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Don’t get taken for a ride this summer at theme park

Liz Weston

The best way to save money at theme parks this summer is simple. Don’t go.

Peak season means peak pricing. Admission discounts can be hard to find, and nearby hotels jack up their rates. Add in the always-inflated prices of food, souvenirs and parking, and you’re buying a pretty expensive day out. At the mega-parks operated by Disney and Universal, a family of four can easily spend $1,000 per day.

If you’re determined to visit a theme park this summer, here’s how to rein in costs while keeping your sanity:

Beware of fake deals

As prices rise, scam artists pounce, offering discounted tickets and “unused” passes for sale to those desperate for a bargain. Often what they’re selling is fake. Even if the passes are legit, they may be unusable since some parks now use biometrics — specifically, finger scans — to link passes to the original buyers.

Robert Niles, editor of, advises against buying from strangers, whether if it’s on the street in front of the park or through eBay, Craigslist, social media or any other sites that connect private parties.

Better places to look for discounts include:

■Your employer, if you’re a local.

■Warehouse clubs such as Costco or Sam’s Club.

■Groupon and other deal sites.

■AAA, AARP and other member groups.

■The park’s Twitter or Facebook feeds.

■CityPass, which offers a bundle of discounted tickets to area attractions.

■Authorized resellers such as Undercover Tourist and Visit Orlando.

■Vacation packages that include hotel rooms, tickets and sometimes flights.

If nothing else, you usually can save a few bucks and avoid yet another line by buying your tickets online from the park’s site. Grab a parking pass, too. A single-day parking pass at Busch Gardens Williamsburg costs $16 in advance online and $20 on site.

When to splurge

Disney has the free FastPass system, but other parks charge — sometimes quite a lot — for line-cutting privileges. At Universal Studios in Orlando, the Universal Express Unlimited pass can cost up to $160 per person on peak days. Plus, parks typically limit the number of skip-the-line passes and can run out quickly when crowds swell.

Since you’re already bypassing the best advice about managing lines — which is to visit only when kids are in school — you’ll want to consider other tactics. Avoid the busiest days, which you can find using the skip-the-line pricing calendars or crowd calendars for your targeted park.

Other ways people try to beat the crowds:

■Be there when the gates open.

■Visit the most popular attractions first.

■Use single-rider lines.

■Use apps that estimate wait times to plan your attack.

■Stay late. Crowds often start to thin an hour before closing.

You’re still going to spend a lot of time waiting. If you’re a local, you can bail when it gets too crazy and come back another day. If, however, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip at a time when crowds will be thick, splurging on line-skipping passes could mean actually getting to enjoy all the attractions you came to see, Niles says.

You may get a discount by being an annual pass holder, buying in advance or opting for a vacation or other bundle. Universal Express Unlimited passes, for example, are included for guests who stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. The savings could pay for, or at least dramatically offset, the cost of your room.

Make food plan

A common frugal hack is to keep a cooler in your car or room and retreat there for a picnic lunch. If that doesn’t appeal to you, research the park’s outside-food policies in advance.

Some parks offer prepaid meal plans or passes that can be a good deal. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, has an all-day dining pass for $31.99.

Some general ideas:

■Start with a hearty, high-protein breakfast before you enter the park to stave off the munchies.

■Lunch is typically cheaper than dinner at sit-down restaurants, so have your big meal earlier and plan on a snack later.

■Soda prices are outrageous. Bring water bottles or opt for souvenir cups with free refills.

Related link

NerdWallet: How to travel smart: Deals and hacks