February 3, 2000 -- It's theme park season all over America.
With the Presidents Day weekend just days away and the school "spring break" period in sight, families around the nation are gearing up for a visit to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World, Six Flags or one America's other lavish entertainment complexes.
But once you master the financial complexities of visiting a theme park, the really daunting work begins: planning to survive the physical rigors of these sprawling mini-cities. Don't be deceived. Theme parks are fun only if you've done your legwork before you travel.
Here are some tips to help you manage your family's next visit.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before you go to any theme park, check on the least crowded days and times to visit the most popular attractions. Research local weather conditions. Gather all the relevant maps and guidebooks. Ask if the park has special "early-entry" plans. Thankfully, the Internet makes all this time-consuming research easier than ever. All the major theme parks--and most of the smaller ones--now maintain their own Web pages. Yahoo! maintains a serviceable set of links and About.com has a fine list of links to a variety of theme-park guides and tip sheets.
PLAN YOUR ITINERARY
Prepare an attraction-by-attraction itinerary before you go to the park. Make reservations in advance whenever practical. Balance shows, rides and other attractions and consult the park map to make sure you proceed in a logical manner. On warm days, schedule at least some afternoon time at a shaded or air-conditioned venue or at a water attraction.
Dress in several loose layers to accommodate the early-morning-to-late-evening temperature swings. Never wear a new pair of shoes; rely on your sturdiest, most comfortable lace-up walking gear. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. Bring a fanny pack or backpack. And don't forget bathing suits if the park has water attractions.
PLAN YOUR DINING
You'll wait in food lines all day if you stop every time someone gets the munchies. Eat a substantial breakfast and schedule a lunch break at a pre-determined time. If the park has restaurants that accept lunch reservations, take advantage of them. And bring between-meal snacks. The best choices are high-energy, easy-to-tote items such as fresh fruits, trail mixes and juice boxes. Minimize salty snacks such as pretzels, peanuts and chips. And don't forget to bring as much bottled water as you can comfortably carry.
BE PREPARED FOR EMERGENCIES
Be prepared in the event you lose a child. Show your children the location of the park's lost-and-found area and tell them to head there immediately in case they become separated from you. Each adult in your party should know what each child is wearing and every adult should carry a recent photo of the children. Children should be taught to seek immediate assistance only from police or guards if they become separated from you. Each child should have an information card--their name, your hotel's name and phone number and an emergency contact back home--pinned inside a pocket. If you have a mobile phone, carry it and make sure that number is on the information card, too.
KEEP YOUR GUARD UP
Unfortunately, theme parks are not immune from crime, so do not let down your guard. Pay extra attention to youngsters in darkened theaters. Hold your children's hands tightly--or carry them--wherever there are abrupt transitions between light and dark areas. Be especially alert at food stalls, a favorite haunt of pickpockets.