Dad’s Theme Park Survival Guide

I’m no Clark Griswold, but I enjoy seeing my family having a good time as much as the next dad. That’s why I decided to take the plunge and accompany my wife and two young daughters on a trip to Dollywood.

One Saturday. 97 degrees. A 7-year-old and a 2-year-old. What could possibly go wrong?

According to Trip Advisor, Dollywood is ranked as the 6th best theme park in the U.S. and 8th best in the world. It’s the only non-Disney or Universal-owned U.S. property in the Top 10.

I’ve heard other parents rave about the place for years so expectations were high. This brings me to point No. 1 in my 10-point plan for parental theme park success:

The entrance to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Located near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this tourist resort community is home to Dollywood and other entertainment and roadside attractions. (Photo via Getty Images)

1)    Set Your Expectations Low

Treat your visit to the theme park with your family the same way a kid about to get a shot at the doctor’s office would treat that moment. If you close your eyes and hype yourself up to believe you are in for the most painful moment of your life, you will be pleasantly surprised by almost any outcome.

I entered my day at Dollywood with my eyes wide open. I was mentally prepared for every possible eventuality: Dehydration, ungrateful children, vomit, sunburn, marital spats that have the entire park considering whether or not to call the authorities.

And by the end of a long day, I was pleasantly surprised. Why? Because when you go into something mentally prepared for the worst and believe you will be incredibly challenged to get through something, you are typically surprised when it’s not as hard as you expected.

This is a lesson I try to instill in my 7-year-old daughter. We are struggling with her inability to get past something not living up to her expectation. The reverse is also true. Surprise yourself with good vibes when something doesn’t live DOWN to your expectation.

2)    Always pay for premium parking upgrade

At Dollywood, it’s $25 for standard parking and $40 for preferred parking. When the parking attendant presented me with the option to upgrade for an additional $15, I did what any good general would do in the same situation. I acted decisively.

I said “YES” immediately. And what followed was glorious. I drove right past a bunch of sad souls waiting to board a tram from their parking spots a mile away and right up to a lot snuggled up to the entrance.

I’m no Clay Travis with two beach houses but I would have paid $100 or more to receive that level of ingress and egress convenience. After a very brief conversation with the parking attendant and after I made one of the best decisions of the day, he leaned close to my car and said in a soft East Tennessee accent “You made the right caaaall.”

I knew then that I was off to a good start. If you plan to go to Dollywood or any other theme park this summer with your family and take only one point away from this entire piece, trust me on this one: Pay for the parking upgrade.

Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Tennessee Drone Aerial.

3)    Have a plan of attack

If the quick parking decision was my Kirk Gibson in the ’88 World Series moment, my lack of park reconnaissance was my Bill Buckner one. When visiting a gigantic theme park, don’t be me and decide to wing it. Be Joey Tribbiani and get inside your map. Every theme park (Dollywood included) has very helpful maps on its website. Plan accordingly.

My recommendation would be to walk to the far reaches of the park early and work your way back to the entrance while always being willing to pivot based on a particular area of the park being overcrowded. It’s best to take a Boy Scout approach to your fun family adventure and always be prepared.

4)    Set the tone early

This may be my hottest of takes but I think it’s important to test your child’s limits early so you know exactly what you are dealing with the remainder of the day. So instead of taking my 7-year-old daughter to the carousel to start the day, we got in line for something called “Thunderhead.” There was a moment of apprehension when the waiting line recorded announcements warning against the “2G forces” one will sustain on this roller-coaster and the urging of those with cardiac issues or high blood pressure to exit the ride.

It also didn’t help that the coaster accelerates to 55 mph right next to the waiting line causing my daughter to cover her ears at the sound of the noise every 45 seconds. But while my wife and 2-year-old daughter sat in the shade, we soldiered on and boarded a ride that would turn into 2 and a half minutes of my daughter crying and squeezing my arm so hard that I developed blood pressure issues that didn’t exist 5 minutes prior.

And as the “Thunderhead” came to a screeching halt, my daughter stopped screaming, took a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “Let’s do it again.” That’s when I knew our threshold for fear and pain. We were off and running.

Treetop Tower Dollywood
Treetop Tower at Dollywood. Photo courtesy of Dollywood Parks and Resorts.

5)    Pace yourself

After our 2G-force experiences, it was important to not jump right back into a long line that leads to more thrills. Instead, we rode a much slower ride with virtually no line next. This was important because it showed my daughter that not every ride would make her feel like Maverick with her hair on fire.

It’s also a good way to insure you as a parent won’t wait in long line after long line. The lines are unavoidable for certain rides but everyone in your crew will lose patience quickly if you go from one hot and miserable wait to the next. So, mix it up. And speaking of hot and miserable, always remember to …

6)    Hydrate

You can judge my hydration levels coming into our theme park experience all you want but I’m about to tell you the God’s honest truth. I drank four different forms of fluid throughout the day (two waters, a large lemonade, and a 32 oz Powerade) and I never saw the inside of a Dollywood bathroom.

That’s right. It all slowly seeped out of my pores over the course of a 95-degree day. I also saw 4 different people receiving medical attention for dehydration. You and everyone around you will have a much better time if you aren’t leaving in an ambulance with an IV in your arm. So in between playing carnival games and slamming a chicken tenders’ basket in record time, make sure to chug something non-alcoholic.

7)    Games are a great change of pace

Let me start this point by saying my wife is a champ. She was perfectly content to sit in a shaded area with our napping 2-year-old while me and the 7-year-old roamed the carnival area. Looking back, it was also kind of genius on her part. But I digress. I forgot how much fun it is to try to knock over a collection of milk bottles to win a cheaply made stuffed animal.

I rediscovered that fun over the course of 45 minutes that provided the perfect recess from the hustle and bustle of the park. And here’s the best part about these games. There’s zero wait.

I spent $35 in tickets and we zipped in and out of carnival games over the course of 45 minutes while winning a Tennessee Titans basketball (yes, basketball), a stuffed octopus, and a stuffed snake (my daughter has exotic taste). And I could have gone for another 45 minutes. It was the perfect taste of Americana and well worth the $35. It also recharged us for the stretch run.

8)    When it’s time to eat, pick the shortest line

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to all of you foodies out there but Gordon Ramsey isn’t setting up shop at Dollywood. I don’t want to belittle the food options because there are many, but when it’s time for your family to fuel up, keep it simple and pick the concession/restaurant with the shortest line/wait.

Your kids want chicken tenders or a hot dog and you know what most grown-ups also like? Chicken tenders or a hot dog. I picked a concession that had both and had one person ordering in front of me. We spent a grand total of 22 minutes ordering and eating lunch. That left us plenty of time to get back to the fun/misery which leads perfectly to my next point.

9)    Resist the urge to fight

This is for all of the parents. You will be hot, tired, and impatient while at a theme park with your kids and significant other. You will feel at least one pull to speak out against someone in your group. When you feel that devil tugging on your fanny pack, you should instead ask if anyone needs something to drink and walk to get the family refreshments while taking deep breaths and whispering “serenity now.” I saw America’s divorce rate tick a little bit higher over the course of our 7 hours at Dollywood. I counted at least four incredibly loud and uncomfortable shouting matches between couples that were admirably trying to navigate the chaos of a theme park with multiple kids. I take that back.

I witnessed three shouting matches and one grandmother telling her entire family that she was ashamed of all of them because she suggested grabbing a map to start the day and no one listened. Her family sat in silence and fully accepted the verbal lashing. This all points back to point #1. If you go into the day expecting things to be difficult, it will put you in a mindset to overcome the odds and have fun even in the midst of the fire. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and take grandma’s advice and say nothing if you have nothing good to say. And I’m talking about your grandma and not the one I saw excommunicate herself from her family over a map.

10)    When the day ends, reward yourself

If you aren’t a parent, you are going to read this next line and think I’m insane but if you’ve ever experienced a long day with your kids, you will know the feeling I’m explaining like the back of your hand.

There’s nothing like the feeling of AC on full blast after your kids are in their car seats and everyone is seated and ready to exit a long day of activity. Bathe in that moment. Let it wash over you. Take a breath and blast “Prime Country” on Sirius XM while attempting to drown out the sounds of your kids like we did all weekend.

You can choose whatever music you want but make this moment yours. As your kids either pass out in the backseat or start to argue over the stuffed animal won during the football toss, none of it matters. Own the moment. You did it.

So, on this 4th of July, I urge you to do something very American. Load your kids up in your family vehicle and take them to a theme park. You may regret it while doing 2 g-forces on Thunderhead with your daughter ripping your arm hairs out but that feeling of regret will fade and the good memories will remain.

Chad Withrow is a co-host of “OutKick 360” and writes a weekly feature for OutKick.com. Follow Chad on Twitter: @TheChadWithrow.


Written by Chad Withrow

Chad Withrow hosts OutKick 360 and has covered Nashville sports, statewide, and SEC college issues and headlines since 2004.

2 Comments

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  1. Along with the parking upgrade, splurge on the time saver pass!! You get right to the front of the line, well worth it. I can only imagine the things said about my family as we rode ride after ride, some multiple times while others waited an hour or more in roller coaster lines.

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