Top 10 Ways for Annual Passholders to Get the Most from Their Theme Park Visits

September 27, 2015, 10:36 PM · I clearly remember the look in my parents' eyes when we walked into the popcorn-scented sunlight of Town Square on our first visit to Disneyland. It was the late 1970’s and we were on a trip from Georgia visiting family in California. Our time was limited and we only had one day each at Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Disneyland. The look in their eyes wasn’t excitement or joy. It was drive and determination. In one hand Mom gripped her guide map and a ball point pen; she held on to my hand firmly in the other. Dad lifted my little sister in his arms and we were off. A mere fifteen hours stood between us and our goal of checking off several dozen rides, shows, and attractions on our to-do list. Damn the torpedoes – Full speed ahead!

We were very successful and everything was checked off. We even had enough time to catch both performances of the Main Street Electrical Parade. I remember the look in the eyes of my family at that point. This time it was pure joy mixed with a little exhaustion. Of course we were tired, but that music, those twinkling lights, the overall atmosphere on Main Street lifted us and we were happy.

It makes me sad to see that same look in the eyes of people just beginning their one day visit to a theme park now. The odds are stacked against them way more than what we were against on that first Disneyland trip. Brand new systems and technology exist now to help pack as much as possible into a visit, but a lot of advance reconnaissance work is needed to make the most of those programs. So, how do you get the most out of your one-day visit? What are the strategies and tips I can give you to pack the most into your fifteen hours? Can I really get my money’s worth?

Oswald and Robert
Passholders: Spend the day in the park with a friend.

Sorry, but that’s not what this story is about. I’m here to help Annual and Season Passholders learn how to maximize the use of their year- or season-long access to their favorite parks. The beauty of being a passholder is the knowledge that you don’t have the pressure to do it all in just a day or two; because there is no to-do list. Relax, slow down, savor and enjoy. These are the real benefits of having unlimited access to a place many only visit once or twice, ever.

Take a leisurely stroll – This is what sets passholders apart from limited-visit guests most. While they are sprinting around the park, you enjoy a pleasant stroll. Your goal is to enjoy the rides and shows in the park, but there is no pressure. If the line is too long at your favorite attraction, skip it. You can always come back next week and do it then. Perhaps you take a grand circle tour or two around the park on the train. Why not head up in the observation tower? You’re not in any hurry so relax and enjoy yourself. Ice cold beer? Don’t mind if I do. It’s even more fun when you bump into friends that you can hang out with, too. Just be sure everybody understands that the pace for the day is slow and easy.

Do a workout lap – This might not be easy to do during the busy seasons, but during slow times your park is a perfect place to increase the step count on your fitness tracker. Who wouldn’t rather be a park walker than a mall walker? Epcot is an especially good place for this. From the front gate, a path around both sides of Future World, and a lap around World Showcase Lagoon clocks in at 2.78 miles. Another great place for a workout is the pedestrian walkways that link all of the Universal Orlando Resort hotels. If you take a particularly difficult stroll and you want to reward yourself for all your efforts, there will always be a funnel cake or ice cream cart somewhere nearby. Go on, you deserve it.

Get good and immersed – For the next several years the trend looks to be for parks to build highly immersive settings such as the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter and the upcoming Star Wars Land and Avatar expansions. A major part of the experience of visiting those places is simply being in them. Limited-time guests just won’t have the chance to linger in Diagon Alley and watch the world go by. They won’t be able to devote an evening to watching Pandora change as the sun sets. The details of Star Wars and Toy Story Lands will be part of the background for them as they rush to get in line at the rides. You can soak it all in. This is not to say there aren’t lots of other great environments already in theme parks where you can spend a few hours enjoying some time. It’s not unusual to see people reading books in a city park, is it? So why shouldn’t you do the same thing at your home park? Find a bench on Tom Sawyer Island and pass a few hours reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Between chapters you could look up, smile and wave at the passing riverboat or watch the train chug by. Speaking of reading in theme parks, from time to time you might find a group of local high school student dressed in Hogwarts house robes sitting in The Three Broomsticks or The Leaky Cauldron doing actual homework. Now that’s being immersed!

Go on a photo safari – If you are an avid photographer, your local park will offer you tons of opportunities for exercising your camera equipment. To make it more interesting, create assignments for yourself or a group of friends rather than just wondering around looking for things to photograph. Here are a few examples: capturing motion, reflections, animals, patterns, gloomy guests, the color orange... the possibilities are limitless. You can find lots of inspiration for theme park photo walks online. Just leave the selfie sticks at home.

Do some people watching – You will be amazed at what you will see and hear if you just stop and watch the people around you. You will encounter the best and the most bumbling of humanity in a theme park; just know you are also on display. Limited-time guests grab a quick bite of lunch, then rush on to the next attraction. You get to linger with friends over your meal. The food in most theme parks isn’t always outstanding, but what it might lack you can make up for with good company and enjoyable conversation. Grab a spot with a great view of people passing by and enjoy your meal and all of the goings on.

Take advantage of learning opportunities – If your park includes craftsmen demonstrations or animal habitats, spend time learning from them. Parks such as Dollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Silver Dollar City, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and SeaWorld have lots of opportunity to learn about animals, how things are made, or how people once (and still do) live their lives around the world. Limited-visit guests might only slow down to glance as they pass these exhibits, but you have more time to stop, enjoy and learn.

Take advantage of additional free events – Many parks have hard-ticket events for Halloween and Christmas, but there are dozens and dozens of “value added” events at parks across the country. These events are included in your admission and cover a lot of fun themes. Epcot has two: the International Wine & Food Festival and the Flower & Garden Festival. Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras includes a fantastic parade and great concerts. A lot of seasonal parks are adding food, music, and cultural events, too. Dollywood is a great example, featuring events almost their entire season. Check your park’s website for details and enjoy.

Meet your visiting friends and family for dinner in the evening – Family or friends who are visiting may want you to spend the day with them serving as their tour guide. That can be a lot of fun but not always. Having an annual pass provides you with a great compromise. Offer to join them as their day winds down in the park for dinner. You get to hear about their day, enjoy a meal, and then you can wish them well as they head back to the hotel with the exhausted, cranky kids.

Become an advocate for the good service you see in the parks – People are quick to complain, but it takes a lot to get someone to report exceptional service. The more time you spend in a park, the better you will understand how it operates and what it expects of its team. When you see a member of the park’s staff doing great work let the management know. Stop by Guest Relations and ask to leave a comment. Most hourly team members are given an annual review. Even a couple of positive comments from guests can have a big impact on the amount of increase they receive.

Use your knowledge to help others – Even the most well designed park with highly effective way finding signs can be confusing for first time, or infrequent guests. If someone looks lost, and there isn’t a team member nearby, be the hero. There is a very fine line between helping someone who looks lost, and being “that weird theme park girl,” but if the opportunity presents itself to offer advice or directions to a fellow park guest, use your ability for the power of good.

What are some other ways fellow passholders make the most of their park visits?

Replies (8)

September 28, 2015 at 5:31 AM · Great read! This also applies for those of us who work in this industry! Thank you so much for including the last two. I always make it a thing that on my visits (either quick or slow-paced) to highlight cast/team members or staff that are doing an exceptional job, or helped make my day better. Sure, there may be a long line at Guest Relations at the end of the day, but it will be worth it. I (along with everyone else) always get excited when we receive a guest compliment.

I always enjoyed helping others, even off the job -- taking a family picture is my favorite. I hate to see Mom or Dad stepping out of the picture to take it.. Why not let them all be in it! Directions, bathroom locations, attraction locations, parade routes, etc., I love helping out.

September 28, 2015 at 9:04 AM · For me, the decision whether or not to get an AP really comes down to the food. Does the park have enough variety of high-quality food to entice me to come back multiple times to try all those different meals and snacks? If so, count me in for an AP. If not... well, I can probably get by with just the occasional visit.
September 28, 2015 at 12:23 PM · With that said about food, I would say that the food at Disneyland is meh. Yes they have some gourmet choices, but not enough attention is paid to the good old burger and pizza. I had better pizza at Six Flags.
September 28, 2015 at 2:28 PM · It kind of piggy backs off the idea of helping fellow guests but I usually offer to take pictures for couples or families with their devices when it seems like they are struggling with a selfie or so that the picture take can finally be included in the shot. It only takes 15 seconds and ends up making them happier to be included.
September 28, 2015 at 7:53 PM · Make a point to see at least one entertainment on the schedule like the parade, show, spectacular, street entertainers, or band. Go to a less popular attraction. Look for an one off of kind merchandise. Eat where you haven't before. Maybe find a person in the park you might be friends or acquaintances with, then meet up for lunch or dinner at next trip.
September 28, 2015 at 8:53 PM · Completely disagree about the food at Disneyland being "meh". Six Flags and Universal serve cardboard for burgers, and have mediocre pizza. For the same price as a burger meal, you can go to Flo's Diner and get a full meal with veggies and meat.

I have to agree with these reasons for maximizing an AP. The biggest thing that frustrates me about a handful of friends that have AP's is that they won't get out of their comfort zone. When I ask them "have you seen X show or Y ride?" they almost always say, "No, I didn't know about that" They do the same things every time. Why not try a new attraction or show or whatever? You have an AP. The worst thing that happens is you learned that you don't need to do or see that again. The best thing is that you can find something that you end up loving.

September 28, 2015 at 11:03 PM · As an on-and-off passholder to the various Southern California parks, I definitely do several of the things mentioned in this list. However, there are a few additional things I do to add variety to my visits:

-Ride Everything: Excluding the kiddie rides, I make a point to do every attraction at the park at least once per year. Even the attractions that only receive mediocre reviews can be fun on occasion, and I wouldn't feel right telling someone to ride/skip something I have no first-hand knowledge of.

-Theme Days: I'll go to the park and have a specific theme for the day, only doing attractions that fit that theme. Some past examples include dark rides only, no IP-based attractions, C & D tickets, or (for SFMM) coasters no longer in production.

-Test Touring Plans: As someone who loves to give advice to others, I have several touring plans for each of the major So Cal parks. Any time I make a new one, I visit the park and follow the plan, sticking to it as rigidly as possible. This includes visiting attractions that I may not generally bother with but that would be important for a first time visitor, as well as moving through the park in a more organized fashion rather than simply running around and doing my favorites.

-Games, Games, Games: I don't do this very often (generally only on low crowd days where I know I'll be able to do a lot), but occasionally I'll just pick some random objective for the day that I've never done before. For example, I once decided to try riding everything in Disneyland in alphabetical order (if I remember correctly, I made it to S), and I've also tried doing SFMM's coasters from oldest to newest (accomplished that one, but it was very tiring).

To keep from getting bored at a theme park with the frequent visits an AP allows, I simply follow 3 simple rules: 1. Don't spend more than one full day of time at the park per month, 2. Don't stress out about anything that happens on your visit, and 3. Don't do the same thing twice while on the same pass.

September 28, 2015 at 11:39 PM · Great article, Rob!

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