I am thinking of taking my kids to a theme park for the very first time. What kind of prep work should I do?
Your planning—and fun—can start as early as... now. Build your kids' anticipation by visiting the park's website together. Get to know the map, decide what your must-see attractions are, and find out about special events such as shows, character parades, fireworks, and laser displays.
Of course, while you're getting your kids pumped up for their park visit, you also have to manage their expectations. Take the time to prepare them emotionally for the big trip, suggests George Scarlett, a professor of developmental psychology at Tufts University. A theme park is awash in eye candy that can test kids' self-control, especially preschoolers'. Let them know there are park rules, just as there are rules at home. They may need to stand patiently in line before they can board a ride. They'll likely have to wear safety belts or protective gear, and they'll need to keep their hands and feet inside all attractions. Because many rides have minimum height restrictions, make sure they understand which ones will be off-limits to them. Robert Niles, founder and editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, suggests that in the weeks leading up to your theme park visit you should let your kids earn a "souvenir allowance" to spend at the end of the day or the trip (remember, you don't want to be stuck carting around a collossal stuffed animal from ride to ride). And prepare yourself to be patient with your little ones. I remember how my then-6-year-old desperately wanted to visit Disney's Haunted Mansion, but after we had waited in line for more than an hour, he freaked out in terror right at the front door. Seeing the look on his face, I sighed and promptly headed for the exit.
There are a ton of ticket options. What's the best deal?
Some things are obvious: You can save money—and time—buying park passes online; multiday tickets will usually bring the per-day cost down. But some seemingly high-priced offers—such as park combo deals and annual passes—can actually save you a bundle. A season pass to Six Flags, for instance, gets you into all 13 of the company's theme parks for the year. (If you decide to get an annual pass while you're at a park, you can usually upgrade your ticket right on the spot.) Be sure to follow a park on Twitter or Facebook, so you'll be alerted to flash promotions—last-minute offers that can include discounted nighttime attendance, buy-one-get-one-free deals, and savings on meals or souvenirs.
Hotel package deals will certainly cost you more, but they also come with perks. A family of four can expect to pay several hundred dollars more for, say, a three-day Walt Disney World package than for a comparable "a la carte" stay at a nearby Marriott. But Disney packages often include discounts on on-site hotels, dining, and special events that may make up the difference. At Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure, if you stay on-site you get a complimentary Express Plus Pass that lets you skip lines for certain rides and attractions. (For more on express passes, see "Should You Pay Extra for Shorter Lines?" to the left)
I never take my kids anywhere without a loaded backpack. Is that a good idea at a theme park?
Just because a park features a castle doesn't mean you should have to pay a king's ransom for basics like water, snacks, sunscreen, and bandages. "Never buy anything in a theme park you can buy outside the park," says Niles. If you worry about things like food spills, cuts, inclement weather, and meltdowns, by all means do some schlepping. Bring packaged snacks, wet wipes, Ziploc bags, a change of clothes, disposable rain ponchos, sunscreen, bug repellent, water bottles, a small first-aid kit, small toys, coloring books, and glow-in-the-dark sticks and necklaces (which the parks sell at dusk but they charge a fortune). And while we're obsessing over details, don't forget to pin your name and cell phone number to the inside of your kids' clothes and make sure your family wears closed-toe shoes to the park. You don't want your little one's flip-flops flying off on the new Wild Eagle ride at Dollywood.
What are the best times of day—and times of year—to visit a theme park?
Remember one thing: Always go against the flow. The more you can anticipate where the herd will be—and flee to where it's not—the more elbow room and (relative) solitude you'll enjoy. For instance, most visitors don't show up first thing in the morning. Arriving at least 15 minutes before the gate is thrown open (c'mon, your kids are going to be up at dawn anyway) and heading for the most popular rides first can be the difference between no wait and a wait of 60 to 90 minutes for marquee attractions. Niles notes that, amazingly enough, you can walk right on to Tatsu, billed as the world's tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles when the park opens at 10:30, but by 11 the wait can be as long as two hours. But do your homework so that you choose your morning rides carefully. A water ride that soaks you to the bone may be a less than inspiring way to start your day.
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?"