Whether you’re a roller coaster enthusiast, prefer the tame rides or go just for the shows, spending a day, or several, at a theme park may sound like a blast—until you realize the hefty price tag. Entrance fees, tasty treats and extras such as passes that allow you to scoot to the front of the line can wreak havoc on even the most budget-conscious visitor. Yet shrewd planning—well before the trip begins—is the magic behind returning home in the black. Here's how to find discounts at your favorite theme parks so you don’t have to break open the piggy bank.
Park admission savings
Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND Florida/Merlin Entertainments Group, © 2013 Chip Litherland Photography
No matter what theme park you’re visiting, purchasing admission tickets at the park’s online site—especially preseason—can be significantly cheaper than buying at the park’s gate. One caveat to that rule: Some parks give admission discounts for entrance in the late afternoon.
To watch for special promotions and last-minute discounts, sign up for your favorite park’s enewsletter at its website and follow the relevant Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Also bookmark sites that offer advice and information on deals and discounts for your park of choice. Search NEA Discount Marketplace to find discounts and earn cash back when you purchase tickets to parks such as Busch Gardens, Great Wolf Lodge, Sesame Place and more. MouseSavers details Disney deals, but has hints for Universal Orlando too. ThemeParkInsider.com, Groupon and Undercover Tourist all offer ways to save on park admission tickets.
Often in-state residents—or people living in specific ZIP codes—can purchase discounted admission tickets. Some in your party may qualify for a senior citizen or junior pass (when a child is under certain age/height requirements). Be prepared to show ID to verify residency or age. Also, most parks give admission discounts to active and retired military and veterans with a valid military ID. (Visit Military.com for parks across the U.S. and MilitaryDisneyTips for Florida parks.)
Consider investing in a season/annual pass if you’re visiting more than once. Free parking and food discounts are often rolled into the annual pass price.
Certain memberships equal park savings. Costco members will find savings not only on park admission, but also on hotels connected to (and near) the park, gas prices and food (18-inch $10 pizza-to-go, water, fresh fruit, etc. for the hotel room).
Choose the right hotel
Do the hotel math to find the right overnight accommodations. Park hotels offer perks such as early admission, cut-to-the-front-of-the-line passes (often called a Fast or Express Pass) and water-taxi rides or bus shuttles to the park. Many non-park hotels offer breakfast, a shuttle to the park, a kitchenette (sometimes) and parking—all complimentary. Check NEA Travel for deals on hotels nearby.
Save on food
Buy groceries before arriving at the park and picnic in the car before or after the crowd eats at noon. That way, you can enjoy less crowded rides and attractions while everyone else is eating their lunch. If you dine in the park, save by ordering from the child’s menu or split an entrée with a travel companion. Purchase Restaurant.com gift certificates for local restaurants or check out Groupon for restaurant discounts. Check for Restaurant.com certificates through NEA Discount Marketplace. You may also be able to earn cash back when purchasing them.
Tips for five top parks
Are you ready to plan your theme park getaway? Here are some specific tips to save big on these five parks:
1. Universal Orlando (Orlando, Florida): Universal Orlando is actually two amusement parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure connected by Hogwarts Express. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter boasts high-immersion rides in both parks requiring a pass for each.
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort. © 2016 All rights reserved
How to save: Lines are long, but if you have older children, consider using single rider lines and skip buying a Universal Express Pass. Universal’s three luxury hotels deliver a Universal Express Pass for each day you stay, water-taxi or shuttle bus transport to the park and one-hour early entrance. (Cabana Bay and Sapphire Falls give everything, except Express Passes.) Universal’s value dining plan includes one meal, one snack and unlimited soda for $29.99.
2. Sesame Place (Langhorne, Pennsylvania): Sesame Place—created for kids ages 2 to 9—has more than a dozen dry rides, nine water rides, shows and parades. Children delight in meeting Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Elmo and friends. The park operates late April through Halloween’s Spooktacular and reopens in December for A Very Furry Christmas.
How to save: Score great savings by purchasing your tickets preseason. Sign up before October for a free annual teacher’s pass that’s good for the following year. (The teacher's pass is only valid for educators from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.)
3. Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park, California): In 1920, the Knott family developed a berry farm. Today, Knott’s Berry Farm boasts more than 40 rides that include scream-machines and family rides. Fast Lane passes allow priority boarding on many rides. Knott’s Soak City, an elaborate water park, sits next door.
Photo courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm
How to save: Knott’s deals abound, so expect to pay about $45; start at Knotts.com. Also try Daytrippen for discounted park admission.
4. Legoland Florida (Winter Haven, Florida): An easy one-hour drive from Orlando, Legoland is located in Winter Haven and offers dozens of rides for kids ages 2 to 13. The water park is large with a wave pool, lazy river and slides. For those on the west coast, you can receive the same deal at Legoland in Carlsbad, California.
How to save: Bringing your own meals in is allowed.
5. Kings Island (Mason, Ohio): Kings Island bills itself as “the largest amusement and water park in the Midwest,” boasting 16 roller coasters/thrill rides, a water park and the “world’s largest animatronic dinosaur park” sprawling over 364 family-friendly acres.
Photo courtesy of Kings Island
How to Save: Purchase tickets at Visit Kings Island or at Kroger supermarkets to save off gate prices. Afternoon price drops at 5 p.m. The All-Day Dining Plan is $30 and assures a meal every 90 minutes (offering food such as pizza, burgers, Panda Express and Subway.) Valid until October 27, 2019, except WinterFest. Learn from other amusement park enthusiasts at Kings Island fan forums, KICentral.