How much money do you budget for theme park vacations?

August 4, 2018, 2:08 PM · Let's talk about budgets for family vacations. It doesn't cost anything to dream about various destinations around the world, but when it comes time to turn your travel dreams into real vacations, a plan has to fit into your budget.

Many of us have learned how to get the most for what we spend on theme park trips. We price ticket options, including seasonal and annual passes. We might use airline and credit card rewards and gift card discounts to save money. We look for times of year when destinations might be offering lower rooms rates, ticket discounts, and perks such as free dining plans.

But ultimately, you have to pay something for your theme park trip, no matter how many deals or discounts you can find. That's when it's time to set the budget.

Some of us set aside money every week or month to pay for future vacations. Others are willing to charge up to their credit limit. (Please... don't do that!) How much are you willing to pay for theme park trips and travel in a typical year?

Do you stick with day trips to nearby parks, or do you save and splurge for week-long vacations across the country... or maybe even around the world? Or do you mix it up, staying close to home in some years and venturing farther away in others?

Given that Theme Park Insider tends to attract people who are fans of multiple parks and brands, I suspect that people around here are more likely than not to mix things up and visit a variety of destinations, from Disneyland and Walt Disney World to Universal Orlando and parks in Tokyo, Paris, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. But I could be wrong (and often am!), so you tell me.

Instead of dealing in hypotheticals, let's ground this in some real data. Let's just look at what you and your family did over the past 12 months. How much did you spend on theme park tickets, meals, and souvenirs? If you traveled to the parks, how much did you spend on flights, cars, and gas? On hotels? Add it all up and give us a number. (Or, at least your best estimate.)

How did that spending over the past 12 months compare with the amount that you had intended or wanted to spend?

What are your best tips and tricks to afford a better theme park vacation? And what bad advice is out there that you'd like to keep people from following? We would love to hear from you in the comments.

Replies (18)

August 4, 2018 at 2:29 PM

We don't travel yearly. It has been 6 years since we were last at WDW and that was our last major vacation of any kind. So this October, we are returning thanks to points earned on our Disney Visa. We have been saving points for 6 years and have enough to cover about 95% of the entire trip which isn't bad at all (6 day Coronado Springs & mid dining plan included). Out of pocket is transportation and that's about it.

To make points add up quicker, we use this Visa for literally everything we possibly can. So that's always our tip for knocking a major chunk off the grand total. Only problem is, it takes awhile depending on the level of vacation you plan to have.

August 4, 2018 at 4:14 PM

I've been able to spend less than $2000 for a week vacation visiting multiple theme parks. That includes round trip flights, hotel stay and car rental. I did six flag adventures, Hershey, holiday world, kings island and cedar point in a 10 day trip. The key is booking everything ealry in late May, buy a season pass, keep an eye out for deals, stick with one hotel chain to stack up on the points and AAA or Costco for the car renatal. I think with gas and food my trip was like $2250.00. In Ca I have a six flag and cedar fair so buying thier top tier access to free parking and all thier parks really makes a difference.

August 4, 2018 at 7:24 PM

I was at the top end of the budgets listed, bearing in mind that flights from Australia to LA for our family of 4 come to $4400 (and those are good prices). Once you add multi day tickets and accommodation this easily tops $10k (in Australian dollars - probably US $7k).

But ours is a once every few year trip and for the distance travelled its got to be something special, particularly with kids in tow now.

August 5, 2018 at 1:03 AM

Let's the past 12 months, I've done three theme park oriented trips:

-Fall 2017 Florida Trip - $2,000-2,500
-Spring 2018 Virginia Trip - $500-1,000
-Summer 2018 Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour (BTW, next trip report installment coming tomorrow) - $2,000-2,500

So I'd say I probably spent $5,000-$6,000 on theme park traveling in the last 12 months. Granted, that's a bit on the higher end for me...I usually try to keep it under $4,000 per year, which is sufficient for one larger trip and a couple smaller weekend trips.

August 6, 2018 at 2:51 PM

As an annual visitor from the UK to Orlando for the last 16 consecutive years I get asked regularly by my British friends and counterparts what my advice is for those coming over, especially for the first time. There is obviously no set answer as people's budgets, preferences and "must dos" alter but standard responses from me are usually:

1.You are likely coming over for 14 nights, therefore, pick Disney or Universal and SeaWorld. You can't do everything in one go so leave another vacation's worth so that you have a mouth-watering goal to return.

2. Stay off-property as it will at least double your budget if you stay at a Disney or Universal hotel for 2 weeks.

3. If staying "off-property" make allowances for parking at the parks. This has become an expensive "add-on" and there is absolutely no justification in the annual rises other than pure exploitation.

4. Make allowances for food. If "room only", 3 meals p/day p/person for 2 weeks will literally "eat" in to your budget. Plan this expenditure in detail as an integral part of your budgetary planning. It will be a hefty bill.

5. Self-catering in a villa or condo is a great way to have increased freedom but also significantly keep eating costs down.

6. From the UK, don't get fooled by a "free car". No such thing. The insurance for a basic full-sized sedan is now ~£550 for 2 weeks with all of the airport rental companies, even when booked in advance. This is another significant, hidden cost.

7. Avoid July and August. Difficult for some as they have to go during the school holidays but July & August will increase your basic flight/accommodation by at least 30%, everywhere will be at capacity and the temperatures will be 90+. Try to go "out of season" although is there really an "out of season" these days? The I-4 would suggest not. My preference for cost, temperature and daytime crowds is October and November but that is assisted by my love for HHN and Mrs Plum's love for MVMCP.

So a typical cost for Mrs Plum and myself for 2 weeks, Oct/Nov, self-catering in a 4* resort on US27 with a full-sized sedan or SUV with park tickets (Disney or Universal/SeaWorld plus Halloween or Christmas) plus misc spending is around £5500 for 2 adults or $7150. From this you will deduce that for a family of 4 (2 kids) it will be around $10,000.

August 5, 2018 at 7:19 AM

Maybe like ~ 2000$ but it depends. Anyway i can use some services like this if something goes wrong with my cash :)

August 5, 2018 at 7:35 AM

We spent like a hundred bucks at DSTP yesterday.

August 5, 2018 at 11:27 AM

I'm not one of those people who would ever spend their entire vacation at a theme park resort. But even a couple of days at Disneyland we'll spend at the very least a grand , san gas, park tickets and hotel room.

August 5, 2018 at 11:34 AM

For us it depends on where we go. Outside a regular vacation we usually go to Universal Hollywood a few times a year, especially for Halloween Horror Nights. Its about a 2.5 hour flight from here at about $500 total for 2 people roundtrip. On site hotel runs about $900. Rental car about $150. We but an annual pass as it pays for itself after 2 visits. In all with food its about $2,000. For Orlando its closer to $5,000 but we typically stay on site at either Disney or Universal for 10 nights, do Seaworld, Busch Gardens and any others while there. We save money each month, not just for vacations but also emergencies. Using the Costco anytime Visa for all purchases we get about $1500 in cash back every year which typically goes towards vacations. Prepaying as much of our trips upfront seems to keep us from spending as much as we think we ultimately will and we end up returning home with quite a bit of money, which goes towards the next trip.

August 6, 2018 at 5:18 AM

As a DVC owner and Whydham owner it's so easy to spend too much money. We go to WDW 4 or 5 times a year and it would be impossible to spend less than $10,000.00 a year for themepark trips. We also have Diamond Elite memberships at Six Flags so our annual ticket charge alone is over $2,000.00. Then add in the maintenance fees for the DVC and Wyndham timeshares and it's another $4,000.00 plus for lodging. Of course we have to fly to Orlando 4 or 5 times a year so that adds a couple thousand more and then we have to eat and buy souvenirs. Add in another short trip to Hershey each year and one to Dollywood and travel costs and its it well over $10,000.00 without food or souvenirs. Sometimes when I look at what we actually spend I wonder if it is actually worth it but then I realize how much fun we have at WDW I know I will never stop.

August 6, 2018 at 12:01 PM

Our family of 3 tends to spend about the same amount every year (increasing slightly as my son costs more and more to travel), but in years that we visit Disney parks we spend a little more. We have the luxury of having a decent income (for where we live), and have ample savings to afford spur of the moment decisions while still carefully planning budget-level trips. September 2017 through now included 2 trips to Orlando, so naturally our theme park spending over the past year was a bit higher than normal. Similarly, we are likely going to SoCal next August, so our theme park spend for next year will be a little higher than in a "normal" year. Let's see what we spent...

Tampa/Orlando October 2017 (11 days) - @$2,500 - This is a pretty typical spend for our 10-12 day Florida trips, which by the nature of going during the fall includes a number of upcharges for the seasonal events (HHN, MNSSHP, and EPCOT F&W). We always try to leverage our Busch Gardens platinum passes, which include admissions to Sea World, Aquatica (didn't visit on this trip), and Busch Gardens Tampa. We also drive down (12 hours overnight) to reduce the overall travel costs. We used to almost always stay at a Disney resort to take advantage of the free fall DDP promotions, but as Disney has tightened the restrictions, we stayed off-site this most recent trip (we did stay at Royal Pacific for a couple of nights though). However, by moving off-site, and not having to purchase a full vacation package to qualify for the free DDP (buying tickets), we were able to use our long-ago purchased non-expiring WDW Park Hoppers, and only needed to purchase WDW admission for our son.

UO June 2018 (4 days) - @$400 - This was a comp. trip we won from a contest that we would not have taken had it not been free. It included airfare, lodging at Portofino Bay, park admissions, and Blue Man Group tix. We ended up splurging for a nice meal at Bice and a few other things we might not have bought had we been paying for the trip on our own dime.

Minneapolis July 2018 (6 days) - $1,500 - We stayed at a reasonably priced hotel in the suburbs (<$100/night), and bought our airline tickets far in advance. We also leveraged our Cedar Fair passes, and some all-day wristbands to Nickelodeon Universe we had received a number of years ago. This trip also included a number of non-theme park costs included in the budget.

Cedar Point August 2018 (3 days) - $200 - This is an annual trip for us aligned with a family reunion and the Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Canton, OH. We do typically spend a couple of nights in a hotel in addition to a night at a relative's house, but we leverage our CF passes and make this a driving trip to reduce the overall costs.

Local trips and park passes (typically 15-20 days per years spread across the 3 park chains) - @$1,500 - We have annual passes for Six Flags America, including one season dining plan, Platinum Passes for Kings Dominion (Cedar Fair), and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Throw in some incidentals here and there along with typical travel costs, and we usually fall in this range every single year. We also occasionally will do a 2-day trip down to Williamsburg and/or Six Flags Great Adventure/Dorney Park that includes a 1-night hotel stay.

So over the past year that adds up to @$6,100 (over 40 theme park days), which is higher than we would normally spend in a year that didn't include a Disney trip. I'm guessing that we'll probably fall in the same range next year with a SoCal trip likely running in the $3-4k range, but no other major theme park trips planned aside from perhaps a 5-day Southeastern trip (I keep telling my wife we're going to make it to Dollywood, Carowinds, and SFoG, but it never fits into our busy summer schedule), or maybe an extended trip to Ohio to include Kings Island and Kennywood. As much as we spend for theme park vacations though, I could never see us spending over $10k in a single year, which I know many people invested in DVC commonly do. That's why the timeshare has never been a good value for us despite our frequent (but not annual) visits to WDW and DL/DCA.

August 6, 2018 at 12:15 PM

This year I spent significantly more than usual on trips to theme parks. I've thus far visited Six Flags Great Adventure, Kings Dominion, Kings Island, Silver Dollar City, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Dorney and Cedar Point - and have trips to Carowinds, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Six Flags New England coming up. It would be considerably less expensive if I had the nerve to drive by myself from PA to Virginia or Ohio, as this is easily doable. (The only parks to which I feel comfortable driving from Philly are Great Adventure, Hersheypark and Dorney.) I do try to fly as cheaply as possible, even when it involves visiting a park at a time I'd rather not visit. For instance, I'll be flying to San Antonio in late August, when it will be ungodly hot, because the only dates for which I could get nonstop flights at a good price - $223 inclusive on Frontier - fall within that range. At least I do have season passes to both Cedar Fair and Six Flags so that helps to offset the cost to some extent. And I go to Six Flags New England by train so that too is a help.

Sometimes paying a high airfare is absolutely unavoidable unless one is willing to fly to an airport several hours away from a destination and drive there. Springfield/Branson is one of the most expensive airports to which to fly from Philly; it actually cost me less to fly to London than it cost to fly to Missouri. This makes no sense whatsoever and I haven't been able to pinpoint why the fare is so high; maybe the demand for flights to SGF is so low that the airlines raise the price to compensate.

One thing I always look forward to without feeling guilty is a trip to Six Flags Over Texas for Holiday in the Park. Historically, the cost of flying from PHL to DFW on Spirit has been more than reasonable so unless there's been a change since last year I'm going back. The problem with airlines such as Frontier and Spirit, however, is that they tend not to fly to many of my preferred destinations or they fly there but it involves a one-day layover or similar inconvenience.

August 6, 2018 at 12:46 PM

I've been casually looking at traveling to Branson for years, and even from DC it's a costly flight. Branson is just an expensive city to fly to, probably because of the limited flight schedule at that small airport. I've found it's much cheaper to fly to either St. Louis or Kansas City and then drive, but from either city it's over 3 hours, which is probably a non-starter for you Bobbie. Getting to Dollywood is probably a similarly expensive proposition for someone like you that has a limited driving range (we're a 7-hour drive away, so we've hopped in the car on previous trips) since the closest major airport is either Nashville, Atlanta, or Charlotte, with all of those cities requiring a 2-3 hour drive to the resort areas.

As we start running out of attractions to visit near major cities, we're finding that we either need to spend a lot more on airfare to get to lesser cities or be willing to drive 3 or more hours from a major airport.

August 6, 2018 at 3:56 PM

We've got Branson BKG and Springfield/Branson SGF; the problem with BKG is that hardly any carriers fly there; Southwest used to and that's how I got to SDC the 1st time but the route was discontinued. (Frontier flies there in the summer but the flight from Philly takes 1 day and 2 hours, I kid you not.) That leaves SGF, which is shockingly expensive. You're right, Russell; for me flying to St. Louis or Kansas City - I've thought about it - is a non-starter.

As to Dollywood, the closest airport by far is Knoxville, an hour away, but again, flights into Knoxville tend to be on the expensive side. I drove from there to Dollywood on my 1st visit but will never do so again b/c on the way from Pigeon Forge back to Knoxville I got into a traffic accident and the driver of the other vehicle harassed me for months afterwards, making repeated threatening phone calls. That shook me up so much that I decided never again to drive in Tennessee. When I went there for Lightning Rod last year I got Uber to pick me up at the airport.

August 7, 2018 at 2:01 PM

We've been visiting WDW almost every year since 1998, and we've been able to save quite a bit of money over the last several of years. We bought a couple of non-expiring 10-packs of tickets for a family of 4 from Undercover Tourist years ago, and we've been using credit cards that convert points to airline miles, so we've had to pay only the 9/11 fee lately. Since last year, we've been taking advantage of the late summer room discount, and also get our on-property room (Value Resort) through Undercover Tourist. Since our boys count as adults, the Dining Plan hasn't worked for us for the last 5 years. We also share meals or order kids' meals when we can.

August 7, 2018 at 2:22 PM

We´ve been visiting Disney twice a year while slowly eating away at my bank savings. Not sure what I´m going to do when I finish my savings.

August 7, 2018 at 2:54 PM

Like other people, we are long time yearly visitors to Orlando. As we live in Canada and still work, we generally try and take three weeks off right after American Thanksgiving. With our weak Canadian dollar we have had to become thrifty in how we spend our money.

When considering the conversion, we can travel, stay, play and eat for approximately $3500 - $4500 Canadian.

We use our airline credit card to accumulate dollars and yearly companion fares. This drastically cuts down on the cost of airline tickets.

I must admit I spend a lot of time watching car rentals so that we can get a decent rate.

We have a timeshare, so we tend to purchase getaway weeks which are a great way to save, especially during the "off" season (though we are now finding that there seems to be no such thing). It allows us to be near the parks, but have the ability to purchase food and primarily eat at the timeshare condo.

While we could we had purchased non-expiry WDW tickets. We generally only use one to two days per visit. So that has turned out to be a fantastic savings.

We have found for Universal that it is cheaper to purchase annual passes.

When we spend a full day at the park, we do bring a lunch to save on costs.

Florida has a lot of things to see and do. So we always try and take in and do other things that do not necessary cost money.

August 8, 2018 at 8:32 AM

I second Sarah Warner on the use of Disney Visa if Disney is your usual destination. I've used the rewards on park tickets, special events tickets, room deposits, food, and souvenirs. The earnings rate could always be better but its seems to add up nicely at the right time.

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