Ten Ways to Do Theme Parks on a Budget - Page 2

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Families strap in for thrills at Hersheypark in the chocolate capital of Hershey, Pennsylvania.  (Hershey Entertainment & Resorts)

6. Carefully consider meal plans
Many of the larger theme parks offer special meal plans, but they aren't all great deals. While Disney's Dining Plans require you to purchase a larger package including a stay at a resort hotel along with tickets, the restaurants that honor the meal plan include a variety of sit-down and fast-food options.

On the other hand, the meal plan at Universal Parks is just $19.99 for a single day and can be purchased a la carte, but the menu options are limited and that doesn't include a drink (a cup granting you unlimited drink refills will cost $8.99 for a day—not a bad deal if you plan on buying several sodas).

Though it's tempting to try to sneak food through the gate, beware: Most theme parks have thorough bag searches, and food brought in from outside is forbidden. The two exceptions are baby food (including bottled water) and food that you need for a medical purpose. So you can probably get by with that baggie of raisins for your toddler, water for your baby's bottle, or a granola bar for a family member with diabetes, but no, you won't be able to smuggle in a whole picnic.

7. Travel during the off-season
Usually what parks advertise as the off-season means anytime not during the summer, holidays, or on the weekends. You might not get a deal on park tickets, but your lodging and airfare will almost certainly be cheaper. On top of that, lines will be shorter, you may be able to score discounts at local restaurants, and you'll be able to squeeze in a lot more fun in fewer days, which could equal even bigger savings.

8. Stay off-site
Resort hotels offer convenience and may include perks like early park admission. But staying off-site can be almost as convenient—and a whole lot cheaper. Try to find accommodation that offers free transportation to and from nearby parks.

At Magic Kingdom, check out Nick Hotel. With a huge outdoor pool and water slide, mini golf, character breakfasts, and a variety of entertainment options, Nick was like its own mini theme park conveniently located within a few miles of Magic Kingdom. Also consider CoCo Key, a resort with a nice-sized but totally manageable water park, just 15 minutes or so from Universal Parks. Both hotels offer free transportation to and from the nearby parks.

9. Shop smart for souvenirs
No need to pay top dollar for those snow globes and t-shirts and then lug them all over the park. In most theme park areas, you'll find an assortment of discount souvenir shops you can hit on the way out of town—and pay a lot less money.

When you shop for souvenirs give each family member a budget ahead of time, and stick to it. Older children can hold their own money and pay for the items themselves; this will help them feel more responsible for the purchase and gives them a clearer understanding of how quickly money can disappear in a gift shop full of expensive trinkets.

These days, most souvenir items can be found online; if your child is over budget but is really dying for that inscribed glow-in-the-dark play sword, tell her you can look it up online after you get home. Chances are good she'll have forgotten all about it by then.

10. Join the club
Are you a member of an auto club, the AARP, a credit union, or warehouse club? How about a frequent-traveler program through your favorite airline or hotel chain? See if you can use those memberships to get savings at your theme park of choice or at nearby lodging.

Theme parks aren't a cheap vacation, but they can be a great time for everyone in the family. Above all, keep your eyes open for deals and watch the cash you are spending. Those snacks, drinks, and souvenir flags can quickly eat through what you've allotted for the trip. Have fun riding—and good luck saving!

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