Imagine walking into the corporate headquarters or Disney or Six Flags and telling an executive this: “I am bringing my family to one of your parks for two days and we would like free parking, free sunscreen, and unlimited free sodas all day. And we don’t want to spend more than $250 on admission.”
After the laughter stopped, the next person you meet would probably be a security escort.
Not at Holiday World in little Santa Claus, Ind., though. They really do include all those things in the all-day admission price, which is $40 for adults and $30 for kids. (It’s only $20 each to tack on a second day.)
Meal prices won’t break the bank either after you are inside. “Our meal prices are closer to McDonald’s than Six Flags,” says third-generation owner Will Koch, who was getting ready to go operate one of the rides when I met him last summer. Indeed, a full 1/3-pound burger meal is less than $5. Cotton candy is $1.99 — less than half what it costs at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.
Holiday World is no slouch in the thrills department though, with three award-winning wooden roller coasters including the 65-mph "Legend and the Voyager," which is over a mile long. Your ticket includes the massive water park rides that are worth a day by themselves.
For example, there’s the seven-story "Bakuli," which sends four of you down a seven-story twisty slide and then spits you out into a spiraling bowl with a funnel at the bottom.
You’re more than a number on a spreadsheet
Some of the famous destination parks offer a great experience and it is hard for anyone to do it better than Disney. You’ll pay dearly for that first-class experience, however. A one-day ticket for one of the Disney parks in Orlando lists for more than $75 with tax, while two days will set you back $148. A one-day adult ticket is $60 at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, plus you’ll get pegged for a $15 parking fee before you even get out of the car.
Most of the smaller, family-run regional amusement parks cost far less and many visitors swear they deliver better service and cleanliness as well. (See John Freneye’s article from last summer, .)
While some of these parks may be a little less polished and spectacular, they almost always offer more screams and treats per dollar, especially for young children who are perfectly happy hollering on small rides and holding the reigns of small animals walking around in a circle. With no need to please corporate shareholders with fat profit margins, the local affairs are an especially good bet for families on a budget.
So where do you find these family-run amusement parks?
In most cases, not in the major metropolitan areas. They’re in places like Bessemer, Ala. (); Bowling Green, Kentucky (), Arnold’s Park, Iowa (; Tipton, Pa. (); and Riverside, Calif. ().
Bargain bracelets and discounts
Many of these parks cram a lot into your daily wristband price, which generally ranges from $20 to $40 for a full day. At Beech Bend, for example, a family of four can get unlimited all-day armbands covering the rides, water park, swimming pool, petting zoo, and mini golf for around $90. Plus meals are cheap and there is no charge for inner tubes or sunscreen.
These official prices are before applying any coupons or savings deals, which can be substantial. All of the regional parks offer some kind of season pass deal. If you purchase it early enough in the year, it can often pay for itself after just two days on the rides.
Some partner up with AAA or the Entertainment Book to offer a set discount. Others offer a few dollars off by bringing in a specific soda can, food wrapper, or fast-food chain receipt. Check the official Web site or call the promotions office before arrival to scout out the deals.
With prices this low, you don’t have to worry so much about the rising cost of gasoline. When it’s time to go home, you can leave with the satisfaction that that the gut-wrenching thrill rides you experienced at the parks won’t be followed by a gut-wrenching credit card statement when you get back home.
Tim Leffel is author of the book “” and co-author of “.” He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine .