You know a visit to a theme park isn’t going to be cheap. But with a little planning and some smart choices, it can be an unbeatable bang for the bucks you do spend. We asked experts how to get the most for your money, even during the busy summer season.
Consider Your Priorities
Are your kids obsessed with Harry Potter? Take them to Universal (Photo:Karen Roe/Flickr)
A bargain for one family might feel like a waste for another. What are your specific needs and desires? If your kids are Harry Potter fans and couldn’t care less about princesses, it’s OK to skip Disney and head to Universal.
“Sit down with the family before the trip and talk about what the priorities are. Everybody has a say in the planning,” said Kristi Kingston, senior content strategist for Undercover Tourist, a site that sells discount theme park tickets and helps plan trips. Finding out in advance what everyone wants to do lets you skip things that don’t matter.
Do Your Research
Do your homework if you want to avoid the crowds at Disneyland (Photo: Chris Alcoran/Flickr)
The Internet is a cornucopia of information — everything from ride reviews to news about what’s happening when and where. Many parks post maps and event calendars on their websites, so plan your attack before you go so you don’t miss what’s important to you. “Be sure to check the park’s website to avoid any large group events that will crowd the park even more than usual,” advises Kris Rowberry of amusement park site Great American Thrills.
Try to time your visit during slower periods when you’ll wait less in line, and have a strategy for when you’ll hit which attraction. “Get to the park when it opens and head to the back of the park and then work your way forward,” said Andrew Young, editorial director at deal site Travelzoo. “Most people stop at the first attraction they see, and in the morning those are the most busy.”
Seek out your must do attractions first, like meeting Alice (Photo: Scott Barlow/Flickr)
Young also advises looking at the park’s calendar for special (but free) acts. “Many parks offer free concerts from some big-name artists with admission,” he said.
Crowds swell on weekends and holidays, even when school’s out, so aim for weekdays. Things really slow down in late August, though, and you’ll be seeing shorter lines by Labor Day. Most of our experts agreed that September is an ideal theme-park month, with cooler temperatures, smaller crowds, and better deals. In Orlando, September is Magical Deal Month, with discounts at area attractions and hotels.
Your research might point to a less expensive alternative park. “If you like Epcot, try Busch Gardens-Williamsburg,” suggests Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. It has a similar feel and even the same kind of high-quality food Epcot is known for, but passes cost less. (Bonus: the whole Williamsburg area is having an “All in for August” promotion through the rest of this month, with discounts on attractions including Busch Gardens.)
Dollywood has rides for the whole family (Photo: Dollywood/Facebook)
Be an Early Bird
“The best way to make sure you’re getting the most for your ticket is to buy in advance and go in right when the park opens,” Niles said. Buying passes online before you arrive lets you bypass ticket lines, and parks often offer discounts for advance purchase. Some offer greater discounts the earlier you buy. Cedar Fair parks, including Cedar Point and King’s Dominion, also offer advance-purchase discounts on dining packages.
On the other hand, sometimes going late is a good option. Many parks, including Hersheypark and Knoebels in Pennsylvania, give big discounts for evening admission. Knoebels, for example, has bargain nights on Wednesdays and Fridays and sundown specials on weeknights.
Avoid the ticket counter and look for deals online before your trip. (Photo: Getty Images)
Niles advises harnessing the power of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. You might find everything from park special offers to third parties, like TV or radio stations, offering giveaways or holding contests.
Other sources for discounts: Membership organizations like AAA, credit unions, or student unions often offer discount coupons. Even grocery stores offer discount tickets, especially for regional parks. “We also recommend that people check with their human resources departments at work,” Niles said.
“Another way to save on season passes to your favorite attractions is to visit your local wholesale club and see what discounts they offer,” said Kathleen Bunn, who blogs about family travel at Lifewith4boys.com. “Often, wholesale clubs will have discounts on passes to local attractions that can save a family 25 percent or more.”
Resort lodging guests can often score deals on passes. Stay at one of Cedar Point’s properties (which include a budget-friendly campground) and get $20 off day passes and early entrance to the park. A hotel doesn’t have to be part of the theme park to offer discounts. Hilton Orlando, for example, offers discounts at local attractions. Some hotels offer free shuttle service to parks, and others are within easy walking distance.
Most experts advise staying away from sites like Craigslist or eBay, where you can’t verify whether a ticket is legitimate.
Make the Most of Your Day at the Park
Kids love riding the monorail — and it’s free (Photo: Disnilandi/Flickr)
Sometimes, experiences that don’t cost extra can be worth seeking out. Dave Parfitt, who gives family travel advice at Adventures by Daddy, says riding the monorail, ferryboat, or water taxi at Disney World can be a fun sightseeing experience for kids — and it’s free.
On the other hand, some activities are worth shelling out for. The more crowded the park, the more valuable a front-of-line pass becomes, for example.
Technology can help here. Many parks have apps for getting information, like wait times, on the go. At Disney World, visitors can wear high-tech bracelets that act as everything from your room key to your fast pass.
Save on Food and Drinks
Stash a few snacks in a backpack (Photo: James Fee/Flickr)
Some parks enforce a strict “no outside food or drinks” policy — but not many. “If you stash a few snacks and drinks in a backpack, no one’s going to care,” Niles said. Another of his tips: Either share meals or order from the children’s menu. “Nobody looks at you weird if you order a kids’ meal at a theme park.”
Corinne McDermott, founder of Have Baby Will Travel, adds: “Theme parks that don’t allow outside food will often make exceptions for babies and toddlers or those who suffer with food allergies and sensitivities.”
Another tip: buy groceries for your hotel room. Matt Villano, Expedia Viewfinder senior editor and family travel expert, who’s been blogging about his Disney World trip with his two daughters, had a company called Garden Grocer deliver breakfast and lunch fixings. “It cost us $100, including the $14 delivery fee, and the groceries were in our room (and in the fridge in our room) when we checked in,” he said.
It also helps to bring refillable water bottles. Every park has drinking fountains, and many park snack bars will refill your bottle for you. “Waters cost at least $3.50 inside theme parks, but most of these places have water fountains near every restroom. Literally, today, we refilled our two bottles about eight times. That’s $56 savings in one day,” Villano said.
A worthy splurge item: Butter beer (Photo: Angie Six/Flickr)
Then you can take your savings and splurge on park treats that you can’t get at home, like butter beer at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Avoid costly stroller rentals and bring your own (Photo: Mickey Liaw/Flickr)
Bring items you’ll need during the day, including sunscreen and diapers. “The general rule is: Don’t ever buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the theme park,” Niles said.
That includes stroller rental. “Stroller rentals here at Disney World go for $80 a week or $150 a week for a double,” Villano said. “If you can bring your own, you can save big bucks. And having a stroller for preschool-aged kids makes a huge difference in terms of convenience when the kids are melting down or they’ve just had enough.”
Another insider tip from Rowberry: Wear shorts or pants with zippered pockets if you plan to ride roller coasters at Six Flags parks. “You’ll avoid having to pay for lockers each time you go on a ride. Many of their coasters do not allow ANY loose articles, period.”
Souvenirs can really eat into a budget, so plan ahead. Consider enlisting your kids’ help to save up for things they’ll want to buy. Kingston says many families set up a special savings jar that goes toward the souvenir fund. Some especially frugal folks even buy their kids’ souvenirs at their local Disney store or Target before they ever leave on vacation. It’s a good way to save money — and to start the fun early!