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What a Ride! 10 Tips for Surviving a Theme Park

Yes, you can enjoy a day at an amusement park, even with the crowds, long lines and megacosts. Here’s how to entertain the family and still emerge with your senses (and feet) intact

spinner image hand holding a mobile phone showing an amusement park app that matches up to a rendering of the park in the background
Park apps have maps that can help you locate not only popular rides but also restrooms, security and first-aid stations.
Nicolas Rapp

​With nearly 500 amusement parks in the United States — ranging from the megaparks operated by Disney and Universal to regional ones like the Six Flags chain and Dollywood to beloved local spots like Kennywood, just outside Pittsburgh — chances are you’re going to visit one. But can you get through a day without losing your smile or sanity? We consulted some seasoned insiders for their theme park survival secrets, as well as ways to make treasured memories. One quick tip: “Let the kiddos take the lead,” says Sandy Groves Smith, 63, of Loudon, Tennessee, who has nine grandchildren. “You may discover a ride or experience that you never guessed you would enjoy.”

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Before you reach the park

1. Buy your tickets ahead of time

They often are less expensive when purchased in advance. “Timing is everything,” Shannon Dill, 55, of Atlanta, says. “Travel less during busy times, and costs are less. Ticket prices can vary on the date you choose to visit. And always look for special offers.”

2. Set a budget

Establish a limit for souvenir and gift purchases — let the young ones know ahead of time what they can and can’t get at the park. Think through snacks, too, not just meals. Those random treats add up fast. “I routinely bring our own snacks and water into the park when allowed,” Smith says. In addition, she likes to make her credit cards work for her. “There are quite a few credit cards where you can receive rewards for various theme parks. I put those cards to good use in the months prior to the trip, so I can receive cash back in the form of gift cards to use.”

At the park

3. Plan your parking

Review the park’s website ahead of time. Take a shuttle to the gate so you aren’t fatigued before even entering the park. Note your car’s location, says theme park veteran Janice Kitamura, 73, of San Luis Obispo, California, who has two grown sons. “Our foolproof way: We take a picture of the row sign.”

A great strategy is to get to the park before the gates open; when they do, head directly to the back of the park. Then work your way forward. That should help you enjoy several rides or attractions before the big crowds arrive.

4. Reduce meal costs

To save money at the park, Dill likes to share meals with her husband, teasing that “one entrée at Flame Tree Barbecue in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom will serve ‘a herd.’ ” Another option: Leave the park for a short while for a meal stored in your car. Many parks feature picnic areas near the parking lots, and they will allow you to exit and reenter.

5. Make reservations

Many theme parks have sit-down restaurants that take reservations. That’s one less line to wait in, and they provide rest and relaxation. “We have found that if you try for the earliest dinner reservation, it is easier to get a table,” Kitamura says.

6. Make it a two-trip day

You can take a break from the park entirely. If you book a ­hotel that is affiliated with the park — especially one with shuttle buses — you can go back there, then return later. “We get tired when there are large crowds,” Kitamura says, “so we find a quiet spot in a hotel lobby to sit and order a cup of coffee or drink and just recharge.”

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7. Have a strategy for lines

If standing for long periods is a problem for people with special needs — and their ​party — many parks will provide a time frame to return to the ride or even let those groups go through a special entrance. Find and talk to ​a ride attendant. Another option is to invest in “line-​jumping” passes that many parks sell to anyone.

8. Decompress when ​necessary

There is a growing trend to include relaxation areas within theme parks. For instance, Dill says, the reimagined Mickey’s Toontown at Disney­land has CenTOONial Park, which was planned as a place for families to relax while the kids play. Animal Kingdom’s Gorilla Falls is another good place to decompress with the family. “The exploration trail takes you through a quiet forest where you can spot wild animals along the way,” Dill notes.

9. Take turns on rides

“Not everyone in the family has to do the same thing all the time,” says Robert Niles, the founder and editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. Parents and grandparents, take note: It’s OK to split up sometimes. Adults, take turns with the kids on rides and shows to ensure that you all make it to the end of the day. Niles says, “If you do skip an attraction, take the time to ask the kids about it — what surprised them, how it made them feel.”

10. Use technology to your advantage

Forget surprise and delight. Your best bet is to learn about the park before you go. The good news is that park websites and mobile apps offer tons of information. “I use the apps the theme parks provide to plan the whole day,” Smith says. “I try to map each park so you are not crisscrossing back and forth, wasting precious time and steps.” Disney invites veteran parkgoers to share advice at plandisney​.disney.go.com. “It’s like asking friends or neighbors and getting a response you can trust,” says Dill, who is one of those insiders, “even for something as simple as what kind of coffeemaker is in the hotel room.”

What to bring

You want to pack light for the park. Lugging a bunch of stuff around can add to the fatigue.

Sunblock and hat

It is important to plan for the weather, and specifically sun. A floppy hat will protect your ears from rays better than a baseball cap.

Layers of clothing

Think through the changes in temperature. Will you need a light jacket come evening? Or will you start in layers to peel off as the day warms up?

Swimsuit and towel (if a water park is included) 

Large water parks that are connected with theme parks provide changing areas. In some cases, towels might be provided; check in advance.

Food and drink

Guests at some major parks can bring in their own food and nonalcoholic beverages (no glass containers) in a small, soft-sided cooler.

Credit or debit card

Don’t head out with a wad of bills. Many parks are cashless. And be sure to set a budget ahead of time.

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