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Taking the Kids to a Theme Park? 7 Miserable Mistakes You Need to Avoid

It’s time. Time to give your children a magical childhood memory by bringing your kids to a theme park. (Or Amusement Park. Or Adventure Park. Whatever you want to call it!)

You’ve made the decision (which, let’s face it, is half the battle with your busy schedule!). You’re going all-in on a kids theme park vacation.

It could be great; the vacation to beat all vacations. Or, it could be known as “the vacation that shall not be named.” As a parent, that power is now squarely in your hands.

No pressure or anything.

Kids Theme Parks: 7 Mistakes to Skip

Before you book that dream vacation to a theme park, make sure you avoid these 7 miserable mistakes that could turn your happy place upside down:

  1. Not scheduling ahead
  2. Not knowing your park
  3. Not packing like a genius
  4. Not being stroller savvy
  5. Not having a meltdown plan
  6. Not being realistic
  7. Not being present

Below are the tips and tricks from a seasoned theme park veteran that will help you tackle these mistakes head-on and vacation like a pro.

Miserable Mistake #1:
Not Scheduling Ahead

Before you even step foot in the park, the success of your day has already been mostly determined by your preparation (or lack thereof). For those of you who aren’t big planners, don’t let this cause you despair. It is simpler than you think!

There are three main things you need to focus on ahead of time in order to get the most out of your day(s) in the park and the most bang for your buck.

What Time of Year?

If your kids aren’t yet in school (or you home school), you are in an elite group of parents who aren’t at the mercy of spring and summer break schedules. Use that to your advantage. If you want to hit the theme parks when weather is best and attendance is low, your best options are:

  • January/February
  • Early November
  • The first week in December

On the flip side, unless you really enjoy crowds, you’ll want to avoid the entire month of July and the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s.

Which Hotel?

Choosing the right hotel goes a long way in maximizing theme park fun. If possible, choose a hotel on theme park property. This comes with multiple benefits:

  • You can beat the crowds and get in earlier than general admission.
  • You can easily head back to the hotel for lunch or a nap.
  • Some hotels even come with secret park perks, like express line passes or a lounge.

Kids theme park hotels have a come a long way from the standard double-queen closet-size room! Don’t just disregard these as too expensive! Bundling everything together can save you a ton of money and headache-hassle.

Where Do You Get Tickets?

Tickets can generally be purchased online at the official park websites and then either printed at home or picked up at the front of the park. While most discount offerings you find online are scams or time-share presentations, there are a few ways you may be able to get legitimate savings:

  • Call the theme park ticket office or on-site hotel and see if they have any special hotel/ticketing deals.
  • Call the local visitors bureau (Visit Orlando, for example).
  • Consider purchasing annual passes if going for multiple days, with at least one that has free parking (watch out for block out days). These also come with discounts on merchandise, food, and sometimes hotels.
  • If you live in-state, there may be a resident discount, or sometimes coupons if you buy a certain soda or visit certain restaurants (although this isn’t as common any more).
  • Some banks have special credit cards (Like Disney, for example) that will give you theme park points for using your card for groceries, gas, etc. This can be an awesome way to earn kids theme park points and redeem for trip bonuses!

Miserable Mistake #2:
Not Knowing Your Park

Here’s one of my best pieces of advice: Don’t let the first time you look at a theme park map be when you enter the park.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with all the park has to offer ahead of time, and create a general idea in your head (or on a map) of the route you want to take and the things you want to see. Downloading the park app will be a huge help for this.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Ride Heights and RestrictionsYour daughter can probably go on more than you think, even at the “big kid” parks.
  • Adults-Only RidesMost theme parks have what is known as a “child swap.” You wait in line together, then adults take turns riding while the other stays with the kids in a room to the side.
  • Park Hours and CelebrationsThere may be a special parade or concert that day, or the park may close early for a special event. Park hours change on a daily basis, but can usually be seen more than a month in advance.
  • First Aid StationsMake note of where they are in case you need pain or nausea medicine, an ice pack, etc.
  • RestaurantsPeruse restaurant menus to see what food your kids will eat, and plan to be in that area around lunch time. Some parks also have meal and drink deals that are a good value for a full day.
  • Nursing StationsNursing stations will be noted on the maps (typically adjacent to the First Aid stations). These air-conditioned little havens of bliss come with chairs, changing stations, and maybe even a microwave.
  • A Separation PlanHave a “separation” plan for preschoolers or older kids in case they get separated or lost. Point out the “loud” costumes employees wear so they know whom to ask for help. Help your son memorize your information ahead of time.
  • Special NeedsIf you have a specific need, don’t hesitate to call ticketing and see how they can help. Parks often have designated times and/or shows where a sign language interpreter is present or when loud noises (like fireworks) aren’t used.  Every restroom typically has sharps containers and changing stations. Companion restrooms are designated on maps.
  • LinesIf you have to be there on a busy day, consider getting special passes to skip lines. Some parks allow three free passes per ticket per day, but they should be reserved ahead of time as soon as you know when you are going. Some parks have a general skip-the-line ticket for all rides, but that will cost extra.

Miserable Mistake #3:
Not Packing Like a Genius

Once you walk through those gates, it is go time. And let me tell you, you don’t want to pause to hunt for swim diapers while your child cries because she just wants to splash in the water.

While you can likely purchase just about anything you need while at the theme park (undoubtedly at a slight upcharge), packing right will help you save time, money, and hassle.

Here are my personal top 10 crazy helpful items you’ll be glad you brought to the theme park (and will make life easier year-round!):

Crazy Helpful Items You’ll Want to Bring With You

  1. Cooling Neck Towel—These are super handy to have around in general!
  2. Hand-held Misting Fan—Plus some extra batteries and a lanyard to clip it on.
  3. Stroller Fan—You’ll thank me for this. Trust me.
  4. Insulated Water Bottles—Cold water makes all the difference, and these bottles don’t sweat.
  5. Clip-on Reusable Wet Wipes Pack—Wipes may be the #1 thing you use in the park, so keep it handy with a snap holder to put on the handle of your stroller.
  6. Diaper Bag Hooks—Because wearing a bag on your sweaty back all day is the worst. If you don’t already have these for every day use, you should.
  7. Cup/Toy Straps—Keep those favorite cups and toys from getting lost forever if thrown overboard!
  8. Mommy Hook—Keeps all your extras handy, including your new water bottles.
  9. LILLEbaby Carrier—While you may have the stroller with you most of the time, you can’t take it in lines or some shows.  Having flexible child-carrying options just makes the day better.
  10. Super Accessible Backpack Diaper Bag—(and, of course, the matching paci pod) I’ve been through a lot of bags, and this one is my favorite–easy to access while strapped to the stroller, doesn’t hang down so far it hits my knees while I walk, water resistant, durable, has pockets for everything, etc. etc.!

Practical Items to Toss Into Your Diaper Bag

You’ll also want to check and re-check your pack list to make sure you have these too:

  1. Hand Sanitizer
  2. Phone Cord and Base / Portable Charger
  3. Sunscreen—As Baz Luhrmann says, wear sunscreen.  Even if it is going to overcast, or you think you may only be out for a few hours. Several minutes of prevention for you and your family will save you days of agony. Check out this article on baby sunscreen for help picking out a safe brand.
  4. Swimsuits—Delightful splash areas are found in almost every park. Browse through this year’s most precious baby swimsuit ideas or this cuddable toddler swimsuit guide.
  5. Swim Diapers
  6. Sandals/Water Shoes for Everyone—Splash areas often require shoes, and the in-park stores don’t always carry little sizes.
  7. Towels—These do double duty as blankets in case it gets chilly.
  8. Small Toys—to ease long waits in line.
  9. Basic Medical Kit—with Neosporin, Band-Aids, and Tylenol (for you).
  10. Lip Balm—Never forget the lip balm.

What About the Food?

Most places will allow you to bring in a small cooler full of food. Pack it full of snacks like you would at home, just more of it—pouches, peanut butter and jelly (frozen bread helps it last longer!), peanut butter crackers, puffs, gold fish, blueberries, oranges, bananas, grapes, grape tomatoes…whatever they love. This article on awesome picnic foods will inspire you!

I recommend bringing some “take and toss” cups that can be held in small hands or put in cup holders, but aren’t a big deal if they go missing.

Miserable Mistake #4:
Not Having a Meltdown Plan

The combination of exhaustion, sugar, and excitement is an explosive combination for any family. Expect meltdowns (and not just from the kids).

And then, make a plan. How will you deal with the meltdowns, grouchiness, and unreasonableness? Don’t just deal with the outburst, focus on the root cause.

  • Is she hungry? Stop for a snack.
  • Is she tired? Plan on some breaks or a nap.
  • Does she freak out when you say no to that noisy ride for the 10th time? Take a time-out in an air conditioned place.
  • You need a time-out? Work with your spouse to give each other “alone-time” breaks to get a breather (there is a table with my name on it at Finnegan’s in Universal Studios Florida).

Consider realistic discipline options beforehand, recognizing she is going to need extra chances as her little brain is going to be on overdrive. Whatever your plan, have grace with your kids and grace with yourself.

If you haven’t read it yet, Molly’s article on how to handle public temper tantrums is a great way to prepare for the inevitable!

Miserable Mistake #5:
Not Being Stroller Savvy

While you may go on many rides at a theme park, the most important one is the one you bring with you. This is your rolling arsenal, ready to take you where you need to go and tackle all the troubles of the day. So make sure you do it right.

Here are some things to think about when it comes to strollers:

  • Don’t leave valuables in the stroller when you go on rides. People do steal things. Most kid rides allow you to bring your bags on, and others offer limited free lockers.
  • Grease the wheels. The only thing worse than a squeaky wheel in the theme park is your daughter constantly telling you it is squeaky.
  • Flying in? No stress.  Stroller rentals are available at every major park.
  • Car carriers in a stroller get HOT. While your baby may seem most comfortable in his carrier clipped into the stroller, the extra padding makes them super warm. Put him in something that allows the breeze to blow all around.
  • Minimize whining and have a seat for every child with you under six. By the end of the day, you will all be grateful. Even if it’s a standing piggyback holder, your child will quickly switch from complaining about sore legs to being captivated by the new view.
  • Only leave your stroller in designated areas, or theme park attendants will move it. Playing hide and seek with the stroller will not help your stress levels.
  • Find a stroller that is thin enough to fit through crowds, has a snack tray, and has a place to stash things. This is my favorite if you need a double stroller option.

Miserable Mistake #6:
Not Being Realistic

Take your expectations…and lower them.

You know how long it takes you to get through grocery shopping with basic distractions? This is going to make that look like a trip to the mailbox.

Remember you are there to have FUN, not see everything. Rushing everything will end up just making everyone cranky.

Kids may not remember everything they did, but they will remember how they felt.

  • Pace yourself. There is a slim chance you will be able to see everything.  Between lines and the slow pace of a toddler, it is best to pick a few main things you want to see and count everything else as gravy.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw plans out the window. Kids have a different idea of fun, and they might enjoy hanging out in one area for hours rather than trying to hit every single ride.
  • Don’t expect the weather to cooperate with you.  It may be hot, it may rain, but if you do it right you can still have just as much fun. I’ll let you in on a little secret—rainy days are typically when all the local passholders will flock to the parks. Cooler weather, smaller crowds, low wait times, and the rain typically passes pretty quickly. Grab some ponchos, then take a food break or see an inside show while you wait it out.
  • Plan some recovery time. A full day or days at the park will wear you out. Give yourself a day just to play in the hotel. A lot of hotels around theme parks are fun in and of themselves, and have some amazing pools.

Miserable Mistake #7:
Not being Present

No matter how much you want to post that cute picture or follow up on something, do not check Facebook or email while you’re at the park.

Keep your family time sacred for the day if at all possible. Nothing will throw you out of fun mode faster than Aunt Helen’s latest rant or that stressful email that certainly SOMEBODY back at the office can handle (and if they can’t, they should pay you more and still give you uninterrupted vacation time, just like you gave Sally). Even if it’s just one little thing, it’s not worth it.

While you may will need some “me” time for sanity’s sake, give your family the courtesy of being fully present for as much of the day as you can.  You’ll find you all end up enjoying it more.

You’re Ready to Book That Trip!

The difference between an epic adventure and being lost in the woods is a matter of preparation–and you are now prepared to be a theme park adventurer spoken about in awe and hushed tones by other moms for years to come.

Going on theme park trips as the one “in charge” may not feel the same as when you were a kid, but it doesn’t mean it has to feel any less magical.  

Now that you know exactly which mistakes to avoid, you’ll have a much easier time being fully present. Which, really, is the best present of all.

Ready for some pretty epic family memories?

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