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6 ways to cut theme park prices

Many theme parks and resorts are raising prices for the summer season. Here's how to snag a better deal.

By MSN Money Partner May 31, 2012 1:14PM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Unlike their roller coasters, theme parks' admission prices are only going in one direction: up. But with a little planning, bargain hunters can still score a deal.


Image: Orlando, Florida (© Purestock/age fotostock)Theme parks and resorts typically raise prices for the busy summer season when kids are out of school. But this year, some of the hikes are bigger than usual, with parks betting that an improving economy will bring in more visitors, experts say.


In late May, Disneyland announced price hikes of up to 30% on its tickets and season passes. A one-day pass is now $87, up nearly 10% from $80. Universal Orlando followed suit, boosting the price of a one-day pass 3.5% to $88, and other ticket options by roughly 1% to 3%. "We are hearing more rumblings of prices expected to go up," says Jenny Alley, the director of marketing for Orlando ticket reseller Undercover Tourist.


It's not just ticket prices that are going up. In its quarterly report in early May, Disney reported increased revenue from higher prices on hotel room rates and increased in-park spending on food and merchandise.


Parks say the increases are routine. In a statement, Disney said, "We periodically evaluate and adjust our pricing structure to ensure we are offering a great entertainment value." But increases are necessary to pay for new attractions, says John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors, a Richmond, Va.-based consulting firm.


There are plenty this year, including the 12-acre Cars Land at Disneyland and Universal's 3-D "Despicable Me"-themed ride. Parks often use ticket revenue to fund expansions, Gerner says, and timing a big price hike to coincide with a big new ride can make it easier to stomach. "They reason they're getting more for their money," he says.


But experts say thrill-seekers need not pay those higher gate prices. "The rule is that parks never drop their top-line price, but they very often offer discounts," says Robert Niles, founder of deal site Theme Park Insider. In fact, parks tend to offer more deals than usual after a big price hike to ensure loyal visitors return, Gerner says.


Here are tips for getting a good deal:


Buy online

Picking up tickets over the web is often substantially cheaper. For example, Universal Studios Orlando promises $20 off the gate price for multi-day tickets. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles charges $37 online, versus $62 at the gate. (Post continues below.)

If you have enough leeway to wait for passes in the mail, visitor bureaus and ticket sale sites also offer discounts. Check a site's reputation with the Better Business Bureau before buying to make sure it isn't peddling fakes, advises Gerner.


Use social media

Parks often offer specials on their own sites, as well as on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, recently offered a "Facebook Secret Thrill" that knocked online prices from $45 to $33. Darien Lake in Corfu, N.Y., offered Twitter followers a free one-day friend pass when they bought a season pass by May 28.


Coupons may also be available through other sites and coupon inserts, but those may not be legitimate, Gerner says.


Consider a season pass

At some parks, season passes often pay off in just a few visits, Niles says. A pass to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., for example, costs $62 -- the same as a one-day adult admission at the gate.


"If you're unsure, most parks will apply the cost of your daily ticket to an annual pass, if you buy it the day that you're there," he says. Pass-holders may also get other perks that add value. As part of the $70 season pass fee, Wet 'n Wild in Greensboro, N.C., offers a $1 discount on parking, 10% off food and merchandise and one free bring-a-friend pass.


Buy ahead of price hikes

Most parks that are open year-round increase prices around the same time each year, Alley says. (Walt Disney World, for example, typically raises prices in August, she says.) Consumers can save up to 10% by buying ahead of time. Just check the expiration date first. Some passes don't expire, and on those multiday passes that do, the clock often doesn't start ticking until it's been used for the first time, Alley says.


Visit during off-peak times

Some parks offer preferential pricing for visiting on certain weekdays, or arriving in the early evening as other park-goers are clearing out. Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., usually charges half-price after 4 p.m., and Wet 'n Wild in Orlando charges $16 less for a season pass good on weekdays only. As an added bonus, lines are often shorter then, too, which means you can often see and do more despite having less time in the park, Niles says.

Track down group discounts

AAA, AARP and other organizations often offer discounts to members. "Group discounts are very common in our business," Gerner says. Check with employers, alumni associations and professional groups, too. The University of South Florida, for example, gets employees Busch Gardens tickets for $71 instead of $80.


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