Theme Park Survival Guide

Want to skip the lines, avoid the throngs, and pay less than everybody else? Our insider tips will help you save time and money—and up the fun factor—on your next park adventure.

The same goes for lunch. If you head to a popular watering hole such as Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure between noon and 2 you'll find that a thousand other Muggles had the same idea. Instead, pack a lunch, or make reservations to eat early or late (check reservation policies; Disney, for instance, will let you make online restaurant reservations up to 180 days in advance). While everyone else is chowing down, enjoy some shorter wait times at attractions that are otherwise jammed. If your park features a midday character parade or a popular live show, you'll likely find rides less crowded at those times as well.

Other go-against-the-flow techniques include: heading for the back of the park at opening while everyone else is boarding the rides nearest the front gate; leaving the park at midday for a dip in the hotel pool or a nap, then returning in the early evening when crowds are often lighter; opting for the left-hand line at snack bars and souvenir shops because most folks are programmed to turn right (sounds crazy, I know, but park sharks swear this one is true).

As for time of year, most major parks are less crowded in September and October, as school starts up, and April and May, as school winds down. (But if anyone asks, I'm not the one who suggested you take your youngster out of class just so she could shake hands with Mickey!) Some parks have trends all their own: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay sees an increase in student tour groups from Brazil each January and June; Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are more crowded at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom; at its Southern California cousin, Disneyland, locals flock on Saturdays and Sundays.

How can my smartphone or tablet improve my visit?

If you remember that your phone or tablet works for you (and not the other way around), it can help solve some problems. By now, everybody knows they should snap a shot of where they're parked, but you should also take a picture of your kids in their park-visit clothes each morning in case you have to ask for help in locating them.

Smartphones and tablets also give you access to a new generation of apps, such as Disney's Mobile Magic and Cedar Point's GPS Park Map, that allow you to quickly pinpoint restaurants, bathrooms, and other crucial stops. Disney's app goes even further, providing up-to-the-minute estimates on wait times at rides and attractions. But Niles advises you to rely more on your own smarts than on your phone's. "Do you really need an app to tell you there's going to be a long line all day at Thunder Mountain?"

Should You Pay Extra for Shorter Lines?
If jumping to the head of those long queues at popular rides sounds like a ticket to paradise, express passes may be right for you. Here's the lowdown on what some of the major parks offer.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Basic park admission: $91 ages 10+, $84 ages 3–9

Pass cost: Fastpass is free. Yes, it sounds too good to be true. The catch: Passes are distributed at special machines on a first-come, first-served basis.

Perks: Skip the line within specified times printed on the pass

Six Flags Great Adventure

Basic park admission: $62 adults, $40 kids under 54 in., free ages 2 and under

Pass cost: Flash Pass from $45

Perks: A beeper alerts you when it's your turn to board select rides

Universal Studios Florida

Basic park admission: $85 ages 10+, $79 ages 3–9

Pass cost: Express Plus Pass from $20 (free if you stay at an on-site hotel)

Perks: Skip lines at select rides

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Basic park admission: $80 ages 10+, $72 ages 3–9

Pass cost: Quick Queue from $20

Perks: Skip lines at select rides

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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