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Planning your theme park vacation: Step 6 - Saving money inside the park

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Published: January 15, 2009 at 2:36 PM

Okay, we've started setting money aside, decided where to go, set up a system to track our expenses, checked prices online, weighed the benefits of staying on-site or off, and looked up the latest deals at the top parks.

How else can we save money on a theme park vacation?

Easily. By watching what we spend while inside the park.

Think about the ways that your diligently saved cash can evaporate inside a theme park. Forget the sunscreen? That's $20. Headache? Another $10 for a handful of pain pills. Drinks can cost $3 a serving. Scrape a knee? You can get a free bandage at first aid, but only after you waste an hour of your day waiting around and filling out accident forms.

And heaven forbid you parents run out of diapers. Notice that I haven't begun to talk about food or souvenirs yet?

So, yeah, you have plenty of opportunities to save while inside a theme park. Here's my Golden Rule for in-park vacation savings:

Never buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park.

You can get sunscreen, pain relievers, bandages, baby supplies and a refillable water bottle at home for a fraction of the cost you'd pay inside the park. So do. Bring a stash of waterproof, reseal-able plastic baggies, too. While digital cameras have eliminated the need for you to stock up on film before you enter the park, having those waterproof baggies will come in handy in keeping that digital camera and your cell phone dry when you ride on a flume or any other water ride.

So what about food and souvenirs? The same rule applies: Never buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park.

I'm not one to urge you to forgo lunch and live on a stash of energy bars or sandwiches that you smuggled through the front gate. This is your vacation, and you should enjoy it. And part of that enjoyment is eating well.

But the point of this series is to show you ways to get the best value for your money. What pay theme park prices for the same food-court pizza and character T-shirt you can buy at the mall for less?

Instead, spend your money on unique experiences, at restaurants you can't visit anywhere but the park and for souvenirs you won't find anywhere else. Browse Theme Park Insider's park listings for highly-rated restaurants that serve something you don't eat every week. Keep your eyes open for unique souvenirs that you love and can afford with the money you've set aside before you arrived. (As we mentioned in week one, pay for nothing with credit, and you won't be stuck paying for your trip for weeks and years to come.)

Perhaps if more guests insisted on unique food and souvenir items, we'd see less mall fare and more original selections from parks in the future, too.

When you order your food, save money by watching how much you order. Get something from the kids' menu or split an entree with someone else. Go for one unique, filling snack instead of a full meal. (Fish and chips or a turkey leg should easily do for lunch or dinner. Heck, two people could split one of those turkey legs.) Don't get light in the wallet and fat in the waist by ordering full meals for all at every opportunity. Most folks can get by on far less than they eat on a typical theme park visit.

Hitting that water bottle frequently can help. Often, when you body cries for nourishment in the middle of the day, it craves water more than food. Refill your bottle with water at self-serve beverage stations or fountains throughout the park. Staying well hydrated, and well-covered in sunscreen, also will help you avid the heat exhaustion and sunburn that are the top health and safety problem affecting theme park visitors.

Again, it's all about value. When you start to open your wallet inside a theme park, think:

Is this the same thing that I could buy for less outside the park?

Is this worth the money I'm spending, or can I get by with less... or without it?

When you start asking those questions, you'll be thinking before you spend. And that's the best way to save money, inside a theme park or out.

Readers' Opinions

From Darren Fuller on January 15, 2009 at 4:45 PM
Hi...

These are all great tips but i think that (with WDW trips at least) I would rather scrimp and save at home so that i can splurge when at the parks.

I want the expensive snacks, the stupid t-shirt, the snowglobe, some Christmas tree ornaments, another Mickey watch, pins pins and more pins...

afterall, I don't get to go very often so when i am there, i want to whoop it up and i consider excessive shopping to be an integral part of the experience..

I am leaving on Saturday for my first trip to Orlando in 3 years and i can tell you, i am going to break the bank!

..D

From Deidre Dennis on January 15, 2009 at 5:27 PM
I agree. I know we're talking about ways to save money inside the parks, but I really like buying the stuff inside the parks, too. It's all part of the experience, so I don't mind tightening things up before I go so I can splurge later.
From Robert Niles on January 15, 2009 at 6:11 PM
Like, I said, it's all about value. Save your money in advance and spend it on the stuff that you want - stuff that provides a unique, valuable experience for you.

Only you can decide what that is, for you, so you've got to think about it.

From Robert Niles on January 15, 2009 at 6:58 PM
Holiday World just responded on our Theme Park Insider Twitter feed that it doesn't charge for soft drinks, and provides free sunscreen in its waterpark and next to its Indian River ride.

So, score one for bargain hunters who visit Holiday World!

From James Rao on January 15, 2009 at 8:33 PM
The point about searching for unique experiences is a good one. Do your research ahead of time and note a few places you would like to eat, or shops you would like to visit, then figure up how much $$$ you'll need for those places and save your money ahead of time. Then, if possible, save a few extra bucks so you can feel footloose and fancy free when buying that unplanned trinket or snack.

Another thing about a restaurant focused resort like WDW, it is okay to book reservations at a sit down restaurant and just get appetizers or dessert. For example, maybe you just want to try the Cheddar Cheese soup at Le Cellier...well, by all means get a reservation and do just that. Order the soup, pay your bill, then head out and get a less expensive dinner elsewhere. Same thing with desserts. A perfect example is the Sci Fi Dine In Theater restaurant: that place has the worst food in WDW at tremendously high prices, but the atmosphere is outstanding. So, make reservations for dessert but eat your meal somewhere else.

Robert, the one point you made that cannot be stressed enough: share meals! When my family of five stayed at the Royal Pacific Resort at USF, we split dinners at every Citywalk restaurant we attended. For example, NBA City has huge portions, enough to feed 7-foot tall NBA centers. So, we ordered an appetizer, a dinner salad, an entree, and a dessert. It cost about $50 with tax and tip, but was more than enough food for the whole family! If we would have ordered separately the bill would have been over $100 and there would have been a ton of food left on the table. So, share meals! Then when you hit the unique dining experiences, like Mythos or Raglan Road, you have the extra cash to let everyone just go hog wild! (Pun intended).

One side note: I went to Holiday World last year, and in addition to the free soda and free sunscreen, you get free parking! Not to mention you get to ride The Voyage which is quite possibly the best wooden roller coaster in the world!! Kudos to the small parks and their family-oriented ways!!!

From Mark Hollamon on January 16, 2009 at 6:34 AM
Food is part of the vacation experience. Much of the food at Disney is world class and the ambiance of the restaurants is incredible.

I definitely agree to eat lighter overall. When you are on vacation your body is thrown in turmoil because you are out of a normal routine. If you eat heavy, rich meals three times a day you are most likely not going to feel well. THAT would hamper your vacation plans!

Review the park you are going to and make meal plans ahead of time. Make reservations whenever possible. That also saves time and while on vacation time is money! There's nothing worse than bouncing around every country in Epcot looking for a place to eat at lunch and getting turned away several times before finding an opening.

While I agree that you should try to make smart, calculated purchases on things, skimping could end up making for a bad trip and that could be a bigger waste of $ than spending more than you planned for.

For example, much of the "Disney" souvenirs you can purchase outside of the parks in Fl on I-Drive or 192 are knock off junk. Poor quality and in the end probably more of an expense than getting a shirt in the parks.

The one big idea that I embrace here is making sure you are well prepared when you get to the parks. Bring pain relievers, sunscreen,ziplock bags, etc. Go to a local store and buy rain ponchos. They are only a $1 outside the park. I can live with a clear one that doesn't have a Mickey on it! Also, when riding water rides it is a good idea to bring another set of clothes with you. Fast dry shorts are a great thing on a Florida vacation!

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