For many families, a trip to Florida wouldn’t be complete without visiting one or more of the famous theme parks, and my family is no exception. As soon as the destination (Florida) was decided, the theme park planning and anticipation began!
After deciding on Florida, we needed to make another choice: did we want to spend more time in the many amazing theme parks in central Florida or would we prefer to head to one of the coasts and be close to a beach? In the end, we decided to stay close to the beach and devote two of our six days to driving inland for theme park adventures. If the parks are your priority, though, you’ll want to stay in the Orlando area so that you don’t have to face a long drive on the days you’ll be spending at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Legoland Florida, Seaworld, Busch Gardens, etc.
Now: once you’ve finalized where you’ll rest your head at night, you’ll need to plan your days. Florida’s theme parks are larger-than-life both figuratively and literally, so you should plan on more than one day to explore them. While I was in Florida with my daughters, we visited both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. I’ll share some specifics on each park in a different post, but for now, here are some tips for making the most of your theme park experience in general.
1. PLAN AHEAD. This is especially important if you don’t have several days to explore a theme park at your leisure, or if you’re not staying on-resort. If you have oodles of time and your hotel room is on the premises, you might be able to wing your theme park experience. If not, then make sure you know which attractions are must-sees, which ones you’d like to experience but could miss if you had to, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether.
List your priorities and make sure everyone else in the party agrees. Then, check the park’s website for estimated wait times at each attraction as well as figuring out where they are in relation to each other. The busiest period at any theme park is mid-morning to mid-afternoon, so plan to hit the most popular attractions outside this time, and use the peak period to visit the other rides, or to take a break.
Part of planning ahead is buying your tickets in advance. You will save tons of time in line at the park gates (time that you could be using to get to that first attraction) if you arrive with tickets in hand, ready to enter the park. You can buy your tickets on the park websites, but I’d recommend using a service like Kissimmee Guest Services. They have a low-price guarantee that means you’ll always save on admission, and they’re an authorized ticket seller for Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and Sea World. They even offer free delivery of your tickets to your vacation home, resort or hotel.
2. ARRIVE EARLY. There’s no getting around it; this is the best way to get the most out of your theme park visit. Aim to be in line a good 45 minutes to an hour before the park opens, know exactly where your first must-see attraction is located and bee-line it straight there the moment the gates open. You’ll be guaranteed a significantly shorter lineup time than during peak hours, and you’ll be ready for your lunch break before the peak lunch rush too.
3. BRING A PACK. Most Orlando theme parks allow you to bring your own food and water into the resort (check individual websites to be sure) and the wise visitor takes advantage of this. Water fountains are relatively abundant at the parks, and they’re great places to refill your water bottles for free, but buying drinks and/or snacks at the resort is outrageously expensive. A good rule of thumb is to plan on eating meal(s) at a restaurant and saving your money for a special souvenir instead of several snacks and over-priced bottled water.
In addition to food and water, you should make sure your pack contains a first-aid kit with a pain reliever (some of the more intense rides can cause headaches, as can the sun and heat), nausea/indigestion remedy (nobody likes feeling sick after a vigorous ride or a greasy meal) and bandages (all that walking is bound to cause blisters). Don’t forget to pack sunscreen, too, so you can reapply at intervals throughout your visit.
4. SET BOUNDARIES. Know your limits and stick to them. Kids in amusement parks are like, well, kids in amusement parks. They will want to stay forever, ride all the rides, eat all the candy and spend all the money, until they crash. And when they crash, you’d better not be far from the car because: whining. If you set boundaries and expectations in advance, it will be easier to drag your youngsters away or talk them out of the $99 light-up, musical, custom embroidered mouse ears that they simply have to have. You may want to set a leaving time, and give warnings reminders as that time approaches.
Definitely set a budget, and then, depending on your child’s age and personality, let them have some leeway when picking out souvenirs. For my daughters, I told them how much I was willing to spend on souvenirs and then I let them choose what to buy within that limit. It worked great: they got what they wanted, I didn’t overspend, there was no whining and everyone was happier and more relaxed.
5. BE ADAPTABLE. Yes, you should plan your visit and yes, you should set boundaries, but you also need to be adaptable to circumstances as they arise. What if your must-do ride is closed on the day you arrive? What if it pours rain? What if you said you’d spend $30 on souvenirs but the really awesome Hermione Granger wand your daughter has loved forever costs $35? (All of these things happened to us!) A plan and boundaries will help shape your experience and can prevent mishaps, but remember that theme parks are supposed to be fun. If you remember this, then you’ll be able to roll with it when stuff happens. Because it will.
Visiting these world-class theme parks is the trip of a lifetime. Plan ahead so you can make the most of your time, but don’t forget to actually enjoy it while you’re there!