Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Theme Parks on the Cheap

As I mentioned in my last post, having lived in Central Florida the majority of my life has given me many opportunities to visit the plethora of theme parks in our area. Growing up I never really understood why out-of-town family members got such a thrill out of going to Disney or Universal Studios. To me, they were just a part of everyday life.

Something else I've never really understood was how people could go to these places and spend so much money! I've stopped and talked with tourists before who are visiting the Orlando area. Most of the ones I've talked were while I was visiting Disney. The majority of them were staying 6 nights/7 days in a hotel on the park property, eating all of their meals on property, and visiting all 4 Disney parks. Talk about some major dough being spent!

So, I thought I would give some of my tips and suggestions for having a great time at theme parks without emptying your savings account.

The first major hurdle is getting into the parks:

#1: It's all in who you know
I would say 75% of the trips I've made to theme parks, I've done so by getting through the ticket gates absolutely free. This all comes from knowing someone who works at the parks. If you have family or friends in the Central Florida area, more than likely they'll know at least one person who works at a local theme park. See if they would be willing to give you free passes - they usually are allotted a certain amount of passes each month/year. If they can't give you a pass, see if they'd be willing to meet you at the gate - at Disney, cast members are allowed to check in so many people per day into the parks without needing a pass. Sometimes they can give you a discount card which can lower your ticket price up to almost 50%.

#2: Check online for discounts
A lot of theme parks offer discounts to people who work in specific professions, like teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and active military personnel. Florida teachers can get into Sea World free for the remainder of the year just by showing them 3 little sheets of paper (check out this link for more discounts offered to Florida teachers).

#3 Try bundling
On our last trip to Sea World, the fiance was going to get in using an employee discount from an old friend of the family. The cost of a normal adult ticket to Sea World is around $80. With the discount, he would only have had to pay roughly $40. However, the park is currently holding a promotion with their Summer Nights deal that gets adults in at children's prices ($71) and they get a second night free (the stipulation is that you had to return sometime during that same week to claim the 2nd night). So, each day would have cost approximately $35.50 - cheaper than the discounted ticket.

#4 Even if you think you have a deal, don't be afraid to ask for more
We thought we had the best deal walking into the park earlier this week - $71 for two days at the theme park? Worked for us. But, when we got to the ticket counter, we asked if there were any other deals they were offering that might be better in the long run. That's when we found out about the annual pass. Basically, you pay the adult ticket price for that day ($80) plus another $10 or so to upgrade to the annual pass. So for roughly $90, you can get into the park an unlimited number of days for the remainder of the year. If we only went two more days (which breaks down to $30 a day), the annual pass was already a better deal than the Summer Nights. Then, for an extra $20 or so, you could get free parking for the rest of the year, plus 10% off of food purchases at particular restaurants in the park. Considering parking is $14 per day, that would pay for itself after 2 trips as well. So, for around $117 (after taxes) plus my free teacher study pass, we can now park & get into the park without having to shell out another dime until July of next year.

Sometimes, none of the above options will work. And when you are bringing an entire family with you, tickets alone could drain your wallet. So, here are some tips on how to save money once you've entered the parks:

#5 Bring your own food
The prices of food at theme parks is down right outrageous! That's probably where the fiance and I spend most of our money inside the park. A buffet lunch cost the two of us $25, and trust me, theme park food usually isn't anything to write home about. Plus, later in the day, the heat was getting to us and we wanted ice cream - another $10 spent. Most people pack little snacks in their bags to munch on throughout the day, but many don't think about packing their entire lunch (me included!). A colleague of mine made this suggestion the other day, and I think I'm going to start doing this for now on. Pack a small hand cooler with things you'd eat for lunch: string cheese, PB&J or turkey sandwiches, juice boxes, etc. Make sure you have enough ice in there to withstand the Florida heat if you're going in the summer! Then, when you first enter the park, find the nearest lockers, and stash your cooler away. The daily cost of a locker is about $5 depending on the theme park. Five dollars versus twenty-five dollars is a deal to me! Think of the savings if you're travelling with children!

If you are planning on visiting any of the Florida theme parks in the middle of the summer, plan on also drinking a butt load of water. Dehydration is something that can very easily happen in this Florida heat. My suggestion is to bring your own water bottles with you (whether its a typical pre-filled water bottle or a reusable bottle) and refill them throughout the day at the many free water fountains around the park. Even if you forget to bring a water bottle with you, spend the initial $2-$3 to buy your first bottle from a vendor. Then save that bottle the rest of the day and keep filling it up.

#7 Skip the soda & beer
This one is a biggie! You would not believe how much they charge for bottles of soda and beer! I'll let the picture do all the talking:

And this doesn't even show the beer prices! It amazes me how much they can charge for soda, knowing that just down the street in the local gas station or grocery store, you can get the exact same thing for nearly half the price. Some parks offer a souvenir cup that you initially pay around $7 for, and then only pay $0.99 for each refill the rest of the day. The fiance and I figured out (yes, these are the conversations we now have since we've been trying better to budget) that you'd have to buy at least 3 or 4 sodas throughout the day to even equal the amount of money you'd spend to buy 3 or 4 individual bottles of soda. So, unless you really want that souvenir cup, and you really have to have a soda, then buy the individual bottles. Otherwise, stick to water - you're body will thank you later. :)

#8 Get a meal pass
This is only a money saver if you are planning on spending the entire day at the park. For instance, at Sea World, the meal pass is $30 per person, per day. So, for the fiance and I, it would cost us $60. Now, lunch only cost us $23 total. So, to make the meal pass worth it, we'd need to eat at least 3 meals at the park. I don't know about you, but we simply do not spend that much time there.

#9 Bring your own camera
The theme parks have tons of places for photo opportunities. Usually, they are free - like standing in front of a cool statue or plant, or a meet-and-greet with your favorite Disney character. However, pictures of you riding some of their more thrilling rides will cost you a pretty penny. A simply 5x7 image costs approximately $20 at Sea World, depending on what the picture is of. My suggestion, be sneaky! Wait until the photo attendant isn't looking, and snap a picture with your own camera of the screen they're displaying your picture on. Sure, it's going to be really crummy quality, but hey, I'm cheap! See...

The boys getting situated. This is Dan's new favorite roller coaster - Sea World's Manta. Can you tell he & our friend Jay are excited??

Ok, so I'm a total chicken. I do not like roller coasters. There are very few coasters that I will agree to ride on (much to the fiance's dismay). So, I usually wait in line with whoever is riding the coasters, and then stand on...well, I don't know what it is called exactly...loading dock (for lack of a better term) until they finish.

Photo at the kiosk. Sneaky sneaky! :)

#10 Avoid gift shops like the plague
This one is simple - if you don't have kids. I'm telling you what, they make these shops really hard on parents. I don't know how a parent can walk in there with their kid(s) and not buy them something. But seriously, if you can avoid the shops, you're going to save a ton of money. My advice is to figure out where the nearest Wal-Mart is to the theme park. As weird as that sounds, they typically sell the parks' merchandise at a slightly lower cost.

#11 Come prepared & plan ahead
You're probably thinking that this one is obvious. But let me tell you, I'm guilty of breaking this cardinal rule on this most recent trip. If you haven't noticed yet, I'm pretty pale (thanks to a dad who is fair skinned & strawberry blond), so I burn really easy. Needless to say, I forgot to take sunscreen with me. As much as I hated forking over the cash, I knew I'd rather take the hit in my wallet then be miserable with a sunburn (plus the future risk of skin cancer...). So, I spent TEN DOLLARS for the tiniest bottle of sunscreen! I know, ridiculous. But, again $10 versus sunburn & increased cancer risk... was an easy decision to make for me.

So that's it! Eleven tips on how to save you and your family a little bit of green while visiting some of the local Central Florida hot spots. Anyone have any tips to add to this list? I'm always interested in learning new ways to save money. Did anyone out there take a trip to Orlando and one of its theme parks? Or maybe you hit up a theme park in another state? Please share!

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