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How to save money on a theme park vacation

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios Orlando. Universal Orlando Resort via Getty Images

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A family vacation to a theme park can be quite the ordeal. Wrangling kids for a big trip and spending long, hot days standing in line for rides or food is a test in and of itself. Add money into the mix, and a theme park vacation can seem like running the gauntlet. 

Ticket prices hover around $100 per person, per day for big parks like Disney World and Universal Studios. Then there’s food and drinks, hotel, transportation. A family of four could easily spend thousands of dollars, depending on the details. 

Marketplace Weekend checked in with Robert Niles, the editor of Theme Park Insider, about the tricks that make a family trip to a theme park doable on a budget. 

1. Plan ahead. The best way to save on a big theme park trip is to book well in advance. That’s the best way to get deals on airfare, hotels and even park tickets, which may be discounted if you buy for several days rather than just a few. 

2. Compromise on a hotel. Niles said the easiest way to save money on the trip will be with the hotel. While there are some deals to be had with on-site hotels (think front of line passes, early admission, meal packages, etc.), the biggest savings will come with a short drive. You can save hundreds on hotel rooms if you’re willing to book a ways away from the park, skip out on the views of the park and drive in rather than walk in each day. 

3. Don’t buy anything inside the park that you can buy outside the park. That goes for sunscreen, snacks and necessities, but also for all but the most special souvenirs. If you can find that T-shirt or those wizards robes off-site, buy them wherever is cheapest. If a souvenir is part of an experience or can only be found inside the park, that’s what you should save your money for. 

4. Don’t order a hamburger. Keeping with the theme of prioritizing worthwhile experiences, Niles recommends skipping the chicken tenders and plain burgers and seeking out the best food in the park — something you can only get onsite. Everything costs about the same, and it’s more meaningful and unique to find something you can only get in one place. 

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