Visiting an amusement park for the day with a family of four can add up. But there are ways to cut costs, from discounts on admission to strategies for keeping food spending down.
Look for Internet specials and coupons in newspapers, on products, and at gas stations and fast food chains. Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., gives $10 off admission if you buy your ticket online, and coupons printed on Coke cans give two-for-one weekday admission to the park or $15 off weekend tickets.
"Also if you plan to visit more than once, a season pass pays for itself in less than two visits," says Six Flags Great Adventure spokesman Angel Aristone. That's true of season passes at some other parks as well.
If you live near a small regional park or old-fashioned seaside park, these can be considerably cheaper than big theme parks, with much shorter lines. Instead of charging a per-person fee at the gate, parks like those in New York's Coney Island, Old Orchard Beach in Maine, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California allow you to buy tickets for individual rides, with options for discount ticket packages or unlimited-ride wristbands.
You could hit the Cyclone coaster at Coney Island for $8 and the nearby Wonder Wheel for $6, and spend the rest of the day at the beach for free. At Santa Cruz and Old Orchard, all the rides are under $5.
Some parks have discounts for locals. For Southern California residents, the Summer Fun Pass at Disneyland offers three days admission for $99 between June 1-Aug. 23.
Your employer may also have a corporate discount rate for local parks.
AAA offers many theme park and attraction discounts and benefits when tickets are purchased in advance through AAA. Details at http://www.aaa.com/save. One example for Orlando: Purchase an adult and child (ages 3-9) attraction ticket combination for two days or longer at Disney, Universal or SeaWorld and get a "Kids Eat Free" card good that allows kids 3-9 to dine free at over 100 restaurants in the Orlando area when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal. The offer is good through June 30.
David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, says you might even call the park to ask about deals if you don't see one on the Web site. "Most attractions will help you find the best deals available if you just ask," he said.
The day and time you visit affects prices too. Some parks charge less if you arrive in the late afternoon, and often they are open in summer and on weekends until 10 p.m. or later — perfect for teenagers. Nighttime visits also may mean fewer crowds, cooler temperatures and no sunburn.
Mandt says if you do pay full price late in the day, "some attractions will give you the next day free. Many attractions offer discounted tickets if you plan a multi-day visit."
He also recommends looking for packages: "Some attractions offer discounts if accommodations and admission tickets are purchased at the same time."
Disney parks in Florida and California offer free one-day admission this year if you visit on your birthday, along with other package deals. For example, at Disneyland in Anaheim, you get two nights free when you buy three nights at a Disneyland Resort hotel or a nearby Good Neighbor Hotel. The package includes park-hopper tickets.
You can also save on food if the park allows picnicking and you bring your own drinks and sandwiches. Otherwise, consider the park's food deals: "Some attractions offer all-day, all-you-can-eat buffets while others offer meal plans that provide discounts or special perks for an extended stay," Mandt said.
It's also cheaper to spring for a big $10 souvenir plastic cup with unlimited refills — especially if more than one person can drink out of it — than to buy $3.99 sodas for each thirsty kid four times on a hot day. Some parks let you bring souvenir cups back for refills on your next visit, too. Or bring a water bottle to refill from drinking fountains.
Individually priced games and attractions inside the park add up. If you're on a tight budget, be firm with the kids: No souvenirs, no games or arcades, no add-on experiences like the $10 Bungee jump. Tell your kids beforehand that you want to splurge on a day at the park, but you can only afford it if they promise not to ask for extras. This will cut down on whining as well as expenses.