The Family Theme Park Vacation: When to Splurge & When to Save

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There’s no way around it: Theme parks are expensive. That doesn’t stop people from planning theme park vacations, of course. In fact, 43 percent of Americans are planning a theme park visit sometime in the next 12 months, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Save money on a theme park vacation by doing some research ahead of time and deciding what to save on and what to splurge on.

Tickets: When to Splurge

Choosing a theme park has a lot to do with what you want your family to get out of a vacation. The major theme parks like Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Sea World, Six Flags, Universal Studios, Cedar Point, Legoland and Busch Gardens are expensive for a reason. You’re paying for state-of-the-art attractions, characters your kids can’t wait to see and a high level of customer service. Let’s face it — if your kid can’t wait to visit Hogwarts in person, your choice is very clear. If your kid just wants to ride rides, you have far more options.

Tip: Browse for state resident rates if you’re a local, and consider purchasing multi-day passes to get the most bang for your buck while on vacation.

Tickets: When to Save

Don’t be afraid to look beyond the top theme parks in the United States. Every region boasts smaller theme parks and attractions with thrill rides that older kids will love and smaller rides for little ones. If you’re not interested in a specific character experience, these parks are an excellent way to save money on ticket prices. Try Waldameer Park in Pennsylvania, Holiday World in Indiana, Lagoon in Utah, Camden Park in West Virginia or Happy Hollow Park & Zoo in California.

Tip: Seasonal and annual passes pay for themselves if you visit a park more than once. Consider this route if you plan on visiting again.

Accommodations: When to Splurge

Many themed hotels offer major incentives for visitors. Disney World resorts allow guests to enter theme parks early and stay later than other non-resort guests. Select Universal Orlando resort guests are given passes to skip lines. The Legoland Hotel gives kids their own Lego bricks to play with in the room.

What’s the catch? These hotels are typically more expensive than hotels off of theme park property. Is it worth the splurge? This depends on how often you visit the theme park in question. If this is a special occasion and you won’t be visiting often, it’s absolutely worth the investment to get bonus time in a park or passes to skip long lines.

Tip: Have guest services deliver your theme park purchases right to your room, so you don’t have to carry them around.

Accommodations: When to Save

If you plan on spending all day at a theme park and you only need a place to take a hot shower and hit the sack, don’t spend money on a luxury resort. Stick to moderately priced hotels within close driving distance. Every theme park has neighboring hotels that aren’t affiliated with the park but still provide cool incentives, such as free transportation to the park. Beware deals that seem too good to be true, however — an incredibly low price may mean a hotel that doesn’t meet your family’s standards.

Tip: Look for hotels with suites and kitchenettes. Pack simple meals or go grocery shopping to avoid spending money eating out.

Let Your Budget Dictate Your Destination

Between food and souvenirs, you’ll spend plenty of money once you enter any theme park gate. Don’t forget to budget for food and other necessities when you’re not at the park. Major tourist hubs like Orlando, Florida, have hundreds of attractions and restaurants, but prices are higher than they are off the beaten path. As you plan your vacation, decide if you want to splurge on an area with a lot of entertainment options or save on a quieter area that will have more budget-friendly prices, such as Wisconsin Dells.

Tip: Consider a theme park in a rural setting and spend some of your vacation time exploring local parks and natural attractions.

Be realistic as you make plans and find ways to budget. Every penny you save may end up being splurged during your trip, but that’s part of investing in an amazing vacation for your family.