Every year we make a pilgrimage to Hersheypark, the theme park in Hershey, Pennsylvania that really serves as a living advertisement for the Hershey Company. We've been doing it since my son was little and a he's kind of grown up there, passing through each of the height categories which they mark with a product line. He's gone from a Miniature (kids under 36”) to a Jolly Rancher (people who are 60” plus) in the blink of an eye. But we've also gone to plenty of other theme parks, including a few Six Flags, Knobels, and many owned by Disney.
Over the years, we've developed some “coping strategies” to make theme park visits more pleasant and definitely more affordable. Here are some:
- Be prepared – Check the park's website for information on how to pay (one park we visited did not take credit cards and we had to run into the nearest town to find an ATM). Find out if there are discount tickets available and figure out which best fit the needs of your family. Hershey offers a Sunset Pass which allows you to enter the park the evening before and enjoy the next day at a bargain price. Whereas this wasn't prudent when my kids were little and had earlier bedtimes, it's great for now when they're older. It means we get more time in the park resulting in less rushing around to see everything.
- Find out if you can bring in food/water – Yes, this is part of “be prepared” but it's also a money-saving tip. Water costs a lot in these parks, so if you can' bring it in, enter with an empty water bottle and plan on filling up at water fountains or in the bathroom where you can often find the coldest water. Also, in hot weather, many parks are required by law to give you ice when you ask for it. You can hydrate on ice cold water at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, bringing in protein bars and fruit not only saves money, but calories.
- Plan when to go – Weekends tend to be busier. Cloudy days and weekdays tend to be less busy. Find out if there are any giveaways or special events planned. Those will make the park more congested as well.
- Buy park souvenirs outside the park – We've found t-shirts and other items with the park's name on them, for a fraction of the cost, at a local Walmart and other retailers.
- Do recon on the park and develope a strategy – Grab a map of the park, hopefully before your trip, and decide which rides are musts; then head to those first when you enter. By doing that, you'll avoid disappointment when the rides get super long, when the kids get cranky, or if inclement weather hits. If possible, make an itinerary. We always hit the attractions furthest from the entrance, so while most people are meandering through the park toward the back, we're working out way forward, thus avoiding the crowds. Know where shelter is (perhaps in a theater or arcade) and what might be air conditioned. On hot days, knowing where to find cool air will save you.
- Pack a waterproof bag or backpack – You'll be living in your bag while you're at the park, so make sure it's durable and preferably waterproof. Stock it with hand sanitizer, cheap plastic ponchos, a first aid kit in a Ziploc bag, and sunscreen. Pack extra Ziploc bags to put electronics in to protect them from water rides, spills, or rain.
- Take pictures of your kids when they first enter the park – In case you get separated, you'll be able to show people what your children look like and what they were last wearing.
- Take breaks – Your visit isn't a race, it's an experience. Take into account that little feet need to rest. Don't rush the day; savor it.
Yep. We're headed to Hersheypark next month, as we have for the last decade. The one year we didn't go, the kids missed it terribly and it was then that I realized how much they looked forward to it and how the pilgrimage had become an important part of their childhood memories. Coping strategies won't entirely eliminate the stress of going, but will minimize it, allowing all of us to enjoy a rare day together, as as family.