Deal-Seeking Dad: ‘Tis the Season for Season Passes

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Taking the family to an amusement park for a day can feel more like an investment than a day of play. Parking, food, souvenirs – it adds up fast.

So for the past two summers, my family has bought season passes at nearby amusement parks – saving money while keeping our 6-year-old daughter entertained. Some paid for themselves in less than two visits, others even in one. At Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, for example, they’re selling season passes for the same price as one general admission!

Annual parking passes can also pay for themselves in two visits. What’s left to spend? We limit buying food by eating lunch beforehand, and because we can go as often as we like, we don’t wear ourselves out with marathon visits.

This summer, we plan to buy season passes at Water World California with season passes that are only $12 more than a single-day ticket.

According to David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), there are 400 destination and regional parks in the United States, and the average season pass holder visits four times a year, and passes typically pay for themselves in two trips.

Destination parks are where families typically spend multiple days and visit every few years, while regional parks attract those who live within 200 miles. Based on a sample of 72 parks, the IAAPA says the average, non-discounted single-day admission price for 2011 is $49.75.

IAAPA also has a “Fun Finder” website for amusement that includes theme parks, water parks, zoos, aquariums, museums, and science centers. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t include information on season passes, so the best way to get that is to call or visit their websites.

(There may be one online site that lists all amusement parks in the country with season pass prices, but I couldn’t find it. If you know of one, please help out the community by leaving it in the comments below or on our Facebook page.)

Some parks offer other perks for pass holders, such as discounted parking and merchandise, early access to attractions, events for pass holders only (the marine park we went to two years ago had a free barbecue for season pass holders), and discounted or free tickets for friends on select days.

Additional tips for buying season passes:

  • Buy early. You’ll likely get the best price and use the pass for the entire season by buying before summer starts. Or buy in the fall before the beginning of the next season.
  • Renew passes each year. Some parks reward loyal customers by giving discounts for renewals.
  • Check with your employer. Some parks give volume discounts to employers buying in bulk, and those discounts can be passed on to employees.
  • Find programs with reciprocal admissions. Holly Ezel, who blogs about RV travel, uses a list of reciprocal members from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to find free or discounted admission at partner sites. Six Flags does the same thing, offering free admission at 13 of its amusement parks for season pass holders.
  • Go to the library. The Boston Public Library, for example, loans out museum passes that can be reserved up to four weeks in advance, points out baby book author Miriam Katz. Libraries in Massachusetts are networked, so museum passes in neighboring communities can be borrowed.
  • Stay local. Some parks offer discounts for local residents. Disneyland and Disney World are the best-known parks to do this, offering Southern California and Florida residents discounted annual passes. Lisa Huckemeyer, who owns a children’s business, says she bought passes this year for $186 each, which paid for themselves in two visits. Huckemeyer estimates she’ll use the passes with her two sons, ages 10 and 16, 9-10 times for a daily cost of about $20.

If you live within driving distance of an amusement park, zoo, museum, or other fun place, a season pass is a great way to save money. And if you forget to use it more than once, your kids will probably remind you of the money you’ll save by going again!

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area. He has a daughter, age 6, who wants to go to the local water park every day this summer.

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