Visiting an amusement park can be stressful, especially for grown-ups who pay for everything and carry everything (including tired children). Fortunately there's a lot you can do to reduce problems and save money.
Comfort is key. Check the forecast; dress appropriately; use sunscreen. Wear shoes that won't fall off on rides where your feet hang down.
Park food is expensive. To avoid buying $3 sodas every hour, make the children tank up at water fountains. Freeze a disposable bottle of water beforehand and take cool sips as it melts throughout the day.
At lunch, it may be cheaper to buy the extra-large size of some food items and share, rather than individual servings for each member of the family.
Waiting in line for popular rides can literally take hours. Posted signs usually state how long the wait is. Some theme parks have systems like Disney's FastPass and Universal Express, which issue timed tickets for popular rides, allowing you to arrive at a certain time and wait just 15 or 20 minutes instead of hours. Some parks charge extra for timed tickets; others don't.
Another technique for avoiding long lines: Get to the gate before the park opens, have your route plotted, be among the first in the door and make a beeline for that famous coaster before the crowds arrive. Ride lines may also be shorter during daily parades.
And in the strange-but-true category: "When you have a choice between more than one line for a ride or concession stand, take the one on the left; most people instinctively move to the right," according to Nancy Dunnan, editor of the TravelSmart newsletter.
Many parks experience a lull after the daytime crowds leave and before the teenagers arrive. Coasters with hourlong waits at 11 a.m. may have no lines at suppertime. Admission fees after 4 p.m. are often half-price, too, and many parks stay open late into the night in summer.
Visiting water parks is an art unto itself. Leather and cloth wallets are easily lost and ruined in water parks, so a watertight plastic pouch, suspended from a string around your neck, is a must. Use it to store your car key, cash and credit card.
It's amazing how often guests drag bags full of items into water parks, only to store them the entire day in an expensive locker. To avoid that: Wear your bathing suit and light flip-flops. As soon as you're off the hot concrete and onto the cooler surfaces most water parks have underfoot, store your footwear, sunscreen and towel in an old bag you can leave unattended -- along with everyone else's -- outside each ride or pool.
Don't let weak swimmers in the wave pools; standing your ground in the force of the waves is fun but exhausting. Be vigilant about swim diapers for toddlers, and in the interest of public health, postpone your visit if anyone in the family has a stomach ailment.
Theme park admission for a family can easily run into the hundreds of dollars, so look for discounts. Sometimes coupons appear on milk cartons and soda cans; check Web sites for discount days -- deals for senior citizens or two-for-ones. And contact the nearest Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Local tourism boards almost always have coupons for the big theme parks," according to Fodor's "1,001 Smart Travel Tips."
Many amusement park visitors will be making a day trip from home, but others go as part of a longer trip. If your visit involves an overnight stay, check out package deals through travel Web sites. You might save on hotels, car rentals and admission if you roll them all into one.
And consider buying that season's pass if you live near a park or within driving distance of several outposts in a chain.
For peace of mind, put an ID card in every child's pocket; write down exactly where you parked; and arrange a time and place to rendezvous so your group can split up to try different attractions.
If you go ...
To find an amusement park in a specific area, click on the map at www.freewebcentral.com/hidden/frameamusementparks.htm or see www.ticketforfun.com.
For complete "best of" lists, go to www.amusementtoday.com and click on "golden tickets."