From New Jersey to Florida, I have been to a lot of theme parks: Here's my guide for having lots of fun while saving money:
Bring your own rain coats or ponchos. Of course, when it rains, theme park gift shops have ample supplies of rain gear, about $6 per poncho. That’s convenient, but for a family of four that’s $24, plus tax. That bill represents money that could be saved or spent on other vacation treats. In contrast, you can buy ponchos for a buck a piece at Walgreens and dollar store chains.
Pack Sweatshirts or extra clothing. When the sun goes down—especially in the winter and spring -- temperatures sometimes dip sharply in the parks. We’ve been in Orlando during the December holiday season when the thermometer has dipped into the low 30s. Brrr. I’ve watched in sympathy as tourists in shorts, halter tops and bathing suits have purchased warmer clothing at gifts shops, with prices that start at $25 for a sweatshirt. (Been there, done that). We bring our own jackets and we check the forecast before leaving our home or hotel room.
Carry your own snacks. As special treats, we occasionally buy the park-branded snacks (ice cream, soda or candy). But most of our snacks are from the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) label. Likewise, bring your own water bottles. It’s best to freeze the bottles the night before (in your hotel room) and sip the defrosting water in the hot park.
Enjoy spray-and-soak rides in the middle of the day, when you’ll dry off faster in the hot sun. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to buy new gear at one of the conveniently located clothing stores in the park. Or bring extra clothes and store them in a park locker.
Get a room with perks: A great hotel—with lots of free activities and services—will save you hundreds of dollars during a vacation. That’s because the more perks your hotel offers, the fewer days your children will want to spend in the park, which translates into fewer admission tickets, meals and treats.
For instance, with my extended family, we have frequently stayed at a kid-centric resort in the Orlando area that offered free entertainment, crafts, games, miniature golf and sporting events for families. What’s more, the main pool—with water sprays, fountains and other fun surprises—was like a water park. Once, we even had to bribe our kids to get out of the pool in order to use the theme park tickets that we had already spent a fortune on. We didn’t make that mistake twice.
Check out free or low-cost attractions: Orlando has more to offer than Disney or Universal Studios. There are many frugal entertainment options that cost a fraction of theme park admission tickets. This logic applies to other areas of the country. Lesser known –and cheaper—local attractions often try to ride the coattails of nationally known parks. There are also municipal parks, zoos, museums and other affordable attractions.
Shop outside the park: Many of the dollars stores and gift shops on the nearby highways carry affordable souvenirs and trinkets.
Give each child a trip budget: We provide our children with a trip allowance to spend as they choose. Of course, we cover the basics, but for buy-me, buy-me trinkets, the kids are on their own and when their fun money runs out, that’s it.
Don’t overstay. Kids nine and under have about a six-hour window in the park. My husband and I have timed our kids and we have watched the temper tantrum cycles of other children. Trust me. Don’t stay in the park with irritable, tired grumpy children. You will feel as if you have wasted a ton of money.
Leave the park, get your hands marked with a re-entry stamp. Go back to your hotel for naps and consider returning to the park for evening parades, fireworks or other festivities. Mothers with younger children can also go to the nursing station in some Disney parks. This facility—with rocking chairs, microwave ovens, televisions and play areas—is an ideal “chill zone” when you, or your toddler/baby need a time-out.
Find the playgrounds. Inside amusement parks and municipal parks are real playgrounds where the kids can just play and get exercise. A constant diet of theme parks represents too much passive entertainment. Sometimes, kids and adults just need to play and run around. _____________
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