I Go to 20-Plus Theme Parks Alone Each Year—It’s My Job

It's a passion and a job, but there are a few things you should know

Arthur Standing in front of a roller coaster

Photo: Arthur Levine; Illustration: TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

We’re celebrating the joy of solo travel. Let us inspire your next adventure with features about why 2021 is the ultimate year for a solo trip and how traveling alone can actually come with amazing perks. Then, read personal features from writers who have traversed the globe alone, from hiking the Appalachian Trail, to riding rollercoasters, and finding themselves while discovering new places. Whether you’ve taken a solo trip or you’re considering it, learn why a trip for one should be on your bucket list.

When people find out that I’m a theme park and attractions journalist, they invariably respond with raised eyebrows, a big smile, and some variation of “Wow! Can I carry your bags on your next trip?” I know they’re just kidding. But here’s the thing: Even if they were serious and I wanted to do it, I couldn’t accommodate their request.

That’s because most of the events I attend are by invitation only and restricted to members of the media. So I generally go to parks alone. And I go to lots of them.

My fascination with theme parks goes back decades. I have vivid memories of going to Revere Beach when I was barely a toddler and being mesmerized by the Cyclone roller coaster, the double Ferris wheel, and the other rides. (Sadly, the rides are long gone at the beach, as they are at many former seaside amusement areas.) As I got older and visited places such as Canobie Lake Park, the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and Disneyland, the fascination only intensified.

Eventually, I combined my journalism background with my passion for parks and, in the early 1990s, launched a career writing and reporting about parks and attractions. It has been and continues to be an incredible ride.

My writing has taken me across the U.S. and around the world. I was invited to attend the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland and interview Disney CEO Bob Iger at the celebration. I met and interviewed Dolly Parton at her wonderful Smoky Mountains theme park, Dollywood. I’ve had the honor of being the first guest to ride new roller coasters such as Wonder Woman Golden Lasso at Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Mako at SeaWorld Orlando. I’ve been featured on national television, and I’ve even been invited by Walt Disney Imagineering to speak to a group of Imagineers.

I truly feel blessed to have my job. But there are two things you should know.

One is that, as much as I enjoy what I do, it is a job. I have deadlines to honor, word counts to consider, photos to take and edit, information and resources to obtain, research to uncover, reporting to conduct, marketing and promotion to do, and plenty of other things that require my time and careful attention. It never rises to the level of “be careful what you wish for,” but it is work.

The second thing you should know about my peculiar vocation—one you might not expect—is that it can be a bit lonely visiting parks as a party of one.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Traveler

Theme parks, amusement parks, water parks, and attractions are among the most inherently social spaces on the planet. They are specifically designed for friends and families to gather together with large groups of other people for communal experiences. There is no sitting on the sidelines, whiling away on smartphones, burying oneself in a book, or engaging in any other solitary experiences at parks. People travel to theme parks to be actively engaged with one another.

When there isn’t anybody with whom to engage, it’s often disconcerting. Yes, I feel the adrenaline rush of thrill rides, but at least half the fun of braving a roller coaster’s first drop, getting a huge pop of airtime, experiencing the crushing sensation of positive G-forces, or screaming like a ninny as I get tossed upside down, is sharing these experiences with a ride mate. There’s something affirming about exchanging knowing looks, laughing nervously together, and trading high-fives with a friend as you both celebrate a coaster conquest—and something disjointed about pulling into the unload station with nobody sitting next to you.

It’s even worse to see groups of people engaged in animated conversations, parents hugging their children, couples walking hand in hand at parks, and others having a ball together. It makes me long for my family and friends.

Fortunately, there is a cadre of journalists who cover the parks and attractions beat, and we often attend the same events. Through the years, I’ve become quite friendly with many of them and sometimes get to hang out with them when we are on assignment together. I joke that reuniting with my fellow writers can be like going to summer camp. After spending months apart, we reconnect in the same places, catch up with one another, enjoy fun activities, and share meals. (Although going to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is a heckuva lot more fun than making a birdhouse in arts & crafts.)

It's Really a Small World

As a solo adult, it can be especially strange to check out attractions targeted to families with young children. I know that I’m doing it for work, but the optics can be discomforting to others in the park.

One time I was at Disneyland and headed over to “It's a Small World,” perhaps the ultimate ride for families with young children. As I was walking along the bridge near the loading station, I could see a man hold up his single index finger when the cast member asked him how many were in his group. Because the crowds were light that day, she gave him an entire 15-passenger boat to himself. As the solitary rider’s boat passed under the bridge, he caught my eye, looked completely embarrassed, and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Can you believe this?” Moments later, I was assigned my own boat and had to endure the same cruise of shame.

Then, there are the times I am invited to visit parks before or after hours or other times when they are closed to the general public. Without the screams, laughter, and energy of other people, attractions and entire parks feel off-kilter. There is even a hint of melancholy. It’s like somebody threw an elaborate party with bright lights, decorations, food, music, and wonderful activities, but no guests showed up.

Tips for Solo Visitors at Theme Parks

There are plenty of ways to enjoy parks if you are by yourself. It doesn't take a group of people to appreciate the gut-wrenching roller coasters, over-the-top shows, crazy water park slides, food that tastes great (but is often not all that great for you), fireworks-filled nighttime spectaculars, colorful, vibrant midways, and all the other trappings that theme parks and amusement parks offer. That said, here are some strategies I’ve developed through the years to connect with people and make the most of my visits.

  • Theme park visitors spend plenty of time waiting in lots of lines. As you slowly make your way through a line, try to strike up conversations with those just ahead or behind you. I’ve met some interesting people that way. Often, when it's time to board attractions, my newfound friends will invite me to join their group in the ride vehicles.
  • Regardless of whether you spoke to them while waiting in line, consider talking to the folks in your ride vehicle. Especially in the case of roller coasters or other thrill rides, try breaking the ice and establishing a bond over the wild event you are about to experience.
  • One of the benefits of visiting parks by yourself is that you could take advantage of the single-rider lines. These are separate lines that are typically much shorter than the regular standby lines and will get you on rides more quickly. When you reach the front of the line, you’ll be seated with other people whose groups do not fill the ride vehicle.
  • If a park offers them, opt for restaurants with bar seating. Then chat with nearby patrons or bartenders.