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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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. This is one line you should always skip, since many parks give you at least some discount for buying online. Search for "(theme park name) discounted tickets" to see what promotions might further lower your cost.
  • Consult the websites for deals. Check the deals touted on the unofficial sites such as are MouseSavers.com, TheMouseForLess, AllEars.Net and Theme Park Insider. 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.
  • Do the "faster pass" calculus. Disney's FastPass system is excellent and free, so using it to cut wait times is a no-brainer. Other parks, including Universal and Magic Mountain, charge extra for passes to skip the regular lines. As with airline seats, the price for these passes typically rises with demand, and can equal or surpass what you paid for the ticket. What's more, the passes can sell out on peak attendance days. Sometimes they're worth it; we were really glad to have the Universal Orlando Express Passes to cut the lines on a moderately busy fall weekend. On the other hand, I've paid for Magic Mountain passes that turned out to be unnecessary, since that park wasn't as busy as it seemed at the outset of our visit. Bottom line: If you're visiting Harry Potter, stay at one of the Loews hotels for the early access and the passes. Otherwise, go to a park early and decide whether to buy passes within a couple hours of opening, based on the lines you see forming.
  • 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 live near a theme park, you probably know about its discount offers for residents. But check with your human resources department at work, too, since many corporations and government agencies located near theme parks offer cheaper tickets to their employees. 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 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.)

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 two other parks: Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld. The current price of $306 for those 10 and up and $269 for kids under 10 will rise to $319 and $279, respectively, on June 3. That's still an OK deal, given that the price for a 3-day Park Hopper alone on Disney's site is $250 for 10 and up and $235 for those under 10.

Plan your attack

People who don't plan 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.
  • Consider buying 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.

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 dozens of 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. Bring your own lunch, and maybe a bottle of wine for mom and dad. Stash it in your car or hotel room, and retreat there when you need a break. No lines, 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 well ahead if you can. The most popular eateries fill up fast.

Save on souvenirs

Theme parks excel at pushing merchandise; many modern rides exit 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.
  • 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. Save some money by asking a passing stranger to take your family's photo in front of some iconic image of the park.

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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