Cheap thrills: 5 ways to save money at amusement parks

Discounted tickets, packed lunches, and three other tips for enjoying your next amusement park trip on a budget.

It’s 90+ degrees outside. Your children are on summer vacation, desperate for distractions. The days are long. It may seem like the perfect time to fill those hours with a visit to an amusement park. Think about it: Catching your heart in your throat on extreme roller coasters, cooling off on splash-fest water rides, chatting up your children’s favorite cartoon characters, and even visiting with exotic animals before washing it all down with treats like hot dogs and ice cream. Sounds pretty ideal.

Not so ideal? The stress that can come with the often high price tag associated with amusement park fun. But how do you save money at amusement parks? It just takes proper planning and a strategy for how to manage your time within the park.

Before you pack up for your next amusement park adventure, consider these five tips for saving money at amusement parks:

1. Search for discounts on tickets

While theme parks are happy to take your money at the gate for admission, they won’t cut you any slack on the price. Without advanced planning, tickets can be especially pricey.

“Buying tickets to an amusement park at the gate is almost always a guaranteed way to overspend,” says Eric Anthony, managing editor for a personal finance blog focused on entertainment.

With more than 400 amusement parks and attractions in the U.S. vying for your money, you are likely to find enticing ticket deals. If you look beyond the front gate.

“Most local grocery stores offer tickets to theme parks in the area at a discounted rate,” Anthony says. “You can also search online for coupon codes and other deals on tickets.” Checking to see if you have any membership perks that might get you discounted tickets to a specific venue is another tip for saving money at amusement parks.

A man and his young daughter, in their kitchen, give each other a high-five after dad scores tickets to an amusement park.

If you plan to be a frequent park visitor, season or annual passes can be an economical option, says Jeff Proctor, owner of a personal finance blog. Many such passes come with discounts and special promotions.

Another way to save money at amusement parks is to be flexible with your dates and buy tickets for slower days or off-peak periods, like the middle of the week or during the fall season.

“If you’re willing to go on off-peak periods, you can save a bundle,” Proctor says. Bonus: Booking an off-peak trip could also mean fewer crowds and an easier time hitting all of your favorite attractions. Buying your tickets well in advance of your trip is also a common way to save money at amusement parks.

2. Stay at a vacation rental

If you’re planning to turn your amusement park visit into a longer getaway, the biggest advantage of staying at an on-site property is convenience. You can hop on a shuttle bus or even walk to the park. But if how to save money at amusement parks is the focus of your trip, you might want to consider alternate accommodations such as off-site hotels, vacation rentals or the home of a friend or relative.

A family of four, including two young children, look excited as they enter their vacation rental.

Anthony finds that a vacation rental near an amusement park is like a home away from home for his family and one of the easiest ways to save money at amusement parks. He says there’s more space to relax and unwind, cook in a fully-equipped kitchen and avoid noisy crowds when his family wants some downtime.

If you’re worried that staying farther away from the park’s venue to travel on a budget could hike up your transportation costs, look into ride sharing services or public transit as a tip for saving money at amusement parks.

3. Pack a lunch

If you’re looking for ways to save money at amusement parks, know that food can take a big bite out of your budget if you buy at park restaurants and concession stands.

“I find you end up spending a lot of money on food when you’re not prepared,” Anthony says. “You didn’t pack your lunch, the kids are crying, so you end up going to some restaurant and dropping a hundred bucks.”

The cost of various dining plans at major theme parks can be exorbitant. Before you embark on your trip, find out how to save money at amusement parks by going online and checking out the policy for bringing outside food, beverages and coolers into a particular venue. Many allow small snacks and meals that do not require heating, and if picnic areas are available, you can comfortably enjoy your own grub on park grounds.

“Just packing simple lunches for your family could easily save you $50 to $100 during one visit,” Anthony says.

Proctor also recommends packing an insulated cooler full of goodies and leaving it in your car as a money-saving tip for families. “When you get hungry, simply go out to your car for a short break,” he says. “Most amusement parks allow same-day re-entry, so this isn’t a problem at all.”

Having your own reusable water bottle is another way to save money at amusement parks. Not only will this help you conserve money as you refill at water fountains throughout the park, but it will also keep you hydrated while you’re on the go.

If packing your own meals doesn’t sound appealing or you’re a frugal foodie wanting to check out amusement park cuisine, order food a la carte as a tip for saving money at amusement parks. Skip fancy beverages and stick with water to avoid extra costs.

4. Save on souvenirs

Some people have a sentimental attachment to a particular theme park and insist on buying souvenirs, children may spot something during a visit they simply cannot live without, and others may want a keepsake to remember a fun family vacation. But if you want to learn how to save money at amusement parks, you may need to stay clear of on-site gift shops.

Anthony says you can find less expensive souvenirs at local retail locations outside of the park or shop online from the comfort of your own home. T-shirts inspired by amusement parks can even be found at drugstore chains and discount retailers. Souvenir cups, a way to save money at amusement parks and still bring home a theme park memory, can typically be purchased at dining locations throughout a venue and can often save you money with free refills.

Anthony suggests you take a pass on souvenir photos shot while you’re enjoying the rides and have a friend or family member capture the moment instead. You also have the option of photographing your child posing with a favorite theme park character as a way to have fun without spending money instead of using a park’s official photographer for a fee.

A woman and her daughter, at an amusement park, pose for a picture.

5. Bring the essentials

Whether you’re staying for a few hours or a few days, one of the most important tips for saving money at amusement parks is planning ahead and bringing what you might need to make your experience more comfortable.

“One of the easiest ways to blow money at an amusement park is on essentials like a camera, sunscreen or a cap,” Anthony says.

If you’re focused on how to save money at amusement parks, pack your own sunscreen and consider bringing a portable umbrella and ponchos if the forecast calls for rain. Carry a water-resistant case or plastic bag with a zip-top closure to protect your phone or camera from rain and splashes on a water ride.

Since a blister or headache can ruin the day, make sure you carry a few basic first aid supplies such as bandages, blister patches and pain relievers.

“Just packing simple lunches for your family could easily save you $50 to $100 during one visit.”

Eric Anthony, managing editor for a personal finance blog

Enjoy amusement parks on a budget

Before you head off for a whirlwind trip of roller coaster rides and carnival-style games, be sure to review these tips for saving money at amusement parks to ensure that your visit is as cost-effective as it is fun. Then you’ll be able to walk through the front gate with confidence that you can enjoy all that the park has to offer and keep your budget on track.

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