How to Save on Your Trip to a Theme Park
Theme parks can be great fun for all, but tickets, parking, food and incidentals can rapidly mount up to burn a hole in your pocket. Here is a list of tips to help you save a few bucks on that summer theme-park excursion, be it one of the popular Disney parks or your local favorite.
Not to burst your bubble, but saving significant money on major theme parks is a tall order: If you think you’re going to pull one over on Walt Disney, think again. According to Lance Hart of the theme-park website Screamscape, “Most parks, especially the big ones in Orlando and California, have it down to a science these days to make it nearly impossible to shave corners and save money.” Theme-park visitors, especially those who visit once a year or less, are going to have a difficult time saving more than a few dollars on tickets.
It seems counterintuitive, but going to a park — any park — more than once immediately slashes the price-per-day by a significant amount. Sometimes it’s almost comical: Want to go to Busch Gardens once? It’s $89.99. Want to go an unlimited number of times for the rest of the year? It’s $99.99.
A one-day Park Hopper ticket to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom can cost $174. If you buy a 10-day ticket, however, the per-day cost drops to about $51. Keep in mind that for these multiday tickets, there is a limited amount of time to use them. In this case, you must use all 10 days within a 14-day period.
Searches for “Disneyland coupons” on the Internet may yield a lot of results, but they’re almost guaranteed to end in disappointment. It isn’t worth your time. Targeting the smaller parks yields more promising results: Groupon, for example, offers discounted tickets to the Raging Waters park in Los Angeles. Visitors can pay $34.99 through the coupon site, which appears to be a decent savings on the $45.99 gate price; upon closer inspection, though, it isn’t exactly a steal. On the Raging Waters website, visitors can scoop up tickets for as low as $32.99 on select days (plus a $3 service charge), making the Groupon deal significantly less of a, well, deal.
Be judicious about where you buy tickets. Generally, it’s best to buy directly from the park. I would avoid eBay and Craigslist, as the potential for buying fake tickets is too great. Some third-party sites, like Park Savers, offer slight discounts; a three-day Disneyland Park Hopper ticket will run $307 after fees, which saves $8.
You can buy theme-park tickets at the gate, but that doesn’t mean you should. Parks always want to know when you’re coming (it helps them determine their discount and blackout days, for example), and they love to have your money upfront. In return, many parks (with the notable exception of Disney) offer significant discounts for buying online.
Six Flags Over Texas, for example, offers $20 off the gate price of $74.99 with a three-day advance online purchase. Some parks, like Kings Dominion, don’t require advance purchase to get a discount; the park offers $22 off the gate price ($67) just for buying online, even on same-day purchases.
Do you absolutely have to visit Disneyland on Christmas Day? You’re going to pay for it. That is the peak period, when you’ll pay $124 a ticket. If you’re willing to go midweek in September, however, you can expect to pay less: a mere $97.
A ticket to Universal Studios Orlando will also run you $124 during peak season — the Fourth of July, for example. On a less busy day, like Halloween, you’ll pay $110.
Making use of your department stores and supermarkets can help you save money, and you also have the security of knowing you’re dealing with a reputable merchant. “If you have a Target REDCard, go and stock up on Disney gift cards there,” says Valerie Marino, a freelance writer and contributor to Condé Nast Traveler. “My husband and I use that to buy our annual passes,” she says, which gets her a five percent discount. It’s not a massive savings, but when you consider that the most expensive Disneyland pass costs more than $1,000, it’s worth the effort.
Grocery store chains like Safeway and Kroger also sell theme-park tickets and gift cards. When combined with a credit card that offers cash back at grocery stores — like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card, which gives cardholders 6 percent back at grocery stores — it can represent decent savings.
Conventional wisdom says that a good way to save money on the egregious pricing of food items is to bring your own; many parks will allow visitors to bring snacks, within reason. (Nearly all parks will allow reusable nonglass water bottles that can be refilled throughout the day, a much better choice than spending $2 to $5 on bottled water.)
But toting your own food doesn’t appeal to everyone. “That’s not really something I want to do when I’m on vacation,” Ms. Marino says. Instead, she suggests skipping the side dish when ordering at restaurants as a way to cut costs. “I’ll say, ‘I want the chicken sandwich, but no fries,’” she says, which saves a dollar or two per meal.
Many parks offer dining plans, including the Disney parks, but those should be viewed with a discerning eye. “A lot of people use the Disney Dining Plan at Walt Disney World for perceived convenience and value,” Tom Bricker of the website Disney Tourist Blog wrote in an email. “But often it costs more to go that route and can be less convenient as your eating has to comport with what the plan provides.” Additionally, he wrote, the dining plan offers “too much food.” It’s better to pay as you go.
To get notifications about possible sales and discounts, follow your favorite parks on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, notified its Twitter followers about a flash sale earlier this year. Social media is also a good way to keep up to date about things like special events and ride openings and closings.
Many parks have water rides, and water is not your smartphone’s friend. It sounds simplistic, but you’ll be kicking yourself after drenching your $800 iPhone. Bring a sealable plastic bag to protect your phone during water rides. It costs virtually nothing, and can potentially save you a major headache.
You can find maps of most parks online. It doesn’t hurt to glance at one for a few minutes and formulate an attack plan before you go. Upon arriving, pick a designated meeting point in case anyone in your party gets separated, especially if there are children. The last thing anyone — young or old — wants to hear at a theme park is their name being called over a loudspeaker.
We’ve all forgotten where we put the car. Don’t let it happen in an enormous parking lot when you’ve got tired children in tow. To save some frustration, take a photo of where you parked (“O.K., kids, remember: We’re in Foghorn Leghorn!”). Better yet, open Google Maps on your phone and drop a pin at your car’s location. You can then add a label or star to the location, making it a cinch to find at the end of the day.