These days, passes for Disney and other major parks have crossed the three-figure threshold, while single-day tickets to big regional parks cost visitors $50 or more. Still, it’s possible to visit theme parks around the country without cashing in the kids’ college funds or sacrificing your sanity, according to vacation aficionados.
Here are the best secrets and travel tips from theme park insiders that will help families save money, have a better experience or both.
1. Be flexible
“Being flexible with your travel dates is the No. 1 way to save on your next vacation,” said Steve Griswold, owner of Pixie Vacations in Atlanta. “Everyone wants to travel during summer break, school breaks and holidays. Take advantage of the off-season and save a bundle.”
For example, one-day tickets to Walt Disney World for visitors 10 and up start at $97 during value periods. On the other hand, prices for tickets purchased through the Disney World site climb to $114 during peak periods.
2. Save at seasonal parks
“Many theme parks have gone to demand pricing, and you might find a cheaper ticket for a less crowded day,” said Sam Gennawey, author of “Universal vs. Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks' Greatest Rivalry” and other titles. "Plus, by having your ticket in hand, you get to skip one more line.”
For example, visitors to Six Flags St. Louis can buy single-day tickets online for $49.99 or less on weekdays in June. The weekend price is typically $52.99.
3. Bundle for price breaks
Griswold suggests travelers consider vacation packages to save.
“A Disney World Vacation Package would include your transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport, your room, park tickets and the Disney dining plan,” Griswold said. “By bundling everything into a vacation package, you end up getting a discounted room rate and a discount on park tickets.”
A sample package highlighted on the Disney site starts at $90 per person, per day. Considering that a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom for visitors 10 and up costs $114 during peak periods, the package offers significant savings.
4. Shop specials
“You also want to look for vacation specials and trends in the theme park travel industry,” Griswold said.
For example, Dollywood offers a $129 Founders Club Premier membership, which includes a free night’s stay with a paid night, a free park ticket to Dollywood and other discounts. Savings vary depending on when and how the discounts are applied. However, a Founders Club membership could more than pay for itself, considering the best available nightly rate at the DreamMore Resort was $265 for an upcoming Friday in June.
5. Pick the park that fits your needs
“Don’t assume all parks are the same,” said Paula Werne, director of communications at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. “Decide what’s important to you and make a comparison. It might be price, it might be thrill rides, children’s rides, shows, water park or even rural versus urban location.”
Choosing a park that emphasizes children’s rides might be a good idea if someone in your family is under 42 inches tall — the standard measure for boarding rides at Six Flags. Keep in mind that, for some thrill rides, children must be even taller.
6. Make the most of a cloudy day
“A tip that leaves some scratching their heads: if you’re worried about crowds, visit on a day when the forecast isn’t perfect,” Werne said. “Trading blue skies for short lines is a trade-up for many. And if it does rain a bit, spend that time watching shows or eating meals.”
7. Factor in the extras
“How much does parking cost? Are all rides included in the admission price, or are some an extra charge? Does it cost more if there’s also a water park — and will you have to rent inner tubes?” All those questions are worth researching, Werne said.
Holiday World admission includes entrance to both the theme park and the Splashin’ Safari water park, along with parking, Wi-Fi, sunscreen and soft drinks. Additionally, guests can buy general admission tickets good for any day in the 2016 season online for $44.99, a savings of $5 on the gate price.
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8. Invest in an AAA membership
“According to a recent AAA survey, more than one third of Americans — 35 percent — are planning to take a family vacation this year,” said Julie Hall, a public relations manager in AAA’s national office. “Of those family travelers, 42 percent are planning to visit a theme park.”
Six Flags offers AAA member discounts, like 10 percent off merchandise priced at $15 or more, while Universal Orlando offers up to 15 percent off select merchandise and in-park dining. Universal Studios Hollywood offers 10 percent off at select CityWalk dining locations.
9. Take advantage of discounts
AAA members save on tickets, too.
At Six Flags, you can save up to 30 percent on tickets purchased online or score even greater savings at participating AAA offices, Hall said. At Universal Orlando Resort, guests can save on tickets purchased online or through AAA offices. By buying in advance, AAA members can save up to $25 on one-day general admission tickets, $10 on front-of-line tickets or $3 off at the gate at Universal Studios Hollywood.
10. Set an alarm
“You should be there when they open. I repeat, you should be there when they open. You should be the first person in the door and you should have a plan to hit the two to three rides that you know will be the most full later in the day,” said Jared Blank, chief marketing officer of DealNews.
It might also be worth staying at a hotel on park property if it offers guests early admission. For example, on-site hotel guests can enter Universal Orlando theme parks an hour earlier than everyone else on select days.
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11. Stay late
“Go to the most popular rides first to avoid huge lines later,” said travel writer Dan Bagby. “As people are leaving for the day, lines tend to go down as well.”
Just as there are options for arriving early, some parks let certain guests stay late. Guests of select Walt Disney World Resort Hotels can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours at the parks.
12. Skip the rental car
Even if you don’t stay on park property, you can take advantage of free theme park transportation offers at many hotels in Central Florida. This perk comes in handy for families who want to visit Disney, Universal and Sea World in a single trip.
“One of the benefits of our hotel is we provide free shuttle service to all of the major theme parks, such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Walt Disney World and many others,” said Chelsey Moter, a marketing coordinator at The Enclave Hotel & Suites in Orlando, where rooms start at $59 a night.
13. Clip coupons
Look for coupons, deals and promo codes online at sites like RetailMeNot. Savvy searchers can find savings on admission tickets, hotels, car rentals and food.
“You can also mark certain retailers and companies as your favorites, so you are alerted when a new deal is posted,” said Dara Schopp, a spokesperson with RetailMeNot.
14. Take advantage of apps
Many large theme parks have official apps that tell visitors the current wait times.
“When we were at Universal Studios last year, we really loved the Dudley Do-Right ride. The first time we rode it we waited 10 minutes. We wanted to go back, but the wait had gone up to an hour and a half. We checked the app later and it was down to 15 minutes so we went for a second and third time,” said Bagby.
15. Check out some subscription services
“For a small fee, you get excellent park information, a crowd calendar and info about deals,” he said.
16. Check for plastic perks
While Chase offers a Disney Visa card that lets users accrue rewards, and American Express gives users special perks at Universal parks, there are several other cards that offer discounts and deals, according to Bagby.
“Even cards that are not specific to a theme park have some perks," said Bagby. "American Express holders can enjoy lounges at Universal with free snacks, water and AC. You can purchase tickets to several parks through Chase Rewards.”
17. Pack a lunch
“Look online to see what you can bring into the park,” Bagby said. “Some parks only allow sealed water bottles and some do not allow food, but if you can have a bag of snacks and water you will save a lot of money.”
For example, Disney World allows outside drinks and snacks that don’t have to be heated. However, large coolers, drinks in glass bottles and alcoholic beverages are not permitted.
18. Sip from a souvenir cup
At parks that don’t allow outside beverages, it often pays to splurge on a souvenir cup, especially if you can share it with a friend.
“They normally come with free refills for the day, and if you're in a big group you can easily make your money back and, then, at the end you get a souvenir cup,” said Gabriela Yu of TRAVO.
And you can reuse cups and bottles at some parks. Six Flags offers plastic bottles that give users discounted drinks all season or premium souvenir bottles that come with free refills for the season.
19. Get social
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) recommends following your favorite parks on social media and signing up for their email newsletters. You’ll get details on discounts and promotions, as well as other information about special events or closures.
20. Splurge on a season pass
If you plan on visiting a theme park more than once, the IAAPA suggests purchasing a season pass. These passes often pay for themselves after just a couple visits and offer other discounts and park perks.
For example, according to the Six Flags national site, a season pass pays for itself in less than two visits and offers more than $300 in discounts on food, games, souvenirs and more.
21. Take a walk to start the day
“The best wait times when the park opens are the rides far from the gates, so go there first,” said Bagby.
According to an IAAPA tip sheet titled “Tips for Visiting Your Favorite Amusement Park,” visitors can avoid long waits simply by opting to visit rides and attractions at times of day when they are less popular.
22. Consider buying tickets from a third party
“You can save around 10 percent on Disney theme park admission by buying from a reputable third-party wholesaler, such as ParkSavers.com or OfficialTicketCenter.com. That's about $40 per person on a four-day multi-park ticket, which Disney sells for $420. Most third-party vendor prices include tax and free shipping, too,” said Len Testa, president of TouringPlans.com.
For best results, avoid buying tickets from Craigslist or eBay because there's no way to tell if the tickets are valid until it's too late, he added.
23. Weigh water park options
Said Testa, “Disney will try to sell you its ‘Water Parks Fun and More’ add-on to your theme park ticket, which includes water park admission for every day of your visit. If you're only going to a water park once, it's around $4 less per person to buy a separate one-day ticket.”
24. Always buy in advance
Purchase tickets as soon as you can to avoid sudden price hikes, which typically run 5 percent to 8 percent annually, Testa said.
For example, Universal Orlando announced an increase in March. Adult guests who purchase one-day, park-to-park tickets at the gate now pay $169, an increase of $14 over its previous gate price.
25. Investigate all your ticket options
If the number of ticket options is overwhelming, consider using the free tool provided by the writers of the Unofficial Guide travel series, Testa said. Visit TouringPlans.com to figure out the least-expensive ticket options for you and your family.
26. Use the express lane
Disney’s FastPass+ service is available for free with many ticket purchases and for visitors who stay at Walt Disney World Resort hotels.
“FastPass+ allows you to make reservations for popular rides such as Space Mountain and the new Frozen Ever After experience, at a time and date that's convenient for your family,” said Testa. “When you arrive at the ride, you'll walk through a special VIP line that can save you as much as two hours in line.”
Universal’s Express Pass is available for an additional charge, which varies depending on which option you choose.
27. Use your reservations wisely
“Disney offers FastPass+ reservations for some of its live theater shows, but those are rarely good FastPass+ choices,” Testa said. “Most theaters hold several thousand people, and it's unusual to wait very long to get in. Save the reservations for the rides.”
28. Check for employee discounts
Several companies offer employee discounts on theme park tickets through rewards programs, including TicketsatWork and WorkingAdvantage.
For example, if your company is enrolled in WorkingAdvantage, you could get up to 35 percent off a two-day admission to Legoland Florida Resort, which starts at $86 plus tax.
29. Tag along with a season pass holder
Some season passes come with free parking, while others include several days when the holder can invite a friend for free. For example, a Gold Pass to Six Flags Great America in Chicago starts at $92.99 and comes with its own parking pass in addition to perks like admission to other Six Flags parks.
Offer to drive or pay for food and drinks if you want to wrangle an invite from a season pass holder. Often, eats will be discounted, too.
30. Take time to smell the funnel cake
A good theme park promises more than just rides, according to Gennawey, whose books include “The Disneyland Story: An Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream.”
“Most people want to rush from ride to ride," said Gennawey. "Take your time. Enjoy the street entertainment. Find a seat and people watch. The difference between a theme park and an amusement park is simple. A theme park without rides can still be a wonderful experience. An amusement park without rides is a parking lot. Enjoy what the designers have created.”