Going to California’s theme parks is a dream vacation for a lot of kids—and heck, plenty of grownups too. Like everywhere, some prices at theme parks have gone up in recent years, but it’s actually not hard to cut some costs and stick to a budget on this type of getaway. Here are 11 ways to save money and keep the focus on optimizing your fun.
1. Always book your tickets online
Buying tickets at the theme park gates will almost always be more expensive than buying over the Internet. When booking your trip, start at the theme park’s website: At SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, and Knott’s Berry Farm, for instance, you save anywhere from $20 to $40 per person just by buying ahead. Check your major credit cards and other memberships (like Costco and AAA) for more possible deals, too.
Another bonus of booking in advance? Buying at the gate means you’re starting your theme park day by standing in a long line, while pre-purchased tickets let you go straight to the turnstiles.
2. Check the rates before you choose your dates
Some parks, including Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland Resort, offer dynamic admission pricing: A ticket on one day can be less expensive than other days, usually based on how busy (or not) the park is expected to be that day. Those prices can vary by as much as $70 per person within one calendar month. Look at the park’s online calendar before you set your trip dates, and know that being flexible could save you a lot.
The conventional wisdom is that mid-January through March tend to feature smaller crowds (and potentially lower prices) at theme parks, as well as the period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. In general, weekdays are the mellowest, especially Tuesday through Thursday. If you need to visit on the weekend, Sunday will be quieter than Saturday.
3. Stick with off-season days if you don’t want to pay to skip lines
Most of the parks now sell skip-the-line passes that offer “time is money”-style value: You can ride more rides if you don’t spend too much time standing in line. But if you visit on less popular days, lines will be shorter anyway, so you likely don’t need to pay extra for such a pass. Of course, depending on the day and your own family’s needs, paying a little to skip some lines may be worth it. At little-kid-friendly Gilroy Gardens, you can skip the line on 20 rides with a $25 Fast Lane pass.
Keep in mind that at Disneyland Resort, the cost of the Genie+ pass—which lets you skip the line one time at about 20 rides—starts at $25, but that price can also go up on the day you arrive. So if you know you want Genie+, definitely buy it ahead of time to lock in the lowest rate.
4. Pre-book some dining and parking savings
Some of the parks’ websites offer separate passes that cover parking or dining. Booking your parking spot online for Gilroy Gardens, for instance, shaves $5 off the fee.
Six Flags Magic Mountain and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, meanwhile, offer dining deals like an option that includes one day’s meals plus a bottomless drink. Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America both offer a range of generous dining plans, including one where you can eat for free every 90 minutes and get a drink refill every 15 minutes.
5. Book a bundled hotel deal
Check out the theme park’s website or the city’s tourism board site (like Visit Anaheim, Visit Buena Park, or San Diego Tourism Authority) for offers that combine your hotel rate with admission tickets, as well as possible freebies like breakfast or a shuttle ride to the park. Disneyland, for instance, regularly offers some form of discount on its on-site hotels and its nearby “Good Neighbor” hotels. The Buena Park site can link you to an ongoing Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel deal that includes your hotel, tickets, parking, and a breakfast buffet. For convenience, you can buy bundled two-park tickets for admission to both SeaWorld San Diego and Sesame Place San Diego in one purchase and get the discounts for both at the same time.
6. If you’re taking kids to San Diego theme parks, come in October
October is Kids Free San Diego, when children can get free admission, free meals, and other discounts at attractions all over San Diego County. Age limits vary by attraction, but typically kids 11 or 12 and under can get in free at SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, and the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park when they come with a paying adult.
7. Consider buying a season pass
If you live anywhere near the theme park you’re visiting, or think you’ll visit even twice within one year, a season pass can quickly pay for itself. Buying a pass for even just one family member can be smart, too, since passes often include discounts on food, merchandise, and parking that the whole family can share. Most LEGOLAND California season passes, for instance, include such discounts inside the park plus 15 percent off at its two on-site hotels. The top-tier Six Flags Diamond Pass, meanwhile, grants you admission to Six Flags parks all over the U.S.
8. Keep a few money-saving essentials in your bag
Don’t buy things that you could have on hand for free. Theme parks typically allow you to bring in some food and water bottles—either unopened or reusable non-glass water bottles (just check the rules before you arrive). Refilling your own bottle in the park or snacking on an apple or granola bar from your bag can help preserve your dining budget for more memorable delights.
Also, packing your own rain poncho, sunscreen, or aspirin—and perhaps a portable phone charger—will save you from paying a premium on basics. Dressing in layers helps too. Southern California parks, for instance, can get pretty warm by mid-day, but chilly by sundown, so bringing a sweatshirt is almost always a good idea.
9. Help the kids stay on budget with a gift card
At the gift shops near the entrances of theme parks—like those at Disneyland, Knott’s, or Universal Studios Hollywood—you can typically buy gift cards to be used inside the park. Setting a limit in the morning will help kids choose their souvenir wisely and avoid overspending—or having meltdowns—in the gift shop later.
10. Download the free app
Theme park apps show you wait times for rides and sometime let you reserve a time for rides or popular areas, like SUPER NINTENDO WORLD at Universal Studios Hollywood. Get acquainted with the app before your trip to help plan your day. If the app has a mobile dining feature, scope out the different restaurants’ menus to find spots that fit your budget. (For fun brainstorming, check out the Los Angeles Times’ list of affordable luxuries at Disneyland.) The Disneyland Mobile App also includes merchandise pickup, so you can shop for a souvenir on your phone and pick it up in the store faster.
11. Make the most of freebies
At LEGOLAND and Disneyland, anyone can enjoy a low-cost souvenir by trading Disney pins or LEGO Minifigures with staffers strolling the park. Either buy one pin or minifigure at the parks, or bring one from home, and you can trade all day at no extra cost.
Also, many parks offer a photo program where you pay for pictures taken on rides or with characters. Don’t be shy about lining up for pictures even without enrolling: Most staffers will be happy to take a pic of you and your crew with your own phone.
Disney superfans, meanwhile, know about the various cool freebies you can enjoy around the parks, like the chance of scoring a gratis map at the Jungle Cruise. If you’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary at Disneyland, pick up a complimentary celebration button at City Hall on Main Street, U.S.A.—another free way to make the day special.
For more theme park vacation ideas, check out the Theme Park Thrills Road Trip, 13 Smaller Theme Parks and Attractions, and how to skip the lines at California theme parks.