A little bit of insider knowledge goes a long way when it comes to navigating themeparks with kids.
TWK travel manager Nicole Edgar has just returned from Disneyland California, Universal Studios and California Adventure park. She shared her tips with Family Travel. Read on to find out how to avoid the crowds, handle the heat and dodge the expensive snacks.
Cheaper theme park tickets and passes
Pre-purchase tickets online or prior to arrival, in advance. You may get discounted rates or season specials. Plus, this will save you a lot of time when arriving at the theme parks, as you won’t have to queue up at ticket windows. Bypass those ticket windows and head to the turnstiles.
Disney ‘hopper passes’ allow you to ‘hop’ or interchange between the Disneyland Resort theme park and California’s Adventure Park, on the same day. Hopper passes are more expensive. But they give you so much more flexibility.
Keep your tickets and passes safe
Buy lanyards with clear plastic pockets attached, for every person to wear around their necks. Put their theme park tickets and fast passes inside to protect them from getting damaged or lost. This tip is particularly useful if the passes are for multiple-entry days. Some theme park tickets and passes are as flimsy as bus tickets. They will tear or get damaged easily. But remember to tuck the lanyards inside your tops for thrill rides.
Theme park car parking
If driving to a theme park, take a photo of your car with an easily identifiable landmark in the shot, such as a sign or tree. Then you can easily find your car after a long, tiring day. The car park may have been mostly empty when you arrived, but they fill up fast. Remembering where you parked it could take ages.
Theme park shuttle buses
Take a shuttle bus to/from your hotel to the theme park is often a cheaper option than car parking.
Bring photo ID for everyone. A lot of theme park passes purchased in Australia, need to be exchanged on arrival at the theme park, with proof of nationality and ID, as per your passport. Plus you will need a photo ID to purchase alcohol, regardless of your age.
Best times to visit
Either hit the theme parks first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid the biggest crowds and queues. For theme parks that are open until late in the evening, such as Disneyland, think about visiting mid-afternoon onwards, to avoid the hottest part of the day.
A lot of the lines are outdoors. They have little shade or misting fans to keep cool. Many families leave during the afternoon because younger kids will get tired. If you sleep in and start later the crowds will go down.
When not to go
Avoid weekends, public holidays and school holidays. These times have big crowds and long waits for rides, food and shops. Summer, when the weather is better, is usually a magnet for crowds.
Dress sense & what to pack
Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking a lot and standing in queues. Make your feet comfortable. For theme parks with water rides and attractions, wear your swimmers underneath your clothing and bring a towel to share.
Moist towelettes are great for cooling down hot faces, and for cleaning sticky fingers and faces.
As you can imagine, food, drinks and souvenirs are pricey within theme parks. Maybe bring your own refillable drink bottles, sunscreen, snacks, sunglasses, hats and a camera.
Be prepared to have your bags checked thoroughly by security, including handbags, prior to entering the theme parks.
If possible, try to only have one family member carrying a backpack on behalf of everyone. Security measures may include x-ray machines and wand scanners waved over your body. Remove all metallic items from your body prior to going through, such as jewellery, belts, glasses, sunglasses and phones from your pockets. Selfie sticks are banned at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Leave them at the hotel.
Bar codes & QR codes
Most theme park tickets and fast passes these days are bar coded or have QR codes on them, which are scanned when going through turnstiles, or entering in ride queues.
Plan of attack
Pre-plan your visit. Look at the theme park apps, websites or maps. Work out your plan of attack, prior to arrival. Mark the attractions that are ‘must see’ and are your highest priority, and go for them first. Check the times of shows or parades to decide what you want to see, and plan everything else around those times. Carry a highlighter to mark attractions on the map.
Theme park apps
Download the theme parks’ free app. It shows the opening times, showtimes, wait times, restaurant availability and reservations. The use of the app relates to how well the theme parks’ wi-fi is working. For me, Universal Studios Hollywood’s wi-fi was fantastic, whereas Disneyland’s didn’t work at all. You may have good intentions to use the theme park apps to be efficient with your time, but if the wi-fi’s not working, the app is useless. Having said that, Disneyland now offers a Maxpass for an additional cost, but again, without wi-fi to use the app, it’s a waste of money.
Ride height, age and medical condition restrictions
Check the height and age restrictions before you go, via the theme parks’ apps or websites. Then you can rule out rides that are not applicable to your children and avoid disappointment.
Some thrill rides are not recommended for people with certain medical conditions, such as pregnancy, back injuries or epilepsy. Read the rides’ warning signs near the entrances, or on the theme park maps for suitability.
Pack a cheap poncho to protect yourself from getting drenched on wet water rides. Wet rides are a fantastic way to cool you and the kids down when the weather is hot But the crowds for water rides are bigger then too. If you don’t have a poncho, don’t go on a water ride early in the morning, otherwise, you’ll be walking around wet until the weather warms up.
Bring a ziplock or snaplock plastic bag to protect your mobile phones (or cell phones as the Americans call them), from the water.
Money & budgeting
Set a budget and agree on how much the kids can spend (or not) at those tempting theme-park gift shops.
For older children, an allowance for the day to cover extras such as soft drinks, snacks, ice cream, and souvenirs helps to avoid arguments and teaches responsibility.
Preventing lost children – a designated meeting spot
Discuss with your kids the plan of what to do in case they get lost. Do they stand still where they are? Do they backtrack to where they last saw you? Do they get to a pre-designated meeting spot? Do they ask a theme park employee or security guard for help? Mobile phone batteries can go flat, so it’s important to have a plan B, when you can’t text or call each other.
Pre-assign and designate a meeting spot to meet up with your travelling party at a certain time, or if you get lost.
Write your name and phone number on an ID band around their wrist, or put those details, and your business card, in a lanyard pouch around their necks, or tucked into their sock. Worst-case scenario, literally write your contact details on their skin, onto their wrist. If the kids get lost, get them to ask a helpful adult, such as the police, security guard, theme park employee in uniform or shopkeeper, to call you.
Maximise your time
Most people walk the theme park circuit in a clockwise direction, from the main entrance. Walk in an anti-clockwise direction to reduce the crowds and wait times for rides. Or start at the back of the park, and work your way towards the front.
If you are happy to miss parades, fireworks and shows – these are the best times to go on rides. Most of the crowds are distracted.
Disneyland provides a free ‘fastpass’ service for their more popular rides. The FastPass gives you a pre-allocated hour to bypass the queue. Go through the ‘fastpass’ entrance and you will be able to get on the ride straight away. Signs showing the queue times can be found at the ride’s entrance.
You can buy the FastPass from a ticket kiosk near the ride’s entrance. But you can only get one fast pass at a time. Families can get another one for a different ride when they are within 30 minutes of the first allocated fast pass ride time. This can be frustrating because you have to walk around the whole Disneyland theme park, to find all of the individual fast pass ticket kiosks for the rides that you want to do. Disneyland does not have a centralised ticket kiosk for all the rides. You will have to walk all over the park, and through the crowds repeatedly, to get them.
A lot of other theme parks, like Universal Studios, offer a similar system, but it’s either an ‘Express Pass’ or a ‘VIP Pass’, depending on which ticket type you purchase.
If you are happy to be separated from your group, lining up in the queue for ‘single riders’ will get you onto the rides faster. Sometimes you can do rides before the longer queue reaches the front.
Take your time and pace yourself, particularly if you’re visiting a theme park with younger kids. You won’t be able to see and do everything. 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 in the shade and air-conditioning. Multiple day entry tickets are great for this very reason, to allow flexibility and enough time to see and do everything, at your own pace.
Shows in English
If you are visiting a theme park in a foreign country, check that the show or performance you are queueing up to see will be in English. You can tell this via an icon on the theme park map, or check with the theme park information desk.
A charged power bank for your phone is essential. You will be taking loads of photos and looking up the theme park’s app repeatedly.
Flying foreign objects
Remove all loose items from your body and pockets prior to going on thrill rides, such as sunglasses and coins. Tuck your lanyards inside your tops. Some thrill rides have pockets to store your mobile phones and loose items, attached to your carriage or seat.
Locker, pram and stroller storage
Most theme parks have lockers available for a fee, to store your belongings. They also have designated areas to ‘park’ prams and strollers. Just remember what yours looks like, and as silly as it sounds, secure a baggage ID tag to it.
Souvenirs, snacks & shopping
Hold off buying souvenirs, showbags and shopping until near the end of your visit. Otherwise, you’ll have to carry them around with you the whole day.
Plus, I’ve seen many strollers tip backwards with the toddler still in it, due to the extra weight of shopping hung from the handles.
If you do see something you just have to have. – buy it. You probably won’t see it, or be able to buy it, anywhere else.
One thing you should try in Disney World is Dole Whip. This is a frozen mix of pineapple and ice. Adults can get it with a splash of rum.
Selfie sticks, mobile phones and umbrellas
Selfie sticks are banned in all Disneyland parks. Having said that, be prepared for people to hold up their smartphones and cameras in your line of view, particularly during the parades. If you have an umbrella up to protect you from the rain or sun, you will be asked to put it down by security, once the parade moves along.
Theme Park Accommodation
Stay at a theme park hotel if you can. It will give you early access to the theme parks and flexibility to come and go during the day. Plus you will also have access to restaurants, character dining, and Disneyland resort guests get a magic band. These open hotel doors, can pay for everything in the park, give you park access and store your fast passes. You may even get a view of the fireworks show from your hotel room.
Disney character breakfasts
Disney Character breakfasts and lunches are an additional cost. But little kids, and big kids, like myself, will really love meeting the Disney characters.
They do add value to your Disney holiday experience. This is a good option to guarantee meeting Disney characters. It saves you time queuing up in the park. These character dining reservations must be pre-booked up to 60 days prior to guarantee availability. And Disney professional photographers are quite happy to take your own camera or smartphone off you, to take photos of you with the character photos…you don’t have to buy Disney’s professional photos if you don’t want to.