Amusement parks: A survival guide for parents

Check out these eight great tips for a successful day at an amusement park with the kids.

Tracy
Avery gets soaked by the waves. Photo: Tracy Chappell

I just took my two daughters to Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan, Ont., for the first time, along with my sister, her two kids and one of their friends. It was amazing. My sister is a bit of an amusement park veteran, so I could reap the benefits of her perfect planning. And now you can, too.

Here are our best tips for a great day at the park:

Play hooky: Week days (except Friday) before school lets out are a great time to go, so we juggled our work schedules and pulled the kids out of class on Monday. I’m so glad we did. The last time I went to Wonderland it was standard to wait in lines for hours, but this time, there were hardly any waits—the kids even got to stay in their seats on some of the rides for a second go-around, and then just ran back around to go again without a wait, even on the most popular rides. They’re going to be shocked by the difference if we head back in the heart of summer.

Choose a rainy day: I was a little surprised at my sister’s glee at a forecast that included rain and a chance of thundershowers. “It scares people away,” she explained. As I noted above, she was right. Of course, rides don’t run in thunderstorms, but it can pay to take a chance if the forecast is iffy. In the end, we didn’t get a drop of rain or sign of a storm all day.

Search out discounts: I’m not going to sugar coat it: Canada’s Wonderland is pricey—$60 per person to get in the gate, and that’s a huge expense for any family. We managed to get hooked up with corporate discount passes sold at some companies, to reduce the per-person price in half. I know discounts for some attractions can be found online or if you buy ahead, and sometimes season passes are the most economical option if you might go back another time or two.

Collect the right crew: Obviously, you can’t always control this completely, but think ahead about what kinds of rides everyone likes and how they’ll want to spend their time. My nephew is 11 and brought a friend, which worked out really well—they were independent enough to buddy-up and go on rides on their own, and to wait with the younger ones when my sister and I wanted to go on some rides. My niece is nine, and Anna is eight, and they were a good pair once Anna worked up a little courage to go on some of the faster rides. But at five, Avery was the odd gal out, and I felt bad for her. She really, really just wanted to hang out in the kids’ area, but the others weren’t interested. She tried some of the tamer big-kid rides, but didn’t enjoy them. In hindsight, I wished we’d had one more adult who wasn’t interested in rides to hang out with Avs in the kids’ area. We did spend quite a lot of time in the water park because she was having such a great time there. “I really love the Lazy River,” she told me. “It’s nice and quiet and calm.” We did it three times. And at the end of the day, we hauled our group back to the kids’ zone to go on the swan ride. Avery was so, so happy.

Read more: 10 best water parks in Canada>

Pack a lunch: Wonderland doesn’t allow any outside food in the park (you can only bring in water, and there are places to refill bottles). I don’t think that’s very fair, but that’s the way it goes. So check policies. Because we knew we’d be forking out a lot for admission, we didn’t want to break the bank buying food all day, so around noon, we came out to the parking lot to eat the lunch we packed the night before. We still ended up buying some snacks there, but this helped a lot.

Bring a wagon (and the right gear): We made it clear to the kids that no one was riding in the wagon, but we brought one to carry our backpacks and our small cooler of water. Because there’s a water park, we had towels and extra clothes that would have been heavy and sweaty on our backs all day, and since we no longer own strollers, this worked well. (And, OK, maybe we let Avery sit in there at the very end.) Also bring extra socks, if your kids are wearing them. Our kids got soaked on the water rides and walking around in wet socks all day would have been awful. We also dug up fanny packs to wear our valuables, so they weren’t just sitting in the wagon. We looked very cool.

Have a game plan: If there are specific rides you’ve been looking forward to, get on them first, or make sure you’re on a route to get there. Our day flew by and, even without long lines, we still didn’t manage to get on every ride we would have liked. At the same time, try not to rush. Constantly pushing kids to hurry just makes everyone cranky and can ruin the mood of the day. I reminded myself they were having such a blast on the rides they got on that it wasn’t mandatory to get to every one. They weren’t going to go home disappointed.

Go it alone: I love rides. I think I forgot how much until I got on the Leviathan. Then the Behemoth. What a thrill! It was hilarious to hear my sister try to explain to the kids that that “sick” feeling in their stomach as they waited for the ride to begin was really excitement: “It’s not scary, it’s thrilling!” Because she loves rides, too. I was happy Anna ended up loving some of the bigger rides; it gave me hope that I can cultivate her into my amusement park partner over the years, and hopefully Avery will come around and her first tastes of that “thrill” didn’t deter her for life. Sean isn’t a big ride guy, so we don’t tend to think about going to amusement parks often. But I kept saying to my sister, “We should have come on our own. It would have been amazing!” Maybe we still will. The summer is young.

Read more: 50 essential summer activities>

What are some of your amusement park survival tips?

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her@T_Chappell.

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