Americans love amusement parks, the classic summer retreat for people of all ages for more than a century. This is a $12 billion a year industry, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and as any park attendee can tell you, the expense adds up quickly. Once you enter the park, there are all those tempting extras -- food, beverages, souvenirs, arcade games, specialty shows -- and that's after you've paid a hefty admission fee that can hit $150 a person. Never mind. You and the family can enjoy the thrills and excitement for less by following any or all of these 10 tips.
There are hundreds of theme parks besides the big name brands that have taken over Orlando, Florida and southern California. Check out a park guide, like the one at The Travel Channel, and find a park that suits your interests and your budget. By frequenting a lesser-known amusement park you're likely to spend less, encounter fewer crowds, and enjoy a more affordable adventure. Knoebels Park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, for example, famously boasts free admission and parking; pay between $15 and $45 for the rides and take advantage of special group and weekday deals.
Some amusement parks specialize in kiddie rides and character interactions designed for the under-12 crowd, and price the family fun accordingly. Story Land theme park in Glen, New Hampshire, for example, offers free parking and charges $32 general admission at the gate (no charge for children under 2); the fee drops to $27 on select days, and if you arrive during the last three hours of the day (after 3 p.m. in July and August and 2 p.m. otherwise), you get a free all-day ticket for the following day. Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana and Santa's Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire are other family- and budget-friendly theme parks, with admission prices of $30 to $40 that include unlimited rides and entertainment.
Money-saving deals on theme park admissions are there for the taking if you plan ahead and spend the time finding the right package for your situation. Amusement park websites, as well as their social media sites, often advertise group deals, buy-one-get-one days, and "special" days when prices drop (usually off-peak days, such as Tuesday or Wednesday, or sometimes coupled with promotional fees contingent on a charity donation, like a canned good). Also check into later arrival times, when tickets are often cheaper. Coupon sites such as Groupon and RetailMeNot often post special deals, while travel sites such as Orbitz and Expedia sell admission tickets and let you play around with dates to find the lowest prices. For a family vacation that involves overnight lodging in the vicinity, scout around for package deals that include hotel and bargain-priced entry fees.
You might be eligible for discounts you don't even know about through your connections, affiliations, and memberships. Start asking around. Members of the military and their family, civil servants and government workers, AAA members, Costco or Sam's Club cardholders, students, AARP members, credit union members -- if any of these associations sound like you, you're probably eligible for discounted admissions to many amusement parks. Additionally, many companies sell reduced theme park tickets to employees, so check with the human resources department.
Keep your eyes wide open and scan your environment. Every summer, fast food chains and local businesses advertise specials and coupons, some of which appear on soda cans. Hotel lobbies are also prime spots for finding deals on local attractions, including amusement and theme parks; check the information desk for brochures and fliers. Besides these cross-promotions, you may stumble on bargains for attending parks in your home state. Discounts for residents are especially common at Florida and California theme parks, but it never hurts to ask if your community entitles you to special deals.
Buying season passes rather than one-time tickets can save you money even if you visit the park just twice over the course of a year. For example, Six Flags has locations in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, San Francisco, several in Texas and across New England, and one each in Canada and Mexico. A one-day general admission to a single park costs $42 to $55 when buying online (more like $60 to $70 when bought at the park), depending on location. A season pass costs $60 to $75 when bought online ($10 to $20 more at the gate) and provides unlimited entry into all Six Flags venues. Moreover, the purchase of season passes opens the gate to discounts on things like food and souvenirs and provides access to perks such as free tickets for friends and free admission to water parks located within park grounds.Bottom line: If you live near several amusement parks that belong to the same corporate family, are willing to travel for repeat visits, or plan to frequent the local park more than once, a season pass is worth every penny.
Bloggers who specialize in amusement and theme parks warn against buying tickets via Craigslist or eBay. Enticing offers for partially used tickets ( "2 days left on 4-day passes to Magic Kingdom!" for example) invariably are too good to be true. For one, there's no way to tell how much time is actually "left" on the ticket. More importantly, many parks now use photo IDs and finger scans to match tickets with ticket holders after the first use and are likely to boot you out of the entrance line for using someone else's ticket. Say goodbye to a chunk of money. Always purchase tickets directly from the park or an authorized broker.
You may save a bundle by pulling together a large group and purchasing a reduced-price bulk-ticket package; you can always split up once inside the park. Parks and waterparks have group sales departments whose job is setting up deals for large parties, so reach out to to find the best deals. Group discounts that offer significant per person savings for parties of 10 to 15 or more are well suited to businesses, schools, and special-interest groups, and for reunions, birthday parties, and even neighborhood get-togethers. Keep "the more the merrier" in mind, and save big.
If you have your heart set on a Disney theme park vacation, figure on spending more than $100 a day for each person older than three. But there are some tricks to doing Disney on a budget, such as advance planning, arranging an off-season visit, and lodging outside the parks. It's usually most economical to commit four or more days to a Disney park visit because the daily price drops drastically after three. If you're visiting for multiple days and want to hit several specialty parks in one day or over the course of the trip, adding the Park Hopper or Water Park options might be worth the expense. These extras only pay off, however, if your ambitions are equal to your energy level.
When buying tickets online, taking precautions to safeguard your investment is a wise move. Document copies of your tickets (photograph, scan, or photocopy) and email them to yourself or someone else. Be sure to get both sides of the ticket; the serial number is most essential but cover all your bases. If you buy tickets at the gate or from a broker, save the receipt and back it up (as above) along with the tickets. Bloggers caution that the broker, park workers, or even an online confirmation screenshot are unlikely to let you replace lost, stolen, or forgotten-at-home tickets. Be smart about keeping records.