Theme Park Tips

By: Chelle Koster Walton

Insider tips for navigating Florida's theme parks

As the sky began to sprinkle with rain, the part-time Walt Disney Resorts employee surprised her out-of-town guests. "Time to hit the parks!" she announced.

Her insider tip to head to the theme parks just as the skies opened up proved visionary. As our group headed in, throngs headed out, and the light rain didn't deter rides – or last long.

Universal Orlando Resort -- Carrie McLaren

Any holiday has the potential to be one of the busiest times for visiting central Florida's theme parks. In fact, any time kids are typically on vacation will prove busy. So, if you have no kids, or young kids who don't need to follow a school schedule, try to plan your trip in off-times (mid-week; non-summer months; avoiding holidays).

Here are some more insider strategies for the theme parks. With a little planning, theme parks can be that great family vacation you want them to be.

Manta at SeaWorld Orlando -- Visit Orlando

When to Go

Besides seasonal considerations, certain days of the week are slower at the theme parks, usually Tuesday through Thursday. Arrive early to avoid crowds; timing your arrival can set the mood for the whole day.

Strategy-planning begins before you enter the gate. Study web sites and maps to plot your priorities. Pre-purchase tickets if possible (multiple-day passes and Orlando Magic Your Way Tickets save time and money).

Keep in mind that weather, crowds, ride availability and other factors can affect your plan, so be flexible. Do the most popular rides early in the morning, moving to the back of the park first. Use peak times in the early afternoon for eating, shopping and shows.

Recharged, you'll step out into the park ready for more thrilling fun. Ride lines often slack off toward late afternoon, so save the big attractions you missed in the morning for later.

Disney's Festival of Fantasy Parade -- image courtesy of Walt Disney World 

Disney Parks uses FASTPASS+, where you can reserve a time for select attractions and character meet/greets (available to all guests at no extra charge). FASTPASS tickets set an appointed time for you to return to an attraction via special, shorter lines.

Universal Orlando's similar program is Universal Express (available at an additional charge; or free to guests at Universal Resort properties). Universal Express allows you to take the "express" line to some of the most popular rides, and does not require that you come at an appointed time.

Transformers: The Ride -- Universal Orlando Resort

If you're willing to split up your group, opt for quicker Single Rider lines. Afterward, comparing the thrills of the ride with your family and friends is almost as much fun as the ride itself.

Dine with friends Elmo & Friends -- Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Comfort & Safety

Wear comfortable shoes, sunscreen and quick-drying clothes. Consider dressing small kids in swimsuits underneath their clothes so they can enjoy the wet play areas. Rather than a purse, a small backpack is a good easy-carry option.

If you love the "soak" attractions, bring towels and extra clothes, and rent a locker. Ask store clerks about the convenience of free package pickup or delivery at some theme parks. You'll want to be unfettered as you enjoy the parks' attractions.

Space Mountain -- Walt Disney World Resort

Family travel

Before entering the park, prepare your little ones. Explain that, just like in cartoons, most of what the theme parks have in store is not real. If you have children who tend to race ahead or wander off, pin information about the parents/guardians (and a cell phone number) to their clothing.

As you enter the park, decide upon an easily identifiable landmark where you can meet should anyone in your family get separated or lost. If you do decide to split up, set up a meeting point that is easy to get to and has comfortable seating in the shade. Walkie-talkies seem to be a popular accessory for groups in the park (Space Mountain? Roger that. 10-4.).

Don't try to do it all with young kids, or everyone ends up cranky. If you're staying at a nearby hotel, take a mid-afternoon break from the park for a meal or swimming and return later. Don't forget to get a hand stamp for free re-admission. A relaxed pace makes for a relaxed day.

Don't push your kids when they're reluctant or scared. At any age, most children can sense what experiences they will be comfortable with. Let them explore at their own pace. If this is their first time, everything is wonderfully new.

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