Theme Park Survival Tactics (by an Ex-Park Employee & Park Junkie)

26 08 2014

I likely suffer from a theme park addiction.

In the last decade, I’ve had annual passes to Disneyland, Disney World, Universal Studios, Six Flags, and the killer whale trifecta of SeaWorld Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. I grew up hanging out at Mall of America’s theme park, and have visited theme parks all over the country–everything Busch Gardens to Cypress Gardens to Knott’s Berry Farm to Valleyfair.

I currently hold passes to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando and bounce around between the six different parks every week.

My first dates, work events, end-of-year parties, college extracurricular events, reunions, and bachelorette parties occurred at theme parks. Heck, I even got engaged at a theme park.

I also worked at Universal Studios in Orlando for a summer when I was in college, which I’m still too traumatized to talk about. Let’s just say working in felt pants, knee socks, and a wool jacket in 98-degree weather with 99% humidity and dealing with international tourists throwing shoes and purses at me while operating a high-capacity roller coaster isn’t my favorite way to spend the summer. That’s a different story for another day.

Basically, I’ve been at theme parks every week for the last ten years.

In the many hours I’ve spent regularly at theme parks–both as an employee and patron–I’ve seen a lot.

One of the most terrifying things I’ve realized is that many people don’t know how to survive a theme park. Tragically, with their arms and legs missing from paying sky-high admission prices at the gate, your average visitor doesn’t know how to cope with handling their time at the park.

Luckily, I’m here to point out some vital survival tactics for making it out of a theme park alive (and happy):

IMG_5738Dress for Battle.

Let me make this clear: you are fighting a battle here. Your children’s happy memories and well-adjusted futures depend on you wearing the right clothing.


Wear lightweight, comfortable shoes with good arch support. If you’ve lived in flip flops for at least a year straight (or you’re from California), your feet are automatically tough enough to handle wearing sandals. If you’re from the Midwest, you are not allowed to wear flip flops because you will complain about blisters by lunchtime. Texas, no one wears boots here and I guarantee you’ll have a trail of people laughing at you if you do.

Crocs are simply never acceptable for anything anywhere. Maybe if you’re taking a direct hit from a hurricane while walking around a park. Maybe.

Your clothing should be lightweight, flexible, and able to get soaked and dry quickly. Don’t wear black, don’t wear polo collar shirts with athletic shorts, don’t mix stripes and plaid, and don’t wear skin-tight tube tops. Fine, the last few are personal preferences–based on the fact that these are stupid things to wear in general.

You are not allowed to wear rival theme park paraphernalia, because that’s like wearing the wrong colors in the streets of Compton. You’ll also tempt the theme park employees to cut you off abruptly for the fast pass riders because they don’t like you.

Watch Out for Brazilian Tour Groups. 

You know that scene in Jurassic Park, where the slight jiggle of the jello indicates the presence of approaching dinosaurs?

That’s the same way it is with Brazilian tour groups. You always hear them first, shouting their happy Portuguese chants at the top of their lungs. Then you see them, en masse, like a herd of wildebeests careening over the plains. They’re always dressed in matching brightly colored shirts, which usually proclaim “BRAZIL” somewhere–like the foreign language didn’t clue you in. Often, someone has a flag on a stick that guides the group. If you stand still enough, they’ll cascade around you like a living waterfall, giggling and laughing and cheering loudly.

Bless their hearts, they’re happy to be there. But they’ll scare the livin’ daylights outta you if you don’t see ’em coming.

Strollers Aren’t Weapons.

Someday I’ll write a coffee table book entitled You’re Too Big for That Stroller. It’ll be a best-seller, along with its sequel Meltdowns at Disney.

In order to ensure optimal theme park survival, be advised on the following guidelines for strollers:

1) Strollers are not weapons. Please do not intimidate other guests by shoving strollers into the back of their legs while they are attempting to navigate a dense crowd after a fireworks show. It’s even more alarming  that you do this when your kiddo is strapped into the stroller.

2) Strollers should be small and portable, and able to be flattened quickly when getting on a ride. If you feel it necessary to pack two-thirds of your house onto your stroller, then wait this one out in Stroller Purgatory with the other ill-prepared parents instead of holding up the line.

3) Toddlers should be in strollers when not on a ride, not tottering around aimlessly into gigantic, fast-moving crowds who give you a patronizing smile while thinking, “Gee, that kid’s gonna be flattened and I sure hope their parents learn a lesson from this.”

4) Kids are too large for strollers when their knees reach their chins. They then need to be unceremoniously kicked out and made to hoof it.

Don’t Stop in the Middle of Traffic.

Please grasp the fact that this is the most packed, zoo-like, carnival-on-steroids Happy Place you’ll ever be in.

I know, the lights are so pretty. The air smells like cotton candy and there’s music playing everywhere. Children are actually smiling at their parents, as they whirl around on colorful rides. You’re slacked-jawed at the wonder of it all.

Wake up! This is a human stampede. You will get trampled and left for dead if you don’t clean up that drool off your chin and snap out of it.IMG_5723

Listen carefully to what I’m saying:

Don’t stop in the middle of the path.

Don’t stop in the exit.

Don’t stop on the side of the ride.

Don’t stop in front of me.

Glad we’re on the same page. I’ll happily remind you and bump right into you if it helps.

Don’t Bring an iPad. 

I’m pro-technology on all fronts. But there’s a time and a place for lugging your gigantic iPad to a theme park….and the time is NOT on this trip. If your kid can’t stand in line without being glued to an iPad at a theme park, holy cow…that’s scary. It’s your job as a parent or guardian to entertain them. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. Play a game, or–eeek!–try conversation. You might actually enjoy it.

Added bonus? You don’t have to tromp over to the lockers to get your iPad after every ride.

Oh, and please note that thrusting your iPad into the air to take pictures of the fireworks is A) distracting and impeding the thousands of guests behind you and B) causing snickers of derision from half of said crowd.

IMG_4004Time Your Photos With Military Precision.

Here’s the deal: you may be the center of your world, but that’s not the reality of Theme Park World. That means that the human stampede headed towards you is under absolutely no obligation to stop and wait for you to get the perfect family photo.

There’s a slight difference when you’re in front of a picture-worthy icon, though–say, the fire-breathing dragon at Diagon Alley or the castle at Disney World. However, I believe that polite theme park etiquette means you can hold up traffic for no more than four seconds to get a photo.

Count it: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand…

Oh, couldn’t snap it in time? Guess you need more efficient fingers. That’s how you learn.

Leave the Social Media on the Back Burner. 

First of all, unless you’re Kim Kardashian, how many people are actually hanging on your every tweet? Chances are that no one looks at your social media posts any longer than it takes them to think, “Lucky duck, they’re having fun and I’m doing this”–which, of course, basically sums up the entire point of social media.

Yes, post a snap on Facebook or tweet a few excited phrases, but live in the moment. I can’t tell you how many miserable kids I’ve seen dragging along behind their parents, who are excitedly live-tweeting the entire experience and completely ignoring their kids.

Not to sound sappy, but you only get a few chances in life to see someone’s face light up with pure and utter joy–don’t miss it because you’re texting or tweeting to someone who doesn’t really care.

Don’t Be a Sidewalk Hog.

I’ll be fair and advise that you can walk up to three people wide at a theme park. If you dare walk six people wide, though, that’s unrealistic. Theme parks are crowded, busy, fast-paced places. Be sensible, and realize when you’re hogging more than your allotted asphalt.

Stop Being “That Guy”. 

You know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t be “that guy” who shouts business deals into his cell phone while waiting in line, the idiot teenager who screams incoherently trying to impress girls, the bonkers kid who climbs all over the queue with a parent who does nothing to control him, the broody athlete who incessantly bounces a basketball while everyone else stands dutifully still. And, heaven help us all, please don’t be “that guy” who passes gas while in line with a bunch of hot, tired people crammed into a tiny corridor.

Don’t be “that guy” who bugs the poor employee standing at the front of the line to ask, “Is the wait time accurate?” Don’t be “that guy” who complains to the food vendors about how expensive the park is. Don’t be “that guy” who sets up a camcorder smack-dab in the middle of the crowded walkway.

Simply put, avoid doing anything that can annoy anyone around you. If you can’t handle it, go park your rear on “Small World” and rot your brain there for the rest of the afternoon. Trust me, you’ll hear the music in your nightmares.

Don’t Turn Off Your Brain. 

This is the most crucial survival tactic, when it comes to theme parks. I won’t even elaborate on this, in order to give your brain more room to store this memo.

Remember these theme park survival tactics, and I assure you–you’ll not only survive your trip to the Happiest, Most Magical, Most Exciting, Most Eye-Wateringly Expensive Place in the World, but you’ll have fun, too.

If not? Rest assured, I’ll memorialize your poor decisions in writing for you right here