Navigating Theme Parks Like a Pro: A Guide to Being a Better Tourist

This summer I had the pleasure of taking my friend from Tulsa around the Orlando theme parks. This tour guiding is some what of a specialty for me seeing as how I was raised in theme park central from age 5. I have accumulated a lot of knowledge which has allowed me to put together some tips and tricks for navigating the parks successfully. Keep in mind- I am big on getting on as many good rides as possible, so I don’t hit a lot of shows (except absolute must-sees). Show lovers- you have been warned.

Look for signs like this to remind you where you parked.

1. Don’t forget where you park! A lot of first timers are so excited to get to the park that they don’t look at the colorful character signs and 3 foot long numbers painted on the ground identifying your car location. You may have a general idea of where your car is, but the more exact you can be, the better. Take a cell phone picture of the parking row if you have to. Believe me, at the end of your day, you will be grateful for any seconds you can shave off between you and the prospect of sitting down in air conditioning.

2. Parking Trams are not always worth it. If you are like me and get to the park early, you usually park close enough to walk to the park entrance. If you can see where the parking lot ends and other roads or entry ways begin, you ARE close enough to walk. It is likely you will even get to the gate faster because the trams wait for all the slow pokes in the parking lot who mosey along up to the vehicle (don’t be that person- I beg you).

3. Get to the park before it opens. This is crucial. A lot of parks end up letting you in 10-15 minutes early so you can walk around and shop at their stores up front. You can use this time to walk to the rides you want and get fast passes if needed. I usually aim to be parking my car 30 minutes before opening time (add 15-20 minutes to that if you have to buy tickets at the gate). Any extra time you can squeeze in before 11 am is great anyway because that is when lines are the shortest and you are not squeezed in a mob of people as you move around the park.

This is what happens when you come later than 9 am.

4. Go to popular rides first- no matter how long the wait currently is. Yes I see that a ride no one cares about has no wait while a popular ride already has a 20 minute wait, but trust me- it is worth it to go now! Those lines will likely be 1.5-2 hours long when you try to visit them later. At the very least you can grab free fast passes (offered at Disney, not Universal) for a good time slot. Fast passes for really popular rides run out early, and even if you get them after an hour of being open, you might be given a time slot for 6:30 pm (when you plan on already having left the park by then). Here is a quick list of where you should go first at each park:

Magic Kingdom- Splash Mountain

Disney’s Hollywood Studios- Toy Story Mania

Epcot- Soarin’

Animal Kingdom- Expedition Everest or Kilimanjaro Safari

Universal Studios- Rock It Roller Coaster (even though I hate it…)

Islands of Adventure- Harry Potter: The Forbidden Journey or The Hulk

Sea World (does anyone still go here…?)- Manta

5. Choose lines wisely. A lot of rides have long lines- that’s a given. However, some are MUCH easier to wait in. Rides like Space Mountain and Soarin’ at Disney usually have hour plus waits, but their entire lines are indoors (and have mini games along the way!). This makes a huge difference in how you feel while you wait. Any line can bore you, but I’d prefer a line that doesn’t leave me sunburned and dehydrated, too. Note: The Harry Potter: Forbidden Journey has a big portion of its wait outside, however, it has a lot of fun things to look at throughout its line that makes it worth it.

6. Eat lunch at a show. I tried this strategy with Maggie this year and loved how well it worked out. If you are just getting a quick, counter service lunch, consider eating it while you watch a parade or an outdoor theater show (ex. Beauty and the Beast at Hollywood Studios) to save time. You get to fit in one extra attraction and get a food fix : )

7. Unless you are trying Tip 6, don’t go to parades or big shows. These shows grab so many people’s attention and keep them rooted somewhere away from any ride line. Use this brief window to get in line for something that will likely have a huge wait again once the performance is over. Parade times are really great for using this strategy.

8. Eat lunch early or late- even if you use Tip 6. Counter service lines can take up to an hour at peak times (I’m not kidding- I did wait an hour once). If you go before 12 or after 2, you are very likely to wait no more than 15 minutes before food is placed in your hand. You also won’t have to worry about finding a table amongst a huge mass of people, which can be really annoying and force you to share 2 chairs between 3 people or sit at the gross table in the corner with ketchup spilled on it (or if you’re really unlucky, having to deal with the lack of chairs AND gross table).

God bless the single rider line option (see right sign).

9. Single rider lines are your friend- especially at the Universal parks. Think about it- how much do you really talk with your friends or family while on a ride? Not much I’m guessing. You’re too busy listening, screaming, or laughing to chit chat. Because of this, you should be getting in as many single rider lines as possible. These lines are usually 10 minutes max, and in many cases, don’t even have a wait time. You probably have a good chance of being on the same vehicle as your companion, just likely in separate rows. And more times than you would think- you end up sitting right next to your friend anyway (bless those odd-numbered parties who waited in the real line). Single rider lines are also great for repeat rides if you want to go on something a few times, but the regular wait is daunting. My best picks for single rider lines would have to be Men in Black (Universal) and Revenge of the Mummy (Universal). Other ones can be slow, so if you feel like it isn’t moving, get out and try it later.

10. Bring as little as possible. Bags WILL slow you down. At Universal and Islands of Adventure you will constantly be putting them in lockers because they aren’t allowed on rides. While these lockers are free, they can have long lines to put your stuff in AND get your stuff out. You also will have to go through security check points at the gate, which can use up those precious minutes in the morning. My go-to park items are an individual car key and a snack size ziploc with cash, ID, ticket, and a debit card. No more, no less. Anything bigger will get you sent to the lockers for rides because the workers are trained to look for phone shapes in your pockets. Disney is much more lenient on what you can take bags on (I can’t think of anything you can’t bring a bag on at the moment…), so choose to bring more then.

11. If you do bring a bag, bring everything. If you are going to bring a bag despite the locker rules, get one that can double as a backpack (hands free is always better for navigating around the park). Stuff it with a lot of items to help keep your day cheap- sandwich lunches, snacks, water bottles, ponchos if it rains (or for water rides), camera, batteries in case your camera dies, medicine for headaches or stomach issues, etc. All of these things you can get in the park but the price will be hiked up like crazy. It’s really either bring nothing or bring everything when you make the bag or no bag decision.

The most reliable ride…ever.

12. Take advantage of sissy rides when you are tired. You know what I’m talking about- those rides that never have a long wait because they aren’t shiny, fast, or related to a specific film or character. These are GREAT for when it gets really crowded after lunch and you just want to escape people and sit for awhile. The ultimate example of this is the PeopleMover at Magic Kingdom. This automated tram type ride guides you through Tomorrowland about 3 stories in the air. I’ve never NOT walked on this ride, and its 10 minute length is a decent amount of time to relax and regroup. While nothing compares to the magic of the PeopleMover, other rides to consider would be the train around Magic Kingdom, The Haunted Mansion (depending on the time of day), boat ride in the Mexico pavilion (Epcot), Carousels (at any park), and 3D shows like Shrek (Universal) or Phillharmagic (Magic Kingdom).

13. Do your research before you go. You should look up parks you plan on going to and look for these two things: ride closures and “extra” hours. Ride closures help you avoid walking out of your way to get to a ride just to find out its closed, and it also helps you gauge how other lines will be. Right now, Test Track is closed at Epcot. That’s always been a big draw for the park as its main thrill ride. With that closed, other lines can and will be a lot worse. The “extra” hours is good to know because the morning ones are only offered to guests staying at the theme parks’ resorts. You probably want to go to the park that doesn’t have these so that when you are let in, there isn’t an hour’s worth of people ahead of you (note: if the extra hours are tacked on to the end of the day, then this might be a great park to go to because lines die down considerably after dinner no matter how late a park is open).

Don’t do it!!!

14. Don’t wait longer than an hour for anything. If it isn’t a thrill ride, you probably shouldn’t even be waiting an hour. When lines get really long after lunch, take advantage of easy rides (Tip 12) or see a show. So many people still get in line for Peter Pan when it is 75 minutes long. The ride is over in about a split second and its just Peter Pan!!! It’s not like it’s based on a Disney Princess or something. Dumbo-type rides (the ones that load, spin you in a circle in the air for a bit, and then end) are HUGE time wasters. Avoid them at all costs. Once you’ve been on one, you’ve been on them all. Trust me.

15. Push the red button as soon as you see the giant alien. You’ll know it when you see it- and you’ll thank me when you do.

If you are an Orlando native and have your own tips, please feel free to comment below and add them. Or if you are still lost and want more specific park advice and recommendations, let me know. Park knowledge isn’t always the most useful skill, but nonetheless, I’ve accumulated a lot of it.

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One Comment to “Navigating Theme Parks Like a Pro: A Guide to Being a Better Tourist”

  1. Love these tips!!! All are so true!!! I used to ride the boat ride in Mexico when my feet started aching LOL

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