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