How do you survive taking kids to theme parks? Visiting one can make a memorable day out, but it can also be a stressful experience, especially if you are unprepared.
Many members of the h2g2 community have shared their experiences in taking children of all ages to theme parks around the world.
So, what is a Theme Park?
An adventure or pleasure park is an area where several rides and other fairground attractions are located next to each other, often with no corresponding correlation between neighbouring attractions and usually each ride or activity is subject to a separate charge. A theme park is like a pleasure park but with one vital difference; the park has one or more themes that tie the park as a whole, or areas of the park, together.
One of the most common themes found at a theme park is that of animals. Many theme parks have evolved out of previously-established zoos, country parks and safari parks, like Chessington World of Adventures, formerly Chessington Zoo, and Legoland Windsor, which was once Windsor Safari Park. Many continue to be animal attractions too, such as Busch Gardens, Flamingoland, Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, Drusillas etc. The boundary is often hard to spot, especially as many zoos have play areas and even rides such as miniature railways. The main difference between a theme park and a zoo is that at a theme park, greater emphasis is placed on play and entertainment than on the animals themselves, conservation and education.
When visiting a theme park, the key is in the planning. Plan and research where you are going in advance. Most theme parks have a map online, and often descriptions of the rides, so you can work out which rides are appropriate to the age range concerned and plan to go there first. Download this map, look at review sites (to find out more about the rides and, crucially, the queuing times), talk to the children beforehand about what they most want to do and plan to do that first. Their mates may well have told them which rides are absolutely fantastic. Ask your friends and check websites to see which the most popular and most enjoyable rides are.
Some theme parks issue very young children with a badge to identify them and the contact details of their parent/guardian. It's worth making your own security arrangements though, you can make your own identity badges or wrist band/bracelet including your mobile phone number so you can be found quickly. Do acquaint yourself with the location of the First Aid building and the Lost Children centre if there is one, before you need them.
Get there early - ideally you should arrive before the park opens. You will probably have to queue to get into the car park, and you'll still have to queue to actually get into the park1. It's good practice for later, when you finally get to queue for the rides themselves. If the children are old enough to own mobile phones, ensure they have games on them so they can while away the hours spent in queues.
Go straight to the most popular ride you planned to go to first. The queues are shortest at the start and at the very end of the day (obviously) and sometimes a good tactic is to start with the ride at the furthest end of the park. The kids will of course see other things they suddenly want to do while they're there, so prioritise what they identified beforehand. Try to work out a structure for the day, perhaps agreeing that whatever else you all do, you'll go to see the animals at 2pm or something. Keep an eye on the queues, and also look out for where other people with children the same age as yours are going.
If possible, only go on a fine day2. There is an awful lot of hanging around at this kind of place and children may whine enough about that as it is. If they have more reasons to whine - cold, wet - it becomes unbearable. Also, they will get at best damp and at worst absolutely soaked on the water rides. You can wrap up in waterproofs beforehand but the seats themselves get wet and it's no fun having a damp bum on a cold windy day. For the same reason, get them to wear lightweight trousers that will dry out fairly quickly, rather than jeans which won't. Keep mobile phones and cameras etc in a waterproof plastic bag kept in a zippable pocket before the water ride.
Look out for leaflets available in tourist information shops and hotels. Some theme parks even have guide books or visitors' guides published – you might be able to get a cheap one online, or from your library. Read through these and pay attention to the advice. Check offers in newspapers and online discounts so you can get in cheaper. Tesco Clubcard vouchers can be traded for 'Days Out' vouchers but do check these will be accepted at your chosen theme park to avoid disappointment.
If you have a young child, it's a good idea to measure them before you go just so you know how tall they are. Many rides have height restrictions that are strictly enforced, and no-one enjoys queuing for ages only to not be allowed on a ride.
One Researcher noted:
After our last visit to Alton Towers in 2010 we said we needed a couple of years off from paying a vast amount of money to sit and drink coffee all day. We went to Legoland instead last year and will probably do the same again this year. Legoland needs a slightly different tactic - we all agreed after our first visit that we should have spent more time looking at all the fantastic models and in the create centre, and less time queuing for okay rides. And that's exactly what we've done on subsequent visits. But there are some things you only find out after you've been.
Visiting a theme park is very hard on the feet. Wear comfy shoes and sit down at every opportunity. One researcher is a strong believer in Crocs; comfy enough to walk around in all day, and it doesn't matter if they get wet on the splash rides.
Wear clothes with secure, zippable pockets. Go through this with the children in the days before you go, so that they are absolutely clear that the moment they are through the barrier and going towards the ride, the mobile phone, camera, etc, is zipped safely away. If it falls out and turns into an interesting 3D jigsaw there will be floods of tears and it will be a day you never forget for all the wrong reasons, plus you won't be able to stay in touch while apart in the park. So get them to actually practice zipping it away in the safety of your own home - like a fire drill - and make a really big thing about this in advance.
Young children come with a lot of kit. When carrying changes of clothes, towels, nappies3, food, drink, favourite comforter in case they get stressed, entertainment for queues, etc, you soon end up carrying more equipment than a Roman Legion. Yet bags usually cannot be taken onto rides or other attractions, and soon become a liability.
If you are taking bags, find out where the lockers are and how much they cost beforehand. Some parks provide lockers for free for limited time periods, and then charge high amounts if you go over that. For instance, you can use the locker for free for half an hour – long enough to queue for a ride the locker is next to – but any longer than that and the cost mounts up. Others have a standard charge. Of course, if you are in a party where someone is not planning on going on all the rides, the bags can be carefully guarded by a volunteer.
Food and Drink
What about food and drinks, are we likely to be ripped off inside, and need to take gallons of fluids? Is it possible to return to the car park to get supplies?
Some parks... some... have refillable drinks. All you need to do is buy the cup, which can be quite expensive, but for the rest of the day, your drinks are free. Just make sure you get your money's worth of refills, and if you don't mind the germs, one cup can be shared with your partner.
Theme parks are not places to go if you mind your children eating unhealthy food. There probably won't be a nice, healthy salad on any of the 'restaurant' menus inside the park. There are often picnic areas, although these tend not to be the best kept areas of the park and are the areas most likely to attract wasps. Some parks search bags on entry and prevent you from bringing in your own food, but most will allow you to bring in your own food and drink.
Don't go during wasp season, especially if you are planning on giving the children treats like ice cream, as that can ruin a picnic.
Wasp season? Yep - been there and ended up with an unhappy adult, but learned about the First Aid facility, which was fascinating for us children.
If you are spending a lot of time queuing, you could take a picnic in and maybe eat your food in a queue. Of course, if you and your children eat and drink too much during the queue, when you get to the front after an hour's queuing, you might find the little ones desperately need to leave the queue to rush to the toilet...
One researcher's top tip was to grab an iced coffee to have during a mid-day parade or show. It's a great way to both cool down and perk up.
The 'stuff' factor is also why you may end up using the on-site eateries. The problem isn't so much the cost - they may not necessarily be that much more expensive than eating out anywhere else, it's just that eating out is itself expensive, especially when large groups of people are concerned. The problem is that you can't generally take bags (eg containing your packed lunch) on the rides. If you are using the 'central point' system, you yourself could have a fairly huge bag, and, as you aren't going on any rides, this doesn't present a problem. But you may still end up using the eateries, simply because it's a Very Long Day – you may take a packed lunch and then buy a meal later. Take things like fruit and water whatever you decide to do foodwise, because those will be overpriced - and it's more fun buying ice creams than it is buying apples. And have some (sugar-free) mints or something similar hidden away to avert a crisis such as temper tantrums.
Using the sit-down restaurants at a theme park can take a big chunk out of your day. First, you may have to wait about half an hour for your table. By the time you have sat down, ordered drinks, are given the menu, ordered your dinner, waited for your dinner, eaten your dinner, ordered your pudding, waited for your pudding, eaten your pudding, asked for the bill, been given the bill, paid the bill, been given your change, two or three hours might have passed. If you wanted to try to do every single ride in the park as quickly as possible, perhaps a snack or take-away option would be better.
If you wish to go on a real white-knuckle ride, try not to do these immediately after eating a big dinner...
There are often other activities for the adults to do, but will there be enough for an adult who does not enjoy thrill-seeking rides keep them happy?
Some adults don't enjoy rides, and may be happy to hold the bags, take the photos and enjoy just watching their family being excited and enjoying themselves. As children get older, the experience changes. Very young children will need watching closely to ensure they do not wander off and are safe at all times. It is a case of constant vigilance and not a moment's relapse, because otherwise they will be off and you will have no idea where they have gone or if they know their way back.
Older children and especially teenagers can be left to roam alone, especially if they check-in with you regularly. You might want to go with them to the first couple of queues, and point out signposts and other landmarks to get them into the way of thinking about this independently. If you can then base yourself at a central point, equipped, say, with a good book or Kindle, with the children checking in every so often, this is much easier (on you, possibly not on them). They are going to have to queue so you can suggest they check in with you after each ride. The deal with this though is that you have to stay put, or text them if you move temporarily (eg to go to the loo or get a coffee). And if you do move, you will have loads of stuff to take with you. So restricting the amount of stuff they bring would be a good idea. You may also need to relocate your central point depending on how big the park is, and get them to 'do' one particular area before you all move on to another part.
My mum has been to Legoland a few times, and never goes on rides. She always seems to find plenty to do to amuse herself, and doesn't complain about the cost to get in. Well, she does, but not enough to stop her going.
Of course, the opposite is often true. Adults may have finally arrived in Theme Park Land and desperately wish to have a ride on the exciting Big Ride that they have heard so much about, but are looking after their little loved one who is under age. Some parks have policies where two parents with one young child or baby can both enjoy a ride with the minimum of queuing. While one parent, say Dad, looks after the baby, the Mum queues and enjoys the ride. After the ride ends, Mum looks after the baby while Dad is allowed straight on the ride without having to queue from the beginning again. It may be worth asking whether this is allowed at the park you are visiting.
Relive Your Childhood
One of the appeals of taking children to theme parks is taking your own children to the places that you remember enjoying when you were their age, and passing on the shared experience. Several mentioned this nostalgic appeal:
One of the earliest holidays of my life was in the mid-1970s on the Isle of Wight. Many years later we returned with two things burned on our brains - climbing dinosaurs and getting out of the maze at Blackgang Chine. (The maze was not as tricky the second time!) ...Blackgang Chine... was a lovely place for the adults, but perhaps less exciting for the kids.
I've got photographs of myself as a young child on the back of [Blackgang Chine's] Stegosaurus and now photographs of my own children on the same Stegosaurus. They keep painting it different colours, but no matter what rides they build, it is always the most fun to climb onto the back of the Stegosaurus, and... walk through the legs of the giant smuggler at the entrance.
Enjoy the Park!
Many theme parks have evolved out of parks or gardens, and many still do have perfectly landscaped lawns, top-notch topiary and flawless flower beds which are ignored by those rushing to and fro, to and from the big attractions.
Usually when we go to Alton Towers I get an hour off to wander round the gardens at some point. We go in a big group where I'm not the only adult so that's fairly easy for me to negotiate. If it's just you, you could see them safely onto the end of a 45 minute queue, agree your meeting point, and have a wander then.
However the gardens aren't always a pleasurable experience. One Researcher remembers walking through a theme park's exotic plant section only for his wife to suffer a severe hay fever attack there.
Water Water Everywhere...
Many theme parks have water splash areas for the children to run around in, so take a change of clothes and swimming costumes/trunks. Always know where your towel is. With water rides, it is a good idea to do them together rather than one at the start and another one at the end of the day so you are wet once and dry off easily (unless you are in a hot climate and in need of a cool-down).
Going with Young Children
Young children would often prefer to run around and play on slides than queue for long periods on a ride. Especially if the ride is bumpy, loud, in the dark, high off the ground or in some other way unexpected. Often children prefer the safest, quietest and dullest rides, such as the train or monorail, where they can feel safe and admire the views.
Many theme parks have official characters that can be met. These are usually people in costumes. Many young children find meeting people in costumes a very scary experience. You should not assume that because your child insists on wearing Peppa Pig pyjamas and clothes, cuddles a Peppa Pig in bed every night and watches Peppa Pig every day that when they arrive in Peppa Pig World they would want to meet Peppa Pig. Meeting Mickey Mouse or someone else in a larger-than-life cuddly costume is often extremely frightening for little ones.
The important thing to remember is not to force them. The characters in the costume are used to children being nervous, and probably know a few tricks to help calm the child down. If your child still does not feel happy seeing them up close, prolonging the experience is only going to result in making the situation worse. Perhaps take the child a few steps back and encourage them to wave at the character instead.
I wasn't keen on them in Disney, where they are everywhere, but my mum admitted she wasn't keen either, so we interacted with them together and stopped each other being frightened.
Going to a theme park is tiring for young children, especially as they are exciting, involve a lot of running around and walking, and so some form of pushchair is a must for the under sixes. Many theme parks will hire these out, but the cost of a couple of days hire is usually greater than the cost of purchasing a mid-range one from a shop.
When you take a pushchair, chances are you will need to leave it outside a ride, show, etc, at some point while the child is taken inside. Try to leave it in a designated area. Pushchairs are often moved on if parked in an unauthorised area; the last thing you want to do is waste time trying to find out where it has been moved to if you have an exhausted child in need of a nap needing to be placed in it.
It is also very easy to leave it outside one attraction, and then visit a neighbouring attraction, followed by the attraction next to that one and then the one close to that. Before you know it, the pushchair is the other side of the park and your child, having been on their feet all day, is rather vocally informing you of their desire to sit down...
If you do leave the pushchair for a long period of time, it's often a good idea to put the hood up and rain cover on. The last thing you want to do is come back with a half-asleep child after seeing an indoor show or eating dinner, only to discover that it's soaking wet following a sudden unexpected shower...
Rides are not the sole feature at a theme park, but often dominate over the other attractions. When going on a ride with a young child, it is a good idea to place them away from the door to the ride vehicle and sit next to the door yourself, to prevent them from getting out. Also ensure that any restraint is in place and correctly fastened.
Designed to be deceptive and always look shorter than they actually are. Just when you think that you're at the end of the queue, often you turn a corner and discover that there's a whole new room to queue in.
One thing I have learned (from my kids) is that it's less tedious to stand in a queue than to just hang around, since there is a sense of anticipation of the ride which livens things up. It's just a pity there are so few rides I'm interested in.
You need to decide before you go if you are willing to pay for one of the automatic photos that are taken on practically every ride. The children may want you to and very occasionally the photo is worth buying, but usually it isn't. If you buy the photo for every ride it will cost a fortune.
Nowadays it is possible for people coming off rides to take out their camera-phones and photograph the monitor showing the ride photo. A few theme parks have cottoned on to this and riders need to ask members of staff to see their photograph, which they will only display if they can see that you do not have a camera primed.
Here are two of our Researchers' comments about theme park side stalls:
We took five to Lightwater Valley's Angry Birds Land during the summer, I could have wept at how expensive all the extra bits are. Three pounds to play hook a duck, £5 if you wanted a chance to win a better prize, six or seven other games around the place all with alluring soft toys and a shop that sold cans of themed drinks at almost £2 each.
We won't pay for those extra stalls. If the kids want to go on them they have to pay for it with their pocket money. Generally they save their cash for the Mighty Shop of Tat at the end.
This brings us to:
Exit Through the Gift Shop?
Gift shop - unavoidable - and as it's probably the last place you go, everybody is tired and grumpy and it can all end really badly with a huge row about what you are and are not prepared to spend money on. So, discuss the limit beforehand, and be prepared for a long wait while they pick over every single blasted piece of tat in the shop and run back and forth several times pleading for just another £5/£1/30p. Hold firm.
Our Researchers provided the following general hints and tips:
I find it useful to take a photo of the board near the entrance with the map, for later reference. The kids might or might not be able to use this, or might or might not find it a good idea. You can also snap things like boards with information on them about feeding times, or times of special shows (falconry, seal performances) or activities or events.
A rule of thumb; the kids walk four times the amount you do. At the end of the day, the children will be tired. One Researcher advised don't them sleep in the car on the way home, while another disagreed, stating put them in their pyjamas before you drive off, so you can put them straight to bed as soon as you arrive home.
I always found any shows, entertainment or parades were well done, provide a useful change of pace, focal point for meeting the group, and (for sunny days or Florida) can be a chance to get out of the sun in the middle of the day.
When at Paulton's Park, there are two virtually identical rides: Grandpa Pig's boat ride and the Viking Boat Ride. Last year when I went there was a 30 minute queue for the Grandpa Pig's ride in Peppa Pig World, but you could walk right on to the Viking Boat ride a few yards away, which was practically the same, but with different shaped boats. Sometimes the popular brand names attract queues out of proportion to the ride itself.
Just leave the kids at home - my grandfather took me to Disneyland a few years ago, and it was great not having small people whining.
Better still, drop them off and not even go in yourself, thus saving fortunes in wasted entry fees!
We went on a particularly cold day, so the park was almost empty, and much of the advice wasn't relevant. For example, no need to plan rides, since the queues were small or non-existent; also, we were able to pop back to the car for a picnic, because we were able to park just a few metres from the entrance. One problem was trying to keep everyone warm, especially since the warming Hot Chocolates were repulsive (apparently made from the same sort of non-milk fat they use in margarine) and none of us drink tea or coffee. 'Pack hot water bottles' might have been useful advice that day.
Because the kids are so easily excited and dashing about from one place to another, they don't really take it in at the time. Also what with having your hands full - literally and figuratively - all day, you tend to forget to take photos. So keep reminding yourself to get some nice snaps, get strangers to take photos of you all in front of the sights, and you can look at them with the kids at Christmas. They'll be surprised how much they've forgotten. Which would be a shame as you will have spent so much on it.
These days out are much nicer when looked at in retrospect.