When you first arrive at a theme park and unfold the smooth, unwrinkled map, the day is full of possibilities.

By the end of the day, as you wearily exit the gates, you toss the torn, crumpled map into the garbage. You’ve already experienced the map’s promises and have formed your own opinions about its contents.

Such is life.

After spending a week in Florida – and four days in theme parks – with my dad, sister and brother-in-law, I learned that you can learn a lot about life from theme parks.

Don’t follow the crowd.

Theme parks draw thousands of people on any single day. If you adopt the mentality of the masses, you’re going to spend a lot of time standing in long lines. Following alternate routes out of show areas or dodging tourists posing for photographs in the middle of our path provided an adventure of its own – and saved a lot of time. Planning an off-season trip also minimized the size of the herd.

Family is important and each person has his or her role.

In our party of four, we tried to make the best use of our numbers. When waiting in line for lunch, two people stood in line, while one scouted a table and the fourth picked up napkins and utensils and served as the go-between communicator. A few times, two of us went to save seats at the show or a space in line while the other two took bathroom breaks or bought a snack.

Spontaneity is good, but it’s better to plan and be flexible than to leave everything to chance.

We used “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” to plan our days, which gave helpful tips, including a touring schedule to help avoid the busiest times for various rides. On the days we followed the guide, we barely stood in line and we managed to see everything on our list. However, we weren’t too rigid with our schedule and when my sister wasn’t feeling well, we were able to switch a theme park day with a relaxing afternoon at the beach.

It’s good to plan, but you can only plan so much.

Even with all of today’s technological advances and medical miracles, apart from manufacturing snow, weather is still beyond our control. Even Disney hasn’t yet discovered a way to provide its guests with ideal weather on a daily basis. On a day with a 10 percent forecast for rain, we were caught unprepared in a downpour, while a day of predicted extreme thunderstorms only produced a few minutes of drizzling. (Disclaimer: Yes, my dad’s a meteorologist, but remember, he was on vacation.)

Find pleasure in the simple things.

With theme parks designed to stimulate and entertain, down to the smallest detail, sometimes it can be easy to overlook simple pleasures. While sitting in our seats waiting for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Disney-MGM Studios, a discussion with my dad about his family’s vacations when he was a child – during a time before Disney – is one of the trip’s memories I’ll savor. Also, despite all our time as guests of the world’s foremost entertainment provider, one of the things I think we’ll remember most is driving in our rental car on Daytona Beach’s white sand and then wading in the ocean’s warm, translucent water.

Back to the map.

When you enter a theme park and look over all the rides and shows spread out colorfully in front of you, you still can’t completely predict your day. Just like when you enter a new endeavor in life or a new relationship, there’s no guarantee that everything will pan out as expected. It may all look good on paper, but be prepared for surprises.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 1, 2002 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.