Surviving a theme park marathon

Resources• Disneyland and California Adventure(866) 60-DISNEY

• Knott’s Berry Farm
(714) 220-5200

• San Diego Zoo
(619) 234-3153

(760) 918-LEGO

• Sea World
(800) 25-SHAMU

Kid-tested travel

A trip to the theme park mecca of southern California that included six parks in seven days proved to be exhausting for my family, but also a lot of fun. Along the way, we developed a few survival strategies that can help your family finish a similar marathon with fun memories, not just sore feet.

Plot the course. Park Web sites provide maps, attraction descriptions, ride restrictions, showtimes and fees. Ask kids to prioritize rides so when time or tolerance runs out everyone goes home having done something they really wanted.

Stay safe and comfortable. Wear loose fitting clothing and tennis shoes with arch support. Write your cell phone number on a map and tuck it into your kids’ pockets. Designate a meeting location if you get separated. Instruct your kids to ask another mom—rather than a uniformed park official—for help if they get lost.

Gear up. Pack a backpack with sanitary wipes, sunscreen and bandage strips. Bring a waterproof camera and plastic bags to keep wallets and cell phones dry on soaker rides. Bring a change of clothes or sweatshirts and store them in a rented locker.

Fuel up. Save cash by eating major meals outside the park. Eat a protein-packed breakfast and bring energy-boosting snacks such as granola bars and refillable water bottles.

Pace yourself. Arrive early and head first to the back of the park so you can work against the crowd, most of whom will jump in the first line they see after entering the park. Lines get longer later in the day, so do"A-List” rides in the morning. Eat at off hours so you can be back in the ride lines when others are heading off to dinner.

Curb souvenir spending. Give each child a budget for purchases—to be made at the end of the day—so you don’t have to lug everything around.

Where to go

We hit Disneyland, California Adventure, Knotts Berry Farm, San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND and Sea World. Disneyland and LEGOLAND were best suited for younger kids while the high-octane thrill rides at Knotts and California Adventure made screaming teens happiest. San Diego Zoo and Sea World entertained all ages equally.

Regardless of what park you visit, remember that many rides, even at the relatively tame LEGOLAND, have height requirements that prevent smaller children from riding. To avoid meltdowns, plot a course that doesn’t walk past rides that might seem inviting to kids who are too small to ride.

Disneyland was, without a doubt, the biggest hit with our son, Will, 6.

Ride lines at Disneyland get really long after lunch, so we left mid-day to head to the adjacent, less crowded California Adventure ($122 for two-day park hopper ticket, $102 for kids 3-9). Both parks offer FASTPASS access on the more popular rides.

At California Adventure, our favorite family ride was"Soar’in Over California.” This ride recreates a breezy hang-gliding journey over the state’s diverse landscapes. I framed the Goofy cartoon drawings we each created at the Hollywood Pictures Backlot’s Disney’s Animation pavilion under the tutelage of Disney artists.

We stayed as guests of the Doubletree Guest Suites on Harbor Boulevard, a 10-minute tram ride to the parks ($3 for unlimited rides, free kids 9 and under), which allowed us to return to the hotel to rest for an evening back at Disneyland.

Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California’s first theme park, shows its age in the original, Western-themed attractions, but has reinvented itself with thrill rides aimed at teens. We spent half a day between Camp Snoopy’s pint-sized rides and the tired but educational 1880s Ghost Town. It was enough. ($40, $15 kids 11 and under, $25 after 4 p.m.) We should have brought our bathing suits for Knott’s Soak City next door, a huge water park with rides for kids of all ages. Theme and water park packages are available, too.

The San Diego Zoo in pretty Balboa Park was a welcome break from mechanized fun ($33, $22 kids 3-11). Animal habitats are tucked into lush gardens, wooded hillsides and steep canyons, with escalators to transport guests.

LEGOLAND in Carlsbad is innovative, imaginative and colorful ($57, $44 kids 3-12, $10 parking). Expect lines at the Volvo Driving School’s two courses (one for kids 3-5, the other for kids 6-13) but it’s worth the wait. Half the fun at LEGOLAND is marveling at the LEGO creations from dinosaurs to robots, super heroes, musical instruments and animals that roar, sing, stomp and squirt water.

Sea World’s marine animal conservation focus educates and entertains visitors ($56, $46 kids 3-9). Don’t miss the 25-minute Shamu"Believe” performance, in which 8,000-pound whales leap, flip and twirl in a multimedia show.

Kit Bernardi is a travel writer and mom who lives in Oak Park.

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