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Theme Park Essentials: Best gear to bring to Disney and other parks in 2022

Grab and go Chromebook
Grab and go Chromebook (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

I've survived two Disney College Programs, over a dozen family vacations, and now live within a half an hour of Walt Disney World, where I head when the weather's nice for a change of pace, some photography practice, and maybe a Peter Pan Float. When your gear bag has to get you through a long day in hot, humid, storm-prone weather and overwhelming crowds — and be light enough not to kill your back during this all-day urban hike — you learn how to pack it with only the best of essentials. Here's what makes the journey on my park-hopping adventures!

Infinitely useful: Walt Disney World Refillable Popcorn Tubs

Tubs are made for more than popcorn!

It's no secret that WDW's popcorn tubs are the best deal in snacks short of bringing your own from home — I'm a pro at snack packing, but that's a roundup for another day — and while the ultra-cutesy sculpted popcorn tubs are neat, I'll take the regularly-shaped, easy-to-clean tubs any day of the week. They cost $12 and have an infinite number of uses both during and after your vacation:

  • $2 refills — When you buy these, they say the $2 refills only last as long as your vacation, but you can usually bring them back trip after trip for refills. It's June, but the tubs from last Christmas are still pretty easy to spot in the parks.
  • Lunchbox — This is a sturdy, hard-sided container that's food-safe, so treat your popcorn tub like a bento box and fill her up with snacks before you head out for the day. I can usually fit 3-5 different snacks into the tub and still get the lid snapped on, and I have to eat all those snacks before I can fill it up with more popcorn. You gotta carry it all day, anyway, might as well use it for storage!
  • Snack plate — The lid functions as a small plate with a high lip, which can be useful for divvying up fries/chips/popcorn/veggies and ranch among the family while resting for a snack break. Just make sure to wipe it down when you're done before snapping it back on the tub.
  • Miniature stool — Lines can be ridiculous, and when they tend to move in big jumps followed by 5-10 minutes of not moving, having a makeshift seat can be a lifesaver. This only works if you're small and relatively light, and you'll want to shift positions semi-regularly since there's no padding. However, I've sat on my popcorn tubs for hours while staking out fireworks and used it as a footstool to boost my knees up while using my Chromebook before performances.
  • Lantern/Nightlight — These popcorn tubs can make a neat lantern with very little work: take a glow cube or an LED candle that is either remote activated or triggered by turning (I use some IKEA candles leftover from my twin's wedding), add some clear plastic packing airbags that come with shipped packages to keep the candle from banging into the sides, and voila, a Disney lantern with an easy-grip handle! I use these if I don't want to blind myself in the bathroom in the middle of the night.
  • Crush-resistant souvenir storage — Bought a cute new coffee mug and need to get it home safely? These popcorn tubs can provide crush protection for a medium-sized mug if you use that fancy wrapping Disney puts on mugs when they're sold (or wrap it up in a T-shirt or two if that somehow got destroyed). This way, your new souvenir hopefully makes it through those two connecting flights on your way home without shattering.
  • Kit storage — These tubs are roughly the height of a pen, meaning they're great for kit storage, whether it's art supplies, a sewing kit, yarn holder, or cable storage. I also use one of mine as a super-sized key tray to dump everything out of my pockets into: earplugs, earbuds, PocketBacs, receipts, candies, and a lot else.

Popcorn tubs are the best purchase you can make on a Walt Disney World vacation, so pick up one on your first day and use it over and over again.

Hearing protection for all

Hearing protection is essential

My family rolls their eyes when I tell them I'm wearing my earbuds or headphones for hearing protection in the park, but theme parks are louder than you think, especially over hours and hours for days on end. Screamers on roller coasters, tantruming toddlers, shouting at stragglers and kids running too far ahead: just the din of tens of thousands of people adds up. Even if the crowd noise doesn't overstimulate you, blasting parade soundtracks and booming fireworks will take a toll on your hearing — and they can turn an exciting night into a terrified tantrum for younger children.

Every night I'm watching Happily Ever After, I always see at least half a dozen kids desperately covering their ears. As a kid that couldn't stand loud noises, fireworks weren't fun for me for a long time, but there are solutions! Affordable protective earmuffs (opens in new tab) are available for smaller heads and while they aren't as cute as Minnie Mouse ears, they're 150% worth it if it keeps your child from going into a panic.

Don't tell your kid to "suck it up" if fireworks are too loud; protect their hearing!

About the gear bag itself

I swapped backpacks in the last six months, and while the Himawari (opens in new tab) won't be for everyone, it's been quite good for me apart from the front pouch latches scratching the crap out of my precious popcorn tubs. I still spend about an hour a week looking at backpacks, but my time with the OnePlus Explorer and Himawari have helped me figure out what I need the most in a daypack for the park, and in a gear bag in general. If you need to haul around a backpack for 12 hours in blazing heat, you don't want something that's going to weigh you down, nor do you want something that's going to completely cover your back and prevent airflow from evaporating the sweat there.

When picking a backpack for the theme parks, there are a few big things to consider:

Snacks are some of the most important items to pack

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)
  • Size — While I think those tiny Loungefly Mini Backpacks (opens in new tab) are too small to be practical, they are actually a great size for theme parks because they're just big enough for a few snacks, a thin poncho, a water bottle, and some sunscreen. Only use as big a backpack as you need, because hauling around a half-empty bag not only make the items inside more prone to shifting or spilling (snack bags ripping in a backpack is never fun), but overstuffing a tiny bag makes it harder to quickly pull out what you need — and it takes longer to go through at park security.
  • Bag type — While I'm partial to satchels when I don't need to carry a Chromebook, when you're carrying a bag in the heat for 10-14 hours, you'll want to distribute the weight more evenly. Backpacks are best for in the parks, but cross-body sling bags (opens in new tab) that keep the weight distributed across your back can work well, too.
  • Water resistance — Regardless of whether your forecast calls for rain, you should buy a bag that's water-resistant or water-repellent. This can help keep your gear dry if you get dragged onto a flume ride that's more wet than it used to be — I'm looking at YOU, Pirates — or if your water bottle leaks over your bag. If you already have a backpack you like, buy a waterproof cover for it (opens in new tab). Luck favors the prepared!
  • Easy to clean — Being able to wash the sweat and other stains/smells out of your backpack is essential if you want to use any bag long-term. Machine-washable is best, but so long as you can at least soak it in the bathtub with some dish soap, you should be okay.

Where's the water bottle?

Hydration is key when it comes to lasting the day at a theme park, but I don't have a single go-to refillable water bottle that I use every time I go to the park. What I do have is a mix of tactics to stay hydrated and cool.

  • Frozen bottled water — Freezing refillable bottles isn't great for long-term use, but freezing regular bottles of bottled water is my favorite method of staying hydrated in the park. Firstly, it gives me an ice pack to hold to my neck or temples while walking around in the heat. If I bring more than one, I can pop the empties in recycling bins around the park, and since a single large piece of ice takes longer to melt than loose cubes, I can drink the melted ice, refill the bottle from a fountain or…
  • Free cups of ice water — You can walk up to any quick service restaurant (or really any stand that sells fountain drinks) and get a free cup of ice water. Normally, I just ask for a straight cup of ice and then munch on it while in line. If you find a location with pellet ice, it's the perfect size for filling water bottles with.
  • Refillable resort mugs — You can't actually refill your resort mugs with soda or coffee in the parks, but you can fill that insulated mug up with ice before you leave and then add water as you walk around. You can also transfer soda or coffee you do purchase in-park into the mugs for easy drinking, which is quite useful now that lids aren't being offered for most drinks in-park.

Between these three methods, I'm usually hydrated and cool in the park, but with the ice long melted and the water running low when I finally head back to my car, I keep an RTIC Tumbler (opens in new tab) with 2-inch ice cubes and a little bit of water in my car to drink on the way home. Plastic Tervis tumblers are prettier, but they don't insulate as well; metal tumblers will still have ice waiting even after a long, long triple-digit day.

Have Chromebook, Will Travel

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

That's what I carry in the park right now — but my system is always tweaking, always optimizing the more time I spend in the parks. If you've got some great parks gear you think I should know about, hit me on twitter, and put some magic in your life!

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

1 Comment
  • Holy moly - this blog sounds like overkill for a theme park, more of "these are the essentials if you treat theme parks as your office". The Aukey 18W PA-Y18 USB charger is great but usually unnecessary for a day at the park - unless you've killed the external battery pack. Not carrying a wallcharger makes 6 foot cables ridiculously long - 3 foot or less with the external battery pack is the essential. The fan and the pancho aren't really needed for the California parks - maybe the fan during the Summer and the pancho if you're going on splash rides. Earbuds and over-the-ear headphones seem like overkill as well. Is it essential to take both or will one set suffice? Also - bringing a laptop to a theme park? I've seen iPads of course mostly to keep kids busy, but I don't recall seeing anyone carrying around laptops. That just doesn't seem "essential", especially with a good battery pack and a phone. As someone who has been a Disneyland Resort Annual Passholder, as well as a Universal Studios Hollywood AP, a good snack container, phone, cables, external battery pack, and a good metal tumbler in a great bag are the essentials. The only addition we've added in the last year or so are collapsable metal straws with plastic straw bans being more common.