Roller coaster rider © ATABOY, Getty Images

Cheapskates typically don't choose theme park vacations. It's just too hard to make an amusement park truly cheap.

With some planning and a few smart strategies, though, you can hang with Mickey, Harry Potter or Shamu without auctioning off your kids to pay the bills.

Choosing where to go

Most people who go to theme parks go to a Disney park. More than half (55%) of the 127 million theme park visits made in North America were to Disney properties, according to the latest study (.pdf file) by the Themed Entertainment

Association and AECOM. Nearly 19 million visited the three Universal parks – topped by Islands of Adventure, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- and more than 10 million passed through SeaWorld gates in Orlando, Fla., San Diego and San Antonio.

But those aren't the only parks where you can have a terrific time, and sometimes for a lot less money than you'd shell out at one of the more hyped parks. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, makes many "best theme park" lists. Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort in New Braunfels, Texas; Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa.; and Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia all have passionate fans. There are many, many more, so don't think you have to limit yourself to a few square miles in Anaheim, Calif., or Orlando.

Choosing when to go

Big crowds often mean more expense, especially at the megaparks. You'll be tempted to either pony up for special passes to get you into shorter lines or to pay for another day's worth of tickets to try to get it all done.

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

The usual advice to schedule a trip during the off season is great if you don't have school-age kids. If you do, you're often stuck going when everyone else goes: during school breaks. Even then, you can try to avoid the worst of the crush, which is typically:

  • The week before and after Christmas
  • The week before and after Easter
  • Mid-June to mid-August
  • The first two days of any three-day weekend

Weekends tend to be busy year-round at many parks, thanks to locals with annual or season passes. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the least busy days, although that may not mean much during peak seasons at popular venues. What does help: getting to the parks at least half an hour before opening and riding the most popular attractions first.

Another good time to ride might be at the end of the day. Attendance starts to thin out an hour before closing at many parks. Our family experienced this even at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which for most of the day had been throbbing with bodies but which was quiet enough before closing for our daughter to ride Flight of the Hippogriff several times in a row.

If you are planning a visit to one of the bigger parks, you can see which days might be less crowded -- and which to avoid -- by using crowd calendars published on various websites. You can find one for Walt Disney World at Undercover Tourist. The Orlando Informer has calendars for Universal Studios Florida. A $6.95 subscription to TouringPlans.com gives you access to its full Disneyland Resort crowd calendar.

Choosing where to stay

Many smaller parks can be done in a day, which means there's no special advantage to staying at or near the park.

The Disney and Universal properties, on the other hand, do their darnedest to get you to stay as long as possible. Truth be told, you can't do Walt Disney World justice in a day, and you'll probably want to stay at least a couple of days at the two-resort parks: Disneyland and California Adventure in Anaheim; Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida in Orlando.

The on-site hotels at the Disney and Universal parks are, of course, anything but cheap. Plus, you get dinged every time you turn around with resort fees, parking fees, Internet access and so on. So why would you stay at one, rather than the cozy Hampton Inn with free breakfast and Wi-Fi down the street?

It's all about the access. On-site hotels typically get you early admission into the parks, a real bonus at busy times.

The Loews hotels at Universal Orlando offer an extra, huge advantage: free unlimited Express Passes, which cut wait times dramatically and which can cost $89 apiece at peak times. For a family of four, that savings can outweigh the cost of the room.

If you're staying several days or during slow periods, the cheaper hotels farther away can make sense, since you'll have more time to enjoy the parks. If you're trying to cram a big resort into a short period, though, you might want to pay for easy access.

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