What's the best age for a child's first theme park visit?

October 2, 2016, 6:14 PM · On our Theme Park Insider show this week, we asked how old a child ought to be to visit (or go off in) a theme park all by themselves for the first time. But let's back it up a bit and ask a more fundamental question — when are kids old enough to go to a theme park at all?

Obviously, children of all ages visit theme parks. I've seen some children at Disneyland young enough that they ought to be wearing an "I'm Celebrating..." button with the tag "Being Born Earlier Today!" My first Disneyland memory was bring carried back to the car at night, only to be awakened for a moment by the roar of the monorail passing on the track above the parking lot. (Today, that would be a spot on Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure, which begins to suggest that I'm not exactly young anymore.) I was about three at the time. I'm told that I visited the park before that, but I have no memory of those visits.

Children under age three get in free at the Disney theme parks, but if you're taking a child that young into the parks, it's not for them — it's for you. Kids that young won't remember anything more than a brief snippet of those visits, if they remember anything at all.

That doesn't mean people shouldn't bring infants and young toddlers into the parks. If everyone else in the family has an annual pass, for example, why stop visiting just because you have a baby now? With child swaps, baby care facilities, and abundant places to take a break during your day in the park, taking an infant to a theme park is easier than many other popular tourist destinations. Heck, I'd rather see babies at Disney World than in my local movie theater.

Once kids are walking and potty trained, the issue becomes "how many rides can they get on?" With many 40-inch height requirements (which the average four-year-old can meet), the Disney theme parks offer plenty to do for the three- to nine-year-olds using child tickets. But other parks, with coasters whose height restrictions run up to 54 inches, might be less attractive options for kids until they get into their later elementary or middle school years.

A child's stamina plays into a parent's decision, too. Not just for visiting a park, but for getting there, too. The decision when to first visit a park is much different for an Orange County family who lives a few miles from Disneyland, Knott's, or Legoland than for a family in the Midwest that's thinking about a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. Can your child handle the trip to Orlando, as well as spending several days in the parks?

Every family is different, but having been through this more times than I care to count, I wouldn't blame a family for waiting until their children were out of car seats before making a 1,000-plus mile trip like that. Maybe starting with the local coaster park when your child's tall enough for that isn't a bad choice, after all.

Well, there are no bad choices here, just different ones. Parents of children of all ages find ways to make theme park visits work. But parents of children of all ages can learn from other parents... and from kids, too. So we'd like to the parents among us when they first took their children to a theme park. And if you're not a parent, we'd like to ask at what age you were brought to the parks for the first time.

What lessons did you learn from those first trips that you now wish you'd known in advance? Share your story with us, in the comments.

Replies (21)

October 2, 2016 at 7:08 PM

Some of the best times were when the kids were under 3. Sure, we didn't get to ride as much as we would like, but the sense of wonder was so special to be a part of and to this day, 8 years later, I can actually feel the memories when I think about it. It was also amazing to me how much a two year old remembered. Months after we went to WDW (as we were preparing for our next trip) she all of the sudden started talking about "the funny guys" and how that it was her favorite ride. It took us weeks to figure out she meant the Donald ride in the Mexico pavilion. To this day we have to make sure and see "The Funny Guys" and she has made sure her two brothers have been introduced!

October 2, 2016 at 7:31 PM

We took our granddaughter last October to WDW from Northern Nevada. She had just turned 1. She is an easy child and we knew she would do well. She was so much fun! She forced us to slow down, eat regularly and take breaks. She came home saying Elsa and didn't like the masked characters. Princesses were her obsession! The one thing I learned was where the "short" toilets are for those kids that don't like the auto-flush! The child centers are a Godsend and a nice place to find peace. I also learned that I didn't miss riding things she was too small for. I also rediscovered parades....

October 2, 2016 at 8:02 PM

My parents didn't have as huge a Disney love when I was a kid so five the first time I went to Disneyland and nine for my first WDW trip. Things changed as we got more Disney love and so my niece was two months old when she had her first trip and my first nephew three months. True, at that point, they're either mostly asleep or crying but still fun when they look around and enjoy the pics of them in fun outfits.

October 2, 2016 at 9:11 PM

What would I have liked to have known? Actually nothing. It was with a four year and two year old. At that time, it was perfect. Now, not so much due to how the fast pass has changed at Disney. I guess the only real hang up was that the Bugs Life show scared the mess out of them. I can't imagine how difficult it would be now with the requirement that the rides are booked in advance. I so wish they would go back to the previous system.

October 2, 2016 at 10:33 PM

I think if you are talking about creating positive memories for the child then I think it should be when they are 3 and up. Depending on the child it's probably better when they are 5 and up.

Honestly, before then they won't remember much and beside they are just as happy going to the fun land at the local park. When they are that young it's really more about parent's memories than the kids and that's odd since I reckon most parents are thinking the opposite.

October 2, 2016 at 11:40 PM

My grandma took all of her grandchildren to WDW for their 5th birthday.
The one (and only) thing I can remember from the whole experience was being given bubble gum to help ease the pain in my ears while on the airplane.

I don't remember a single moment of the park(s?).

Therefore, I voted 6-9, because although I'm sure I had a great time, what is the point if I don't remember it? Waste of money.

Thanks grandma!!

October 3, 2016 at 12:12 AM

I took my eldest to Florida when she was 9 months old, obviously that trip was for us, but it was completely hassle free and I'm soo glad we did it. We than took hertondisney land Paris when she was 18 months old the a I was when I first went to Disney land paid the year it opened. And she was incredible. She loved every part and seeing her face when the parade came on was magical and she met Mickey and Minnie and she ran straight over to them and hugged them. We go with my parents and it makes the child swap easier and they don't go on all the rides but we don't feel we missed out on anything. We are going back to Disney land Paris this year my daughter will b 2 years and 6 months and my other daughter 10 months. We have however decided to leave Florida until my youngest is nearly 3 just to make a very expensive trip from the UK worth it.

October 3, 2016 at 12:40 AM

There are some old photos of me with my parents at Disneyland in 1993 when I was a year or two old. It was amazing looking at those photos of vintage Disneyland in the early '90's, There is one of me sitting on my dad's lap riding the PeopleMover, which I don't remember riding at all. There's another photo of me and my mom in Toontown with cigarette ashtrays in the background, since I guess they still allowed smoking inside the parks then.

October 3, 2016 at 12:41 AM

Legoland is wonderful for kids under three with lots to do even for a kid barely two years old.

October 3, 2016 at 1:15 AM

I went to Disneyland when I was 5 (early 1980s). My dad took a video of it, so the memory is still there through that. It's still great to watch even now - and the jokes on the Jungle Cruise have barely changed. I don't remember anything directly front the trip though, so I think at least 5-6 for great childhood memories.

October 3, 2016 at 5:59 AM

We took our son a year ago when he was 2.5 years old. He loved every minute of it. When he saw Mickey for the first time, he went up and hugged him and just didn't want to let go. I am still surprised how much he remembers from the trip, even a year later. The other day, he grabbed his backpack from daycare, put his plush Mickey inside, went to the freezer and grabbed 2 ice cream sandwiches, looked at his mother and I and said, "Bye. I'm going to Disney World." By the way, we live in Virginia.

October 3, 2016 at 6:22 AM

Like my parents did with me, I've taken my 2 year old and infant to theme parks when it was cheap enough to be worth it for a couple hours.

My advice for parents is always about the money vs the time. If spending a couple hundred bucks on random day isn't an issue for you, go for it.

If you want to make a meaningful and impactful experience your kids will cherish, wait till they are old enough to remember it. (I'll say 5-7 years old if I'm pressed)

The absolute best time to take a kid to a theme park for the first time is when they want to go, not when you want them to go. This will probably happen when their friends are in school and talking about how much fun it was, or when they see something on TV and they want to try it.

October 3, 2016 at 7:11 AM

We took my son when he was just under 2 years old. I think it was fine, he loved it. We took him on pirates and haunted house and he fell asleep during both. And as someone else mentioned, I am amazed at his memory of it. He still talks about it 2 years later. With that said it does make more sense to wait a little older.
My only advice is don't travel with a group when you have kids that age. That way you can take your time and get all the kid rides in. Some in our group wanted to stick together but did not want to wait for the kid rides all day. So we bounced around all over the place.

October 3, 2016 at 7:09 AM

Part of the perk to taking our son is he is FREE until age 3. I think he will definitely appreciate it more when he is older, but it's nice taking him a lot now and saving so much money. He'll even wake up from naps at home and say "I want to go to Disney World." So I know it'll be even better when he is in middle school or something. Of course, if kid prices weren't as high as adults I would take him more after age 3

October 3, 2016 at 7:38 AM

Be careful taking small children on rides that spin in circles. My first trip to Disneyland was when I was four. I barfed on the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Also, I got upset when Tigger ran away from me when I was trying to meet him but I think that was because I was small and the person in the costume didn't see me. And then, days later at the San Diego Zoo, as I was waving hello at the gorillas, a big, mean silverback crapped in his hand and flung it at me. It really hurt my feelings because all I wanted to do was make friends. Nevertheless, I had a great time at both parks. It's all about attitude. If you're a sour, hateful person, you're kid will probably be the same and not have a nice time either. If you're hap-hap-happy like my family, you'll have loads of fun even if something terrible happens.

October 3, 2016 at 7:54 AM

You need to break out infants and toddlers. I don't believe infants should be brought to theme parks, but toddlers at 2 to 3 should be fine for local theme parks, plus they are free. Don't bother with a destination theme park trip until at least 5 years old. My kid was able to walk without a stroller at 6 years old; however, a stroller has its benefits too like having a place for food, drink, and clothing.

October 3, 2016 at 7:58 AM

I was brought for the first time when I was in high school because my parents didn't want to pay a ton of money for a trip I wouldn't remember. I'm glad we waited, I appreciated it way more than I would have as a kid.

October 3, 2016 at 11:08 AM

I live in Tampa, FL & have taken my kids to all the parks in Orlando and Tampa several times. I know Orlando is a dream vacation for parents to provide their kids, but as many have said, if they cannot remember it, whats the point. Please wait until your kids are aprox. 7 to 8. If that sounds like a long time to wait, then this is probably your dream as much or more than your kids. Besides, pushing a stroller through a million people with a sleeping toddler wearing a pull up is not ideal. Go to your local parks 1st & have fun. If you happen to be local like me with passes then go whenever with whomever you want. It is a Florida perk for sure!

October 3, 2016 at 11:34 AM

Funny that this should come up today.

In less than two weeks, I'm taking our 4 year old to California to go to Legoland, Disneyland & SeaWorld. He is under 40" but should have a good time.

We have been slowly winding him up about the trip, showing him movies that have rides related to them and showing him videos of the park and some of the rides.

Since the 4-year-old and I have been to the amusement park often ever since he was 2, he gets the concept of amusement parks and riding the rides. He acts like he is ready for this. I don't think he is going to care two rips about the theming elements, but he will be up for whatever ride I can get him on. I have a feeling that he is going to try and bum rush the first Mickey Mouse he sees....

October 3, 2016 at 10:46 PM

I don't believe people voting 6-9 years old actually have kids. You mean to tell me you're going fo go without them. I voted 3 and under. Mine have had a great time at Disneyland and DCA at that age

October 4, 2016 at 3:45 PM

My two boys were 10 and 9 when we made our first trip. I think that is a perfect age for everyone to have a good time. They are old evough to ride the big rides, have the stamina to not need an afternoon nap, and not need to rush to a bathroom. They are old enough to remember the trip, and while they know it's not real, can still see the magic in the place.

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