Amusement Park Vacations

See recent posts by Ed Hewitt, updated by Dan Askin

The combination of a fluctuating dollar abroad, airline uncertainty and new business strategies by theme park owners are making the “amusement park vacation” a more popular option than ever these days. Planning to base your family trip around one or many of the hundreds of fun parks? There are certain precautions you can take to maximize your fun. Here are our helpful tips for keeping the “amusement” in your amusement park vacation.

What’s your favorite amusement park vacation? Tell us in our Family Theme Park Vacations Forum! You may also want to see our Theme Park Family Hotels page.

Research Parks Like You Would a City
The biggest parks are city-like, with sprawling environs, lots to do and see, and folks of all kinds. They have both the delights and the hazards of city life, including traffic and people jams, popular and quiet spots, and good and bad “neighborhoods,” restaurants and attractions.

Many amusement parks have entire sections of guidebooks dedicated to them, while some have even earned their own guidebooks (Disney comes first to mind in this case). There is even a publication or two available for the hardcore “parkies.” If you’re interested, check out the Theme Parks Magazine site.

Don’t forget to call ahead or check the park’s Web site to make sure your favorite attractions are open and running.

Book Early
The potential trend toward amusement park vacations, along with the debut of several major attractions this summer, will conspire to fill up hotels, flights and reserve-able attractions. If you have your heart set on a certain destination, be sure to book these aspects of your trip well ahead of time.

Money Matters
While many people are choosing to vacation near amusement parks to save money, a day in a theme park almost always costs more than expected. Here are a few tips to help you pinch some pennies.

With $6 hot dogs and $5 soft drinks, lunch could cost you $20 per person, and a day’s meals $75 per person or more. When sensible, eat before and after your visit. Research parks that allow you to bring in food to the park or provide a picnic area just outside the gates.

Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando all charge adults more than $60 for a one-day, one-park ticket. But if you purchase multi-day passes, per-day prices begin to drop exponentially.

Contact the local tourist bureau for coupons and discounts. The local tourist bureau can be your best source of unadvertised discounts and deals, and most have some sort of coupon program for local attractions. You can save 10 to 20 percent on entry, meals and more using these enticements.

Check out membership and frequent visitor programs. The benefits of membership can be considerable — a rule of thumb for Disney, for example, is that if you go twice in a year, the membership pays itself off completely, and you get tons of benefits in addition. Entrance into the San Diego Zoo would cost $82 for a family of four, but if you purchase a Dual Membership at $89, the cost covers membership for two adults in the same household, free admission plus two free guest passes, free rides on the Skyfari, four discount guest coupons, four two-for-one Zoo Bus Tour coupons, a magazine subscription and more. In addition, your membership is fully tax-deductible.

Best and Worst Times to Visit
The best times for short lines: weekdays and mornings, mealtimes, the second business day after a holiday, and in the final minutes before closing time as everyone leaves the park.

Midweek travel (Tuesday – Thursday) is not only good for shorter lines, but is also best for airfare savings.

It’s worth getting a handle on park hours. Some amusement parks open before officially advertised opening hours. Disney sets the standard for this practice, permitting members and pass-buyers through the gates an hour early. Do some research on park “fan” sites.

Check into late hours programs. Some parks have special late hours during the summer, or perhaps one day each week — often Monday, Wednesday or Thursday. For example, the San Diego Zoo has special summer evening hours. Consider, however, that the experience at a park may be very different than in the day — some rides and attractions may be closed, staffing may be lower and the like. My own visit to the zoo at night found a lot of sleeping animals, and an elder member of our party with poor eyesight strongly prefers the daylight.

The Bare Essentials
In my experience, these are the most important things you can take to an amusement park; anything else you can live without.

Comfortable shoes: You want comfortable clothing in general, but footwear is the priority.

Sunscreen: While it may seem like you don’t spend too much time in the sun, water rides, long lines and hours outdoors say otherwise.

Water: One bottle per person is a good start; water on-site will be pricey.

Snacks: You don’t want to lug a meal around all day, but you can save money by packing your own munchies. You may, however, have to sneak them into the park.

Rain gear/change of clothes: Even (and perhaps more so) on sunny days, light rain jackets or ponchos will come in handy on water rides. If you’re in for a complete drenching, as might result from a day at the water park, bring a change of clothes for when the temperature drops or for the ride home.

Park maps: Get one of these immediately upon entrance, and give one to everyone in your group.

More Tips
Consider staying in a hotel the night before visiting even local parks. A full day of “amusement” is a lot of work for parents and kids alike — up at dawn, drive to the park, find parking, run around like dogs for as long as the kids last, then drive them home while they sleep. If you’re already in an affordable hotel near the park, you can get an early start at a still humane hour, save a lot of energy and spare a lot of misery. Money is a factor here, of course, but maybe the free breakfast and later wake-up are worth the dough.

Beware eating too much in the morning prior to hitting the park. Big breakfasts combined with “thrill rides” could lead to a messy morning.

See your favorite attractions first. Many trips have been ruined by avoiding a great ride until too soon before your departure. Get the must-see things out of the way early.

Buy souvenirs at the end of the day. In many parks, stores stay open later than most attractions. This accomplishes two goals: 1) you might see something else you or your kids like better, and 2) you don’t carry around the morning souvies (which you’ll hate by the end of the day). If you can pull it off, skip the souvenirs altogether. Unless it’s clothing or really amusing, this stuff gets abandoned soon enough anyway.

Ride empty rides. If there’s a choice between a long wait for a short great ride, and a short wait for a mediocre ride, a lot of folks (especially kids) will prefer the short wait. This is especially true if they can go on the same ride over and over with no wait.

Don’t overschedule to the point that you’ll never get everything done, and do schedule in rest time.

Set meetings spots in case you get separated.

Check the weather. This is a no-brainer, “help for the helpless” tip, but I’m shocked at how often folks forget to do this. At a local attraction a couple of years ago, I heard a woman scold her husband: “You didn’t say it was going to rain!” The reply: “Who do I look like, Jim Cantore?”

What’s your favorite amusement park vacation? Tell us in our Family Theme Park Vacations Forum! You may also want to see our Theme Park Family Hotels page.

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