I tell everyone who will listen that when you’re on vacation, the excitement and fun of doing something different can lead to errors in judgment and common sense.
Here are my top 10 tips to help you and your family stay safe on your next vacation to Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Six Flags, Cedar Fair or any amusement park you wish to visit. These tips are not just for theme parks, but for anytime you leave the comfortable confines of your home dwelling and head on vacation…
1. First off… Stay hydrated, cool and watch out for that sun.
One of the biggest problems you will find when visiting an amusement park occurs when you are in the sun for a sustained amount of time. I've seen more visitors suffer from sunburn, rashes, heat exhaustion and heatstroke than all other injuries combined. Not to mention the long-term effects of too much sun without the right precautions. This is serious business and you need to know all the harmful effects of being in the sun too long without proper hydration.
Drinking to stay hydrated is so very important but don’t drink too fast. Water on those long hot days is your best friend and will help prevent heat stroke while in the park. Many think that drinking water quickly might seem like a good idea but it is the worst thing one can do. Some of the best athletes out usually will hydrate three or four times a day. They also make it a habit to not gulp water down in one sitting.
You need to replenish yourself frequently on a hot dry park in order to make up for the energy and sweat you use. This especially is true during the popular summer months when visiting the sun belts of Florida, Texas, Arizona and Southern California.
So what should you drink? There are a lot of drinks out there but water is your best choice for hydration. Drinks with sugar additives don’t really do the trick and alcohol dehydrates, leaving you more susceptible to risk of heat exhaustion and sunstroke than anything else.
Most importantly, always – and I mean always – put on waterproof sunscreen before you go to the park and reapply at the park if you get wet or are sweating. This goes for anytime you are outside.
Some of these amusement parks (like Cedar Point in Ohio) have beaches and the same is said when in between rides and when relaxing by the lake. The sun can be your worst enemy, so apply sunscreen (+30 or higher) whenever you are outside.
It’s not a bad idea to wear a hat and sunglasses when at these parks for added protection against the scorching sun. You should always wear comfortable shoes and clean, dry socks as well. The heat reflecting off the asphalt pavement has been known to cause a nasty rash so be aware of that. If you plan on wearing sandals or no socks, remember that the average amusement park guest will walk almost 8 miles during the course of the day and a good pair of shoes will help your feet survive the experience.
2. Stay aware of your surroundings. When you add crowds, rides and people, accidents do occur.
Never forget, there literally are thousands of people in these parks and sometimes very limited space to walk. Simple collisions are pretty common at theme parks and are a major source of many theme park injuries.
Be aware of where you are, and who is around you while walking around. Looking up and away from your path is not a good idea in a crowd. While it is normal to want to look around and take in the mega coasters, shows, games and attractions, don’t get too carried away. By not paying attention, you run the risk of stumbling into someone else, or worse, tripping over a child in a stroller. I have seen this happen and it’s not pretty.
Also, if you're the one pushing the stroller, always be courteous when you walk. Many people forget to add the extra 4-5 feet in front of them and sometimes ram (unintentionally) the front of the stroller (and the baby) into unsuspecting people walking ahead.
If you are a frequent visitor to these amazing theme parks, you probably have heard park employees telling people not to run especially when the park just opened. This is the best advice one can give. I always tell people, “Don’t worry. The ride will be there so just walk to it.” On the flip side, please don’t stop suddenly while walking. In crowds this could end up being a minor catastrophe. If you need to stop for any reason, take yourself off of the main path and find a bench so that you can pull your map out, answer your phone, chat with family members or eat your food.
3. Stay away from where you don't belong.
Never, and I mean never, enter a restricted area in a theme park unless you have approval to do so. Restrictions are there for a reason and often to protect the safety of guests and employees. I have seen many injuries, park ejections and emergency room visits because someone was curious about what was on the other side of that manmade barrier.
Don't climb or hop fences or walk through employee-only gates. If you lose something like your keys while on a ride (or it falls in a restricted area), ask a park employee for help. They will be glad to recover that item for you. Last summer, a rider on a roller coaster at Cedar Point lost his cell phone and wallet on the ride. He jumped a safety fence and entered a restricted area to look for them and was hit and killed by an oncoming roller coaster.
4. Know your limitations both physically and emotionally.
Read the ride restrictions before you get in line for a ride you have never ridden before. If you are pregnant, have pain or injuries in your back or neck, or have a heart condition, you should not take a chance and go on high intensity thrill rides without a doctor’s approval. If pregnant, you can do serious harm to your baby and if you have a physical condition, there can be some serious consequences (and even death) if you continue down that road. People who have high blood pressure could be at higher risk on some of the high-speed, twisty rides. If you have high blood pressure, or think you might, skip the big roller coasters and simulator rides until you've checked with a doctor.
Also, be aware that some of the newer thrill rides have height and sometimes seat belt restrictions as well. If you are shorter than five feet, or taller than six, you might encounter rides where you either will not be permitted, or simply won’t be comfortable.
Many rides have a safety harness and a seat belt that is attached to the rider. They only go so far and if you can’t get that seatbelt on, be aware you will not be allowed to ride. I actually had to move my wallet and take a deep breath to ride a roller coaster and it’s pretty embarrassing when this happens. Some parks make special seats available on select rides for larger visitors. Just ask if you think this may apply to you.
Most parks issue special guidebooks for persons with disabilities, which include restrictions that you need to know. You can stop by a park’s guest relations office, usually located near the front gate, if you still have questions about which rides that might not be appropriate and comfortable for you and your group.
5. Know your health condition before taking that risk.
Too many times we hear of incidents that occur on thrill rides and many of these tragedies could have been avoided. If you haven't had a check-up within the past year, make that a top priority before your next theme park visit. The same holds for your children as well. Too many incidents that occur in theme parks are the result of undiagnosed medical conditions or from just not asking the right questions with your doctor or medical professional.
Amusement parks offer a lot more than just thrill rides and you don't have to experience them if you are unable to. They offer you an opportunity to reconnect with your family, forget about your troubles, remember the past and make new memories with your family. Riding thrill rides are just one part of that equation.
6. Follow the safety rules.
The rules are there for a reason, so follow them! Don’t “cheat’ or ignore posted rules. If you are too small for a ride or the restraints don't fit well, tell the ride operator. Don’t think that you know more about a ride than the park employees do. Many try to leave space between themselves and the safety bar. Not a great idea and many times this ends up in tragedy. Others have tried to stand up before the ride completely ends. Again, fatalities have occurred when this happens. In short, not following the rules can in fact lead to catastrophe or at the very least, get you thrown out of the park. Height and safety restrictions are there for a reason and the end result of not heeding these warnings can be catastrophic.
Nothing provokes more fights and nasty exchanges in theme parks than impatient folks who won’t wait their turn. It’s not worth it. Don’t take it upon yourself to enforce the rules. If you see line-jumping, please report it to the nearest employee at the ride or, if possible, a security officer. Remember, you are on vacation and the family is with you so act accordingly.
7. Stay in your seat to stay safe.
On any theme park ride, it is most important to keep your rear in the seat at all times. Always keep your hands and body inside the car. If there is no grab bar, keep your hands on your lap. If you are riding a "floorless" coaster, relax your legs and let them dangle underneath you. Don't kick them out to the side or towards the front.
Before the ride starts: Please don't crowd others who might be exiting when you are getting on. If you are on a ride with a lap bar, seat belt or safety harness, make sure that it is in place, snug and locked. If the ride starts to move and your restraint is not in place, immediately yell (loudly) for help. We have seen too many incidents occur where a fatality occurred because this was not done.
Finally and most importently, do not get on or off a ride until you've been given the okay by an attendant to do so. Make sure that your vehicle has completely stopped and that you are solidly on the platform before you try and get off. Often, vehicles stop short of the unload platform to wait for groups up ahead to exit and some riders get a little impatient. Not a good scenario.
8. Relax and enjoy the ride.
Some rides, especially roller coasters and simulator rides, can whip your head around, leaving you at risk for headaches and serious head injuries. On those types of rides, sit in the middle of the chair and don't slouch or lean to one side. As a pilot, I’ve experienced the sensation of eye balls out (the drops) and eye balls in (being pressed into my seat) from g forces. My advice is to relax your body and enjoy the ride.
You want to keep your balance in the seat as much as possible. When the seat pitches you to the left, relax your torso and bend to the right to keep your head upright and centered and vice versa Think of riding a horse or surfing. You want to ride the seat and not have it throw you around. Many riders have reported it helps them to keep their eyes open and watch the track ahead on a roller coaster. This helps your body adjust to the forces of the ride. Screaming is important on a ride because that helps you keep the blood in your upper extremities so you don't experience brown or a potential blackouts.
People fear roller coasters because they feel that they are out of control. Know that the ride will only last a few minutes and that it is safe. You have a 1 in 100 million chance of dying on a thrill ride, so have fun an enjoy yourself. You most likely will walk off the ride unscathed and maybe even want to ride again.
Note: If you are prone to headaches, have any neck or back problems or have been diagnosed with aneurysm, do not get on any roller coaster or simulator ride.
9. Please…Help the kids!
We sometimes go back to our childhood when we visit these amusement parks but remember, you’re still the parent. If you are responsible for children, take a moment to explain the ride to them and tell them how they should behave. They are depending upon you to keep them safe so set a good example for them by following the rules. If you follow the rules, they will too.
One thing I always stress is never try and put a crying child on a ride. If your child starts to cry, let others pass you in line. Ride only when he or she is ready to do so. If this doesn’t happen, just exit the queue and find something better to do.
Finally remember that young kids can't keep an adult's pace in a theme park. Let them take plenty of breaks and have them take as much time as they need. You don’t want a tired, cranky and unhappy child on your hands. Even if your child handles being tired well, remember that their bodies experience a loss of balance and coordination and they are more prone to getting injured when they are tired. Consider a mid-day break, perhaps a swim back at the hotel, to avoid mid-day heat and crowds.
10. Alert staff about problems.
If you see something wrong – a broken restraint, a person jumping the line, a backpack that has been left unattended or anything else that could jeopardize the safety of a park guest – alert a park employee immediately. They are there to help keep you safe.
In the end, safety for you and your family is the most important thing that matters. If you follow the above suggestions, you surely will go a long way towards achieving that goal and having fun with the family along the way.
About the author: Pete Trabucco has appeared on over 1000 radio and television shows (including Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Bloomberg Television, The CW network, CNN and the Travel Channel to name just a few) around the country. Most recently he was featured in New York’s Newsday and The Wall Street Journal and the Fox Business Network. Since January of 2012, he has done weekly travel segments on the IRN/USA Radio Network and Daybreak USA, which is syndicated to over 150 radio stations nationwide.