Taking the grandchildren to a theme park can be the trip of a lifetime, but there are things to know before you go. Whether you opt for one of the big two — Disney or Universal — or choose a smaller park, being prepared is key.
Do Some Research, But Not Too Much
The whole point of visiting a theme park is to have fun. The Internet and bookstores have tons of information about your chosen theme park, but you can easily make yourself crazy if you try to learn everything.
If your grandchild's parents are experienced theme park goers, you can let them be your guide. If you will be going solo with grandchildren, or with parents who are theme park novices, you will need to do more research.
Take the personalities of your family members into account, too. Some theme park visitors like to have their days carefully planned. Others prefer a more spontaneous approach. If you have some of both in your group, try to strike a middle ground.
Bottom line: Know yourself, and know your traveling companions. That's more important than knowing everything about the theme park.
Decide Upon Advance Bookings.
Many theme parks offer special attractions that must be booked in advance. These include character dining, behind-the-scene tours, animal encounters and more. If your grandchildren are anticipating any of these special events, book in advance to make sure they won't be disappointed. Typically reservations can be made once you are in a three-month window, and some fill up fast.
If your pocketbook won't handle the extra expenses of a special attraction, don't worry. If you run out of things to do at the theme park, most of the time there are free or low-cost extras available around the resort. For example, at Walt Disney World, you can ride the monorail or a ferry or a water taxi for free. Most of the resort hotels offer extras like outdoor screenings of Disney Movies.
Consider Staying at the Resort
Most of the time it is worth the extra money to stay onsite. You'll save travel time, and you can go back to the room for a little nap in the middle of the day. In some cases, however, off-site hotels are actually closer to the action than on-site ones. Research before you go.
On-site lodging typically offers other perks, such as early admission to the parks, that may weigh on your decision. Also, you may be able to have in-park purchases delivered to your room so you don't have to tote them — especially nice for breakables!
Another reason for staying onsite is that you can enjoy a kind of seamless extension of the theme park experience, with special decor, activities and freebies. For some grandparents, that's a plus. Other grandparents may want their overnight lodging to represent a return to normalcy.
Make the Most of Your Smart Phone
Your smart phone can be a virtual assistant during theme park trips. Of course, you'll probably use it for taking pictures since a separate camera can be a pain to lug around. Photography is prohibited in some areas, mostly on darkened rides, so look for the signs. Also be aware that some parks have banned selfie sticks due to concerns about safety. And be sure that you have plenty of storage on your phone before you go.
The usefulness of your camera phone doesn't end with taking souvenir pictures. Take a tip from the younger generation, and use your smart phone to photograph your parking spot, your tickets, your locker location and anything else that you might be likely to forget or misplace.
Most theme parks have apps that will give you useful information, such as ride closures and wait times. Download the apps before you go, and play with them a bit ahead of time so that you're not having to learn them on the fly. Better yet, let an older grandchildren figure them out.
One more thing. If you are going on a water ride, put your cell phone in a zip bag first. Maybe two zip bags.
Think About a Photo Service.
If you use a theme park photo service, you'll be freed from having to carry around a camera, and you can be in all the pictures. Disney has several types of photo services. Universal's service is known as Photo Connect. These services allow you to access photos taken by theme park photographers, including ride photos.
The directions for using these services sound complicated, but they are actually easy to use. Theme park photographers are available around the park and will take pictures of your group if you show your pass. They are trained to produce a good photo, too, so you won't get those sub-standard photos that you frequently get when you ask a bystander to take your picture. Typically, you can access your photos at one of the photo booths around the park or go online later to access them.
Opt for Inexpensive Souvenirs
Some of the best souvenirs are also the cheapest, and some also provide fun while you are in the park.
Many theme parks offer pressed penny souvenirs for a dollar or less, as well as a collector's book to hold them all. Another cool souvenir is an autograph book that the characters can sign. Take along a fat felt-tip pen for easier signing.
Disney parks offer a unique opportunity in pin trading. You can buy pins at the park or before you go. The grandkids can then swap pins with Disney employees who are wearing lanyards and pins or with other guests. It's a great way to pass time in lines.
Buy Souvenirs Before You Go.
The term souvenirs is something of a misnomer for items that you buy before you visit, but buying themed articles before you go to a theme park can save you a lot of money. Dollar stores and discount stores are good sources for character-themed articles. Buying such items ahead of time allows the grandchildren to use them before the trip, when anticipation is greatest, rather than after the trip when some (although not all!) children will toss them in a drawer and forget them.
Theme parks make a ton of money selling light-up novelties to crowds waiting for nighttime parades and fireworks displays. Save money by bringing your own glow sticks. If you buy a variety of sizes and shades, the grandchildren will probably be happy until the event begins.
Be Prepared to Walk
Whatever you do, be smart about which shoes you wear to a theme park. The sandals that don't hurt your feet during the course of a semi-sedentary day may turn into torture machines if you try to spend several hours walking in them. Wear only shoes that have been proven to stand up to long hours on foot. Make sure the grandchildren have suitable shoes, too.
Tennis shoes or sturdy sandals are the best choices. Some people swear by Crocs or flip-flops, but these get slippery when wet. They can be downright treacherous in case of a rain shower, or even following a good splashing on a water ride.
Whatever you choose, be sure they are well broken-in. Always plan to alternate shoes if you are going to be at the park more than one day. That way you will also have a spare if you have to deal with a broken strap, separated sole or other footwear malfunction. You can leave the spare back at the hotel or in the car if you drove. If you are really cautious, take extra footwear into the park with you and leave it in a locker. It will come in handy if you get your feet wet, as wet shoes are especially prone to chafing your feet.
Even if you choose your shoes well and keep them dry, someone in your party is likely to develop a blister. An adhesive bandage over the spot may be sufficient, but moleskin is much better. You can use moleskin whenever you begin to feel chafing. Moleskin bandages with precut holes are perfect if someone in your party actually develops a blister.
Be Prepared for Rain
Some families always hope for rain at the theme park, as wait lines shrink in inclement weather. Most guests will head to restaurants or shows, or even back to the room, but die-hard riders usually stick it out. Most rides will continue to operate in the rain, although all will shut down in case of lightning.
To make this plan workable, take your own inexpensive rain ponchos to the park. The cheap ones are lightweight, and you can throw them away after use. (They are almost impossible to fold up after being opened up.) Buy two or three for each member of your party. Now you're set.
Stay hydrated, and be sun safe.
Heat is one of the greatest barriers to enjoying theme parks. Orlando can be especially hot and humid. In order to enjoy yourself and stay safe, you will need to take precautions.
Most theme park restaurants and drink stands will give you a cup of free water if you ask. To be on the safe side, carry a bottle of water for each visitor, and refill at water fountains, or carry collapsible cups.
Don't forget the sunscreen. If you are visiting in the summer, try to keep everyone in hats. For kids, I like the ones with a flap that protects the vulnerable neck and ears. They are practical and super cute, too.
Use a Credit Card With Benefits
Some theme parks offer perks if you book with and use a special credit card. For Disney, it is currently the Disney Premier Visa, which offers discounts on dining and gift shop purchases, as well as special character meet-ups. For Universal, it is American Express, which offers similar discounts as well as access to VIP Lounges, which provide a place to rest and have free beverages and snacks during the afternoon.
Benefits may change, so check before you go, and always read the fine print.
More About Travel With Grandchildren
If you are looking for a fun place to take the grandchildren, don't overlook smaller theme parks, such as the newer Legoland and Thomas Land parks. In addition, many older theme parks, like Knott's Berry Farm, offer solid entertainment value. Still, most grandparents and grandchildren are going to have their hearts set on visiting one of these major attractions:
- Walt Disney World Florida
- Disneyland in California
- Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Universal Studios Hollywood
Whether you are visiting a theme park, a national park or another destination, try out these travel tips:
- 10 Travel Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling With Grandchildren
- Travel With Grandchildren Both With and Without Parents
- Managing Multigenerational Vacations