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.
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)