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Planning your theme park vacation: The best deals so far

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Published: January 8, 2009 at 3:17 PM

I started our series on planning a theme park vacation on the cheap late last year, knowing that 2009 would be a tough one for many theme park fans. With sound planning and a bit of useful advice, many people could find a way to afford a fun family vacation this year, I hoped.

Well, the big theme park companies have recognized how tough times are for many families, too, and theme park resorts are responding with aggressive discounts. Yes, you'll still need to plan and set money aside, but many more deals are available now for families that want to get away for a winter or spring theme park vacation.

I'll summarize many of those deals today. But I want to start (and hope you will to) at a nifty site I found a few weeks ago: RetailMeNot's travel page includes links to coupon codes that can be used on dozens of reservation websites, from rental cars to hotel rooms. I've found $17 off tickets at Legoland California, as well as $10 off at SeaWorld ($20 off for admission after 12 noon). You'll definitely want to click around here and search for the hotel or car rental you are considering before booking.

RetailMeNot does not offer any coupon codes for Disney or Universal (at least, not that I could find). No worries, though, because the deals are easy to find on those parks official websites. Let's start in Florida:

Disney World deals

  • Buy a 4-night/4-day package and get 3 extra days and nights free. This deal is available for most nights between 2/9/2009 - 6/27/2009, excluding 4/5 - 4/18 (Spring break for many families).
  • Rooms at Disney's Value Resort hotels are available for as low as $49 a night.
  • A free $200 Disney gift card for people who stay at Disney from 2/9/2009 - 3/29/2009.
  • Free airport transportation and baggage handling for anyone staying at Disney hotel.

    Universal Orlando deals

  • Hotel discounts available starting at 15% for three-night stay, up to 49% off for seven days. The discount works out to rates as low as $110 a night at Universal's Royal Pacific Hotel.
  • Free unlimited front-of-line access in Universal's theme parks for guests staying at Universal's three on-site hotels.
  • Kids eat free for lunch and dinner at Universal hotels on selected weeks.
  • A free $150 Universal Orlando savings book for families staying at Universal before 3/31/09.
  • A 7-day, two-park theme park ticket for $95, when you buy online at Universal's website. (You do not need to be staying at a Universal hotel to get this deal, but the tickets are good only for the seven consecutive days starting from first use.)

    What's the bottom line here? You can get seven nights at Universal Orlando, in an on-site four-star hotel within walking distance of the parks, with a seven-day ticket to both parks including unlimited front-of-line access, for four people for about $1,200 (plus room tax).

    At Walt Disney World, you can get seven nights in an on-site Value Resort hotel and seven days at the various Disney theme parks nights for as low as $1,375.

    The difference (besides the theme parks, of course) is a higher-quality hotel and no theme park waits at Universal Orlando, while you would get free airport transportation at Disney.

    In Southern California, the deals are not as aggressive, but some savings are available.

    Disneyland deals

  • Annual 2fer for Southern California residents. The offers is available through June 3, and gives you a free one-day ticket to California Adventure when you buy a one-day ticket to Disneyland (Or vice versa). The free ticket must used within 30 days of the first.
  • Kids fly free on Alaska Airlines from selected cities to Southern California when you book through Disneyland's website and stay at selected area hotels.
  • Room's at Disneyland's hotels are available from $135 a night.

    Universal Studios Hollywood deals

  • Get a second day at the park free when you buy your one-day ticket online. The second day must be used with seven days of the first.
  • Southern California residents can get a one-day ticket for $49 (that's $18 off), when they buy online.

    The Busch theme parks (SeaWorld and Busch Gardens) also have deals available on their official Worlds of Discovery website. The most common deal gets adults in at the kids' price, with a second day's ticket free. Year-long "Fun Cards" are available again at some of Busch's parks. Check the website for the deals available at the park you're considering.

    So what will happen this summer? Since there's little chance of the economy getting substantially better by then, I expect more deals and discounts, including the continuation of some of these specials. That said, if you have the vacation time available and can get the money put aside, I wouldn't skip on these deals. Winter and spring can be much better times to visit theme parks, with milder weather and smaller crowds than summer.

    And who knows? If the deals get better, maybe you can afford *two* theme park vacations this year!

  • Readers' Opinions

    From James Rao on January 8, 2009 at 5:50 PM
    For those on the Disney mailing list, you may be receiving a PIN coded offer for 40% off your stay at select value resorts (the higher end resorts are discounted too). The dates for this offer are extensive, covering most months of the year. Here's what the email says:

    -----
    "40% off your stay at select Disney Value Resorts in a standard room for stays most Sunday–Thursday nights.
    Jan. 4–Jan. 15, 2009
    Jan. 25–Feb. 12, 2009
    Mar. 1–Mar. 12, 2009
    May 31–Jun. 4, 2009

    For stays most nights
    Aug. 23–Oct. 3, 2009
    Oct. 25–Oct. 31, 2009
    Nov. 15–Nov. 21, 2009
    Nov. 29–Dec. 5, 2009
    Dec. 13–Dec. 24, 2009

    Ask about packages and other room types including Moderate, Deluxe and Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts, at varying rates when you call to book."
    -----

    Again, this deal is not available to the general public and the PIN numbers are tied to a specific user/email, so if you have not received an email with the offer, then it may not be available to you. Also keep in mind that there are about a dozen different PIN-related offers floating around out there right now, so your deal may be different than mine. It might be better too - Disney is teaching me envy!! ;)

    From Anthony Murphy on January 8, 2009 at 9:46 PM
    Other Positive at Disney is its four parks vs two parks.

    I also hear that you can get a meal plan for free if you book your next Disney World Vacation while you are down there. Anybody hear that?

    From Mark Hollamon on January 9, 2009 at 5:37 AM
    For my money the Disney deal is the best of the two. Disney is being very aggressive in attracting vacationers to the parks this year. My wife and I actually saw the word "Sale" in Mouse Gear at Epcot and Mouse Gear at DTD! I have never seen that before.

    When you add in the gift card the net on the 7 days is 1175 for a family of 4. That further breaks down to about $42 per person/day for resort and park tickets.

    While USF has soem beautiful resorts on property, there isn't enough to make me want to stay there a week. Three days is about my limit, but I am not a night club person. If that is what you crave it may well draw you there for a week.

    From James Rao on January 9, 2009 at 7:42 AM
    Just a little bit of an update on Disney's 40% PIN-required offer I mentioned earlier: the 40% only applies to the cost of the lodging, so once again, your biggest bang for your buck is to utilize one of the more expensive Deluxe resorts. At a moderate resort, you'd save around $400 for a week's stay, while at a Deluxe resort you'd save around a grand. Me, I am still holding out for the free dining offer, which for my family of five is easily a $1000 in savings no matter the resort!

    As for the Universal VS Disney debate, I consider staying on property at Universal Orlando a must. Their three hotels are up to Disney Deluxe standards and the included Universal Express pass just adds so much value to the package that there is nothing else quite like it at any other theme park. Not to mention the convenience of being in walking distance to everything you care about doing! I cannot stress enough just how relaxing our Universal vacation was when we stayed on property for a week in 2007. It was the best part of our two week Orlando vacation. One last point to consider for later this year: when you combine Universal with a day or two at SeaWorld/Aquatica (free shuttle from the Universal hotels to SeaWorld, btw) then you will be able to take in both Rip, Ride, Rockit and Manta, the two newest coasters in town. That offer is a tough one for Disney to beat this year, imho.

    As much as I love Disney, I just don't feel the need to stay on property unless the deal is too good to pass up (like when they offer free dining as part of the package). Furthermore, Disney is not offering anything new at their parks this year (American Idol does NOT count), and in fact, they are shutting down a premiere attraction in Space Mountain from April thru December. If ever there was a time to take a break form the annual Disney vacation, it is 2009. Disney knows this, which is why I think the deepest discounts are yet to come....

    From Robert Niles on January 9, 2009 at 10:55 AM
    Front of the line is the greatest perk in the theme park industry. Until you've had it, you can't understand just how relaxing it makes your vacation. Totally changes the way you approach theme parks.

    I would throw in a SeaWorld visit if I were doing the Universal week. But with the amenities at the hotels, CityWalk and the two parks, I could easily fill a week without leaving Universal property. How? I'd spend time at the pool, walk around, watch a movie, sleep in. You know, relax. Plus wander over the parks when I left like riding or watching something.

    From James Rao on January 9, 2009 at 4:10 PM
    So true, Robert. Unlike most theme park excursions, when you have Universal Express Passes to every major attraction, all the time, you do not need to get up early, or have a touring plan, or anything that is unbecoming of a vacation. Just imagine sleeping in late and sitting down to a leisurely breakfast instead of waking up at the crack of dawn, going over your touring plan one more time, and eating a Go Lean bar on the run! You simply tour when you feel like it, doing what you want, and waiting a minimal amount of time at most. It is wonderful.

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