The lines are so long at most Orlando theme parks that everyone's gotten creative about shortening the wait. Here's a look at the "reserve-a-ride" systems in place at some of our favorite-for-families attractions. Although both systems work differently, you'll find the use of these new self-ticketing and smart card technologies more widespread at mass attractions than ever before. Keep in mind that with ever shortening vacation breaks, you'll need all the help you can get to maximize your days in these crowded places.
Universal Orlando Theme Parks
There are two Universal theme parks: Universal Studios, the original park which focuses on movie-based rides and behind the scenes displays, and Islands of Adventure, a more thrill ride-oriented park based on cartoon characters that also has wonderful plays areas for young children. Now, both offer multi-day passes to families who want to double the fun at the parks. The best part about the multi-day passes?
With the Universal Express entry system, you can use your pass to reserve entry times to three attractions at a time. (A one-day ticket will only get you one.) The maximum wait time in the Express Lane is only about 15 minutes, which leaves more time to enjoy your stay at the park. Some rides worth reserving: The Incredible Hulk, Dueling Dragons and Jurassic Park, and don't forget to experience Spider-Man 3D (a family favorite), all at Islands of Adventure. At Universal Studios, the Revenge of the Mummy,Terminator 2-3D, Jaws and Men in Black deserve a reserve.
Like the sound of going first in line to every one of the kids' favorite rides? If you book your stay at the Loew's Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay Hotel, or Royal Pacific Resort within in the Universal Orlando park, there's no charge to use your room keycard to skip the regular lines. Just present it to enter a separate way, let the next attendant swipe it to be sure it's still valid, and you're off! It works all day and no ride reservations are necessary. There's no better way to get the most out of your day.
For the real star treatment, be a Universal VIP. For a fee that depends on the selected park and group size, you'll be guided by a knowledgeable escort, receiving the red carpet treatment wherever you go. These services are in effect at Universal Hollywood and, in limited versions, at Universal's other parks around the world.
Enjoy priority entry to the rides and attractions and receive the individual treatment and privileges usually reserved for visiting celebrities. Guided VIP Tours also offer preferred seating at park shows, complimentary valet parking, refreshments, and a gift, along with discounts on food and merchandise. Not to mention the knowledgeable USE guides that can add background trivia about each ride or movie set, and are very discreet about assisting families with easy, head-of-the-line entrance. The Non-Exclusive VIP tour lasting 5 hours includes either seeing one park ($120 p.p + tax) or both parks ($150.00 p.p + tax) with other VIP guests. The Exclusive VIP tour is just for your group (up 12 people) lasting 8 hours and generally starts at your scheduled convenience. With the Exclusive VIP tour you can visit 1 park ($1,600 per group plus tax), both parks ($2,000 p.g + tax) for one day (too exhausting an option for families with children), or visit the 2 parks for two days ($3,000 per group for an incredible reunion event). The exclusive tour is geared towards your group's interest, considering you're the only guests. All tours should be book in advance. Note: Tour prices do not include park admission. Anyone under 18-years-old must be accompanied by an adult.
Walt Disney World Theme Parks
At the five Walt Disney World parks, a valid Park Hopper Pass will enable families to travel between the parks, visit any of the parks on any day of their vacation, and dine in a selected theme park's restaurants without paying a separate admission fee. This is a great plus with little children, whose short attention spans and need for naps means you'll probably want to "dip into" each park for only a short while each day.
WDW also has a useful no-wait ticketing system called FASTPASS. Electric kiosks outside the most popular tides allow ticket holders to swipe their park entry tickets so they can be issued a designated ride time. The free service usually requires that you return to the ride one to two hours later in the day, and you can't swipe your entry tickets for more rides until you've used up the Fastpasses you've been given, so it's most useful to a family with patient older children.
It works easily – choose the regular wait line (if it's incredibly short) or put any valid theme park ticket into a special machine and receive a FASTPASS ticket. Upon returning at the designated time, head straight for the FASTPASS entrance and proceed directly to the attraction pre-show or boarding area with little or no wait (up to 15 minutes).
According to a recent survey, FASTPASS holders can enjoy approximately 25% more rides and attractions during their theme park visit because the wait times are so short. They claim to "give back" an average of one-and-a-half to two hours to each guest who uses the innovative, patented system on multiple attractions. And on vacation, as we all know, time is priceless!
Since the debut of Disney's FASTPASS in summer 1999, the system has been expanded to include 28 attractions — at least five in each of the four Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando, as well as for many attractions and rides in Anaheim's Disneyland.
Note that you can get several FASTPASS tickets during a day in the Disney theme parks but not all at once. How often you can reapply depends on the ride, if you've been on it before, and myriad mysteries. However, your FASTPASS is imprinted with specific information about whenyou can obtain another FASTPASS.
Families who book their stay in one of the on-site DisneyWorld hotels can take advantage of the Extra Magic Hour available to these guests only. Each day, one of the four parks opens one hour early so that resort guests can try their favorite rides and meet some characters before the day's crowd builds up.
In a "Celebration Your Way" promotion launched in December, 2008, Disney has begun offering behind-the-scenes tours for fee, each designed to take guests inside the storytelling, adventure and history of Disney Parks. Some examples include: "A Walk in Walt’s Footsteps" at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, to study Walt Disney’s original theme park from the perspective of Walt himself. "Disney’s Key to the Kingdom" gives insiders a peek into Disney's philosophy around the creation of the Magic Kingdom theme park, and this one is hosted at Orlando's Walt Disney World Resort. For the budding scientist, consider "Behind the Seeds," a hands-on discovery tour with a close-up look at plants, insects, fish and alligators at Orlando's Epcot theme park, or perhaps "UnDISCOVERed Future World" about the creation of Epcot, Disney's vision for it, plus many backstage encounters. Hefty fees apply for these once in a lifetime experiences; visit disneyparks.com for information and advance reservations.
More Tips for Theme Park Lovers
Guests can purchase 1-day tickets to the Disney water parks by using a credit card or WDW Resort room key at one of the ticket vending machines located near each park entrance in Lake Buena Vista.
Keep your eyes open for the free and paid "fast entry" tickets being offered at the Six Flags parks (www.sixflags.com) and other amusement parks during their open seasons.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.