Visiting a theme park this summer?

As summer approaches and many head off on vacation, I thought I would share some of our trips and tricks when hitting the amusement parks with little ones.  I have found that the more you plan, the smoother things will run so that everyone in the family can have fun.

The first time we took Zoe and Mia to Disneyland, they were only four months old.  Crazy, I know.  But I love Disneyland and our extended family was going on their annual trip.  Since that first visit, we’ve made several trips with the girls.  A few people ask what the point of going when they are babies and won’t remember it.  But we will remember it.  It’s a memory for us.  And we have a blast!  But I’m a Disneyland person and I like amusement parks in general.  I’ve even had a great time when I chaperoned middle schoolers!  🙂

Prep and Practice

For our last big trip to Disneyland/California Adventures, the girls were two and were finally able to be really aware of what was happening.   We spent a lot of time preparing for the trip because I wanted them to be excited and not scared.  On a completely selfish note, I didn’t want us to spend our vacation with the girls crying and freaked out by the characters.  And it worked.  They saw Minnie Mouse right away and ran up to her laughing.

So what did we do to get ready?

  • Help them understand the size of the characters.  Mickey Mouse is small on TV but huge in real life and that difference can be really scared.  We read books and looked at pictures from previous trips to get a feel for what the characters will look like.  I just kept repeating the fact that Mickey and friends will be bigger than Daddy.
  • Look at the park’s website.  Most parks will have pictures of the rides, parades, and shows.  Some, like Disneyland, even have videos for you to watch.  And check the web for youtube videos or podcasts.
  • Make the preparations exciting.  We printed out coloring pages, made crafts, and baked special treats.  Find out what special characters or themes will be at the park.  Disneyland isn’t the only place with characters.  The Sesame Street crew makes an appearance at a number of parks as do the Peanuts gang.
  • Pick a special toy to come along.  One time we had miniature Minnie and Daisy dolls to come with us while another time it was “lovey.”  Just knowing we had them, tended to help everyone feel comfortable.  (Last time, Zoe would add lovey to the backpack every morning before we left).  It’s a long day in an overwhelming environment so something to keep kids calm will be great.

Pack and Plan Well

The secret to a smooth trip is to be well prepared.  We typically bring two bags into the park with us—our main bag and what I call the “auxiliary bag.”  I know, a little over the top.  We get a locker (something I never did when I was footloose and fancy free in the park).  And we usually prefer to take a backpack (the first visit we overestimated the size of the locker and ended up carrying our diaperbag instead).

Here are some of my must-haves:

  • A change of clothes.  Just in case of accidents, blow outs, or you spill a large ice tea all over your daughter’s head (like I did).
  • Children’s Tylenol or whatever you use.  I will admit that I had a bit of a supermom moment at Disneyland when a friend’s child was crying and she said she wished she had some Tylenol for him and I could whip some out to give her.
  • Medicine for you.  Bring some headache medicine as well as whatever makes you comfortable.  We forgot nasal spray for my husband once and that will never happen again.  🙂
  • Extras of everything because everything is more expensive inside the park.  Extra diapers, wipes, snacks, sippy cups…

You also want to do your homework and look up park information ahead of time.  Find out what rides are recommended for your children as well as any height requirements—you don’t want to talk up a ride they can’t go on yet (totally happened to us at the fair and it was a big bummer).


Mealtime can be a great chance to catch your breath and regroup, but it can also be extremely stressful.  Here are some tips to make it run smoothly:

  • Don’t go at peak hours.  Try to avoid eating lunch at noon and dinner at 5-6 pm when restaurants are their most crowded.
  • Bring snacks.  Even if your child isn’t a snacker or you try to avoid snack food at home, pack some.  A granola bar can be a lifesaver when you are waiting in a long line with a fussy child.
  • Considering packing a meal.  Most parks allow you to bring in food; take advantage of this and pack a lunch.  It lightens the trip expense and allows you some flexibility as to where and when you eat.
  • Research food options ahead of time.  You will save time, effort, and even money.  Once the girls were eating and drinking real food, I researched the menus of the different restaurants in the park so that I knew which ones sold milk and food to which the girls were accustomed.  That way when we were ready to eat, I knew right where to go.
  • Don’t wait too late.  If you wait until everyone is starving to start deciding where to eat you can be headed to melt down central.
  • Eat in the park.  Some people try to save money by leaving the park to go eat and then re-entering.  In most places, this can be very time-consuming and exhausting.  If you want to save money, pack a lunch but stay in the park.

Stroller Derby

To rent a stroller or bring your own?  That is the question.  It really depends on a few different factors, especially the age of your kiddos.

Renting a stroller…   A huge benefit is that you don’t have to worry about losing your stroller.  If something happens to the rental, just take your receipt back to the stroller office and get another.   You also don’t have to lug it on and off the shuttles, etc.  This may sound silly until you are trying to fold up some stroller monstrosity while crowds of eager tourists are waiting behind you rolling their eyes.   We rented when the girls were too little to be comfortable in the umbrella strollers since the rental strollers are bigger.  Also we had enough stuff to be worrying about that we didn’t want to add in the strollers.  The only downside is that most places don’t have double strollers to rent so be warned.

Bring your own…  Just be sure that it’s a cheap umbrella stroller.  This way you don’t have to worry about leaving it (who will want to steal it when someone else brought a fancy one) and folding it up will be quick and easy.  If you have more than one little one, individual strollers are still the way to go.  Stroller connectors are absolutely awesome because one person can push two strollers if necessary but you can also separate to better maneuver through large crowds (it’s so much easier and your fellow guests will thank you).

Stranger Danger

It’s easy to get nervous in such crowded places.  In order to stay safe and feel comfortable consider these ideas:

  • Write your cellphone number on your child’s arm so if you get separated the park can call you.
  • Wear matching clothes.  Some families all wear the same shirts, so that they are easily identifiable.  Our girls often dress in matching outfits, but when we go to crowded places we make sure they are dressed the same.  It makes them easy to spot and easy for others to see they are part of a group that will be missed.
  • Explain the rules ahead of time.  Make sure that everyone knows they need to stay together.  For older kids, have a meeting place set up in case you get separated.
  • Personally we don’t use the kiddie leashes or gps systems.  But my advice is that if you are choosing to use something like this, be sure that your first time isn’t at a crowded, exciting amusement park.

Find the Child Care Center

No, it’s not a place drop off your little ones, but during a hectic day at the park it can be just as great.  Disneyland has a fantastic spot with changing tables, child size toliets, nursing rooms, rocking chairs, a full kitchen, and any baby item you need to purchase (formula, diapers, etc.).  And of course all the cast members who work there are dressed in the cutest costumes, looking like friendly grandmas.  It is the best kept secret in the park!

But other parks have spots as well where you can change diapers, nurse, and catch your breath from the bustle.  Be sure to look on their website ahead of time or ask at the ticket counter.

Picture Perfect

On our trips I actually plan out our outfits ahead of time, not only so I know what to pack and to save time in the morning, but also so that we don’t clash in our pictures.  I know it sounds crazy to most people, but if you are a scrapbooker I am sure it makes perfect sense.  You want the family to look super cute in all those pictures you are going to scrap.

When it comes to taking pictures, be sure to start early in the day.  I don’t always heed my own advice and then I am very sad when we looked wilted or tired or not our cutest in our pictures (honestly I’m thinking more of myself than the girls).  Of course you want to capture moments all day long, but if you are hoping to get a great family picture that could make the Christmas card, start early.

We love taking a picture at the start of very beginning of our adventure (usually on the parking tram—first ride of the day—or at the entrance) and then at the very end of the day (often with sleeping babies).

And if you know you will be back, choose a fun photo op that you can recreate every time you go.  It’s a fun tradition and a great way to show how everyone changes.  For example, my sister and I for some unknown reason started the tradition of recreating the Walt Disney and Mickey statue in Disneyland.

Don’t forget, you’re on vacation!

Yes, little ones need a schedule, but it’s also okay to take a vacation.  It’s not going to kill them to skip a nap or have a meal without a vegetable.  So ease up a little on the schedule and strict rules.  Personally, we don’t take naps when we are at the park, even though we stay within walking distance.  When the girls get tired, they rest in their strollers.  Somehow they can sleep in the park and then be wide awake when it’s their turn to get on a ride.  And I’m sure we will sound like bad parents but the girls also don’t go to bed by 7 pm when we are at on vacation.  It’s a special occasion and we are going to have as much fun as we can.

Give everyone a chance to stretch their legs.  Waiting in line and sitting on rides can be fun, but little ones need a chance to move so look for spots where they can run and play.  It will make getting back in line a little easier.

Most importantly, remember that your goal is for the trip to be fun for both you and the children.

Going with a large group?  Here are some tips to make the trip fun for everyone:

  • Set up meeting places/times ahead of time or early in the day
  • Have everyone’s cellphone numbers, not just one or two.
  • Communicate your expectations and decide how the day will go ahead of time.  It’s easy for feelings to get hurt or things to get overlooked during the day.  Will the group stay together all day?  Will you break up and meet up?  Have meals together?  Are there rides everyone wants to do together?
  • Choose your definites.  I like it when everyone says what 1-3 things they definitely want to do while they are at the park and we guarantee those will happen.  Of course, I can be a little bossy so even if everyone else doesn’t decide their definites, I decide mine and make those happen.
  • Matching shirts can be a lot of fun, especially if there are many little ones in the group.  Secretly I am always jealous of those family groups all wearing their T-shirts.
  • Pass out disposable cameras.  I know, old school.  This was actually my sister’s suggestion for a trip with my in-laws and I loved seeing all the different pictures from the different groups.  And they were great for making a memory book for my in-laws as a Christmas present.



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