6 Tips for a Successful Theme Park Visit
A little prep work goes a long way toward a fun and hassle-free trip.
A trip to a theme park can be an incredibly fun and memorable experience for a family (or a group of friends). But let’s face it: waiting in hour-plus lines, getting sunburned and spending $5 on a bottle of water can make it feel a bit less magical. Luckily, a little planning can help you save money, skip the long lines and avoid toddler tantrums. Follow these six tips for a smooth theme park vacation.
Look for Discounts on Tickets
My Disney Experience App
With the free My Disney Experience mobile application and extensive complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the Florida Vacation Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort guests can have Disney fun at their fingertips. Information about attractions, show times, dining and more is easier than ever to explore and access. Guests have the option of modifying FastPass+ choices or dining reservations while on the go, thanks to the app and in-park kiosks—or at fully-staffed service centers. (Kent Phillips, photographer)
Don’t go straight to the park website to buy tickets; do some research first to make sure you’re getting the best price possible. Check travel deal websites, such as TicketsAtWork.com and Groupon, and look for discounts through memberships you may already have, such as Costco and AAA. The parks themselves may also offer promo codes you can use when booking, so sign up for newsletters and follow them on social media.
Take Advantage of Partner Hotels
Staying inside a theme park resort is really expensive and hard for larger families that require multiple rooms. Many Orlando theme parks, like Walt Disney World, have partner hotels outside the resort that offer many of the official resort hotel benefits like shuttle transportation to the parks and extra park hours. And some even have official Mickey waffles for breakfast.
Do Lunch, Not Dinner
Dinner at even casual eateries inside the parks can be pricey. But you’ll find lunch menus are typically a lot cheaper than dinner menus. And many venues offer the same entries, just smaller portions. If there’s a restaurant you really want to try, make a lunch reservation instead. Walt Disney World’s Be Our Guest restaurant is popular and expensive. Opting for the quick-service lunch instead of sit down table service for dinner helps your wallet but still gives your family a chance to take a peek inside Beast’s castle.
Follow Blogs and Podcasts
Read theme park blogs or listen to popular podcasts ahead of your trip for tips on cheap eats and budget ideas for the whole family. Not to brag, but, Roam, the Travel Channel blog, has some great ideas.
Research Rides in Advance
Don’t get distracted by the first attraction you see as soon as you walk through the entrance. Before your trip, decide which rides and attractions are your top priorities, and figure out where they’re located. Knock out those rides as soon as the park opens, or reserve fast passes for them to cut down your time in line. If you’re traveling with kids, research height requirements as well so you know which rides are no-gos.
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train may have opened in 2014, but this popular mine coaster ride that twists and turns through the Enchanted Forest continues to have one of the longest wait times of all the rides at Magic Kingdom. Make this the first FastPass+ you secure 30 days in advance (or 60 days if you’re staying on property). If you get shut out, keep checking back in since Disney staggers the release of FastPass+ tickets.
Incredible Hulk Coaster
The popular Incredible Hulk Coaster re-opened late last summer at Universal’s Islands of Adventure after being closed for nearly a year to give the ride new lighting effects and new vehicles. There’s even a new storyline and a new ride soundtrack composed by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. The 105-foot-tall coaster is smoother than before too, just right for coaster-lovers eager to ride this one again and again.
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Who doesn’t love the Minions? As popular as ever, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem continues to delight guests at both Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando. This 3-D motion simulator ride takes guests into Gru’s lab as he attempts to turn humans into minions. The lines may be long, but you’ll be treated to movie quizzes and behind-the-scenes clips as you wait for your turn to ride.
Frozen Ever After
Frozen fans will want to make a beeline for Frozen Ever After in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot, which made headlines for its five-hour line when it first opened in June. This new boat ride takes guests across Arendelle with Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf, each brought to life thanks to animatronics and special effects. Kids (and adults), get ready to sing along to "For the First Time in Forever" and "Let It Go."
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
The popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, which opened in early 2016 at Universal Studios Hollywood, may be even more popular since dropping the 3-D effects at the end of last year. This dark ride uses a robotic arm to take guests high above the grounds of Hogwarts castle and through the Forbidden Forest, transporting them into some of the most well-known movie scenes. A must for true Potterheads.
Soarin' Around the World
Soarin’ Around the World (more popularly known as Soarin’) debuted at Epcot in 2005, but got a reboot in 2016 with a brand new high-resolution film that takes riders over popular worldwide landmarks, like the Great Wall of China and the Eiffel Tower. Even better, smells are piped into this hang glider simulator ride, giving riders a multi-sensory experience as they fly over beaches and savannas.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
The much-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is set to open in late May as part of a “Summer of Heroes” campaign at Disney’s California Adventure. The free-fall ride, which replaced Tower of Terror, will take guests on a wild journey as they help Rocket Raccoon make a daring rescue at the Collector’s Fortress. As a bonus, just like Tower of Terror, no two rides are the same.
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon is finally open at Universal Orlando. Guests will love the “world’s first-ever flying theater,” and not just the ride and laughs, but also the meet-and-greet with Hashtag the Panda and a history of The Tonight Show. Ride more than once just to hear all of Fallon’s jokes. A virtual line experience through Universal’s app notifies guests through their cell phones when it’s their turn.
Peter Pan's Flight
Peter Pan’s Flight may have opened in 1955 at Disneyland, later coming to other Disney parks, but this charming ride remains one of the top attractions across the parks. This suspended dark ride takes guests high above London to Never Land on, what else, a flying pirate ship. Reserve a FastPass+ well in advance (Magic Kingdom only) or be in line to get on right after the rope drop at the start of the day.
Radiator Springs Racers
For Cars fans, it’s a must to visit to Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure. Head straight for Radiator Springs Racers, a race car ride that transports guests into the movie complete with encounters with characters, like Mater and Lighting McQueen. When the ride opened in 2012, wait times stretched up to six hours. The wait isn’t (quite) as long today, but the ride remains incredibly popular.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
On its own, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Orlando’s tallest roller coaster at 167 feet tall, is a fantastic ride, but it gets even better when you can listen to your song of choice while your ride. Settle in to this ride at Universal Orlando, then choose a song from the playlist or enter a secret song code for a larger selection of tunes to rock out to while you ride along at speeds up to 65 miles per hour.
Hershey Triple Tower
The brand new Hershey Triple Tower not only offers panoramic views across Hersheypark, but it lets guests pick the height on this “choose your thrill” drop tower ride. Guests can pick from the Hershey’s Tower, Reese’s Tower or Hershey’s Kisses Tower. Each one offers not only varying heights, but also different thrill levels and speeds. After the ride, treat yourself to a king-size milkshake from Simply Chocolate.
Justice League: Battle for Metropolis
This interactive game play ride is opening up this year at three more Six Flags theme parks, including Six Flags Over Georgia. Justice League: Battle for Metropolis is so popular that it has even earned accolades from the theme park industry as the best new ride. This 4-D dark ride takes guests on a mission to save Metropolis, taking on the bad guys in an immersive shooting game experience.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg welcomes the InvadR this spring, its first-ever wooden roller coaster. Named by park fans, this new roller coaster drops riders 74 feet and takes them over nine hills. Even better, this coaster is family-friendly, a perfect ride for kids as young as five or six eager to take on their first roller coaster. Tamer than some of the park’s other coasters, the ride still hits speeds up to 48 miles per hour.
While the Kraken at SeaWorld Orlando isn’t new, virtual reality has been injected into this roller coaster, making it the first VR coaster in a Florida theme park. Riders don virtual reality goggles to give them the experience of a high-speed underwater adventure. Consider Quick Queue Unlimited, SeaWorld’s add-on skip-the-line program to avoid the wait at the Kraken (and on six other top rides).
Plan Your Meals
At peak meal times, both quick- and full-service restaurants will be jam-packed with hungry families. Make reservations so you’re not stuck waiting in line for food. (Popular restaurants can book up months in advance, so check this off your to-do list well before your trip.) If you’re on a budget, consider packing lunch in a cooler and stashing it in a locker. When you’re ready for a break, you can find a shady spot for a quick bite.
Chef Art Smith's Homecomin'
New at Disney Springs, Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ serves up comfort foods with decidedly Florida flavors. Among the down home faves are Art's Famous Fried Chicken and Shrimp & Grits. The craft cocktail trend is also alive and well at Homecomin’ where the Blue Hooch is among the signature moonshine cocktails, featuring a blend of moonshines, blue Curacao and a splash of Sprite.
Set high up on the 15th floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the re-imagined California Grill is a must for ‘Brunch at the Top,’ a Sunday brunch for the ages. Take in the views of Magic Kingdom through floor-to-ceiling windows and chat up the chefs as you pile your plate with sushi, salads and pastries. The show-stopping Bloody Mary bar will have you talking long after brunch is over and you’ve gone home.
Planet Hollywood Observatory
The revamped Planet Hollywood Observatory at Disney Springs recently opened its doors with a Guy Fieri-designed menu. You’ll find the usual salads, burgers and sandwiches, but they are far from usual. Try the Turkey Pic-A-Nic sandwich with cranberry relish, BBQ kettle chips (yes, on the sandwich) and Donkey sauce. Incredible. Hit the Stargazers Lounge for signature drinks and a wide range of Florida craft beers.
The newest Mexican restaurant by celebrity chef Rick Bayless is open at Disney Springs in a modern space with a delightfully inviting patio. Frontera Cocina, a fresh-Mex concept restaurant, brings a twist to typical Mexican fare thanks to dishes like Shrimp Enchiladas Suizas and Arroz con Plantains. Even the margaritas have a unique flair, like the Blood Orange Jalapeno Margaritas. You’ll also find tequila flights.
Formerly Fulton's Crab House, the completely overhauled Paddlefish restaurant at Disney Springs offers build-your-own crab boils, fresh fish and all kinds of mouth-watering steak cuts. Designed to look like a paddleboat (so you can’t miss it), Paddlefish also offers a delicious Sunday brunch. Or, stop over at the end of the day for drinks and apps on the rooftop bar as you bask in a perfect Orlando sunset.
Trattoria al Forno
Located on Disney’s BoardWalk, Trattoria al Forno is not new, but it’s the current talk of the town thanks to the brand new “royal couples” character breakfast called the Bon Voyage Adventure Breakfast. Make your reservations now to meet-and-greet with Rapunzel, Flynn Rider, Ariel and Prince Eric as you dine on movie-themed pancakes, omelets and scrambled eggs (think “Tangled Eggs” and “Swimmers di ‘Light’”).
Geyser Point Bar and Grill
The brand new Geyser Point Bar and Grill at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge boasts an outdoor-inspired menu of bison burgers, salmon BLTs and crispy fried oysters. Open all day, enjoy your meal on the outdoor deck to relax and take in the views at this scenic eatery. No reservations are required at this counter-service restaurant. Even better, you’ll find yourself in a prime location for the nightly Electrical Water Pageant.
Expected to open later this year, The Edison at Disney Springs will feature classic American fare and craft cocktails in an industrial-themed space set to look like a 1920s electric company. The Lab inside the eatery will host entertainment, like live DJs and even palm readers. Inspired by its sister location in Los Angeles, The Edison will offer a sophisticated atmosphere that has been eagerly awaited for some time.
Exit Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom and go straight to Tiffins for a brand new five-star dining experience with flavorful selections like Crispy Yellowtail Snapper and Marinated Grilled Octopus. Take in the exotic artwork and stay for a libation in the Nomad Lounge. Even little explorers will find adventure in pint-size dishes like Pan-Seared Sustainable Fish and Black-Eyed Pea Fritters.
Jungle Skipper Canteen
This new-ish restaurant inside Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland is named after the popular Jungle Cruise attraction and is a must-go for cleverly named, yet flavorful dishes like "Tastes Like Chicken Because It Is." Jungle Skipper Canteen is known for its “world-famous jungle cuisine,” delightfully bold tastes from Asia, South America and Africa. Reservations are taken on a same-day basis, making it easier to get a table.
Pack the Right Gear
Sunscreen, hats, polarized sunglasses and plenty of water are musts when you’re spending hours in the hot sun. Save money by bringing a reusable water bottle (like this collapsible one) — most park restaurants will fill it up for free. Be prepared for rain by also packing a lightweight poncho in your bag.
Afternoon showers are common in the Sunshine State, but many visitors who come to popular Orlando theme parks aren’t prepared for all the rain. These showers pass quickly, and the sun comes back out in no time. However, a lot of tourists leave the parks, thinking the rest of the day is ruined. But those in the know just throw on a poncho and wait it out. Pack a thin poncho--like this #MinnieStyle polka dot number--that you can crumple up and stuff in a backpack easily.
Waterproof Action Camera
Selfie sticks are banned from most parks. (And for good reason.) But if you want to document your family’s drop down Splash Mountain, splurge on a waterproof action camera like a GoPro. You can buy camera accessories like handles with wrist straps so you don’t have to put your smartphone in danger.
It’s hard to escape the sun at a theme park, from outdoor theaters to long coaster lines. Protect your family from excessive and harmful exposure with UVA and UVB shielding clothing, like Coolibar's line of tops for kids and adults. These garments don’t replace sunscreen but when used together reduce the amount of exposure to harmful rays.
Prepare to log thousands of steps each day on a theme park vacation. Coming back to the hotel with aching heels is so common that some of Walt Disney World’s high-end properties offer mint foot cream alongside shampoo and conditioner. Slip gel insoles into your tennis shoes before you head out for the day and your feet will thank you.
Reusable Plastic Bag
If you don’t want to shell out the big bucks for a fancy phone case, a plastic sandwich bag will also do the trick to keep your phone, cash, tickets and anything paper safe from water rides. You can also reduce your single-use plastics by investing in a reusable plastic bag. This two-pack from Amazon is less than $7 and keeps you from grabbing a new sandwich bag every time you travel.
Get There Early
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 18: In this handout photo provided by Universal Orlando Resort and taken June 13, 2014, today June 18, Universal Orlando announced that The Wizarding World of Harry Potters Diagon Alley will officially open on July 8, allowing guests to experience even more of Harry Potters adventures in an all-new, magnificently-themed environment. Located in the Universal Studios Florida theme park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley will feature shops, dining experiences and the next generation thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The new immersive area will double the size of the sweeping land already found at Universals Islands of Adventure, expanding the spectacularly themed environment across both Universal theme parks and guests can journey between both lands aboard the Hogwarts Express. For additional information, visit www.UniversalOrlando.com/WizardingWorld. (Photo by Sheri Lowen/Universal Orlando Resort via Getty Images)
It’s tempting to sleep in while you’re on vacation, but getting to the parks as soon as they open is so worth it. You’ll be able to ride the most popular rides before the lines get too long, and you’ll enjoy several hours at the park before the hottest part of the day. When the crowds start to arrive, you’ll be ready for a break in the shade.
Ride Popular Rides During Nighttime Shows
Fireworks and parades are great. They’re magical and Instagram gold. But while everyone else is watching, you could be zipping through coaster lines. This is also true for rides open after nighttime performances. Most families with younger children leave the parks at this time, thinning the crowds and cutting down on ride waits.
Check Wait Times on Apps
See if the park you’re visiting has an app and download it before the trip. These can be lifesavers. The My Disney Experience app tells you ride wait times in real time, saving you a walk across the park if the lines are already one hour plus. It also has a handy restroom locator that uses GPS to tell you the nearest one.
I pity the hangry family frantically zig-zagging all over the park trying to find a dinner opening. Quick service spots are no help at peak meal times either. It can be a circus of long lines, and once you do get food there are no tables to be found to sit down and eat. Meal reservations take the stress away. Zip in and out of popular eateries and get back to enjoying the parks. But book as soon as you can. Some restaurants, like Walt Disney World’s Be Our Guest, book 180 days in advance.
Get There Early
Early bird gets the most popular rides with little wait. But this is a hard reality, especially on vacation. You want to sleep in. You want to leisurely have coffee and breakfast before heading out for the day. But this will cut down on your park time. Take coffee to go. Pack breakfast bars and head out early. Parking won’t be as bad. Lines won’t be as bad. And the sun isn’t as hot early in the morning, making standing in lines more bearable. By the time the crowds peak, you’ll be ready to take a break and cool off at a restaurant. And by the time the crowds break for lunch, you’ll be ready to hit the rides again. This is how the pros do it.
Head to the Back of the Park First
Don’t get distracted by the first thing you see. This is hard because the minute you walk into a theme park, everything is exciting. You’re overwhelmed by all the fun, but this is not the time to cave to the first cotton candy or photo op you see. No, you’re on a mission to avoid lines. Head straight to the back of the park. This is especially true for Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure. Head straight to the back and knock out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before the crowds funnel through.
Cut Down Wait With Single Rider Lines
If you don’t mind sitting with strangers, this hack is a life-saver. Because ride operators don’t want empty seats, they’ll fill in rows with single riders. These lines typically have their own entrance, and the wait is nothing compared to the general line. You may not get to experience a ride at the same time with your group, but you get less time standing in lines. Not every theme park or ride has single-rider lines, so check in advance of your trip.
Skip the Lines With Fast Passes
Many popular rides and attractions wouldn’t be possible without fast passes these days. (Unless you like waiting in two-hour-plus lines.) And most theme parks now offer fast passes for free. Reserve passes as soon as you book tickets to ensure you’ll be able to ride all of your favorites. And passes aren’t just for rides. You can use Disney FastPass+ on entertainment like firework shows so you don’t have to stop everything you’re doing to find a primo viewing spot.
Don’t Try to Do It All
Particularly if you’re visiting a theme park with young kids, know that you won’t be able to see and do everything. Pace yourself, and make time for breaks during the day. Either head back to the hotel for a nap, or find an indoor attraction where you can cool off.
You Can’t Do it All
Before you go. Before you pack. Before you start planning. Accept it. You can’t do it all. Trying to pack as much as possible into one day at the parks will run you ragged and stress your kids out. And remember: They don’t know what they’re missing. Go at your own, relaxed pace. If you miss some iconic rides, that’s OK. Save them for the next trip.
Keep Them Occupied in Line
One hour is a long time for a preschooler, especially waiting in the hot summer sun. Download games on your smartphone to play with your kids or keep it old school with classic “I Spy…” to pass the time. Many new rides at Disney parks are incorporating long wait times into the ride with interactive queues and games to play along the way, like Winnie the Pooh’s garden.
Plan Character Appearances
Not every character appears every day. Research character appearances and locations ahead of time to make sure your kids see their favorites. One of the best ways to ensure a character sighting is by booking a character breakfast or meal at a theme park restaurant. Lines for Disney princesses and the mouse himself are brutal. Opt for a locked-in time and place where you know your kids will get that hug from Mickey and Minnie.
Play the Shade Game
There is little shade in the parks, especially during a crowded, summer day. Sun protection is crucial. Gear up with tiny kid hats and sunglasses that offer SPF protection. Some parks, like Universal Studios, offer switch rooms for parents. These cool, air conditioned rooms let one parent sit with children while the other rides a ride. Then parents switch. This is great for parents and teens who want to take on a big coaster.
Know Height Requirements
There is nothing more disappointing than waiting in line for 45 minutes only to be told at the very moment of boarding that you are too short to ride. This is especially upsetting for younger children who have to watch older siblings have all the fun while they sit out rides. Measure your kids’ heights and research rides that everyone can enjoy before you hit the parks. Not only will this keep the peace in your family, but it saves a lot of time.
Take Advantage of Strollers
Strollers are your best friend. Use them. Maybe your toddler is fiercely independent and wants to walk everywhere. That’s great, but this is not the time or the place. Strollers keep your tots in partial shade and help you zip in and out of crowds and move faster throughout the parks.
Ring in the season at these theme park holiday events.