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Robert Niles
Editor

How to Save Money on a Theme Park Vacation

When planning a theme park vacation, the first question to ask yourself is: When can we go? If you can schedule your vacation during the school year, you can avoid sharing the park with thousands of families with children from around the nation and the world. Not only that, parks that are open during the "off season" typically offer their best deals and discounts during these months, allowing you to save money as well as time in the parks.

Having fun with the kidsHowever, if you are one of those families with children in school, you'll likely be stuck with traveling during those "high season" vacation times, along with everyone else. Don't worry, though. You still can find great value in a theme park vacation.

The best way to get the most value from your vacation to make sure you're visiting the right park. Look around at our theme park guides and find which parks offer the most rides, shows, and other attractions that would appeal to you and your family. Just because a park is wildly popular with millions of other fans does not ensure it will be your family's favorite.

If your family loves roller coasters and thrill rides, you'd do better to consider visiting parks such as Ohio's Cedar Point or California's Six Flags Magic Mountain than following the herd down to Orlando to ride the relatively tame coasters at Walt Disney World. If your kids love Harry Potter, your choice is easy: Universal Orlando Resort, the home of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But if your kids adore Frozen, Toy Story or other Disney franchises, why waste your valuable vacation time and money on a substitute you just won't enjoy as much? Your choice then is whether California's Disneyland or Florida's Walt Disney World offers the better deal for you.

Yes, cost is important. But saving money on the bottom line isn't a value if you end up having a bad time. Focus on getting value for what you spend in order to get the most from your vacation. Here are some specific guides we've written for popular theme park resorts around the world:

No matter where you choose to visit, here are four steps that can save you money on theme park tickets:

  1. Follow your favorite theme parks on social media to learn about special deals, discounts, and exclusive opportunities for fans. Parks these days use their Facebook and Twitter accounts as their main way to promote last-minute deals, vacation packages and insider-access opportunities to their fans. We've complied a list of theme park social media accounts so that you can start following your favorites today.
  2. Plan to buy your tickets in advance. Buying before you get to the park lets you research and shop around for the best deal. It also allows you to skip the lines at the ticket booths when you arrive, so that you can go straight into the park. That means more value, as you can start riding rides while others are waiting to buy tickets!
  3. Some great places to shop around for deals on theme park tickets include: Your local AAA office, your company's HR department (if they sell discount movie tickets, they might have theme park tickets, too!), your credit union, student union, military information, tickets & tours [ITT] office, Costco, and licensed online discounters such as Undercover Tourist. Check the prices you will find from these sources against the prices available on the parks' own websites. [Links below.] You might find a better deal buying directly from the park, either through a website deal or a vacation package. But it never hurts to shop around first.
  4. Whatever you do, never buy tickets from eBay, Craigslist or from someone who has "unused days" on their tickets. Many theme parks use finger scans or photos to link their tickets to individual users. If you buy a ticket from one of these sources, you've got no guarantee that you will be able to use them when you get to the park. In fact, odds are nearly certain that you won't, and you'll be out the money you spent. Always buy unused tickets direct from the park, or from an authorized seller, such as those we listed above.

Consider the value of staying on-site versus the savings by staying farther away. At Walt Disney World, staying at a Disney hotel allows you and your family to use "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. Disney also provides free parking at its hotels and free on-site transportation, which could save you the $17 daily charge to park in the theme park lots.

Disney monorail

At three of Universal Orlando's 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, potentially saving some time each day. However, Universal does charge a daily parking fee for hotel guests, and you'll have to pay to get yourself to and from the airport.

When it's time for your trip, never buy anything you need inside a theme park if you can bring it with you from home or from outside the park. The top causes of first-aid trips in a park are sun and heat, so bring your own sunscreen to protect your family, instead of paying exorbitant prices for it inside the park. (Unless you are visiting Indiana's Holiday World, which is the only park I know of that provides sunscreen for free. Holiday World also offers free parking and unlimited free soft drinks, so it's one of the best values anywhere.) Bring your own water bottles, too, and refill them for free at fountains inside the park to prevent dehydration and save money on drinks. Finally, look for unique food and beverages inside the parks, instead of buying the same old pizza, burgers and chicken fingers you can buy anywhere. And don't forget to split meals or order from the kids' menu. You aren't going to take any leftovers with you when you're at a theme park.

For more advice, please see our Travel Tips page!

Links to theme parks' online tickets