5/25/2011 11:47 AM ET|
Penny pincher's theme parks guide
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:
- 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.
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I am a pro at this. Disneyworld, we visit during the before school times when they include free meals with room. We do take a cooler, but that is lugging stuff around. We stay at Disney, use their transportation. Prereserve where we want to eat, paying for the sitdown dinner offer, snack and a cafeteria style. We take one of those dinners and double it up and eat at Cinderella's Palace, and then go lighter on one day. Or get 2 fancier sit downs-with the shows, then pay for a meal What we found is that its all good, its all used. We also look before making reservations for dining at which park is open late Itill midnight), and book our dinner reservations at that park. So the night at Magic Kingdom is booked for 9:00 at Cinderella's Palace so that we can watch the fireworks out the windows. Or, later and we can snack if we want-carrying nuts and raisins if we do want to chow earlier. Driving a rental car down, we want to get park it and let the park services do for us. We plan a night on the crossing and watch the Epcott fireworks as it bursts over the lake, there is so much that isn't said, that we have not seen or done, because we like to repeat things. We've stayed at a hotel in Orlando, and it was frightening, needing to have our cars locked in a compound overnight-never know until you get down and experience some of these brand name places. Disney hotels are clean, comfy and convenient. The hotel staff are excellent, hardworking and ready to please and are extremely overworked. Driving down 1200 miles, and having all those places to go, it is best to spend a couple of days simply couch(pool) potato-ing it. There is no reason for us to ever get back into our cars until we leave the complex. That's nice.
Now Dollywood is closer, and cheaper, and the natural things to do about the area are extremely well worth the trip. It was so hot last year, and we really couldn't afford the days at DW. So we did the look-see of things, and spent our time in the pool and at the national park. This year, we're planning a longer stay, and will do a day at Dollywood, a day at the water park and a night at Dixie Stampede, buying the tickets as a package in advance. A Paid For trip is much easier to take than a pay later one. The big cost increase here is no drinks or food is allowed to be brought into the parks, no exceptions. Bummer.But the tickets are much on the cheap and it is half the distance from home.
We've also thought about Colonial Williamsburg again, and there's Busch Gardens and some other things there to do, a bit pricier. I do love the area.
There's also Cedar Point and Put-In-Bay. I was furious the last time we were at Put In. We left because a storm was brewing up big time. Police decided to have a road block for drinkers. Seems they could have done that at the park exits. They endangered our lives by halting traffic for an hour which put us into this torrential downpour and we don't drink when traveling anyway. Mad person that made us. It is one thing to up the county income by ticketing the drinkers, it is another thing to just stop them at the lots, and don't even let them get on the streets, much less danger to travelers, but not good for their pocketbooks. Cedar Point is good for the kids, I am not sure that it would hold our interest anymore, too extreme for us. The area is beautiful though. Still the cheapest is Dollywood.
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