Park Hopping

A Beginner’s Guide to Amusement Park Travel

You’ve heard the stories of people basing entire trips on amusement park tourism. If you’re thinking about your next Disney or Universal trip, you likely have amusement park travel on the brain.

So, what is amusement park travel?

It’s all about planning a vacation around visiting your favorite amusement parks.

Amusement park travel entices ride and attraction enthusiasts. Whether you’re a Potterhead who wants to visit Gringotts or a roller coaster lover who needs to vacation at Cedar Point, amusement park travel will let the traveler immerse themselves in an atmosphere designed to keep them entertained, as well as comfortable, with all the amenities needed encapsulated in that destination.

It’s not just about the rides and attractions, though. Yes, rides are an integral part of the experience for most, but there is so much more. For some, it’s all about interactivity, like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town Alive. For others, the shows are 100% why they visit, such as Festival of the Lion King at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. And for others? It’s truly about the social experience of being at their favorite parks. They eat, drink, buy souvenirs, socialize with like-minded guests, and post it on social media.

Keep in mind, though, amusement park travel can be a more physically demanding kind of travel than you expect. It can also end up being fairly pricey, since the immersion experience extends to most of your needs being sold to you for an upcharge.

Why is it a growing industry?

Some analysts believe that amusement park tourism will amount to over $150 billion in revenue by 2032. Even with the pandemic being challenging for amusement parks, they are seeing tremendous amounts of rebounding as folks are excited to escape from the day-to-day and explore their favorite parks. 

The traveler of today is more tied to pop culture and social media than ever. That combined with an adventure-driven traveler means that amusement parks, but especially theme parks like Disney and Universal, are bucket list items for many tourists. Amusement parks also offer special souvenirs and food that are only available by visiting the parks, which increases their desirability.

Additionally, theme parks are constantly renewing themselves and adding new attractions, new food items, new merchandise, and new activities in order to keep their offerings as fresh as possible. Another bonus is the fact that every visit to a theme park will inherently be different than the last because the attendees, the workers, and the way you experience the attractions will never be identical. 

All that being said, amusement park travel can feel very intimidating to a beginner, so let’s chat basics.

Determine Your Budget

Budget is always my first step. Amusement parks run the gamut when it comes to price. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can range from budget-friendly to luxury vacation. Budget will depend entirely on what you can afford, as well as what you want to see and do. 

For instance, an all-inclusive 5-day trip to Walt Disney World in Florida for a family of two adults and two kids would be around $5000 in 2022. This doesn’t include transportation but does include 5 nights during the summer at a value-level resort, like Pop Century, 5-day single park tickets (which means no park shopping), Genie+ and Lightning Lane pay-to-ride attractions, 2 meals a day (one table service, one quick service), plus snacks and souvenirs.

Budgeting is when you really figure out your non-negotiables regarding not just travel but this particular trip you’re planning. How much does each budget category matter to you: attractions, food, accommodations, transportation, souvenirs. If you don’t care about food, look into bringing snacks or grocery shopping. Accommodations just a pillow to lay your head on? Value properties or cheaper accommodations nearby might work perfectly for you.

Choose Your Destination

Now that you have an idea of how much you can spend, you need to determine where you want to spend it! If you have a bucket list this is where you comb through it and decide which bucket list item fits your current amusement park travel goals. 

Most people have an amusement park in mind when planning a trip like this. 

If you don’t, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Wet or Dry
  • Rides or Shows
  • Indoor or Outdoor
  • Flat Rides or Dark Rides
  • Thrill Rides or Calm Rides
  • Theme Parks or Coaster Park
  • Domestic or International
  • Regional or Mass Market

While the above isn’t entirely comprehensive for every type of amusement park out there, it should really help you narrow down your choices.

Amusement parks are typically categorized into five sections, but can also cross-over quite a bit:

  • Theme Parks: These are amusement parks that base its structures and attractions on a more centralized theme, often dividing the property into themed sections. Think Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi.
  • Coaster Parks: These are amusement parks that really focus on thrill rides, such as roller coasters. They don’t necessarily theme their parks, but instead focus on filling the park with adrenaline rush rides. Think Cedar Fair parks, Six Flags parks.
  • Family-Fun Parks: These are amusement parks that started as mini-golf courses, but have expanded into offering multiple attractions, including rides, bumper cars, batting cages, bumper boats, and more. They also often have token and ticket-based games, as well. These are generally locally run.
  • Water Parks: These are amusement parks that include water play areas such as swimming pools, water slides, splash pads, water playgrounds, and lazy rivers. Think Noah’s Ark Water Park, Aquaventure Atlantis, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon.
  • Educational Parks: These are amusement parks that offer rides and attractions, but also focus on education content as part of their purpose. Think Dinosaur World, Busch Gardens. 

Don’t Forget Transportation

When people are planning amusement park travel, transportation and parking are often somewhat overlooked. Whether you are driving or flying to your destination, I’d recommend looking to see if your accommodations offer any shuttle programs. Parking fees can add up quickly and really add to the stress of the experience.

Similarly, if you are driving to your destination, accommodations might have parking fees, as well. Something to be mindful of, as well.

Book Your Tickets

People are traveling to amusement parks in an increasing frequency. Amusement parks are also being a bit more mindful of capacity (as of 2022). All that being said, it’s smart to book your tickets ahead of time. Additionally, booking ahead of time should allow you to find any available discounts that are out there.

Some parks, like Disneyland or Walt Disney World, are regularly meeting capacity for their parks days, weeks, and months beforehand. What a massive disappointment it would be to make your way to a park just to be told it’s sold out for that day.

Also, some parks, like Walt Disney World (as of 2022) are allowing you to buy tickets but then requiring you to assign that ticket to one of their four parks, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, or Hollywood studios. If you don’t do that step, you might find yourself in a “sold out” situation, as well.

Pick Your Accommodations

Accommodations will end up being one of the more substantial costs of your amusement park travel. Regardless of the type of park you’re visiting, how you determine the best accommodations for you will depend on your budget and non-negotiables. 

Resort-style theme parks will have numerous accommodations on property that you can choose from that work for a variety of budgets. Walt Disney World, as an example, has four different categories for their hotels: Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Villa.

While I enjoy staying on property, when possible, I tend to prioritize other important factors, like a full kitchen or laundry services. Airbnbs might be a smart option for you if you want more privacy or space. 

You will also want to look into available deals if you stay on a property sponsored by the park you’re visiting, they may offer discounts or bundle deals when you combine tickets, accommodations, and other potential fees as one package. 

Amusement parks are another kind of travel where travel agents might be able to save you money. It will generally cost you nothing to get a quote from an agent. Be upfront with them and let them know the deals you’ve found. They might be able to find something more competitive.

Plan Your Attractions

Ok, we all know amusement parks are busy. Lines can be so long. Who wants to queue for hours upon hours? Most major amusement parks offer some sort of line skipping or expediting service for just that reason.

Disney has Genie+ and Lightning Lane. Cedar Point has Fast Lane Passes. Six Flags has The FLASH Pass. Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi also has a Flash Pass. Universal has the Universal Express Pass.

If you’re concerned about lines, and your budget allows for it, definitely consider using one of the line shortening services. They do come in handy.

Regardless of whether you use the service or not, research your amusement park ahead of time and determine all of the attractions you want to see before your trip is over. This will save a tremendous amount of decision-making time while at the park. Some parks (or third parties) offer services or apps where you can see wait times for the attractions, rides and shows included. Spend a little time researching waiting times, as well. This research will help you better plan how you choose your rides and lines, but also how you use the line shortening services.

Research Your Dining

Food can sometimes be an afterthought as you’re having the best day ever at your favorite amusement park. Being prepared will save you potential melt downs. And I’m not just talking about kids. Exhausted, hangry adults are no better.

First, research if the park will allow you to bring in your own snacks and water. If so, this can be a huge cost savings but also a huge time savings.

  • Disney lets you bring in drinks (non-alcoholic) and food (that doesn’t need to be heated up).
  • Universal lets you bring in water bottles and small snacks.
  • Cedar Point lets you bring in unopened water bottles. 
  • Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi does not let you bring in water or snacks.
  • Six Flags does not let you bring in water or snacks.
  • Noah’s Ark Water Park does not let you bring in water or snacks.

While some places have a strict no water and food policy, most make exceptions for dietary or health concerns, and all make accommodations for babies and infants.

If you want to eat at the park, check out menus. If you want to go to a sit down restaurant, you’ll likely need reservations. Disney opens reservations for table service restaurants 60 days ahead of time. This is also an area where a travel agent might be helpful because theme park reservations, in particular, can be very competitive.

Plan Your Outfits

Packing is always something to be mindful of when traveling. In this case, it’s important to really plan out what you’re packing. If you’re an amusement park beginner, prioritize comfortable, breathable clothing and really comfortable shoes. You’ll underestimate just how much you’re going to walk while going from ride to ride. The average Disney guest walks 7-10 miles a day! Regardless of when you travel, layers are your friend. Parks can go from super hot outside to super cold inside even in the summer. Also, parks are usually open rain or shine. So, if it’s scheduled to rain during your visit, bring a raincoat or poncho and be prepared to have a super fun, super wet visit. 

For theme park visits, some folks really love the idea of Disneybounding. Bounding is wearing a casual cosplay-type outfit inspired by your favorite characters, attractions, themes, foods, etc. For instance, if you’re going to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, you can totally wear a Disneybound for your favorite Jedi or Sith. Be sure to look into the park’s rules about costumes so you don’t inadvertently break dress code.

Know Your Limits

Finally, be mindful of your limits while on vacation. Amusement parks are typically an active vacation where you’re outside quite a bit and you’re not eating and drinking on a regular schedule. They are also typically very crowded, so you’ll be dealing with quite a bit of sensory overload.

Yes, you want to make the most of your vacation. But also, remember to take time to decompress. If you’re hot, find a place to get cool. If you’re exhausted, sit down. Or find a show and relax while enjoying an attraction you didn’t necessarily have on your list. Try to make sure you schedule enough food and water breaks.

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