You re waiting in line to get into Sesame Place. Your kids are chomping at the bit to rub shoulders with Elmo, and you ve resigned yourself to paying $44.50 per person for admission to the Langhorne, Pa., theme park. Before you flip the big bird to Miss Piggy, go through your wallet and pull out every credit card and organizational membership ID you can find. Chances are that at least one of them will cut the cost of entry.
Discounts flourish at theme parks because admissions account for only part of their revenue. [A] big thing is having people in the park who are eating pizza, drinking Coke, buying T-shirts and souvenirs, says Tim O Brien, vice president of publishing and communications for Ripley Entertainment and author of Ripley s Believe It or Not! Amusement Park Oddities & Trivia. At Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., for instance, American Automobile Association membership gets you a few bucks off admission every day except Wednesday when the discount is three times that amount. In addition, local gas stations often promote park coupons on the back of their receipts. If you pay full price, you haven t done your homework, says O Brien.
Show up at your theme park of choice after 11 a.m. and you might not even get into the parking lot, according to Bob Sehlinger, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2008. And if you do get in, chances are the park will be too crowded for you to enjoy the most popular rides. If you go during a busy time of year, get your butt out of bed and be one of the first people in the park, says Sehlinger. Otherwise, you will be pissing away your investment by standing in lines all day.
Want to stay one step ahead of the crowds? You d better have a plan. That begins with understanding when the place is the least packed and it s probably not when you think. At Disney World during the summer, for example, weekend crowds tend to be relatively sparse, since most families drive to Florida, using the weekends for travel rather than touring.
As for the rides themselves, Sehlinger suggests having an itinerary that will allow you to crisscross the park and knock off the five most popular rides before it gets packed.
While families who stay at theme-park hotels enjoy special advantages at Disney World, for example, guests gain early admission to a different park each morning they often pay a steep premium for on-premise lodging. Although nightly rates at Disney World start at under $100 for a double, those rooms get snapped up quickly; the next-cheapest accommodations start at around $150 and go up to more than $1,000.
Aren t there other hotels nearby? The Disney reservation clerk we spoke with conceded there were, but she painted a picture of hour-long waits to get into the Disney parking lot and hinted that you might find yourself staying in carjack territory. Not necessarily simply stick with the widely known chains within several miles of the park. For example, AAA gave us the names of a Comfort Inn and a Ramada Inn situated just two and six miles, respectively, from Disney World s main gate. Their discounted rates included a buffet breakfast and were about $20 lower than Disney s cheapest rate. Factor in the money you ll save by eating dinner outside the park, and you ll likely find the benefits of staying off-site outweigh the drawbacks.
Theme parks like to present themselves as utopian Valhallas where the CEO waits in line for his ice-cream cone with everyone else. But elitism permeates this seemingly classless society, and you can get celebrity treatment you just have to be willing to buy your way in.
Many parks have VIP packages that give you all sorts of perks, from preferred access to special seats. For example, Steven Weil, a retailer from Fair Lawn, N.J., forked over extra money so that he, his wife, and two of their kids could enjoy the privilege of strolling on Universal s red carpet. There was a woman leading us around, Weil says. We were a small group of about 10 people, and she took us through back doors, through side doors, to the head of every line. Weil says that the hostess even babysat their kids while he and his wife went to Planet Hollywood. The only drawback: the reaction of other patrons. We got a lot of dirty looks, Weil says. But we didn t care. We didn t have to wait in line; it was well worth the money.
Even the most benign ride can turn dangerous when an inexperienced person is operating it. At many parks, especially seasonal ones, ride operators tend to be young summer workers, but there are no federal laws requiring amusement-ride operators to undergo any kind of training program. Some states, including California and Minnesota, have introduced state laws regulating safety and training. Still, There is no internal consistency from park to park in terms of how they instruct their employees, says Adam Glick, an attorney based in Elizabeth, N.J., who has handled numerous amusement-park injury cases. The workers tend to be college students on vacation. Most of the ride operators are concerned about flirting with the opposite sex. And even if they re not, disasters can and do occur.
Undertrained operators aren t the only danger amusement parks face. Lurking beneath the glossy, candy-colored ride exteriors may be shoddily maintained gearshifts and missing seat bolts, which can turn a roller coaster ride deadly. And while amusement parks crow about an impressive-sounding .00057 percent industry accident rate, Glick, for one, insists that the number is misleading. The actual reporting of an accident is made by the park itself, the attorney says. Every incentive is for the park to underreport accidents the more you report, the more you get fined and the more trouble you get into.
Surely, a low-accident statistic does nothing to salve the wounds of the customers who ve been injured due to poorly maintained rides.
You should give rides a careful onceover, says Ted Moss, an engineering safety consultant who has inspected amusement attractions. However, as with any mechanical object, you cannot look at the ride and tell when it was last oiled or when the tires were changed, he warns. If the place in general is poorly maintained, if things aren t painted properly, or if you see the workers sitting around chatting instead of paying attention to their job, those are signs that the park is not stressing safety or care of the rides. For more information on amusement park safety, go to www.saferparks.org.
All amusement parks are not inspected equally. Some states Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama, and Kansas do not regulate rides at all. Some others, like Mississippi and Washington, D.C., regulate traveling carnivals but not permanent ones. Among the safest states are Florida and Pennsylvania, both of which employ full-time inspectors who do nothing but evaluate amusement rides for safety. Elsewhere, you may have a guy checking out the Pressure Drop when he s got time off from inspecting elevators.
In some cases, unfortunately, greater legislative attention comes only on the heels of tragedy. In California, for example, legislation to regulate theme parks was introduced after a 1997 disaster at Waterworld USA in Concord, where a waterslide collapsed, killing one high school student and injuring 32 others after they attempted to climb on together. (California now has permanent themepark regulations.) We believe that rides at theme parks are fairly high-risk, says Valerie Brown, former state assembly member who proposed the bill on park regulation. They re turbulent, doing things against gravity, testing engineering feats.
Surely water parks are safer than amusement rides such as roller coasters and other fast-moving machines? Not necessarily. Craig Sklodowski was 22 years old when he followed a line of patrons headfirst down a waterslide at an aqua park in New Jersey. When the six-foot-two, 225-pound Sklodowski hit the end of the slide, he says, he landed in about 3 feet of water. I either hit the bottom of the pool with my head, or else the force of hitting the water snapped back my neck, says Sklodowski, who is now a quadriplegic. He settled with the park for $4 million. I think the speed that they design these rides at doesn t take into account that people come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, Sklodowski says. That mistake has turned my life around 180 degrees. (The park declined to comment.)
Waterslides turn riders into human projectiles hurtling through slicked tubes at speeds as high as 25 miles per hour, requiring levels of physical competence that are simply unnecessary for riding even the scariest roller coaster. While the physical challenge is clearly part of the fun, it also ratchets up the level of risk. These rides require strength, physical agility, and control, says Anne McHugh, the attorney who represented Sklodowski. Yet there is the attitude that it s all safe. They sell this as amusement, entertainment, and fun. There s an illusion that it s safe for a five-year-old, a pregnant lady, and an 85-year-old man. How to know when a slide is too much for you or your kids? The majority of water parks have restrictions and recommendations posted at the rides themselves, says a World Waterpark Association spokesperson. You can also look for guidance in a park s brochure or on its website.
It s easy to assume that every theme park is a safe haven where your biggest worry is an upset stomach from too much caramel corn. In reality, a park is only as safe as the people who go there. The largest problem you see in theme parks is unsupervised adolescents, says Captain Joe Vargas, a member of the police department in Anaheim, Calif., Disneyland s hometown. Parents drop them off, and they run around the park. Vargas says these kids can get into all kinds of trouble anything from shoplifting to being loud, boisterous, and obscene. In some cases, there s even the threat of violence.
The problem is at its worst during the summer months. In a July 2007 incident, six teenagers were arrested for attacking a 19-year-old boy outside the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park. The victim suffered from head injuries and was eventually released from intensive care. (A Six Flags spokesperson confirmed the incident but declined to comment.)
How to protect yourself? Forget about the park s image, and do a bit of research before venturing there. Check sites like Theme Park Insider (www.themeparkinsider.com) for the lowdown on parks across the country, or speak with friends who ve already visited.
It s a hot summer day in Florida, and those cute Disney World characters that your kids are dying to pose with are likewise dying to get out of those hot costumes. Inside the huge heads of these getups, temperatures can reach as high as 130 degrees in the sun. And while the outside of a costume looks pristine and magical, inside the wearer may well be suffering in his own sweat or worse. During summertime it gets busy, it s hot, and a number of people told me they pass out, says Jane Kuenz, coauthor of Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World. Or else they throw up from the heat. Then they pass out.
That s one of the reasons why costumed employees are supposed to be out and among the patrons for only 20 minutes at a time. But during busy summer days, shifts can sometimes run twice as long. If they become sick, there s not a whole lot that anybody can do, Kuenz says. And they won t ever take their heads off, because that is automatic dismissal, so they ham it up and pretend that Minnie Mouse is on her knees for some dramatic reason rather than because she is doubled over from cramps and nausea. I m not aware of that happening, says a Disney World spokesperson. We have a very tightly run program designed to look out for the welfare of the employee.