A Baby and Toddler-Friendly Theme Park That’s A Short Drive From Toronto…
As someone who once claimed to hate theme parks, I sure have been spending a lot of time in theme lately. And I guess I’ve realized, maybe through necessity, that I actually don’t hate them. I just kind of feared them. We’ve spent a lot of time at Walt Disney World over the past few years, and we just got back from Darien Lake, NY – home of Darien Lake Theme Park and somewhere I have wanted to visit since I was a kid! Growing up in Toronto, we are privy to all of Buffalo, New York’s affiliate stations. And when I was small, they had the best Saturday morning cartoons. So all my life I’ve been excited by Cellino & Barnes Attorneys At Law, Carvel’s Cookie Puss and Fudgie The Whale, Tops Friendly Market, and Darien Lake Fun Countreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! And finally, I visited Darien Lake!
We stayed at Darien Lake’s hotel, The Lodge On The Lake. It was Canada’s long weekend, and while the 2.5 hour wait (ugh) at the border indicated that things would be super busy, it was not the case once we arrived at the hotel. Considering it was at 97% capacity, it did not feel crowded at all. (Noted for future cross-border visits to LEAVE EARLY.) If traveling to Darien Lake, it’s best (and easiest) to use the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie – you’ll pay a 90¢ toll (remember to have US funds handy) both ways and to re-enter Canada it is $3.00. For future reference when we fly out of Buffalo, I’ll take the Peace Bridge again too – seems like a longer way to go as it’s the last exit on the QEW, but man – is it ever easier once you’re over the border. Adults need passports, Canadian babies, toddlers, and children 15 and under just need proof of citizenship – such as an original or a photocopy of a birth certificate, or an original citizenship card.
Our Standard Queen Room at the Lodge On The Lake was huge – easily enough room to sleep six (two Queen beds + a sofa bed). It had a good sized mini fridge, and the vending area not only had the standard pop, snack, and ice machine, but also a microwave – super handy for heating food and bottles. The General Store and Woody’s snack bar in the lobby are open until 11pm, so grabbing a quick late-night milk or forgotten sunscreen for the next day is not an issue. The food selection at Woody’s is decent (hello, Tim Hortons coffee!) and you could certainly make do with it for all your meals if you wanted to, but there are also decent food options both in the theme park and down the road at the gas station. As with most theme parks, finding healthy options took a bit of work, but we were mostly successful. I would not recommend Maria’s Spaghetti near Splash Town, but the Beaver Brothers cafe near the Boomerang Roller Coaster had lots to choose from and the kids’ meals were at a better price point than most of the concessions around the park. The park and dining options are licensed, but if you want to partake in a WINE SLUSHIE (!) you had to buy it outside and bring it in. Or so I heard 😉
The hotel, theme park, and Splash Town (the water park) are spotless. The staff are also super friendly. The theme park is small when you compare it to some others that are close to Toronto, but for us it was a good size that was easy to navigate with little ones. They have a number of really great kiddie rides in the Beaver Brothers Bay – Chucky’s Mud Buckets was a big hit and my kids spun so fast it made me ill to watch. They loved it, though, and I was a big fan of not having to go on with them. As with one of our all-time favourites, Centreville, a lot of the small rides are for little ones only. Kids seem to love that, and I certainly do too. More favourites in Beaver Brothers Bay? The train and the monster trucks. I think Bub drove the red monster truck at least 10 times. That was another thing that really surprised me about Darien Lake. In spite of it being a holiday weekend for Canadians, and that 50-60% of visitors are Canadian, there were no lines at all. Wait times for rides were incredibly short.
The newest area at Darien Lake’s theme park is Rowdy’s Ridge, a great spot with rides and attractions for kids that area a bit bigger. These rides worked out great for our daredevil-in-theory daughter, as well as for Bub who always wants to be a big boy. The kiddie roller coaster is the perfect combination of tame and exciting, and the Moose On The Loose is so very cute. So very, in fact, that the line up for that was pretty slow. A suggestion for Darien Lake would be to make Moose On The Loose a ride where adults can only go if they are escorting a small child like some of the other kiddie rides.
The wave pool at Splash Town was also a hit. We brought Bub’s life jacket from home, but there were plenty kicking around that you could borrow as well. My kids were not quite ready for most of the water slides, but my daughter and I very much enjoyed the lazy river. The other water play areas were pretty busy on this day, and Bub was in a kind of awkward in-between spot – too big for the little pirate boat and slides, but not quite big enough for the rest of the fun at Hook’s Lagoon. While I noted that the surroundings were very clean and not slippery, we still took caution and managed to fall anyway. Bub slipped, and when I picked him up to comfort him, I slipped in the exact same spot. I came down hard on my knee with my and Bub’s full weight, and went off to the medical center with some nasty road rash. Once I was patched up with a water-resistant bandage, I hobbled back out and just took it easy for the rest of the afternoon.
The value at Darien Lake is pretty astounding. The cost for the Standard Queen Room that we had ranges from $240 – $310 per night for a family of four, and that includes park admission for two days. Check in is at 3pm and check out is at 11am, but you are able to enjoy the rides and Splash Town for both full days. That’s practically the cost for one day anywhere else. The room upgrades have the cute bunk beds built ins that are so popular now with the younger set. The various camping options available are even more affordable than the hotel. The pool at the hotel was also a hit with our family, as it opens at 9am but the parks don’t until 10:30 – you can have a lazy morning and breakfast and then just meander over over for some rides. They also have lovely new cabins now that hold a larger number of guests. The Laser Blast show at 10:10pm each night is good fun but if your kids simply can’t stay up, missing it is not a huge loss.
The Lodge On The Lake has a limited number of cribs available on a first-come, first-served basis. All washrooms have change tables, and the park is fully accessible – so getting around with a stroller is a breeze. They don’t have bedrails, and I could have put Bub in the pull-out -couch as that offers a bit of a barrier between bed and floor. What I did do was roll up extra pillows and stuff them under the fitted sheet – barrier made and no fuss. I felt like a mother of invention!
As with visiting all theme parks, it’s good to know your children’s heights in advance, so you know which rides they can and can’t go on. I noticed as we were leaving that Darien Lake offers a measuring station – where they issue separate wristbands with your child’s height verified so there’s no waiting to be measured at rides or even pulled off rides to confirm measurements. There’s not a lot of shade at Darien Lake, so try to ensure that you have plenty of sunhats and sunscreen to last for the day, and there’s water fountains throughout to refill your bottles. I’ve come to accept the high price of bottled water at theme parks as an incentive to always remember our refillable ones.
My only complaint about Darien Lake is that though it is supposed to be a smoke-free environment with clearly marked smoking areas, the No Smoking policy is not really enforced. Really I think they would have a difficult time doing so as we seemed to be in the minority as non-smokers. Luckily the policy is more in place at the hotel and the hotel pool area.
I was very impressed with Darien Lake – and would definitely recommend it to families with babies, toddlers, and younger kids.