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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Budget Theme Parks 5.16.12

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Summer is fast approaching and that means summer vacation. A good percentage of folks plan to hit up the theme parks in the next 3 months, which is why the parks are super crowded and hotel prices can be twice as much as usual. People will pay it and gripe about the long lines, but it won’t keep them from planning to come back another time of year. Instead they will stand in line for hours to get on 5 rides all day and drag around tired kids at 10:30 in the evening and wonder why they are crabby and hate everything.

My first tip will help you make the most of your tickets and enjoy yourselves more, which is always a plus for any vacation - The parks are open for 14 hours a day. You can’t expect your kids to go without a nap and endure so much stimulation and not get cranky and cry at some point each day. You get tired and you are a grown up and not used to naps, so take a couple hours out of the day for some downtime. The parks will still be there. I promise. Think of how refreshed you will all be when you go back!

Want to get the most experience for you money? Then after you’ve scheduled a nap or relaxation time for each day of your trip, start planning all these other things around that.

 Purchase a park-hopper ticket. These can save you money over buying individual day tickets and you can use the same one over the course of your visit. They just scan your fingerprint now, instead of the old school way they did it before where you needed to sign the back of the ticket and present ID each day. Much quicker. You still need your ticket for them to swipe and also to be able to use the FastPASS machines.

Save time by buying your tickets ahead of time. Don’t waste time in the ticket queue, when you can go straight to the gate queue! Like you really want to wait in one more line anyway. You can save money by buying your tickets online at various locations. Search online for promo codes, too. I prefer to buy my tickets through the local AAA travel store, because I find they have the best deals, but you can also get Disneyland park hopper tickets through Costco and many credit unions sell discounted ones as well. If you’ll be purchasing a vacation package, check out BookIt.com and add your park tickets on that way and save big. Besides AAA, they have the lowest prices on Disney tickets out there.
Use FastPASS. This can also save you much time and get you on more rides. We generally get one for Big Thunder Railroad, Peter Pan, California Screamin’, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, Rock’n Roller Coaster, Midway Mania or Buzz Lightyear. These are the big rides that always have a line. Go first thing when you enter the park and get a FastPASS, even if there isn’t a line, for any of these attractions (I recommend Midway Mania or Space Mountain, because the FastPASSes go quickly). If there isn’t a line, get on the ride, go do some other rides and then come back at your designated FastPASS time and do it again. If there IS a long line, go off and do some less packed stuff and then come back. This works awesome with rides like Big Thunder Railroad in the middle of the day, because even though the line isn’t humungous, there are a bunch of other rides to do that normally have shorter lines, and you can get to three other ones, come back and get right onto BTR and then head to another part of the park.

Get to the parks thirty minutes before opening. What’s the point? Well, there won’t be hoards of people waiting to get in yet and you’ll get first pick of the big rides when the gates open, freeing you up to do less popular rides in the middle of the day.
Make food reservations. While this won’t save you any money, it WILL save you time waiting in line somewhere. Disney has a designated dining reservation number for each park (or you can do it online) to book a table anywhere that has waited tables. You can book up to 90 days in advance. This is especially important if you are dying to eat a specific restaurant, because reserved tables get served before walk-ins, which means if you want to eat at Blue Bayou without waiting 45-50 minutes (when you could be doing other park activities), it’s best to make a reservation ahead of time. Try to book your dining a little earlier than regular dining times, like lunch between 11am-12pm and dinner between 5-6pm. This will help you avoid the crowds, both while waiting to be seated and when you finish dining, because everyone will have realized they are hungry, too, and flee to a dining establishment. Woohoo! Shorter lines for you!

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Carry snacks. You know I always recommend bringing snacks everywhere you go. Disney doesn’t mind. As long as whatever you bring isn’t in a glass container or alcohol, it’s okay by them. Bring in your own bottled water, too, and save $9 by not having to buy their souvenir cups.

Use public transportation. Obviously, I mean for Disneyland only. Their shuttle busses are great and are much cheaper than the $12-14 it now costs to park in the Disney parking lot. Unless you have four or more people in your group, save the cash and gas. The shuttles leave every 15 minutes throughout the day until at least an hour before the park closes. There’s also the option of just walking, since there are so many hotels right across the street from the parks and main gate.

Avoid “Extra Magic Hour”. In Orlando, guests staying at a Disney resort are entitled to the EMH each day at different designated parks. They get in an hour before the park officially opens to the public or get to stay and extra hour after the park closes to the public. With a bit of planning, you can avoid these days and go to other parks instead and avoid the massive crowds at the EMH parks. This worked wonderful for us and we found that each park we hit up that day was almost empty until around noon time. I don’t know how that will work in the on-peak season, but in the fall, it was spectacular and we barely waited in line for anything for the first four hours we were in each park. You can find the EMH parks listed on the online Disney schedules or invest in a membership to TourGuideMike, which will give you all these tips and more well ahead of the actual online schedule.
Go in the middle of the week. There will be fewer parades and you'll have to schedule your day around things like Fantasmic, that only play on certain weekday nights, but Disney will certainly be less crowded during the week than on the weekends and you'll have shorter lines and be able to do more.

Bring your own souvenirs. Yes, I know this sounds weird, but if you have little ones, they are going to want toys and shirts and balloons and candy. You can try to evade some of these costs by stopping at one of the grocery or discount stores around Disney and stock up on some inexpensive souvenirs (many of which you will find at the parks for much more) and dole out a bit each day before you leave. Or keep them in your bag until the kids are getting restless and cranky. You're sure to make some happy faces. My best friend, and mom of four, has some fantastic tips for doing Disney as a family on the cheap (or as cheap as you can get without compromising the fun).

Next up: How NOT To Do Disney. Believe it or not, there is a right way and a really wrong way, especially if you’re going in the summer and have to make the most out of every minute.

What are some of your tips for doing theme parks cheaper or better?


  1. Pack your lunch and snacks! When you are traveling on a tight budget: you can 1. bid on hotels through multiple sites, 2. eat breakfast at the hotel (food you bring or free breakfast provided), and 3. bring dry cereal, fruit, veggies (carrots are always a favorite), granola bars, chips, sandwiches, etc into Disneyland! I successfully planned and completed multiple trips to Disneyland with my little sisters (Big Brothers Big Sisters) on a VERY tight budget. The girls still love going to Disneyland, and look forward to the one snack a day and/or nice dinner that we could afford by packing our lunches. By going in the off season, we would leave the park around closing time and go sit down at Marie Calendars or Mimis or a number of other restaurants for dinner! As a benefit of the carefully planned meals, I would usually lose weight on vacation!! Plan well, and enjoy the little things :-)

    P.S. I love your site :-)

    1. Thanks! And thanks for your tips. Bringing snacks can really save a LOT.


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