There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. –Bram Stoker, Dracula
Perhaps I'm being just a tad melodramatic in using that quote, but it expresses very well my ambivalent feelings about amusement parks. Yes, I love watching my kids have fun at Disney, and I love roller coasters. But I loathe crowds, spending ridiculous amounts of money on junk food, and waiting in line for over an hour for a ride that takes all of two minutes. So I spoke with some experts who had some great advice on surviving—even enjoying!—your next outing at the amusement park.
Photos: Amazing American Roller Coasters
Do Your Research
Virtually all of our experts recommended travelers go online and explore the park's official website. That's where you'll find opening times and information—like height restrictions—about the rides. "Knowing in advance what rides your child can't go on means you can try to avoid it or simply nip any possible disappointment in the bud," says Corinne McDermott, founder of HaveBabyWillTravel.com. Park websites also sometimes offer discounted tickets. You can learn about special offers by following the park on Facebook and Twitter. As Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, says, "Many parks are using social media to advertise last-minute deals."
When to Go to Avoid the Crowds
"Avoid Saturdays and Mondays. Saturdays are the busiest day of the week at a park. Mondays are often the second busiest and busier than Sundays since many others… thought Sunday would be worse. The least crowded days to visit are Tuesdays and Wednesdays," Niles says. Holidays can also be surprisingly good days to visit, says Dave Altman, president of American Coaster Enthusiasts. "People expect it'll be overly crowded, but sometimes that's not true."
What to Bring
Lissa Poirot, executive editor of Family Vacation Critic (a subsidiary of TripAdvisor Media Group), suggests packing extra clothes for everyone in your party. "Accidents happen, rides can be extra-wet, and temperatures can be sweltering. Packing a change of clothes can help keep everyone comfortable and happy," she says. Poirot also recommends bringing your own rain ponchos, because they "cost a fortune at the park."
Eric Gieszl of UltimateRollercoaster.com tries to minimize what he carries to avoid having to use a locker when he's on rides. However, he says, "Sunscreen has become the thing I never forget. It's too easy to get a bad sunburn when you're standing out in the sun all day."
McDermott says a stroller is essential if you have a small kid. "Even if your child is past strollers on your usual outings, amusement parks are long days with lots and lots of walking. A stroller will help you all if little legs get tired and… patience gets stretched a little thin," she says.
"Next to remembering your tickets, the most important thing to remember to bring to the theme parks would be your camera to capture all the magical moments," says Beth Haworth of DW Insider.
"Probably the worst mistake a parent can make in planning a day at the amusement park, is trying to cram too much in—especially if your kids are little," McDermott says. Poirot concurs, saying, "Young kids cannot spend 12 hours in a park without getting cranky and tired." Haworth agrees: "Head back to the resort in the early afternoon for a nap or cooling mid-day swim."
"Avoid eating during peak times," says Gieszl—you'll enjoy shorter lines at restaurants and concession stands. McDermott has a money-saving tip that's also eco-friendly: BYO refillable water bottle instead of paying exorbitant prices for bottled water in the park. If anyone in your party has dietary restrictions, check the park's website for menus, or call guest relations, says Altman.
Many experts advise bringing your own drinks and snacks (assuming the park allows you to do so). "Theme park food can be surprisingly good, but most of the snacks are of the salty or sugary variety. Having healthy snacks on hand helps make sure that everyone's fueled up and ready to play," says McDermott.
Get there early. Gieszl says, "Plan to be at the front gate with tickets in hand 15 minutes before the park opens. You'll be ahead of the crowd and in the first hour you'll be able to experience at least two or three major rides with little to no wait." Remember that at some bigger parks, parking lots can be far from the gates, so you'll want to allow extra time to get from your car to the park entrance.
And what if there's one awesome new ride that EVERYONE in the park wants to go on? Either head there first thing, or as Altman says, check back toward closing time: "Sometimes late in the day, the crowds diminish."
Altman recommends you check out the single-rider line if members of your party don't care about being split up. On one ride, he says, "There was a 90-minute wait in the regular line. My wife and I went through the single-rider line and rode five or six times in that same time period."
Finally, says Niles, talk to the ride attendants. "They know the best times to go on each ride in the park."
Don't try to do too much. "Probably the worst mistake a parent can make in planning a day at the amusement park, is trying to cram too much in—especially if your kids are little. Your best bet is to choose one or two MUSTS, and then going with the flow for the rest of the day," says McDermott. "By rushing through things, you will miss all the little things," says Haworth. She recommends you take time to people-watch and explore. "No one wants to come home from a vacation feeling like you need a vacation, and by taking time to relax you can avoid that feeling."