What Not To Do On A Theme Park US Road Trip

Photo of Route 66 Road Sign in Chicago
This summer I undertook what was my third theme park road trip in the US to finally mop up what I'd consider the last of the 'major' US theme parks. As you can imagine, there's been quite a lot of learnings along the way when it comes to planning and executing this kind of trip, and I often get questions from you guys asking for tips on booking something like this. So I wanted to put this little piece together to give you guys the cold hard facts about booking a US road trip, because everybody will tell you what you SHOULD do, but people don't often talk about the things you should actively avoid doing and in my experience that advice is so much more valuable and could end up saving you a world of pain. Here's what not to do on a theme park US road trip.

Planning a trip like this is super exciting, but it's also super overwhelming. When you open Coast2Coaster and take a look at the insanity that is the US coaster map, it's very easy for your imagination to run wild and start pulling together plans for a five-week, non-stop theme park trip to try and cram in as many creds as possible. And whilst I absolutely condone this kind of behaviour, take it from someone that has done this more than a handful of times now - take a step back and really think about how much you can handle. Everybody's limit is different - some people can truly take on 16 solid days of theme-parking. Others would rather take things at a much slower pace, and both are absolutely cool. Ultimately, this type of trip isn't cheap and isn't something most of us can do often, so it's really important to get some perspective on what kind of itinerary you truly (and have a brutal, honest conversation with yourself, not that fantasist in your head who wants to do everything all at once) can handle. Once you understand that you'll have a great basis from where to start constructing your itinerary.

Off the back of point one, once your cred-hungry brain has settled enough for you to clearly take in the Coast2Coaster map, it's a good idea to set some parameters. Factors to help you do this will obviously be things like time, budget, your own personal levels of endurance, common sense, etc. Maybe make a list of your 'must-do' parks and have a play around on Google Maps to see how you might be able to build an itinerary around them. When we were planning our 2014 trip, there was a section when we were looking to leave Beech Bend and make our way towards Dollywood. Some of the group at this point wanted to head to Kings Island, but we on the other hand felt that Kings Island was in the opposite direction and would be much more fitting in the itinerary we ended up doing this year. It can even be fun to print the Coast2Coaster map and draw over it, cutting the country up into sections. The way I'd divide the majority of the parks is thus:

West Coast (Disney, Universal, Knotts, SFMM, etc)
Southern Mid-West/South (Texas parks, Silver Dollar City, Holiday World, Dollywood, Carowinds, etc)
Florida (Disney World, Universal, Sea World, Busch Gardens Tampa)
East Coast (SFNE, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Hersheypark, etc)
Northern Mid-West/Canada (SFGAm, Kings Island, Cedar Point, Canada's Wonderland, etc)

Obviously there are parks that fall outside of this and absolutely there are other ways to carve the parks up, but these are the routes I've worked to and in my opinion the most efficient way of ticking off the big boys. There's such a danger with Coast2Coaster when you see just how close the next park is to going absolutely wild and before you know if you've gone from Orlando to Carowinds to Dollywood to Holiday World to Kings Island to Cedar Point to Canada's Wonderland. Doable? Absolutely? Sensical? Not in my opinion!

As mentioned, it's very easy to get swept up in the madness of all the fabulous parks you're going to want to visit, but take it from somebody who has experienced driving past major cities when I say you really should take time to absorb some culture. As with the parks, I'd suggest taking a look at your route and making a wish-list of all the major culture points you would quite like to see. It would be madness to drive from Kennywood to Canada's Wonderland and not find time somewhere to stop and see Niagara Falls, but I've seen so many trip plans that fail to carve out the time to take stuff like this in. I promise you it's worth it, especially when you get into the trip proper and start to feel the theme park fatigue creeping in! Plus it's nice to have a bit of a change of scenery from the parks - it makes you appreciate them that much more when you go back the following day.

Building on point three, as much as I'd suggest taking half a day for some parks and not staying until the very end (if only for your personal wellbeing), you really should look to include some break days. A few hours away from the parks is nice but it doesn't give your body the time to recover like a full day does. And believe me when I say you will never appreciate a lay in as much in your life! It doesn't have to be many - on our recent trip we only had two full break days but I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that those days ended up being some of the most fun on the trip. Plus like I say, it's nice to break the monotony of park after park after park. Especially once you get into the second half of your trip - there's no point planning to visit a park you've wanted to go to your whole life if your brain is going to be too overwhelmed with theme parks to properly take it in and appreciate it!

Americans reading this are going to think I'm mad when I mention things like Wendy's in this point, but for me getting to take in the full American road trip experience is making sure we eat in places we don't have over here in the UK. We have an unwritten rule that we are not allowed to dine in any brand that operates here in the UK except in extenuating circumstances (eg getting KFC in Kentucky, duh). Alongside national brands like Wendy's and Panda Express, it's also fun to try and check out some of the more regional brands like In 'N' Out Burger if you're on the West Coast for example. It's also a ton of fun to visit some non-branded outlets - the South has some incredible BBQ places and we went to a super chill bar when we were driving to the Dells to try those infamous Wisconsin cheese curds. It all adds to the experience!

All of us know how exhausting just one day at a theme park is, let alone two weeks + of it back to back. The reality is, you are going to be tired. But also, you're on holiday and are going to want to make the most of the place you're in whilst you're there so the idea of sleeping in and hanging out doing nothing isn't really an option. The way to counteract this I've found is to be strategic with your hotel placement. Once your have your itinerary, plot everything on Google Maps and aim for a hotel half way between each park. A good rule of thumb I've used in the past is try where possible to keep the majority of the driving in the evenings and to also try to not have any drives exceed three hours (although sometimes that is inevitable). It's like I was saying a minute ago, there is no point visiting a park you've dreamed of your whole life if you're going to be too tired and crabby to enjoy it. Plus when you're tired you'll all start getting on each others' nerves so best for the sanity of the group if you all get some sleep in!

One of the downsides of Coast2Coasters is it's quite easy to brush off some hidden gems of parks because they do not have a large coaster count, therefore will not appear prominently on the map. Do your research and make sure you're making time for the smaller, non-chain parks as well as the big boys - often I've found they're a thousand times more charming than any Six Flags and often mean a much slower paced, more chilled day where you can take it easy and have a bit of a rest. Plus the smaller parks are always great for the more weird and wonderful rides of this world - you're guaranteed to stumble across a creepy, crumbly but still oh-so-awesome ghost train in a smaller family owned park, or find a coaster that randomly tries to kill you because it's so unexpectedly full of airtime but nobody talks about it because it's in this small park nobody visits.

And there you have it. Obviously all of the points in this post are my own opinion formed through my own experiences. Everybody is different and some may disagree, which is totally cool too! As always if you're looking for any trip planning advice I'm all ears and always happy to cast an eye over an itinerary and give feedback!

Talk later xoxo,