Rollercoaster at theme park ©Lester Lefkowitz-Getty Images

Related topics: savings, save money, cheap, frugal, Liz Weston

A vacation that includes a trip to a theme park isn't going to be cheap -- not in the way that camping or visiting relatives or taking the ever-popular "staycation" is cheap.

But it is possible to emerge from an amusement park without paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment for a few hours of fun.

Twenty years of living in Southern California -- mere minutes from a dizzying array of theme parks -- plus a few years as a Disneyland annual pass holder have taught me a few tricks for staying solvent. They include:

Do your research

Forget spontaneity.

Yes, it might be nice to "discover" the park as you go along. People who actually try that, though, are the ones who spend most of their visit standing in lines -- and most of their money on souvenirs and junk food to placate whining kids.

Instead, do your research in advance so you can plan a strategy for your visit and use your time wisely:

  • Get maps and brochures from the park to identify which attractions you can and can't miss. Many offer elaborate "planning guides" for free; check their websites.
  • Consult unofficial websites devoted to the park for tips and tricks. Some to try are MouseSavers.com, TheMouseForLess, AllEars.Net and Theme Park Insider.
  • Consider investing in a guide, if one is available. I like Bob Sehlinger's books "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland" and "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," which includes information about nearby Universal Studios and SeaWorld parks. These books can stand in for the knowledgeable friend who knows how to whisk you to the park's best attractions while bypassing the chaff.

Get the best deals on tickets

There's no reason to pay full price -- you can always find some kind of discount if you look around a bit. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don't buy at the gate. Most parks give you at least some discount for buying tickets from their websites, and promotions have become common even during "high" seasons.
  • Consult the websites for deals. Compare the parks' own deals with those touted on the unofficial sites listed above. Pay attention to expiration dates and other details that could limit the usefulness of the discounted offers; you don't want to get to the gate and find your ticket has expired.
  • Consider waiting. If you're planning to attend a theme park during July or August, you might hold off on buying tickets until the latter part of June. Theme parks typically don't decide whether to roll out summer promotions until they see how much attendance they get during the first couple of weeks of June, says Robert Niles, the editor of Theme Park Insider. If you're willing to gamble a little by waiting, you could take advantage of a deal.
  • Exploit your ZIP code. If you're a local, you may be able to score significant discounts. Disneyland regularly offers cheaper tickets to Southern Californians, and many other parks sell annual passes for the price of a one-day ticket. Also, many corporations and government agencies located near theme parks offer discounted tickets to their employees; ask your human-resources department. If you attend college near a park, check with your student union for discounted tickets.
  • Use your memberships. Your AAA, AARP or warehouse-club memberships could win you discounts. Also, you may be able to trade frequent-traveler points for tickets. The Hilton hotel family, for example, allows you to trade points for Disney tickets. (The exchange rate for tickets isn't great, though. You'll typically get a better deal if you use the points for a hotel room instead.)

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

If you'll be in Southern California for a week or more, consider buying a CityPass, which gets you a 3-Day Park Hopper ticket for Disneyland Resort plus one-day admissions to three other parks: Universal Studios Hollywood, SeaWorld and either the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. A recent CityPass price check showed a cost of $276 for adults and $229 for kids ages 3 to 9 -- pretty good when you consider the Park Hopper alone retails for $206 for adults and $185 for kids when purchased at the gate (or $186 and $165 when purchased through Disney's website).

Don't buy more ticket than you'll need

Disney, especially, likes to push multiday tickets, and it's easy to go overboard. Unless you're an absolute Disney nut, a five-day ticket for the two California parks is overkill. Likewise, families with preschoolers often discover that one day at any park is enough, as many of the rides will be off-limits to the youngest set.

Some parks now tout special, high-price passes that sweep you past the crowds in line for popular rides. Thank goodness Disney's terrific FastPass system is still free (and essential for retaining your sanity), but many other parks charge a substantial fee. At Six Flags New England, for example, the "standard" Flash Pass costs $35, and the "platinum"-level Flash Pass is $85 -- on top of your admission fees.

At Universal Studios' theme parks in Orlando, Fla., Express Plus Passes promise to reduce wait times but can cost up to $60 per day, depending on expected crowds.

These are big splurges for most families and probably not necessary. Some ideas to cut the lines:

  • Schedule your trip during the park's offseason. For most theme parks, that's any time other than holidays and summer vacations. September is usually a great time, because most kids are back in school. The last official school day before the winter holiday break often has the shortest lines of the year.
  • Get to the park right when it opens and ride the most popular attractions first. When in doubt, go left; the herd tends to move through parks counterclockwise.
  • At Disney parks, use the free FastPass system.
  • Use the "single rider" option if it's offered. Many parks scoot single riders to the front of the lines at their most popular attractions. If you don't mind breaking up your party, you can cut a multi-hour wait to mere minutes.
  • "Switch off" if you have a non-rider in tow. You don't have to stand in line twice if you're a couple with a child who's too young for certain rides. Take your party through the line as usual, then Dad (or whoever) stays on the loading platform with the child while Mom (or whoever) hops on the ride. When Mom returns, she takes charge of Baby while Dad takes his place on the ride. Just let the ride attendants know in advance that you want to "switch off."

Stay overnight without overspending

Staying right on park property gives you some perks: early entrance at the Disney resorts and "Universal Express" privileges that get you into shorter lines at Universal Studios Orlando, for example. During peak seasons, these perks can make the difference between a fun day and a miserable one baking in long lines. Fans of the hugely popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, located within Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park, say early admission is the best way to beat hours-long lines at this attraction.

But on-site hotels are never cheap, and they're sometimes mind-blowingly expensive. A room at the Disney's Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim can approach $500 a night, while suites at Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando can run more than $1,900.

If you want deals, you usually have to come during the offseason. You can call the resort hotels directly to ask about specials and prowl the park-related websites for early warning on hot discounts. You also might check travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity.

In the post-Christmas lull, for example, you can often find steep discounts at the luxurious Grand Californian hotel at the Disneyland resort in Anaheim. I've booked rooms there for as little as $165 a night, when the normal rack rate in winter is $265 and up. (In the summer, rates generally run about 40% higher than in the offseason.)

Many frugal travelers, though, opt for off-site properties. Booking a hotel with shuttle service can save you money on parking fees, but you may find the cheapest hotels are a short drive away. (Kissimmee, Fla., for example, which is near the Orlando entertainment complexes, is filled with motels that offer rooms for less than $60 a night.)

Even if you don't stay at a theme park, there's nothing to keep you from enjoying the resort hotels' public areas when you need a break from the crowds. Even when we're not staying at the Grand Californian, I like to take a quiet breather in its impressive arts-and-crafts lobby.

Stretch your food dollars

Theme-park food is expensive and usually bad, or at least bad for you. But it's often copious, which can be good for travelers who don't mind sharing a plate. Other ideas:

  • Bring your own food. Theme parks have different rules about bringing in "outside" food, but in more than two dozen visits to various parks, I've never had to forfeit my water bottle or cereal bars. The water bottle can be refilled from any tap, and it beats sugary, dehydrating sodas any day.
  • Keep a cooler handy. Stash it in your car or in your hotel room, and fill it with fruit, milk, cheese -- maybe even a bottle of wine for Mom and Dad. You can retreat to your room or the parking lot for lunch. No lines, no waiting and a bargain to boot.
  • Ask for "a la carte." Many parks offer meal combos, without making it clear you can save a buck or two if you order the meal without the fries or other sides.

If you do plan to eat sit-down meals at the parks, make reservations if you can. The most popular eateries fill up fast.

Save on souvenirs

Theme parks excel at pushing "merchandise," with many modern rides exiting through the gift shops. Here are some tactics that work for our family:

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  • Give the kids an allowance. You set the limit, and they get to spend it on whatever they choose. When the money's gone, it's gone.
  • Put off buying until the end. By the end of your day (or your trip), you'll have a good idea of what's available and can make better choices.
  • Buy in advance. Check Overstock.com and GraveyardMall.com for discounted theme-park-related merchandise, and tuck the goodies in your suitcase to spring on the wee ones when you get there. If you're headed to a Disney park, check out DisneyOutlet.com for deep discounts on kiddie merchandise.
  • Pass on the photos. Many parks have photographers stationed near the entrances to snap your family's picture, and most thrill rides have automatic cameras to immortalize you at your mouth-agape best. You can review the results before you buy, but I've yet to see a shot that was worth the exorbitant prices typically charged. So save some money by asking a passing stranger to take your family's photo in front of some iconic image of the park.
  • Check the outlets. Some of the big theme parks have factory outlet stores not far from their front gates. A store called Disney's Character Premiere has two locations at outlet malls in Orlando, including one a short drive from the park. In California, Disney's Character Warehouse is about a five-minute drive from Disneyland in Fullerton at the Orangefair Mall. There are several others; check the unofficial websites for more tips on finding off-site stores.

Finally, keep a running total of your expenditures as you go. Theme parks are wizards at getting you to spend without thinking, and it's easy to lose track of how much money is leaving your wallet. You don't want your final memory of your vacation to be a heart-stopping credit card bill.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.