Thursday, July 18, 2013

Staycation: Busch Gardens with a toddler

This year, instead of taking a traditional vacation, given our lack of success on a couple vacation attempts during our daughter's life, we opted for a staycation. We chose a long weekend when neither of us had any work obligations -- the only long weekend available all summer when such a phenomena occurred. Our staycation commenced last Thursday mid-day and ended Sunday evening. In this time we visited three sites we'd never been to as a family (Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia; Clemyjontri Park in McLean, Virginia, and Our Special Harbor at Lee District Park in Franconia, Virginia) in addition to a family outing to a favorite Mexican restaurant and an adults-only outing to the Mosaic District in Merrifield, Virginia.

I'd like to share our discoveries regarding visiting the three parks we toured with a toddler during our staycation, starting with Busch Gardens, the most potentially daunting location we explored with an 18-month old.

Our Busch Gardens trip was a remarkably huge success. I have incredibly fond memories of visiting Busch Gardens as a child. It was a welcome break from all the colonialism up in my business after hours (or days) at Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. (In retrospect, I really like Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown too, but it's hard for tri-corner hats to compete with the Lochness Monster roller coaster when you're seven.) I've looked forward to introducing Natalie to amusement parks, and I've always liked the "classiness" of Busch Gardens compared to other amusement parks. (As my friend reported back while studying abroad in college, "Europe is just like Busch Gardens!") Still, I didn't know if an 18-month-old would be too young for the joys of amusement parks.

Turns out, 18-months old is a magical age and the perfect time for our daughter to experience Busch Gardens. It's hard to imagine what life is like for her on a daily basis since so many of her experiences and the objects she encounters she has never seen or experienced before. Multiply this phenomenon times 1,000 and that's what you get when you take a toddler to an amusement park. Just looking at a roller coaster whizzing by is a huge deal.

So, here are some of our takeaways from our trip:

1) Tickets -- Buy tickets online. You'll most assuredly get a better deal, and you'll probably get into the park faster as you can go straight to the entrance and bypass an additional line. Matt found an online discount through Food Lion, but each week there are different coupon codes you can easily search from different retailers. I think we saved $14. Children under three years old are free! Parking, though, is going to cost you $15.

2) Timing -- Arrive early. This is classic amusement park strategy, but in our experience it's especially crucial with a toddler. We went on a Friday, when the park opened at 10 a.m. Natalie's best time of day is from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., so we wanted to capitalize on that time before the afternoon crankiness/nap time set in. If you're visiting Williamsburg from the D.C. area, you can expect it will take you exactly 2.5 hours to get there without traffic. This proved true in our case, and leaving our house at 7:30 a.m. got us to the gate right at 10 a.m.

3) Don't get scared away by an overcast day. Although you can never predict the weather, we just lucked out this time. While it was pouring all day in the D.C. area, by the time we hit Williamsburg it was just cloudy. It drizzled about twice for five minutes each, but otherwise the clouds helped keep temperatures down and other visitors at bay, so we encountered practically no lines for any attraction.

4) Packing -- Pack two bags: a bag for the park and a bag for the car. Inside our diaper bag, which we brought into the park, we had the usual sunscreen, diapers, wipes, changing pad, cups, bib, and snacks. We also threw in Natalie's bathing suit and one change of clothes. Inside our car we kept a second bag with an extra change of clothes for all of us, extra clothes for Natalie, Natalie's PJs for the drive home, and towels. We also had a small cooler with extra milk and some perishable snacks as back-up. Guests are allowed to leave the park and reenter with a hand stamp, so one time Matt needed to run to the car for supplies while I pushed Natalie in her stroller during her nap. We definitely over packed, but all our over-packed items stayed in the car, so it wasn't a burden.

5) Food -- You can apparently bring food into the park. We saw some families with large-ish lunch bags/coolers packed with food they'd brought in. I don't know if this poses a problem with the people working the bag check at the front gate (do you need to have a connection to sneak in contraband?) but we were able to bring in bottles and snacks for Natalie, no questions asked, and it seems that whole families were getting away with bringing family meals in, too. We did not bring meals into the park, though, and were able to find fine (read: OK) food throughout the park. Natalie got a $5.99 mac n cheese kid's meal in the Italy section of the park that came with breadsticks and an Honest Kids organic apple juice pouch. Adults: hold out for the BBQ and crepes in France rather than eating in Italy. Also, get a fantastic soft pretzel in Germany.

6) Bathrooms -- They are everywhere, very accessible. I salute Busch Gardens employees for keeping the park's bathrooms incredibly clean. Seriously, it's impressive, especially given the fact that so many people go into them soaking wet having just ridden a water ride. Impressive. Also, if you're a nursing mom who doesn't want to nurse in the open, there's a nursing room (separate from a bathroom) in the Sesame Street area.

Getting around with a toddler
There are a surprising number of rides only for small children, or for small children accompanied by adults. There are even several rides for visitors of all ages. Some, but not all, kid-friendly attractions are marked with a special symbol on the park map. Check all the height restrictions carefully and consider your child's limits and temperament.

We checked out the map in advance and realized there were a few key zones in the park we could hit:

1) Sesame Forest of Fun -- this is located right past the United Kingdom section of the park close to the park entrance. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that not only does this section of the park have four rides, a playground, and a splash park, but Natalie could technically participate in everything except the kid's roller coaster, Grover's Alpine Express. She wanted to keep riding Bert and Ernie's Loch Adventure (calling the water a "pool"). Far and away, the splash park was the biggest hit. This child loves water. We did all the Sesame Street rides first thing in the morning, then came back to the splash park in the afternoon. Doing the rides here first was a good move because we rode them with Natalie, so she got used to the concept of rides before later attempting any on her own.

2) The Land of the Dragons -- this is located in the middle of the park, so we saved it for later. It's also right next to the carousel, which is an added bonus. This section not only has a small splash park and a tree house/playground with climbing nets, but it also has four rides that toddlers of any size may ride. The two dragon-themed rides allow for adults to ride along with children. The two other rides, the ladybugs and the boats, require children to ride without adults. Natalie loved the two rides we did together, and it was especially comical seeing us three squeeze into a giant dragon egg ferris wheel. Natalie didn't get a chance to ride the ladybugs, but it probably would have been great. She agreed to get inside the boats, but the boats are secured with a weird netting that must freak lots little kids out because the ride operator wasn't surprised when Natalie started screaming when she locked her in. So, we abandoned ship (literally...haha). That was, fortunately, the only ride she absolutely refused.

3) Little Italy -- there are two kid-friendly rides, the Little Gliders and the Little Balloons. We had to sit in a seated glider (rather than a reclined glider) with Natalie, but she loved this ride. She was a little hesitant at first about the Little Balloons, seeing as she had to ride in one alone, but she really enjoyed it in the end and kept pointing up and saying "balloon" as she went around in circles. I was just shocked she didn't try to jump out.

4) Little Germany -- there are three kid-friendly rides, Wirbelwindchen (the little swings), Der Roto Baron (the little airplanes), and Der Autobahn Jr. (the little bumper cars). The swings were Natalie's second-favorite activity all day, probably because it felt familiar, a lot like being on the toddler swings at a playground. She rode this five times. (She kept asking for "more" and the friendly teenagers operating the machines obliged.) The airplanes were not as big of a hit, probably because she could not see Matt and me standing on the sidelines as well as she could see us on the other rides. So, I think she got a little freaked out by the end. Although she is technically big enough to ride the kiddie bumper cars, I think she would have gotten in a car and just sat there, so we skipped out on that one and watched Matt crash into people in the adult bumper cars next door.

There are two other kid-centric rides: the Lil' Clydes, which Natalie totally loved (though Matt and I win some seriously dorky parents points for the number of times we were saying "giddyup!" each time Natalie rode past), and the Elephant Run, that we didn't have time to get to.

There are also quite a few attractions that have no height restrictions that are designed to appeal to the whole family:

1) The Log Flume (Le Scoot) and the Teapots (aka Turkish Delight) are free of height restrictions, so adults and kids can easily ride together. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to go on either ride.

2) The park features three skyrides that form a triangle to connect popular areas of the park. We planned to ride all three skyrides, but by the time the ride opened for the evening (after experiencing some technical difficulties during the day) Natalie was starting to get sleepy, so we rode one and called it a day. There is also a train that makes three stops throughout the park, and we never even made it onto the train.

3) Busch Gardens is partly known for the Anheuser Busch Clydesdales. After waiting about two minutes we were able to pet Gordon, one of four agreeable Clydesdales living at Highland Stables near the park entrance. There are some sheep at the stables, too, but we only saw them from above during our skyride. There is also a wild animal exhibit new to the park since my last visit over a decade ago. It includes Wolf Valley, where you get to overlook a wolf habitat, and Eagle Ridge, with, well, eagles.

4) Shows -- there are a bunch of them. This is not my favorite thing about amusement parks because I think they're pretty cheesy, but I know the indoor shows can offer an opportunity to escape afternoon heat, so I won't totally knock them.

We really had an ideal day at Busch Gardens. We arrived at 10 a.m. and left a little after 7 p.m. Natalie took a 40 minute nap in her stroller, and though that's a shorter nap than she typically takes, she still rallied like a champ. We got to hit a lot of the highlights, but we most assuredly did not run out of activities to do. We could have come back the next day and still had plenty of entertainment ahead. This is good to know, because before we got there I wasn't sure how truly toddler-friendly the park would be. If you're wondering if your one or two year old can handle the park, the answer is most likely yes.

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