly after a brief stay in a VIP queue. Depending on the venue, these perks can afford your family unlimited options to skip ahead, or a preset number of opportunities to do so during the day at specific times. Some may come at added expense, while others may be built into the cost of your ticket. Others may come with companion apps, letting you shuffle appointments on the fly (i.e. changing times if you find your schedule shifts suddenly). In all cases, you’ll find them a godsend as you negotiate often crowded and far-flung destinations – and a welcome go-to should you find yourself visiting on the fly.
4. Stay on-site when possible
On-site hotels may cost a premium, but often can save you a great deal of trouble in the end by helping you save on time, parking, and premium expenses, e.g. fast passes, which may be offered free with stays on certain nights. Many of these destinations also offer special perks and incentives – i.e. an extra hour of time to enjoy the park before it opens to the general public – for spending the evening in one of their rooms. Be sure to call ahead when doing your research and inquire re: park shuttles, nearby dining and attractions, and family activities or kids clubs – many hidden upsides may easily help you justify the added cost of your stay over more value-priced alternatives.
5. Plan your schedule and route ahead of time
Got a specific attraction you can’t wait to see at your favorite amusement park? Chances are, thousands of other families feel the same. Luckily a number of helpful apps, guides, and maps available online can help you plan how to beat the crowds – and make the most of your time on-site. Make a point to study them before arriving, so you’re aware of how to best navigate the terrain, find food and rest stops, and enjoy surrounding activities that may draw less attention.
Don’t forget either: Several can even provide real-time updates on crowds and waiting times, so you can reroute on the fly. Inside tip – it often helps to start at the back, or far end of the park, and work your way forward as well, so you go against the crowds.
6. Prepare for inclement weather
You’ll be outside and doing a great deal of walking in a theme park – be sure to plan accordingly, packing drinks, snacks, water bottles, and other helpful gear as needed. Noting this, you’ll want to make a point to check weather forecasts before arriving. Clear skies predicted? Make sure you bring hats and sunglasses, and apply stocks of sunscreen liberally. Rainy day? Be sure to bring umbrellas and ponchos. In all cases, it never hurts to have back-up gear (e.g. bathing suits or a change of clothes in case you get wet, or hoodies and other accessories you can layer on if it gets chilly) on-hand as well.
7. Factor the cost of food and dining in
Don’t want to get stuck paying $14 for a hot dog or scrambling to find a last-minute restaurant reservation? Consider packing your own chow (if allowed), or investing in a prepaid dining plan, which may prove a more affordable alternative. You may also wish to inquire regarding all-inclusive options and vacation packages, which often offer dining plans as part of the program. In all cases, when budgeting for your vacation, both in terms of time and finances, be sure to research restaurant options up-front. Especially during peak seasons, favorite spots can be hard to snag an open table at – including more cost-effective options. Thankfully, as with other aspects of planning the perfect theme park visit, a little up-front planning it all it takes to get the most from your vacation.