For families, the appeal of theme park visits is similar to the appeal of all-inclusive resorts; pay one price, get in and immerse yourself in the experience without much further worry. The tricky part is finding such a paradise, and avoiding overstimulated kids who melt down with the souvenir stand “gimmies.”
A good theme park is well-designed, with a mix of thrilling and mild rides plus imaginative attractions for all ages. Every parent looks for plenty of clean places to eat that don’t have stratospheric prices, a menu that isn’t all deep-fried garbage or too many people and not enough tables. Parents of toddlers and very young children are eternally grateful for designated “little kid” rides and play areas that are scaled for sometimes-wobbly small legs and short attention spans.
The three most important budget items to consider
Theme park vacations can be very tiring and not much fun at all unless some planning is done ahead of time.
- Lodging: Often less expensive if combined in a package with park entrance tickets. Don’t blow the budget here – you want someplace to lay your head, but most of your vacation time will be spent in the parks. Find a place with large, free breakfasts. A free shuttle service to the parks is another bonus, since parking usually costs extra and lines are long to get in/out of parking lots.
- Food: Eating and drinking can blow a budget as fast as kids can suck Cokes up a straw (and then another, and then another.) Carry a water bottle to refill for free at park water fountains, and some energy bars to avoid constantly buying ice cream, candy or whatever in between meals.
- Souvenirs: Set a spending plan and stick to it. How many of those photos do you want to buy of everyone screaming at the end of a thrill ride? How many T-shirts and ballcaps does everyone get? How many giant plastic themed drinking cups do you really want in your cupboard back home?
Which theme park is best for your family?
There are many kinds of theme parks worldwide; don’t forget that smaller, lesser-known parks can be just as much fun for kids and much less expensive.
- The Disney properties (Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and the Disneylands in California, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong) are probably the best-known theme parks in the world. They can be an excellent value for the money as long as expectations are held in check and there is plenty of planning before that first photo opportunity with Mickey or Goofy.
- Six Flags runs theme parks all over the US, and are often a hit with older kids and teens because of their raise-the-bar roller coasters and thrill rides.
- Busch Gardens and SeaWorld are part of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. They both have more of an educational focus than other theme park chains, and they do a pretty good job of teaching kids about animal and marine life using carefully-constructed habitats. Their rides are getting a little more cutting-edge as well.
- Universal Studios sponsors theme parks in California (Universal Studios Hollywood) and Florida (thrill rides at Islands of Adventure, and movie magic at Universal Studios.) In Florida their Web site has a head-to-head comparison with Walt Disney World, asserting that Universal parks offer a better value for the money.
- Don’t overlook smaller or more regional amusement parks like Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Park, Pennsylvania’s HersheyPark and Tennessee’s Dollywood for just as much fun but usually a little less money.