Theme Parks on the Cheap

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Boys standing in front of Legoland.

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This past week our family ventured into the world of theme parks. While our oldest is almost twelve years old, we had been waiting for the “right” time. In different seasons “the right time” has been defined as

  • when we lived close to one we wanted to visit.
  • when the kids were old enough to enjoy it.
  • when we could afford it.

Well, since moving back to California, we live within a short driving distance of Magic Mountain, Disneyland, and Legoland. While our baby and toddler girls still sit on the bench with me, the FishBoys are now of a collective age where they can really enjoy a day at an amusement park. In fact, a couple of them are old enough — and tall enough — to be able to have the run of the rides.

Now, that last criteria? Well, that’s a little tricky. Do you know how much theme parks cost these days??! My question is who can afford it?

A one-day pass to Disneyland is $59 for those under 10, $69 for 10 and above. Ouch! Double ouch if you have many children.

So, how did we handle a theme park on the cheap?

A group of people walking in Legoland.

1. We waited for a discount. These are available if you are patient and keep your eyes open. Businesses are often able to acquire discount tickets for their employees. Ask your employer if this is the case. Check different clubs and associations that you belong to, such as AAA. Military often are eligible for discounts as well. Local residents are also allowed discount admission. Ask around and find out what’s available to you.

In our case, Legoland sponsors a homeschool day on Mondays during the off-peak season. We paid $17 per admission after having registered in advance online for their homeschool programs. This special day includes six classes to choose from that teach science and engineering through the use of Legos.

2. We went early and stayed late. Part of being frugal is getting the biggest bang for your buck. So, make the most of the time available. Go during the off season when crowds won’t keep you from enjoying the attractions. If your kids can handle it, prepare to be there all day, so that you can enjoy it at your leisure.

Kids on ride at Legoland.

We didn’t want to feel rushed to do it all, but we wanted to “get our money’s worth.” We arrived about five minutes after the park opened. (We would have been there earlier but my sweet husband knew that I hadn’t had my coffee yet, so in order to protect us all from my bad headache, he stopped at Starbucks to get me a mocha — purchased with Swagbucks, of course.)

We stayed until closing time. Doing so even got us a few perks. The employees were so generous as to allow a few more turns on the roller coaster at closing time.

Lego formations of a group of people sitting at a picnic table.

3. We packed our own lunch, drinks, and snacks. Many amusement parks provide picnic areas near the parking lots for guests bringing their own food. If not, tailgating is fine by me. Just make sure it’s permitted by the park’s security.

I didn’t mind the walk back to the car in order to save a few pennies hundreds. Oh my! A small bag of popcorn was five bucks! Instead, I was able to treat my kids to fifty-cent Oreo Sticks and a bag of pretzels for $0.75. To them, these were welcome treats, and they didn’t care that it wasn’t the park’s food.

4. We stayed out of the shops. At first I thought it would be fun to peruse the huge selection of toys, games, and dress-up. But, two reasons stopped me. 1, the kids were too busy having fun; and 2, I knew that all that would give them a big case of the gimmies. While I waited with the girls outside the rides, I took a peek and saw that there wasn’t anything that we couldn’t buy new online, used on eBay or reduced on Target clearance. Avoiding the shops helped us save money — and at least a few tears and grumps.

Kids on ride at Legoland.

5. We paid cash. This is a tried and true method to avoid debt. If we were still in the habit of charging things, we might have felt free to spend more. Even if you intend to “pay it off at the end of the month,” you will probably spend more if you use credit. Studies have shown that people spend more money when they use credit instead of regular ol’ greenbacks.

Since we have been planning to do Legoland for months, we knew that we were going to work this expense into our budget. This made sure that we could pay the price.

While I haven’t been able to swing a free trip to the amusement park, we did find ways to make it a fun, yet frugal experience. If we had done it other ways, we would have easily spent this:

Lunch for 7: I saw a pizza special for 4: $29.95. Buy two to feed our family = $60
Snacks: 3 bags of popcorn and 6 drinks = $39
Parking = $12
Admission @ full price ($63/adult, $53/child) = $438

The day could have cost us a whopping $548!

Instead, we paid this
Lunch and snacks – already part of our grocery budget
Parking – $12
Legoland admission – 6 tickets @ $17 = $102

Kids on ride at Legoland.

The cost of our day: $114
The fun my kids had: priceless

Got another trick up your sleeve? How do you save money at theme parks? Tell us in the comments.

Coming early next week: An in-depth review of Legoland

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  1. Smart to bring your food. I have fond memories of dining in the parking lot of every amusement park in the southeast growing up.

    I have a Legoland specific question. You suggest going in the off-season but when is that for Legoland? Also, if we go in April or May, is it likely to be warm enough for the water features at the park?

    1. Off-season is any time not summer. May was warm, but not hot. It was a little too chilly for the little ones.

  2. We got really cheap tickets to Legoland on Craigs list. She won them on the radio and didn’t want them. Also Brickmasters gives a ticket….less than the cost of a ticket and you get a magazine, coupons for legos and Lego sets every other month. Costco also has them on discount.

    We are closer to Disneyland and love having passes so that we can pop in and out when we want. My husband again found passes on Craigs list met the guy at Disneyland activated them and upgraded them to premium (since we are not taking a big vacation this year it was our little way of having more time this summer to “vacation” at home). We spent less on these than we would have on regular Southern Cal passes that have blockout dates. If you sign up for the birthday thing going on at Disney and you want a pass you can apply the free birthday toward a purchase of a season pass….my brother in law just did that.

    On cragis list you just have to be careful with tickets and smart about it so you don’t get scammed. We met the guy at Disneyland when buying those. But otherwise we usually will not meet someone that doesn’t let us pick up tickets at their house. If they let you know where they live they are probably legit. If they want to meet you somewhere you are probably gonna get scammed.

  3. Three of our four kiddos also participated in a reading program this year-with Six Flags. They each received a FREE pass to any Six Flags park. We will need to purchase tickets for our youngest (only 2) and ourselves but this is a huge savings. This will be our first trip to a large theme park, thanks for the tips I am sure they will come in handy! I plan to pack a lunch and tailgate as we do most places that we go-so much cheaper and healthier as well.


  4. Those are great tips! My older 2 kids both were in a reading program that scorded them free tickets to Great America. Well that means that I still have to pay for my ticket. I decided to spend 82.00 on an early bird seasons pass (which comes with some more discounted and free tickets). This way I can take the kid separately or together.

  5. We have Busch Gardens here. The tickets are apx $60 for the day, but you can return free everyday for the rest of the year and see concerts like Steven Curtis Chapman w/o having to pay extra.

  6. Wow, are you smart! I totally agree about the shops. It used to be that you could find a special souvenir. But now, all that stuff is available, cheaper, in other places. So why bother?

    When my kids were little, our favorite place to go was Hershey Park. (We live on Long Island, New York–about a five-hour drive.) We learned that if you went the evening before and bought a ticket for the next day, you could use the park for free that evening! So, for our money, we got about four extra hours in the park.
    We also never ate dinner there. It’s cheaper to drive to a local restaurant, then come back.

  7. I’m having problems with the Mr. Linky, so I apologize if my links don’t show up correctly, or at all, lol! πŸ™‚

    If anyone wants FREE CHOCOLATE, you can get some hereI’ll try Mr. Linky again later. Great tips everyone!

    $ Money Savin’ Momma $

  8. These are great tips, we did Disney in January for very cheap! It helped that they are running the Armed Forces special this year, which significantly cut down the cost admission. One thing we did that saved a ton of money is bring our own water bottles. It can get hot and everyone is thirsty. Rather than spending $2.50 or $3 on a drink we refilled our water bottles at the water fountain.

  9. Great tips for saving inside the parks!

    I wrote on a similar topic this week (where to find discounts on admission). Great minds think alike, eh?


  10. Great tips, thanks! I hope to make it to Disney World this year. My boys have never been.
    Thanks for hosting!

  11. With certain theme parks over here we bring it down even further.
    We collect “points” at our main supermarket that we use, if we use them on groceries we get the equivalent of Β£1 per 100 points, if we use them on offers we get Β£4 per 100 points.
    Most of the theme parks are included in this scheme. So we can get our entrance to the one we go to most often out of our points. We do still have to pay for the rides separately but since that’s only our kids and not us, it’s not too bad.

  12. Bringing your own food saves so much money!! I love that Legoland is perfectly fine with you bringing your food into the park! I called ahead and asked and they said yes so we loaded up a collapsible cooler with lunch, snacks and drinks and fit it into the stroller basket! Easily saved a few hundred dollars. I am not sure where you live in California but if you have Stater Bros in your area I have been able to score FREE kids tickets thru offers they have had in the spring and fall. One was for buying 5 packages of juice boxes I buy anyway and the other was accumulating so much in spending over a month. I am so glad you had a great time and love that you closed the park!! πŸ˜›

  13. Great tips- and very appropriate since summer is approaching! I’m trying to plan a trip to Disneyland for my family and there are a few tips I’m looking at for saving money:
    1) Go for someone’s b-day. Disneyland is giving FREE admission on your birthday in 2009 (that’s a savings of $59 or $69)
    2) Buy souvenirs ahead of time- The disney store is constantly having great sales (plus you can find a lot of disney merchandise at other stores like Target, etc.). You can save on the pricey clothes in the gift shops or little toys that your kids may want.
    3) If you do have to travel, look to stay with friends or family. Of course this option should only be used if friends/family don’t mind, but it also provides a great time to catch up with loved ones.

  14. You made some fantastic savings! I think taking your own food and drink and staying out of the shops are great tips πŸ™‚

  15. Great tips!! I am so happy to find another California girl too! We live in Nor CA and I am going to plan a trip to Safari West soon incorporating some of your frugal tips πŸ™‚