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.