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How to plan a theme park vacation

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Theme Park Insider editor

Thinking about a theme park vacation with your family? On vacation at Walt Disney WorldThousands of Theme Park Insider readers have been rating and reviewing attractions around the world, while sharing advice for getting the most value for their money. We've summarized the best of their vacation planning advice here, and at the bottom of the page we've collected links to some of the best online sources for discounted theme park tickets.

If you've already got a specific theme park resort in mind, please take a look at some of our trip-planning advice for top theme parks around the world:

Read on for more advice on getting the most value for your money, no matter where to go on vacation.

1. Make a budget

After your vacation, you should have warm memories, not a mailbox of bills. One Theme Park Insider reader developed this great vacation planning spreadsheet [click the link to download it] that he uses to estimate, and then keep track of, all his vacation expenses. Use it, and you won't be surprised by expenses on your trip. Remember, you've got to consider airfare and/or driving expenses, hotels, tickets, food, souvenirs. The list adds up! Which brings us to...

2. Save the money; don't borrow it

The easiest way to save 10-20 percent, or even more, on your family vacation is to pay for it with your own cash, and not borrowing it from the bank through a credit card. (Or even worse, doing something truly foolish like paying for a trip with a home-equity loan.) If you put your vacation expenses on a credit card and leave them there for a year, you'll end up paying not just the cost of the vacation, but 10-20 percent more for the interest charges on that balance, too.

Pay off your vacation when you take it, and you save those extra interest charges. Plus, if you squirrel away your money into an interest-paying account during the year, you can consider the interest you earn a second discount on the cost of your theme park vacation. Charge the trip to a points-paying card, then pay it off immediately with money from an interest-bearing account, and you are three times ahead.

Start by writing down every single thing you spend money on for the next week. Then look at that list and decide what you can cut out and instead put that money toward your vacation: Bringing lunch from home instead of going out? Buying a cheaper cup of coffee in the morning, or brewing it at home? Skipping a couple weekend getaways for a better week-long vacation?

Figure out how much money you can set aside each week to pay for your vacation. Then do it. Transfer it into a savings account and leave it there.

Count your pennies, too. Put a jar on the night-stand and dump your spare change into it every night. Have your kids do the same with their own jars. You might be surprised how much "walking around" souvenir and food money you've saved this way by next summer.

3. Plan when to go

You get the most value out of your theme park ticket when you can use it to ride the most rides and see the most shows. So try to schedule your visit when the park isn't so crowded. Weekdays during the school year are the best. During vacation times, the Orlando-area theme parks tend to be least busy during weekends -- most visitors travel on those days. But in California, Disneyland is busiest on days when discount annual passholders are not blocked out, especially Sundays. (Check Disneyland's annual passholder website for its blockout calendar.)

Whenever you go, arrive at the park before it opens in the morning, to get on as many attractions as you can before lines build up for the day.

4. Consider on-site hotel benefits

You can get extra value from an Orlando theme park vacation by staying at one of Walt Disney World's or Universal Orlando's on-site hotels. You'll pay more per night, so weigh the advantages against the extra cost. At Disney World, you get "Disney's Magical Express," a free (okay, to be more accurate, we'll say "no extra charge") bus service to and from the Orlando International Airport to your hotel. They'll get your bags from the airline (and check them in at the hotel on your return).

People staying at Walt Disney World's hotels also get "Extra Magic Hours," no-extra-charge admission to extended hours at one theme park each day, open only to other Disney hotel guests. This is a great way to ride extra rides with much shorter waits.

At Universal Orlando's three on-site hotels, guests get an even better perk -- they can skip the line at almost all of the attractions in the Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure theme parks. Universal's hotels also are located within walking distance of the two theme parks, unlike at Disney World, where you'll have to ride a bus (or boat or monorail) to get to the parks.

5. Plan ahead to save money inside the park

The golden rule of saving on a vacation: 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 or a nearby grocery for a fraction of the cost you'd pay inside the park. So do. Bring a stash of waterproof, re-sealable 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.

When you order food inside a theme park, save money by watching how much you order. Don't get light in the wallet and fat in the waist by ordering full meals for all at every opportunity. Get something from the kids' menu or split an entree with someone else. Or 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 theme park turkey legs.)

Give your kids an allowance (or, better yet, make them earn it) before you go, so they can spend their own money on souvenirs, instead of begging you inside the park. And don't forget that you can find free souvenirs inside the parks, too.

Finally, when you do buy souvenirs, either buy them at the end of the day, or use the free package check service that many parks offer so you don't have to carry your packages around the park all day. Ask about package check before you buy.

6. Consider an annual pass

If you'll be visiting a theme park for more than one day this year, you might be better off buying an annual pass than several single-day tickets.

Remember that a Six Flags annual pass is good at all Six Flags parks across the country, too. The SeaWorld/Busch Gardens chain and the Cedar Fair chain (including Knott's Berry Farm, Kings Island and several other parks) also sell platinum-level annual passes that are good at the other parks in those chains. Keep those in mind if you'll be traveling to several parks on your family vacation.

Even if you're going to just one park or resort, an annual pass might make sense. Compare the cost of the pass to how many single-day tickets you want to buy and go for the better deal. Keep in mind that most annual passes include in-park discounts on food and souvenirs, as well as free or reduced-price parking. (Parking can cost more than $10 a day at most theme parks.)

At Walt Disney World, you can save on future visits even if you don't get an annual pass by buying the no-expiration option on your "Magic Your Way" tickets and buying extra days now. (You'll have to call Disney to get this -- you can't buy it on the website anymore.) Buying "no expire" tickets gets you up to 10 days of visits that you can use in the future, at today's prices. (Disney raises its ticket prices at least once every year.) Don't add Disney World's "park hopper" option, though, unless you are a Disney World veteran who knows how to use the transportation system well to get the most out of jumping from park to park during the day. One park a day is about all Disney World rookies can handle. :-)

7. Buy tickets in advance, online

Waiting for tickets, at the gate Whatever you do, please don't wait until you arrive and buy your theme park tickets at the park's front gate. That's the surest way to ensure that you miss the best deal on your theme park tickets -- not to mention costing you valuable time early in your visit that you could spend riding rides when their wait times are shortest.

Also, do not buy tickets on Craigslist or eBay. And don't buy unused ticket days from any source. Disney and Universal use finger scans and photos to identify people who use their tickets, and tickets are not transferrable. If you buy unused ticket days from someone else, you won't be able to use the tickets and you'll be out the money. Here are several reputable and official online sources for theme park tickets, deals and discounts:

Central Florida:

Southern California:

Many parks also offer even better discounts -- or even free tickets -- for active and retired military members and their families. Be sure to check your local ITT/Tickets & Tours office, or visit the ticket office at the Shades of Green resort at Walt Disney World for Florida-based theme parks.

For more advice:

Visit our Travel tips for visiting theme parks and our How to stay safe at a theme park pages.

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How to save money on a Disney World trip

Saving money at Disney World

Insider's Pick: You can afford that Walt Disney World family vacation of your dreams. Get started with 102 Ways to Save Money For and At Walt Disney World, a great guide to planning an affordable trip to the Vacation Capital of the World. Why wait? The sooner you start saving, the sooner you and your family will be enjoying your vacation!

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