12 Theme Park Tips That Will Literally Save Your Life (Not Literally)
Working at a major theme park for years, you learn a few things. Like, if you happen to stumble upon an animal trainer with a chimpanzee, the chimp will consider you an attacker and will defend the trainer (i.e., bite you). Or that a huge special effect in a live show won’t happen if the wind blows the tiniest bit. Or that people will just naturally stand in a line, even if the line leads to literally nothing.
A lot of these bits of wisdom don’t have much use outside a theme park. I use some of them as fodder for @FakeThemePark, my Twitter feed that satirizes the industry, from Disney to Universal to Six Flags to SeaWorld. But some of my experiences actually make for useful lessons for vacationers—including what not to do. So Frommer’s has graciously allowed me to share them with you. These are based on my experiences. Your theme park may vary.
Believe it or not, most employees belong to a union (and yet are still underpaid). When the temperature rises, the union contract for my park required face character performers (like princesses) longer breaks inside and less time outside meeting guests. At 95 degrees, their job description becomes less “Entertain children and make their dreams come true” and more “Stay on the couch and watch Game Show Network.” And for fuzzy characters (like Minions), with their heavy costumes—they barely step outside at all. When it’s hot, the performers enjoy a paid summer vacation while parents who absolutely promised a photo with Shrek or Mickey get an earful from their kids. (Tip 1a: Never promise your kids anything at a park.) So during the summer, get to those Meet-and-Greets early, before the sun climbs too high.
One park has a working backlot you can tour on a tram. The marketing for this experience implies you will drive through the climax of the next Avengers movie while a helicopter explodes next to you. This is a Hollywood illusion, to put it kindly. You won’t get close to filming on the tour for reasons of on-set privacy, security, and sound. Celebrities command great power, and they don’t want your poorly lit long-distance photo of themselves to appear on the internet. They also have stalkers now, too, ruining the fun for everyone. Yes, when you approach a hot set, the tram will quiet its engine and the guide will stop talking (a side benefit, in some cases). You may see lights or extras in costume, but you won’t see Chris Evans dressed as Captain America waving to you. VIP tours are different, but one of the big differences is that you pay $$$.
Your favorite ride is temporarily closed. Before you yell at the poor ride operator (and possibly incur their wrath; more on that soon), know this: Quite often, it’s because one of you lost a shoe or a purse. Or the dropped item broke the invisible laser beam that runs along the track, triggering an alarm. An object on the track could send a coaster hurtling into the parking lot, so it has to be handled immediately. So don’t blame the employees or even the managers. Blame the idiot whose flip-flop fell off. They’re idiots because it fell off and because they wore flip-flops to a theme park.
I’m just going to say it: Don’t come to the park with very young children. They’re too young to really enjoy anything, they’ll be scared of the loud noises (which are everywhere), you can’t take them on most rides, and navigating a stroller through a park is a special kind of hell. Just wait until they’re older. “But they get in free!” you say. Yeah—and why would a theme park make such a strangely generous offer?
You’re not getting a refund. You may get return passes, front-of-line passes, or even free food vouchers, but you almost certainly won’t get your money back. You were in the park, yeah? You rode something, took a picture with someone (if it wasn’t too hot), experienced some small measure of joy? Well, joy costs. And right here is where you start paying.
That thing in the park you just touched? A kid had their mouth on it five minutes ago. That other thing? A really sweaty guy touched it. That third thing? Someone with walking pneumonia was leaning on it (“Coughing up blood ain’t gonna keep me from my vacation!”). Bring hand wipes and use them after touching anything. Anything. If you eat before washing your hands, go directly to First Aid. Oh, and on that subject...
The First Aid center can’t do anything for you. Do you think the park will allow a medic to treat you, which means you could then sue them if you get worse? No, no, no. You may get some aspirin or a Pepto-Bismol tablet, but you’re better off bringing your own pills. Or ask the employees what drugs they’re using! (Note: This is a joke.)
Most of them can’t accept tips, per their contract. They can really get in trouble for it, and it sets a precedent where anyone can get favors by waving money around—front-of-line passes and VIP tickets are bad enough. So while you might feel generous, clever, or just superior offering someone a fiver, you’re really just teasing them. Besides, putting that bill back in your wallet makes for an awkward moment. (By the way, tour guides are an exception. Tip them!)
You would not believe how many people came to the Information Booth outside the park (which I sometimes manned), pointed to the main gate, and asked “What’s in there?” or “How much for just the tour?” Answer to the first question: A lot of fun stuff. Answer to the second: Sorry pal, it’s all or nothing. The day before, or even first thing in the morning, check to see which attractions are closed and plan your day accordingly (see Tip 1a).
Think you can be loud and stupid and obnoxious in line without any repercussions? Due, perhaps, to the wondrous powers of alcohol? Wrong! Depending on the attraction, ride operators can reward your annoying behavior by splitting your party into different rows, putting you on different vehicles, giving you the worst view, getting you extra wet (winter) or not wet at all (summer), or forcing you to wait in line for an extra cycle (“Oh, we just hit capacity! Sorry!”) There’s nothing you can do about it because you can’t prove it was intentional. But it was. And don’t try to tip your way out of it (see above).
The park prints maps, but the real info is inside the employees’ heads. A shortcut to a ride, a character whose schedule has changed, a show that’s been added due to high attendance—none of those things will be on a piece of paper. When you’re confused or you suddenly lose the ability to read signs, grab an employee in virtually any department and ask for their help (nicely, yeah?). If they help you, tell their manager or fill out a comment card. These guys are underpaid, remember?
Unlike life, everything in a theme park happens for a reason. Not always a good reason. In fact, usually a bad reason. The ride that closes early, the show that’s scheduled at the worst times, the meet-and-greets that are so far from each other you can’t possibly reach them all—these are often decisions made by a person in an office overlooking the park (possibly smoking a cigar if male; a cigarette in a long black holder if female) to control how you move around. It’s the poor employees who are sent out to justify or explain these decisions to you. Please don’t yell at them. Almost all theme park workers really do want to make your day special and have a strange obsession with “magic” and “wonder” and all that stuff. You can have a memorable visit if you plan ahead, remain flexible, and ask for help.
And leave the flip-flops at home.
Follow @FakeThemePark on Twitter.