What You Need to Know to Plan a Once-in-a-Lifetime Theme Park Vacation for Your Family

published Jul 5, 2022
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Credit: Beth Shea

Theme park vacations top my family’s list of most cherished memories. Nothing compares to leaving reality behind to immerse ourselves in magical lands where anything seems possible. Whether we’re boarding the Hogwarts Express, flying the Millennium Falcon, careening through caves with Indiana Jones, soaring through Space Mountain with a breathtaking case of the giggles, speeding down a race track with Lightning McQueen, or singing along with the Pirates of the Caribbean — theme park vacations are what dreams are made of.

Beyond the rides and attractions, enchanting opportunities for kids and families abound on a theme park visit. My 3 year-old son donned a Jedi robe and defeated Darth Vader in a lightsaber battle. Decked out as Sleeping Beauty, my 6-year-old daughter was whisked away by Cinderella, who took her by the hand and taught her how to wave like a princess, blow kisses to a crowd, and twirl gracefully in a gown. During precious moments such as these, time stands still. It’s as if you’re in a parallel universe where the joy gushes as quickly as your willingness to spend your bottom dollar on theme park goodies. Because after all, sharing this experience with your family is truly priceless.

Coordinating the trip of a lifetime can seem daunting when you don’t know zip-a-dee-doo-dah about where to start. This comprehensive guide on planning a theme park vacation features expert input and kernels of wisdom from parents who have mastered theme park visits, and have the mouse ears to prove it. Read on for how to plan your own unforgettable vacation.

The best theme parks by kids’ ages

Wondering which theme park will be most enjoyable for your kids based on their age? Read on for recommendations. 

Disneyland is perfect for ages 0-adult, with entire sections of the Park dedicated to toddlers, including ToonTown and Fantasyland,. Young kids will also have plenty to do at Disney California Adventure Park which has Pixar Pier, Pixar themed-rides and characters, Cars Land, and related rides from the hit Cars films. If you’re choosing between the two Parks, Disneyland offers more rides and activities for the younger set. Spiderman and Marvel fans will be thrilled to visit the recently opened Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure Park,  where they can ride the new attraction Web Slingers.

Top tip: Disneyland & Disneyland California Adventure Park have wonderful Baby Care Centers where you can go to escape the chaos of the Park. Here you’ll find a nursing room, changing tables, toddler-size toilets, high chairs, and a vending machine stocked with formula, baby food, diapers, wipes, pacifiers, and more baby essentials.

Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration began in October, and the festivities will be nothing short of magical throughout Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Of all the parks at Disney World, Magic Kingdom offers the largest array of enchanting and delightful rides and activities for toddlers — and it’s good to note that Disney World has Baby Care Centers throughout all four of their theme parks.

Credit: Getty Images

If you’ve got LEGO lovers in your clan, then as The LEGO Movie theme song goes, “everything is awesome” at both LEGOLAND Parks. While they are excellent destinations for families with younger kids, those beyond the minifig stage (age 12 and up) may desire more thrilling rides overall, as the rides at LEGOLAND are pretty tame. LEGOLAND Florida is the world’s largest LEGOLAND at 150 acres. For even more fun, LEGOLAND CA’s The LEGO Movie World recently opened, and mark your calendars, because in 2022, the Peppa Pig Theme Park is opening at LEGOLAND FL.

Knott’s Berry Farm recently celebrated its 100th anniversary! From its humble beginnings as a small, family farm, Knott’s is now a 160-acre amusement park. There are rides here to suit kids of all ages and thrill levels from mild to extreme. Snoopy and the PEANUTS gang meet and greet will delight  little ones. There are also plenty of seasonal events to enjoy from PEANUTS Celebration to Knott’s Merry Farm.

If your little ones wish they could live on Sesame Street, then a visit to Sesame Place will be their dream come true. Kids of all ages and the young at heart will cherish a visit to this theme park to be immersed in Sesame Street culture. Enjoy rides designed to delight in Elmo’s World and Cookie Monster Land, dine with Elmo and Friends and revel in musicals, parades and dance parties featuring Sesame Street characters who’ve made the leap from the small screen to real life. Sesame Place is best suited for younger children ages 3–10. It’s also the first theme park in the world to be designated as a certified autism center.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the World Famous Studio tour, terrifying Jurassic Park inspired rides, and so much more razzle dazzle awaits at Universal Studios on both coasts: Hollywood and Orlando. Due to the intensity of the rides and themes of many of the attractions, Universal Studios is an ideal theme park to visit with older kids and teens. If your fam is full of film buffs, you’ll all enjoy the amazing behind-the-scenes secrets that reveal the magic of show business.

With 21 locations scattered throughout the United States, chances are you’re close to a Six Flags Park. Each is unique in their offerings of rides, attractions, water slides and more. Six Flags delivers plenty of thrills via insane roller coasters like the Twisted Colossus and the world’s tallest ride, The Sky Screamer. While there are plenty of rides geared for families and younger kids, to get the full experience, wait until your kids are teens to travel to the Six Flags Parks that are home to more extreme attractions.

Should you plan the trip yourself or use a travel agent?

If you plan ahead and use our guide, it’s entirely possible to arrange a theme park trip yourself. But having a travel agent who’s knowledgeable about the park you’d like to visit is a great asset too. Emily Barras, mom and travel agent at A Pair of Ears Travel, explains, “Using an agent takes the stress out of theme park planning. They are up to date in all of the latest theme park guidance and rules, while giving you first hand knowledge. And the best part, it’s free! Many agencies have full concierge services that will help you make park, hotel and dining reservations and they offer scheduling tips and so much more. We also keep up with ongoing promotions to make sure the client is getting the best price possible.”

If you do choose to plan yourself, here are some pointers:

The secret to success: plan ahead — sometimes, FAR ahead 

When it comes to theme park vacations, research and planning go together like Mickey & Minnie. This isn’t the type of family trip where just winging it is an option. But don’t let that intimidate you; because there’s an abundance of help a click away. Here are some must-dos in the planning phase:

Decide the best time to go.

Summer months are ideal for traveling with school-aged kids on vacation, but you also need to account for larger summer crowds, which equal longer wait times in hot weather and in some cases, extreme humidity. Visiting certain theme parks during holiday seasons like Christmas and Halloween means you get to enjoy lavish decor, special events, limited-edition collectibles and seasonal food and beverage offerings. Some rides and attractions are even transformed in honor of the holiday. Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is decorated in painstaking detail as an homage to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Insider tip: check when your theme park destination commences their holiday season festivities. Beat the crowds and visit on a weekday in September instead of October to enjoy the high spirits of Halloween, or November instead of December to bask in the merry glow of Christmas festivities. 

Check each park’s online crowd calendar.

View historical data on when the park is the most and least crowded and plan accordingly. Undercover Tourist also boasts an informative blog that will help you decide the most ideal time to book your trip, while also providing up-to-date vital details you’ll need to know about the theme park you’re visiting. Going during non-peak times means fewer crowds and less time waiting in line.

Join a Facebook group.

Find a group that focuses on the theme park you’ll be visiting, such as the Disneyland with Kids Group. Here you’ll learn current and invaluable tips. Get information from parents currently on-the-go at the Park and from moms and dads who conquered the theme park and want to share what they learned for the parents who have yet to boldly go where they have just gone.

Get your tickets in advance.

Once the glimmer of a theme park vacation hits your radar, be sure to research how far in advance you need to buy tickets, and whether they need to be purchased online before you arrive. Research the current status of your destination’s Fast Pass and additional options to jump the line and minimize wait times. Such perks are highly recommended and well worth the extra fees to make the most of your visit.

Download the app for your theme park of choice.

The app will help you become familiar with all of the conveniences and possibilities available to you in the palm of your hand. Consider the app your family’s mission control, and a necessity for your visit. Beyond park information, you can discover your dining options and order and pay for food, find out ride wait times, reserve Fast Passes (if available) for rides in some cases, note character meet and greets, entertainment and showtimes and so much more. 

Prior to your arrival, you can even plan your route through the theme park you’re visiting based on what you want to see and do.   

Take note of height requirements for rides.

This information will likely be found on each park’s website or app. If your kiddo isn’t tall enough to ride an attraction, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time instead of arriving at the park to face extreme disappointment and tears. To avoid heartbreak, we waited until our Lightning McQueen fanatic son was tall enough to ride Radiator Springs before we took him anywhere near the ride. 

Should you fly or drive?

Proximity to your destination is a key factor. Driving affords you the convenience of having all your stuff at the ready, while flying is better if your destination is across the country (unless of course you’ll be turning the event into a cross country family road trip with exciting stops along the way). If you’re flying to Florida, guests of Disney Resort Hotels visiting Walt Disney World can take advantage of Disney’s Magical Express service for transportation between Orlando International Airport and their hotel until the end of 2021. It’s likely more economical to drive your family to the theme park, and there’s the added convenience of packing everything you need in your car, especially if you plan on cooking your own meals during your stay. Traveling by car also frees you of the hassle of air travel and eliminates the chance of exposure to COVID-19 in-flight.

Should you splurge for an on-site hotel?

For a truly immersive and seamless theme park vacation, nothing beats staying at an on-site hotel. You’ll remain under the magical spell that’s cast when you’re on theme park grounds, without having your bubble burst to go off-site. In addition to the wonder and awe of specially decorated rooms, and themed dining and entertainment, there are many conveniences of staying on-site, including easy access to the park, and having the ability to go back to your room for clothing changes, restocking on snacks brought from home and mid-day naps. Most theme park hotels also offer guests exclusive early entrance to the Park at opening during their stay. All these perks come with a hefty price tag, as theme park hotels have nightly rates that are typically much higher than nearby hotels. It’s also important to call ahead and make sure that the hotel and resort amenities you’re paying a high premium for are available. COVID-19 has changed the protocol on many offerings including buffet meals, character meet and greets and more. 

On the other hand, you could save a lot of money by staying at a more economical hotel that’s within walking or shuttle distance to the theme park. You could then spend the money you’ve saved on another day of fun at the Park, or on special dining experiences, souvenirs, etc. 

Credit: Myibean/Shutterstock

Your packing must-haves

It’s key to find the balance between having what you need, but not being bogged down by belongings. Keep in mind that if you have a stroller, you have more space to carry items. The following is a general list of must-have items for your family theme park vacation:

  • Smartphones equipped with the theme park app, and one or two external, portable phone chargers, because you’ll be taking lots of videos and pictures.
  • Camera and camera charger (if you’re not using your phone as a camera)
  • A rotation of healthy, filling snacks, plus Ziploc bags for doling out snacks over multiple days
  • Bottled water and refillable, reusable water bottles, labeled for each family member
  • Sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses if your kids will wear them
  • Comfortable walking shoes; now’s not the time for plastic princess heels or flip-flops
  • Bright, easy-to-spot clothing for the kids, or even better, matching T-shirts for everyone in your party, which you can even have custom made on Etsy.
  • Consider the weather: pack easy to fold rain ponchos, or chilly towels depending on the forecast
  • Safety gear (bandaids, Neosporin, etc.), hand sanitizer, and wipes

Travel writer and mom of two, Bonnie Taylor, of Fam Diego adds, “Always bring old zip-up hoodies (that you don’t mind losing) for several reasons. Tie them around your waist and the kids’ waists for when you sit down, so you won’t get your pants dirty. Use them for sitting on curbs to watch parades, or if a water ride seat is a little bit wet. You can also easily put it on if you get cold in the evenings.”

If you have older kids and don’t need as many accoutrements, travel writer Kerry Cushman of Wander & Scout suggests, “Go as hands-free as possible! There’s nothing worse than trying to be in the moment with your kids while lugging around too much stuff. Try a fanny pack instead of a purse, or a backpack instead of a shoulder bag and keep it to the essentials.”

That’s how we roll: strollers, wagons, and baby carriers

Consider the stroller your trusty sidekick for a theme park vacation. Bonus if it reclines and has a cover for napping and private diaper changes. You’ll be walking miles each day, and kids need a place to crash/nap/rest on the go. Fam Diego’s Bonnie Taylor shares, “To help prevent stroller mix-ups, I use a brightly colored, frilly luggage tag wrapped around the stroller handle. This makes it easier to find in a sea of black strollers, and it helps others not to confuse mine with theirs.” Be sure to check the stroller policy for the park you’re visiting so you know your stroller size is allowed. Some parks have a limit on stroller size and some do not allow wagons. Most parks list their stroller and wagon policies in the FAQ section of their website. As an added note, very young babies may do best napping in a baby carrier that’s supportive for both you and baby and easy to walk around wearing, so pop one in your stroller.

How to handle food and drink like a pro at the parks

Eating, drinking, and snacking your way through a theme park gets costly quickly. You’ll save a lot of cash if you find a balance between packing your own healthy snacks and indulging in park food. Sink your teeth into these tips:

  • Alternate your meals. Think homemade PB&J sandwiches for lunch and then dinner out. 
  • Curb sugar cravings at every turn. Bring special occasion treats (lollipops, miniature candy bars) your kids enjoy from home, and tell them they each get to purchase one special theme park dessert of their choice during your visit.
  • Wait until off-peak hours to dine out. Typical lunch and dinner hours of noon and 5 p.m. are often packed with long wait times and lines at every restaurant. Save the hassle and dine at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Decide if you want to enjoy a special character dining experience, like having a three-course breakfast with princesses, or dining inside Cinderella’s Castle! Most meals require you to make reservations in advance, so plan accordingly.
  • If you have special dietary needs or food allergies, do your research ahead of your theme park visit to suss out dining and grab and go food options that will safely sustain you during your visit. Always ask to speak with the head chef at restaurants so they can help you find suitable menu items and so they know you require different accommodations.
  • Download the theme park app and utilize dining conveniences. For instance, Disneyland offers mobile food and beverage ordering via their app, so you don’t have to spend precious time waiting in line.
  • Take the weather into account. If you’re visiting on a hot summer day, or a rainy winter day, you’ll want to have a few options of places to dine indoors, for respite from the elements.
Credit: Beth Shea

Tried and true tips from real parents

There’s no better insight into a theme park vacation than hearing from parents who have bravely gone before you. Here are some gems from moms and dads who’ve been there, done that.

I’ll kick this section off with one of my tips: prioritize. Depending on the length of your visit, it may be difficult or impossible to fit everything in. Have a family meeting to discuss what your must-do rides, parades, nighttime events, shows and character photo ops are. Put these at the top of your priority list to ensure they happen. If Fast Passes are available or ride reservations are required, be sure to secure them. If the kids can’t go home without a picture with Mickey Mouse, plan on spending some time waiting in line to make their dream come true. Once you’ve completed your theme park bucket list, everything else is icing on the cake.

Once a Disneyland princess, Jenny Rose Hutzler is now a travel writer and mom of two. Her website Princess Turned Mom is an invaluable resource for families traveling to Disney World and Disneyland. For gems of wisdom from an insider, read her articles, beginner tips for Disney World and how to make the most of your Disneyland trip. Be sure to note her tip on the parent swap/”rider switch” for families with young kids.

Bonnie Taylor of Fam Diego offers the following tips:

  • Safety is key: “I take a photo of my kids when entering a theme park so I’ll have a current photo in case I have to share it with security if they get lost. My kids wear an ID bracelet all day and they know that only a parent can take it off at the end of the day. The ID bracelet has our last name and my cell phone number, which faces inward toward their skin so it’s not easily visible to a stranger passing by or standing next to us in line. Some theme park visitor’s centers will have an ID bracelet tag that you can write on and tape around kids’ wrists, but you can also order a bunch of write-on disposable bracelets from Amazon.”
  • Keep snacks accessible for long wait times: “Kids get bored waiting in line or waiting for a parade to start, so that’s the only time I’ll pull out the lollipops or a secret treat that I’ve stashed away for those very moments. Skip the bubbles because they usually annoy people standing right next to you. This is a great time for playing “I Spy” games, spelling your name using letters from signs nearby, or playing a scavenger hunt with the park map to see who can find all the labeled bathrooms or snack stands.”
  • Never skip a pee break: “Bathrooms can be tricky to find when you really need them, so use the bathroom every time you pass by one, even if you don’t think you have to go.”

Mom of four, Anna L. advises, “Think twice about visiting Orlando from May-September. It’s extremely hot and humid and will be hard to get everything done for a first visit with as many breaks as you’ll need. If you must go during that time, plan to be back in your room or at your resort pool for a couple hours in the early afternoon to recharge. The more days you are there, the better. We did 8 days on our first Disney World trip so we could go at a relaxed pace, but still get to see and do everything.”

Mom of two, Julie W. shares, If you’re not taking a stroller or diaper bag, carry a backpack with all the essentials, and pack your own special treats to save money and time stopping for every sweet your kids want. Give your kids a gift card with a certain amount of money on it, so they know how much they have to spend on souvenirs and a decadent dessert.

Credit: Getty Images

COVID-19 protocols

Due to the ever-evolving information surrounding COVID-19, you’ll definitely want to keep up with the current news of the theme park you plan on visiting. Many parks are operating with modified rules and different protocols that may affect your vacation. Character dining and buffets are temporarily closed, Fast Passes are not available, and many resort hotels aren’t offering all of their amenities. Visit the theme park’s website for all the information you need to help you make your plans and follow current guidelines.