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With a child, three is now good company on theme park visits

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Published: April 25, 2014 at 10:47 AM

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, and we have been visiting theme parks together for the past 17 years. Theme parks and roller coasters have been such a part of our lives that we integrated them into our wedding and named our reception tables after our favorite roller coasters. As we’ve gotten older, and welcomed our son into the world a little over 4 years ago, the way we approach theme parks has dramatically changed.

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Before the birth of our son, Zachary, we were pedal-to-the-metal, rope-drop to shut-down theme park visitors. In one visit to Walk Disney World about 7 years ago, we spent nearly 18 hours straight touring, visiting all four Disney parks. Trips to theme parks were always about maximizing rides and attractions. We had it down to a science, utilizing Fastpass, single-rider lines, early entry, and just about every other queue avoidance system we could figure out. We were, and still are to a certain extent, a couple that didn’t mind riding apart if it meant we could ride and experience more. After all, how often do you find yourself talking to the person next to you while experiencing a thrill ride? In fact, the designs of some rides don’t even allow you to see or touch the person next to you on a ride such as Mission: Space or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

On February 20, 2010, everything changed. Now our touring patterns have changed, but the experience is no less fun or thrilling. We’ve probably made just as many, if not more, visits to theme parks as we did before Zach came into our lives. However, what we’ve found is that the way we visit parks has radically changed, and the way in which different theme park chains treat families with small children is vastly different.

The closest theme park to where we live in Northern Virginia is Six Flags America. We have visited the park about 6-8 times each year since Zach was born, and the experiences have been about what we expected from experiences visiting as a couple. Like many Six Flags parks, there are a lot of attractions geared towards kids, but most are found in isolated groups, and most do not allow parents and their children to ride together. What I find extremely strange about Six Flags America is that a number of attractions have height restrictions that are different from identical attractions in other parks. I understand that different states have different rules, but it’s hard to tell a kid that a ride that he rode in just a few weeks ago at another park is off limits at Six Flags America.

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We’ve also found that child swap rules vary greatly among parks within the Six Flags chain. Some Six Flags parks give parents of small children a slip of paper for the first rider that is either left with a ride op or initialed when done riding, while other parks require the entire family to wait in line together and one parent and the child are directed to a waiting area (typically just the unload area) while the other parent rides. It can be quite annoying to have to entertain a young child in a boring unthemed queue (I’m looking at you Magic Mountain), or carry an infant or toddler through an hour long line, so the parks that utilize the paper system are far better in my book. Also, while most Six Flags parks have expansive children’s themed areas, very few have rides or attractions for infants or toddlers under 36”, or a large collection of rides that kids can ride with their parents. However, at least most of those smaller kids, assuming they’re under 3, are given free admission.

The next closest theme park to where we live is Kings Dominion, a park in the Cedar Fair chain. In 2013, King’s Dominion completed a major expansion to their kid’s area, Planet Snoopy. The park now boasts a number of attractions that parents can ride with their children, but they’re condensed into one area of the park.

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There is a pretty large collection of rides, including a decently themed shooting gallery-style dark ride, Boo Blasters on Boo Hill. A number of rides in Planet Snoopy are accessible to pretty much any child capable of walking, but those rides accommodating to the smallest kids are not typically accessible to their parents. The attractions that have height restrictions allow kids to look forward to more thrilling experiences. Zachary finally crossed the 40” threshold over the winter, and is now permitted to ride Woodstock Express, an ACE Coaster Classic, formerly known as Scooby Doo, which was my first wooden roller coaster an undisclosed number of years ago. The only ride within Planet Snoopy that Zach cannot ride right now is the Linus Launcher, a lay-down spinning flat ride with a height restriction of 42”. There are a few other attractions accessible to small children around the park, but having all of the kids' rides in one spot makes it difficult for parents to get on the big-kid rides. Cedar Point, Kings Island, and Knott’s Berry Farm are all similar in this respect with concentrations of kids' rides that are typically not close to the bigger rides. Kings Dominion and other Cedar Fair parks have a relatively simple parent swap policy that does not require the entire family to stand in line. Cedar Fair uses a simple paper-based system that is administered slightly differently at different parks and attractions. Cedar Point visitors pick up a paper pass at the front of the park, and the first parent stand in line and rides the attraction of choice. Upon finishing the ride, the paper is then time-stamped by a ride op, which gives the other parent a limited amount of time to return to ride through the exit. Kings Dominion, Kings Island, and Knott’s Berry Farm use a similar paper system, but there’s no time stamp required, just an acknowledgement from the ride op that you’re going to parent swap.

We visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg probably more than any theme park in our region, and they seem to have a more measured approach to accommodating families. What sets Busch Gardens apart from Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks is that kid-sized attractions are scattered throughout the park, which encourages the family to tour around together. While there are two kid-geared areas, Sesame Street Forest of Fun and Land of the Dragons, families can also find rides for kids in Festa Italia, Octoberfest, Italy, and Heatherdowns. Also, while there are a number of rides that children must ride by themselves, there are plenty of rides that parents and their kids can ride together.

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The one downside to Busch Gardens is that aside from Grover’s Alpine Express, a very small kiddie coaster, riders have to be 48” tall before they can start riding other coasters in the park (Loch Ness Monster and Verbolten). The removal of the Big Bad Wolf, and its 42” height requirement, creates a big gap for kids to cross before being able to ride more than one roller coaster in the park. Parent swap in Busch Gardens is very simple, but is administered differently at different rides. Parents identify themselves to the ride op at the queue entrance, and are given instructions how to negotiate the parent swap for that ride. For some rides, the non-riding parent and child wait at or near the exit platform and the riding parent signals a ride op when finished riding. On other rides, the non-riding parent goes through the quick queue entrance after the first parent is done riding. Other SeaWorld Entertainment parks have similar policies, but the SeaWorld parks are like many other parks with kids' rides consolidated in small areas, Shamu’s Happy Harbor. However, SeaWorld parks’ shows and animal exhibits are accessible to everyone, making the few adult thrill rides the only attractions that families with small children cannot experience together.

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SeaWorld Entertainment parks also contain large climbing structures with nets, slides, and various other features that very few other parks in the country have.

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We’ve made two trips to Universal Orlando and one trip to Universal Studios Hollywood with our son over the past 4 years. All three parks are relatively accommodating to families of smaller children. The Universal parks as a whole are a bit lacking of attractions explicitly designed or intended for smaller children, but there’s certainly enough for kids to do. At USF, both Shrek 4-D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem are great for small kids, and have special seating for those too small or simply unwilling to ride in motion seats. Add to that the E.T. Adventure and other Kidzone attractions, there’s plenty to keep small kids occupied, but doesn’t necessarily allow families to circulate around the park.

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While some of the thrill rides have surprisingly low height restrictions (Simpsons the Ride, Transformers 3D, and the upcoming Gringotts Ride are all listed at 40”), the subject matter may not necessarily be appropriate for younger kids. Islands of Adventure is a little better with two distinct kids areas (Seuss Landing and Camp Jurassic) that allows families to make their way around the park without being relegated to one area of the park. There are also other attractions scattered through the park that parents and small kids can experience together.

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In fact, one roller coaster, Pteranodon Fliers, can only be ridden by adults that are accompanied by a child. USH is a little different, being a smaller park, there are fewer overall attractions, and even fewer that smaller kids can ride. Aside from a small playground, the lower lot is a waste of an escalator ride for kids under 40”. However, at all Universal parks, parent swapping is a breeze with a simple process. Families go to the ride op at the queue entrance, and ask to perform a parent swap. Depending upon the ride and line, the non-riding parent either waits outside the attraction entrance or goes to a parent swap room. Once the first parent is done riding, they “tag” the other parent in the swap room or outside. What we’ve found, though, is that the numerous single rider lines in Universal parks allow for much faster access to rides, and since you’re riding alone already, it’s much easier and simpler to just use the single rider line.

Like Universal, we’ve taken 2 trips to the Florida Disney parks and one trip to the California Disney parks in the past 4 years. As you would expect, Disney is incredibly accommodating to families with small children with easily the largest collection of rides that families can ride together. Pretty much anything that’s not a roller coaster or motion simulator, guests with infants and toddlers can ride together with their families. In fact, on our next visit to Disney World in October, it’s likely that there will only be a handful of attractions that he won’t be tall enough to ride (Everest, Primeval Whirl, Rock 'n Roller Coaster, Space Mountain, and Mission: Space).

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Those larger rides have an easy parent swap process where the non-riding parent is given a Fastpass to the attraction while the first parent rides. I’m not sure if the policy has changed since Fastpass+ went into effect, but the system that was used by Disney allows the first rider to use Fastpass, while the second rider can use the parent swap Fastpass card, meaning a couple with a small child can double the number of Fastpasses they can use since you only need one Fastpass per attraction for the first rider. To further help families with small children, Disney has done a lot to help entertain guests while waiting in lines. There’s plenty to look at, and some queues are being expanded and improved with interactive features to keep kids busy while they wait to ride. Of course, it always helps to visit during less crowded times of the year to avoid those unbearable lines. What we’ve also found in all of Orlando, is that there are a bevy of options when it comes to babysitting for parents that want that one nice, quiet night alone during their vacation. There are numerous services and websites that list lots of different options with credentials, certifications, and feedback. We used one to attend The Party for the Senses at the EPCOT Food & Wine Festival in 2010, and used another in 2012 for the Flying Fish Chef’s Table Dinner.

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Adding an extra member to our normal touring party of 2 has definitely changed our lives, but while taking theme park trips has become a little bit more complicated and different, its different in a good way. Not only do we get a chance to relive our childhood through our son, but we get to share the anticipation and excitement as he grows to ride more and more exciting attractions and experiences. The third member of our group has probably slowed us down a little bit — I haven’t done a full-on coaster marathon in quite some time — but I don’t mind one bit.

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Readers' Opinions

From Jonah Sirota on April 25, 2014 at 2:46 PM
Thank you, Russell, for this comprehensive look at the theme park experience with kids vs without! One thing I really hope that theme park chains take away from all of this is that there is very little downside to family-centered experiences where the ride appeals on multiple levels, having enough goodies to keep little kids and grown-ups alike happy. I think Universal has shown the most improvement in this area, but recently visiting Orlando I still wished that there were more "family-friendly" rides at UOR. The kids rides just weren't that engaging for adults (Woody Woodpecker, Dr Seuss trolley, pteranodon flyers) or else they had an intensity and frenetic pace that seemed only appropriate for older kids, especially if your child, like mine, doesn't enjoy 3D (Despicable Me, Spider-Man, Simpsons ride). In my book, the Flight of the Hippogriff and E.T. are the rides that get the formula right, offering a good balance of reridability for adults and approachability for kids. Of course Disney is king at this (and deserves more credit than they often get for making a ride like the seven dwarves mine train work for almost any guest), but there are other great parks around the country that get it. One of my favorites is Knoebel's, which has both a top-ten wooden coaster and a seemingly limitless collection of flat rides, often including three versions of the same ride type for grown-ups, kids, and toddlers. In this way they help "train" your kid to enjoy the bigger rides as they grow older. They also go out of their way to find flat rides that are more fun and often more forceful than the norm, like a rocket spinner that is fine for little kids, but still packs a real punch for grown-ups. (It's like dumbo on steroids). Plus since the park is on a no-admission, ride-ticket or wrist-band system, you'll often see three or four generations of family visiting together, as there is no charge to just walk around and take in the park. I wish six flags and cedar fair could do more this way, although maybe cedar fair will use their recent successes building up the family rides at knott's as a blueprint for further development elsewhere. We can all hope!
From TH Creative on April 25, 2014 at 6:43 PM
Just a very sweet offering by a TPI all-star. Thank you, sir! And best wishes to you, your wife and your little Imagineer.
From Mitchell Sentinella on April 25, 2014 at 7:05 PM
You should look into visiting a LEGOLAND (California or Florida.) They are geared more to the younger kids like 3-12yrs (They say 2-12 but there does not seem to be a lot for two years old.) There may be some rides with height restrictions but most rides are geared for the minimum height they can get. LEGOLAND may not be a top class theme park such as Disney or Universal but they do have some focus to entertain and separate you from the outside world. It beats taking the kids to a side of the road carnival attraction.
From James Koehl on April 25, 2014 at 8:43 PM
Russell, first I have to say that your articles set the standard that the rest of us on Team TPI hope to meet. Your articles- this one in particular- are factual, interesting, and most importantly, entertaining. Enjoy this time with your son- for some reason my son won't ride the rides in Camp Snoopy with me anymore...of course, he is 15 years old!

I do wish to respectfully disagree with one comment you made about Cedar Point. You stated, "Cedar Point (has) concentrations of kids' rides that are typically not close to the bigger rides." I know that is taken a bit out of context and might apply to the other Cedar Fair parks you were including (Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm), but in my opinion Cedar Point has done a pretty good job of interspersing its kids' areas with the "bigger rides", and also has family-friendly rides spread throughout the park outside of the Kids' areas.

The oldest area, Kiddie Kingdom, is located right next to maXair and GateKeeper and across the Midway from Raptor. Planet Snoopy is between Wicked Twister, WindSeeker, the arcade in the Ballroom building and the Midway. Camp Snoopy sits between Top Trill Dragster and Gemini, shares an entrance with "Dinosaurs Alive" and is directly adjacent to the newly renovated Gemini Midway and the new Pipe Scream family coaster. While there are not "kiddie"-type rides elsewhere in the park, Cedar Point also has its Midway Carousel situated as the first ride guests see as they enter the park; the historic Cedar Downs racing carousel and Cadillac Cars and the Skyride stand next to Raptor; the Turnpike Cars are across a plaza from the Blue Streak coaster; in Frontier Town the Antique Cars cruise next to Maverick and the Mine Ride. The Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has a station next to Millennium Force, Mantis and Iron Dragon, and in Frontier Town between Mean Streak and Maverick.

So many people think of Cedar Point as a "steel park", a park that only thinks about thrills and speed and ignores families and younger children. It is easy to look at the towering coasters and forget to look down at the smaller attractions that children and families can experience together, attractions that can be found near all the major "thrill" rides.

I hope this isn't taken as an attempt to "hijack" your excellent article. I just wanted to bring out some features of my local park that tend to be overlooked and perhaps lost in the shadow of the steel and wooden towers that Cedar Point is known for.

Soon Zachary will be able to join you on GateKeeper, Top Thrill Dragster, Millennium Force, Magnum, Gemini, and my all-time favorite, the fifty-year-old this year Blue Streak. I hope to meet you someday up here on the north coast! Once again, thank you for a terrific article!

From 68.97.246.57 on April 26, 2014 at 6:37 AM
Ah Pteranodon Flyers, the one ride I've never been able to ride at IOA. I really wish IOA would have a set hour or day to allow us older folks the ability to ride it due to the strict riding restrictions. I realize it would most likely be a huge disappointment, but being a themepark completist it really bugs me that I've never been able to ride it.

I've been told I could wait for a odd-number party to come through and ride with one of their children, but to me, that just feels way more awkward than it's worth. Plus the horrible wait time for the ride does not make it worth the trouble.

So if Universal is listening- please have an old folks day for Pteranodon Flyers. I'll make a special trip just to be able to ride the ride. Maybe even make a tshirt about it afterwards.

From TH Creative on April 27, 2014 at 9:29 AM
You have a beautiful family, sir. best wishes for happiness always.
From cynthia henisey on April 27, 2014 at 7:12 PM
Life is full of seasons. Enjoy this time with your little one. Soon enough he'll be a teenager and that's a whole different dynamic. Then he'll be grown up and it will be back to you and your wife again. All good times, just different.
From Kelly Muggleton on April 28, 2014 at 3:52 AM
Great article, thank you - I have a niece we will be bringing to the Orlando parks next year, I'll be sure to pop back to this article for a refresh then!
You have a lovely family.
From Russell Meyer on April 28, 2014 at 6:46 AM
@James - I understand what you're talking about. Cedar Point does have three distinct kids areas in the park that are in close proximity to some of the most popular thrill rides. However, when we were there for 2 days last summer when Zach was hovering around the 38" mark, it was a bit of a chore to keep everyone happy. Kiddie Kingdom is a very nice little area with tons of attractions that kids can ride by themselves. The nearby Planet Snoopy also has some nice kiddie rides, but these two sections that are really close to each other are still a bit of a walk from Gatekeeper, Wicked Twister, MaXair, Raptor, TTD, Mantis, and Corkscrew. Riding roller coasters requires us to split up anyway, but we found ourselves walking a lot back and forth between coasters and kiddie areas, exacerbated by the time limits placed on the returns of the parent swap card. Text messaging sure has made it easier, but it's still a lot more walking than we used to do before we had a kid. The Camp Snoopy area is really nice with a few more attractions that kids can ride with their parents, but it's not really close to anything aside from Gemini and maybe Magnum. TTD is a bit of a hike, as is Maverick. Cedar Point certainly has a large array of kids rides (probably the most in any single park we've been to), but I just wish they were spread out a little better and a few more placed closer to some of the big rides, particularly on the west side of the park near Maverick and Millennium Force. Unfortunately, even if we return to Cedar Point this summer, Zach won't be tall enough for Pipe Scream, which has a 42" height requirement.

Maybe it's being spoiled a bit by Busch Gardens and its sprinkling of kids rides around the park (specifically themed around the lands where they reside), but Cedar Point, and most of the Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks have the same issue of a lack of kids rides in close proximity to the most popular thrill rides. Universal has the same problem too, so it's a part of park design that is very tricky to get right.

Zachary would probably have ridden Gatekeeper last year if he were tall enough. His face a couple of weeks ago when he discovered he was tall enough to ride Woodstock Express and Avalanche at Kings Dominion was priceless.

@Jonah - It's been quite a while since my wife and I have been to Knoebels. I would love to get on Flying Turns, and I need to remind myself why Phoenix is one of the greatest woodies on the planet. Unfortunately, the park just isn't near our normal travel paths anywhere. We are in the process of planning a summer trip to Canada in July, so perhaps we might swing through there on our way up or back, along with Dorney Park.

@Mitchell - Legoland has been on our list, it just never makes it on the itinerary. On our last trips to Florida and California, we never had an extra day, and it's looking like our next trip in October will not have enough days to squeeze in Legoland. With our Platinum Passes for Busch Gardens Williamsburg, it's difficult to pass up the free parking and admission to Busch Gardens Tampa, Sea World, and Aquatica. Even with a 10-day vacation, if we spend 4 days at Disney, 3 days and Universal, 1 day at BGT, 1 day at Sea World, and 1 day at Aquatica, there's no time left for Legoland. I've heard great things about both the Florida and California parks, they simply haven't been able to crack our itinerary. Perhaps we will be able to squeeze it in on our next trip, likely in 2016.

From 169.253.194.1 on April 28, 2014 at 5:11 PM
Ahhh everybody is being so nice and encouraging. It's all crap. Having a child younger than 4 years old sucks, plain and simple. They slow you down, to snails pace. The younger they are the bigger the logistical foot print. If you don't have a child older than 5 years old and that is all you have ... "Don't bring them". Save your time and money... So much money. They won't remember it anyway and it is all about the memories, right! I am a big theme park fan and I want to enjoy myself too. I can enjoy myself through my kids, if the no what's going on, that is. Now once the youngest child is 5 years old it changes everything. My wife and I with two boys, 5 and 9, went to WDW 9/2013. This was hands down the best time ever for our family. Sure we still could not get on every ride but everybody understood and simply got it. In closing till the youngest is at least five it will not be a "great time", good time maybe, great; your lying to youself.
From James Koehl on April 28, 2014 at 5:58 PM
To 169.253.194.1: You are entitled to your opinions. Everybody in here is entitled to their opinions. Just because you disagree with them in your situation does not give you the right to tell them that they are wrong or lying to themselves. Who cares if children can't consciously remember what happened to them at the age of 2 or 3- those experiences probably have a lot of effect on their developing brains and minds. The stimulation of the experiences, especially good, fun experiences could have a long-lasting effect on them. If they learn that theme parks equal fun, they will probably continue to find them fun when they can remember the experience.

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