Trip Coach: July 15, 2008
Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, answered your questions about theme parks.
Robert Niles: Good morning (or afternoon) everyone! Greetings from Pasadena, California, where I am typing this morning. It's 9 am here, so please, type loudly to help wake me up! LOL.
Let's talk theme parks!
Hemet, Calif.: We (2 adults and 2 children) are going to Universal Studios. What are the best choices to make food-wise? I'm taking a cooler with snacks and drinks for the ride home because it's expensive to go to a restaurant after everything we spend at the park. Thank you for your information, Dawn
Robert Niles: From your location, I assume that you are going to Universal Studios Hollywood, and not Universal Orlando in Florida. In either case, though, I would check out Universal's All-You-Can-Eat pass, which gets you, well, all you can eat at five of Universal's restaurants all day. You can buy the pass online in advance for $22 for adults and $13 for kids: universalstudioshollywood.com/tic_ayce.html
Dallas, Tex.: When do special discount packages make sense? And which is smarter-- to book directly on a theme park's website, to arrive at the gate, to book with a third party like Expedia, to use coupons at a grocery store? How can I save money? Thanks!
Robert Niles: You *always* want to have your tickets in hand when you get to the park. The biggest waste of value in your day is the time you spend at a ticket booth in the morning. You should be in the park, riding rides before the lines get too long. Plus, buying at home allows you to take the time you need to investigate all the options.
I almost always buy through theme parks' websites. They tend to have the best deals, including last minute discounts not available elsewhere. In California, you often can buy discount tickets at grocery stores (not coupons redeemable at the gate, but actual ticket.) Those can be good deals, too. But always decide and buy before you get to the park.
New York, N.Y.: What's the most interesting "immersive" experience out there, where my kids can jump in and participate? Something more than playing with the dolphins. I hear that the Men in Black ride lets you shoot at some bad guys. Anything new or recent like that? A trend?
Robert Niles: Well, under that description, I would say that Legoland California is the most immersive park out there for kids. I love attractions like Fun Town Fire Academy, where the entire family has to work together and cooperate. (My daughter described that ride as being like a tribal challenge on the TV show Survivor.) The Driving School there is another outstanding, hands-on experience that can be great fun.
But, yes, more interactive attractions are the trend in the industry, as theme parks look to appeal to video game fans, who demand interactivity. Men in Black is, in my opinion, the best of these video game-inspired rides, with great scenery, theme and shooting action.
Washington, D.C.: Some parks offer "line-jumping" services; pay more to get to a shorter line. When does it make sense to take advantage of that? Any rough rule of thumb?
Robert Niles: I just got back from Orlando, where we stayed at the Royal Pacific Hotel, on-site at Universal Orlando. One of the perks of staying at Universal's three on-site hotels is that you get unlimited "front of line" access to all (okay, all but one) the rides and shows at the two Universal Orlando theme parks, for no extra charge.
I tell you, that was the best value I've ever had in a theme park vacation, and I'm going to have a hard time going back to Universal without that perk. The key, though, was that the perk was unlimited. With many paid line jumping services, including the one Universal offers to non-hotel guests, you get only a limited number times to skip lines.
I'd try instead to visit the parks on a day when attendance is not that heavy, and to arrive first thing in the morning, when lines haven 't built up yet. That's a better deal than spending money on the skip pass. But If I were visiting on Fourth of July, or another busy weekend, I'd definitely consider buying one.
New York, N.Y.: I'm torn when I visit parks. On the one hand, there are more shores and street entertainment and parades, it seems like, but I always feel like, to max out my dollar, I should stand in line for the hottest, most expensive rides, because ticket prices feel so high. What are your thoughts about this, if any?