I was born to wing it.
I’m typically at my best when motivated by the crushing pressure of having to succeed or face the humiliation of abject failure.
Given time to perform a project, I will procrastinate, get distracted and do anything other than the job at hand.
I’m a deadline junkie. I need that pressure to perform.
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 or Genghis Khan or Napoleon.
Part of it is the necessity.
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.
Winging it in an amusement park, where time is of the essence, is simply out of the question.
People still talk in reverent tones about our family trip to Disney in 2011. My aunt, mother and elderly grandmother joined us in the Magic Kingdom.
Friends, I’m fairly sure this was the finest moment of my life. I wielded Fast Pass like Picasso handled a paintbrush. 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.
It was my Nanny’s last trip to Disney – unless she decides to go back. And I felt like I threw a no-hitter in the World Series.
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.
The theme park backpack list
The biggest mistake people make in planning a theme park trip? It’s in the supplies. Taking too much. Not taking enough. Taking the wrong thing.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of packing a backpack for your theme park adventure, you want to say to yourself at least 4 times a day, “Man, I’m glad I brought this thing.”
So here are our lists of what to pack and, more importantly, what not to pack for your theme park vacation adventure.
What should you not pack for a theme park?
Let’s start off by eliminating the absurdities, the implicitly outlawed 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.
In fact, 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.
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. In fact, it takes up a lot of space. It 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.
But If you’re that worried about saving money, every park I’ve been to offers free water options even as 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 really 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 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 out the day in them. Plan on keeping them on.
In fact, if someone in your party is wearing flip flops, berate them. Take the flip-flops and smack them with them.
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?
Again, let’s start out with some caveats: season and weather forecasts matter. I’m not here to tell you to bring gloves or a winter hat if it’s cold or to bring a bathing suit to a water park.
It also goes without saying that 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.
6. 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. 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 well charged for the whole day.
5. Ziploc bags or a waterproof pouch
This 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.
4. 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 crack, chafe or leak. You will need small amounts of the various items that aren’t necessarily included in a first aid kit.
Year-round lip balm 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 extra.
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.
3. 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.
2. Wet wipes and a Tide Pen
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.
1. 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-Marts, Targets or dollar stores will carry a perfectly acceptable light poncho capable of handling a pop-up storm for a dollar or two. They 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.
What is on your backpack must-take list? Let us know in the comments!