What You Do and Don’t Need in a Theme Park Backpack, the Ultimate List

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Given time to perform a project, I will procrastinate, get distracted and do anything other than the job at hand. That is, except when it’s time to make theme park trips. Whether it’s the Disney theme parks, Universal Studios or Dollywood, when it comes time to tackle one of our nation’s meccas of amusement, I’m like Patton, Genghis Khan or Napoleon.

Leslie and I have three kids and an agenda. If we want to maximize the experience, I’ve got to have a strong game plan. As a result, I’ve had trips that went perfectly. We were on and off rides in a timely fashion, one to the next. Rest breaks? Perfectly timed. Meals. Snacks. Everything fell into place at just the right time. Subsequent trips haven’t gone as well. How could they? But we’ve managed to avoid abject disasters and learn a few tips along the way so we can have a successful theme park day.

Also, are you getting your bag ready for an upcoming trip to Disney or Universal? Be sure to check Tripster for discounts as you plan your trip!

What should you not pack for a theme park?

Let’s start by eliminating the absurdities and the things that could get us in trouble. First, be sure to check the park’s rules and requirements on outside food and that sort of thing. It can vary from park to park. Second, these rules change quite a bit if you have young children in your party. That’s why God invented strollers. If you have younger children, load that stroller down like you’re preparing to trek across the Sahara. Diaper bag, Disney park bag, every bag you own. Bring it and fill it with supplies. Young kids change the entire equation.

Woman with backpack at Animal Kingdom
Bringing a refillable bottle may be a preference for some, but it does take up a lot of room in a backpack (photo by Stephen O’Neal/HeyOrlando.com)

1. Don’t pack drinks

Look, I get it. Drinks in the theme park are expensive. If you’re going to be there all day, a giant refillable water bottle can save you $20 or more. However, it’s not worth it. It’s inconvenient. It takes up a lot of space and also adds weight to the pack. There’s always a chance of spillage and then all your other supplies are wet or it’s a wasted effort.

That said, if you’re that worried about saving money, every park I’ve been to offers free water options even if the water fountains remain closed. This is because it’s generally bad form to have guests keeling over from heatstroke. But also, theme parks have drinks everywhere. Yes. They’re a little expensive but you can save money in other places.

2. Don’t bring a full change of clothes

Again, this is about the economy of space in your backpack. All you need is a backup pair of socks. Everything else such as shorts, T-shirts, etc. will be available for purchase at almost every park if necessary.

For example, I was hit with bird poop waiting outside the Crystal Palace in Walt Disney World. A quick trip to the bathroom, a dab of water and a little frenetic cleaning and it was fine. A caveat, at an animal park last summer, my teenage daughter Sofia got nailed by a vulture that was sitting in a tree shading the path. That was a replacement emergency-type situation. Vulture poop is not as easily eradicated.

3. Don’t bring comfortable shoes (wear them instead)

Listen carefully. Do not pack comfortable shoes. Wear comfortable shoes. Start the day in them. Plan on keeping them on. If someone in your party is wearing flip-flops, berate them. Take the flip-flops and smack them with them. Not really. But you catch my drift.

If you’re going to a water park, some pool shoes might be necessary. Otherwise, this is a hard march, you’re going on, soldier. Sensible shoes are the order of the day. Take care of your feet and they will take care of you. Wearing the wrong shoes is the perfect way to ruin your entire day.

What should I pack in my amusement park bag?

Let’s start with some caveats: season and weather forecasts matter. I’m not here to tell you to bring gloves, a light jacket or a winter hat if it’s cold or to bring a bathing suit to a water park. Consider the weather and the time of year when you’re packing your bag. With that in mind, here are some essentials for your theme park bag:

9. Snacks

You should, if allowed, bring your own snacks. Healthy snacks are certainly better. Consider bringing a power bar or two to tide you over in case you get a low energy point and need a boost. Chips and gummies are fine, I suppose, but won’t do you a lot of good when your energy has been drained by the hot sun. I enjoy stocking up on energy bars like Cliff Bars. They have protein, and oats and come in a variety of flavors. You can get a variety pack on Amazon for under $30.

Phone charger within theme park
A portable phone charger can be very useful when traveling, especially if your phone is struggling to get a signal at the theme park (photo by Morgan Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

8. A portable phone charger and cord

This is a must. Modern amusement parks are about being connected. Whether it’s the My Disney Experience app or the Universal Parks app, being able to connect to the park is a must. Plus you want pictures and videos and you need your reservations on hand. You need to be able to connect to the whole family if and when you separate and spread out all over. 

You need to have your phone battery well charged for the whole day. Small, portable power banks are on Amazon for under $10 or nicer, portable power banks for under $55.

7. Ziploc bags or a waterproof pouch

This method is perfect for storing your wallet, money, cell phone and driver’s license when you’re going on a water ride or trying to survive a Florida thunderstorm. Certainly, many places have free lockers – or reasonably priced lockers – where you can store your stuff while you ride coasters or water rides. But that little extra layer of plastic may be the only thing standing between you and disaster. You can get a two-pack with a waist strap for as little as $14.85 on Amazon.

applying sunscreen
Between the sweat and the sun, you’ll want to reapply sunscreen often (photo by nito/shutterstock.com)

6. Screens, balms, powders, ointments and other personal items

The body is a wonderful machine. But under the stress of a hot summer day at a theme park, the body can start to blister, crack, chafe or leak. You will need small amounts of the various items that aren’t necessarily included in a first aid kit. A year-round balm for your lips with SPF is a good idea. Sunscreen through spring and summer into fall, truly all year, is mandatory. Tampons and pads are, of course, available at most parks. But it’s never a bad idea to carry a few extras.

As a person who can chafe in the summer heat, I also recommend Boudreaux’s Butt Paste or a similar diaper rash product. There is nothing worse – repeat nothing worse – than trying to power through an amusement park day with a fire in one of your crevices. It’s also a good idea to keep any of these items that might leak in your Ziploc bags.

5. First aid items

Bring band-aids, aspirin and an antihistamine. All of these should be on your Disney packing list or Universal Orlando packing list or whatever you want to call it. Some type of antacid is also recommended, especially if you are prone to heartburn. Be ready and nip that in the bud. A face covering remains a good idea as well. Most places are pretty good about letting you know the current requirements, but it’s good to be prepared just in case.

4. Wet wipes, Tide Pen and hand sanitizer

Please refer back to the bird poop incident. Wet wipes are useful and a Tide Pen can save you from having to buy a replacement T-shirt. 

Man in a poncho
Consider bringing a good pair of sunglasses and a poncho (photo by Alaina O’Neal/HeyOrlando.com)

3. Sunglasses

You don’t want to be in the theme park and squinting all day.

Personally, I like to purchase more affordable sunglasses in case they get lost, which seems inevitable. My family has had a good experience with Merry’s, which are unisex and polarized and usually under $20 on Amazon.

2. Cheap ponchos

Summer pop-up storms are a thing, especially in places like Busch Gardens where the Florida weather all but mandates afternoon storms. Typically your Wal-Mart, Target or dollar stores will carry a perfectly acceptable light poncho capable of handling a pop-up storm for a dollar or two. They also come tightly folded and are quite light to carry.

Keep in mind, inside places like Universal Orlando Resort, ponchos are treated as if they are made of gold and cost accordingly. Try to avoid buying ponchos in the park if at all possible. Of course, if heavier rain is expected, you may want actual rain jackets, but that is a weather-specific packing situation, not one of your typical amusement park essentials. You can get a 5-pack for the whole family for $12.99 on Amazon.

1. Autograph book

If your family enjoys character meet and greets, consider bringing an autograph book with you. While you can buy one in the park, you’re likely to find one for a lot less money if you purchase one online before your trip. This Mickey autograph book is under $10 on Amazon.

As you make your plans, remember to check Tripster for discounts on packages and tickets when planning your Orlando theme park vacation.

What is on your backpack must-take list? Let us know in the comments!

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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