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 be tough 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
No matter what theme park you’re visiting, purchasing admission tickets directly at the park’s website—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 e-newsletter 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. 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 plan to visit more than once. Free parking and food discounts are often rolled into the annual pass price. Don't forget to see what kind of theme park admission deals you can find through the NEA Discount Tickets Program.
Save with membership perks
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). Get a special $30 shop card if you join Costco through NEA Member Benefits.
Get extras when you book 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 money on your meals
Buy groceries before arriving at the park and picnic in the car before or after the crowd eats at noon. (Again, use your Costco membership via NEA Member Benefits for snacks and drinks). 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 discounted Restaurant.com gift certificates through NEA Discount Marketplace for local restaurants. Groupon might be another good resource for discounts at local restaurants. Both Restaurant.com and Groupon are available at NEA Discount Marketplace.
Tips to save money at 6 exciting theme parks
Are you ready to plan your theme park getaway? Here are some specific tips to save big on these six parks:
1. Universal Orlando (Orlando, Florida)
Universal Orlando is actually three amusement parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, which are connected by the Hogwarts Express train, and Volcano Bay, a water park. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter boasts high-immersion rides in both parks, requiring a pass for each. Due to reduced admission because of COVID-19, the parks may reach capacity quickly, especially during weekends, holidays and school breaks. This means ticket sales and entry may be extremely limited or unavailable for certain time periods so check the app or call the capacity hotline.
How to save: Before booking your vacation, check the deals page on the Universal Orlando website for discounted packages. And this spring a new hotel opened with special introductory rates, so visit the Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites’ website to check prices. 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, Aventura and Sapphire Falls give everything, except Express Passes.) Florida residents can also get special hotel pricing. Universal’s Quick Service Dining Plan includes one quick-service meal (an entrée and one non-alcoholic beverage), one snack and one additional non-alcoholic beverage for $25.99 per adult and $17.99 per child ages 3 to 9 (plus tax) per day. Children must order off the kids’ menu.
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 is open most every day in summer through Labor Day. October through December it returns to weekends only except during Winter Break. Visitors must first purchase tickets or season passes and then reserve a day to visit.
How to save: Score great savings by purchasing your tickets preseason and by purchasing date-specific tickets for specific discounted dates. Sign up before November for a free annual teacher’s pass that’s good for the following year. (The teacher's pass is only valid for K-12 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. While the park was closed for most of 2020 due to COVID-19, it plans to reopen in May for the 2021 season. Season passes already purchased will be valid for the remainder of 2021, plus a day-for-day extension in 2022 for the number of days the park was closed in 2021.
How to save: Knott’s deals abound, so expect to pay about $45; start at Knotts.com. AAA members can get up to 30% off admission and the park offers a military discount. Also try Daytrippen and Undercover Tourist 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 more than 50 rides and live shows for kids ages 2 to 13. Miniland USA is a favorite attraction where visitors can see their favorite cities built out of lego bricks—there are more than 32 million of them in this area. The water park is large with a wave pool, lazy river and slides. Coming in 2022 is a Peppa Pig Theme Park inside Legoland Florida.
How to save: Bringing your own meals in is allowed, which can help you save a bundle.
5. Legoland New York (Goshen, New York)
Opening in summer 2021 (exact date TBD), Legoland is heading to an idyllic spot 60 miles north of New York City for its first all-new park and resort in 10 years. The new park will feature seven different themed lands and offer never-before-seen rides and experiences, including the global debut of the Lego Factory Adventure Ride. Construction is also underway for Legoland Hotel, the first and only Lego themed hotel in the Northeast, with themed rooms like Pirate, Kingdom, Lego Friends and Lego® NINJAGO®.
How to save: Save 10% on online ticket purchases. Sign up for Legoland New York’s newsletter to be the first to hear about opening dates and possible grand opening deals. (Note that outside food is not allowed in the New York park.)
6. 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.
How to save: Purchase tickets at Visit Kings Island (beware of a $6.99 processing fee though) or at some local Kroger supermarkets and Meijer stores to save off gate prices (there is also a military discount offered online). Sometimes aRes Travel offers cheaper tickets as well.
The All-Day Dining Plan is $31.99 and assures a meal (an entrée and side) every 90 minutes (offering food such as pizza, burgers, Panda Express and Subway.) Note that it is not valid during WinterFest. Learn from other amusement park enthusiasts at Kings Island fan forums, KICentral.