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Theme Parks on a Budget: Travel Tips and Entertainment Discounts

Published
By Aaron Crowe, dealnews contributor

While we know that loyal dealnews readers are tech aficionados, we discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that many of you also harbor a (secret?) love for Disney World and theme parks. In November, we highlighted deals that helped keep your adult budget in check while letting your inner-child run wild in Orlando, Florida. And since it's about time to plan this season's theme park vacation, we're back with some suggestions on how to make sure that, no matter where you adventure to, your amusement park experience doesn't turn into a roller coaster of debt.

A trip to Walt Disney World or the like can easily become an expensive family vacation if you're not careful. After dishing out what, for a family of four, seems like a down payment on a car to get into the park, there's food, water, snacks, and souvenirs to buy. But even before that for many folks there's airfare, a rental car, gas, and a hotel room stay to account for.

While last-minute travel deals are available, we suggest planning ahead — beyond booking your travel early — to save even more money once you're at Disney World or another theme park.

Season Passes and Promotional Admission

For many theme and water parks, a season pass will pay for itself in two visits. It will take longer to gain the savings of a Disneyland Resort Annual Premium Pass, though. Phoenix attorney (and trusted Disney aficionado) Lindsey Gomez-Gray, 28, purchases the $649 season pass, which pays for itself after three or so visits to Disney, depending on how many days you spend on each vacation. (For comparison, a 3-day Parkhopper pass costs $199.) Plus, it doesn't have any blackout dates, gets her discounts of up to 20% on dining and Disney merchandise in the park, and nabs her free parking.

At Walt Disney World in Florida, a Magic Your Way No Expiration ticket lets you carry over unused days beyond the usual 14-day expiration date, to be put towards future visits. A Magic Your Way ticket admits one person to one park per day. And, according to Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers, if the cost of admission increases between when you bought the no-expiration pass and the time in which you redeem any extra days, you won't be charged an additional fee to cover the difference.

Many parks also run promotional offers through brand associations, membership programs, and through their websites. We frequently see Six Flags 2-for-1 or half-price admission on Coca Cola cans, pictured. There is some fine print to these offers, but if you're able to adhere to it, they can yield double the fun for you and a friend. If you're a military person, or an AARP or AAA member, in addition to the organization's perks, you're also entitled to discounts at a number of amusements parks. While savings vary from park to park, be sure to check your member benefits before paying the standard admission fee. And finally, before you head to the ticket counter to buy your way into a day of rides and revelry, check the park's website for any online promotions or admissions deals; they sometimes offer online-only deals that are worth the trouble of having to print out your tickets at home.

Look for Vacation Deals with Park Perks

If you're traveling far for your amusement park vacation, why not select a travel and hotel package that also offers discounts on park passes? We frequently see discounts on theme park tickets from local hotels, provided you book a minimum number of nights there. Frequently though, these offers require a minimum amount of tickets be bought before the discount applies. For instance, book a 5-night Walt Disney World Resort flight and hotel package, and you'll receive three extra days on your 3-Day Magic Your Way Base or Park Hopper ticket (expires May 31). Sounds like a fun-filled week, right?

A number of hotels near Disneyland (and the like) offer free shuttle services to and from the airport, and more importantly: to and from the parks, which lets you skip parking fees. Disney and Universal Studios themselves offer complimentary shuttle services to their affiliated hotels as a way to sweeten their branded vacation package offers. What's more, at Walt Disney World in particular, once at the park, you just jump on a free shuttle bus and park hop with ease.

And speaking of park perks, wouldn't it be nice to skip the lines at your favorite rides? Disneyland and Walt Disney World offer just that via early admission to guests who stay at their hotels.

Budget Your Brand Spending

We mean this in two ways: opt for cheap souvenirs pre-purchased before your trip and consider investing in a gift card instead of cash. For less expensive souvenirs, Sara Steigerwald, founder of Sisters Shopping on a Shoestring suggests shopping at the Disney Store or at the theme park's online store weeks before your vacation. (You can always trick your kids into thinking you just bought that Mickey doll from a booth around the corner that they can't see.) You'll often find the prices on keepsakes to be much lower than in the park itself.

To keep your cash flow controlled, consider picking up some park-approved vouchers before you let loose. This is a great way to budget your cash; without a definite spending limit, those appealing Mickey Mouse ears and other trinkets can easily drain your wallet.

Bring a Park Pack

Most folks expect to pay higher prices for food, drinks, and souvenirs in theme parks. But you can cut back on these costs considerably by planning ahead. Start by taking advantage of a complimentary breakfast at your hotel. Then try and hit the local corner store for some snacks that'll stand up throughout the day. Pack these in a small bag along with a water bottle and you're half way there. We don't recommend bringing too much stuff, as you'll have to carry it along all day. And since you're on vacation, it's also entirely OK to treat yourself to a hot (or cold) treat during your long, fun-filled day.

But that doesn't have to set you back big bucks, either. You can cut costs here by sharing what are often large portions served at theme park dining establishments. What's more, cut back on calories and cash by ordering a kid's meal. It's the right amount of food for (almost) the right price.

Once you've got the snacking sitch planned out, it's smart to set aside a few essential items you may need in case of emergency. Sara Steigerwald recommends packing Band-Aids, antibiotic cream, pain reliever, sunscreen, chapstick, cheap rain ponchos, and extra batteries for the camera. All of these items, if bought in the park, will cost you.

Disney World, Disneyland, and other theme parks are popular destinations in the summer, where excitement and fun is all the rage. And if you plan carefully, from booking to Vacation, Day 1, you can make visiting a theme park an affordable distraction, too. Start planning your trip by keeping an eye on our daily travel and entertainment deals for special discounts.

Front page photo credit: Fabulous Savings
Photo credits top to bottom: Jaunted, Hub Pages,
The Examiner, Daily Money Shot, and The Eager Camper


Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked as a reporter and an editor for newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter — @AaronCrowe.

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Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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