If you plan on visiting any theme park more than once this year, you'll probably save money buying a season pass. That's because the major parks, in an effort pack their parks full of souvenir-buying, fried dough-scarfing hordes all year long, have adjusted their pricing so that a one-day ticket price isn't much different than the cost of admission all year long.
Considering a pass for the whole season often costs about what a one-day admission does -- for Six Flags Over Georgia, for example, it's just $5 more, and Knott's Berry Farm is $6 -- it's a no-brainer for roller coastery families.
The unexpected boon for Six Flags parks is that passes include free admission to all Six Flags parks, no matter where they are. That can be had for an incredible bargain if you buy your pass from a park with a cheaper version, for example in San Francisco, where they only cost $50 right now, versus Los Angeles, where a pass costs $5 more. In fact, a whole season pass from Six Flags Over Texas costs what a single day's admission would in New Jersey.
Cedar Fair offer this unlimited-access feature too, but you usually have to pay more for an upper-level version pass, such as Cedar Fair's "Platinum" one. The catch for these nationally roaming passes is that you must usually validate your pass for the first time at the park it's connected to, so you shouldn't buy your ticket from a park that's a thousand miles away unless you're going to be there soon.
It's now, in these pre-season moments, that parks tend to offer the best deals for their season passes. A fair number of them are currently offering limited-time deals. Once school lets out and people start getting serious about hitting the amusements, prices inevitably scale upward. These promotions can be yanked at any time, so it's smart to not dally.
Here are some of America's biggest theme parks and what they're charging right now. Click on through and save on vacation time this year.
San Francisco area: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, $49.99 (save $20)
Los Angeles area: Six Flags Magic Mountain, $54.99
Atlanta area: Six Flags Over Georgia, $49.99 (save $20)
Chicago area: Six Flags Great America, $64.99 (save $10)
Baltimore/Washington area: Six Flags America, $49.99
Massachusetts: Six Flags New England, $54.99 (save $20)
Missouri: Six Flags St. Louis, $49.99 (save $20)
New Jersey/New York City: Six Flags Great Adventure, $69.99
San Antonio area: Six Flags Fiesta Texas, $49.99
Dallas/Fort Worth area: Six Flags Over Texas, $49.99
Cedar Fair (some parks knock $10 off if you buy at least four) and partner parks:
Cleveland area: Cedar Point, $112 adult, $72 kids under 48 inches tall
Cincinnati area: Kings Island, $94.99 adult, $69.99 kids under 48 inches tall
Richmond, VA, area: Kings Dominion, $69.99 adult, $59.99 kids under 48 inches tall
Charlotte area: Carowinds, $59.99
Toronto area: Canada's Wonderland, C$79.99
Eastern Pennsylvania: Dorney Park, $98 adult, $62 kids
Southern California: Knott's Berry Farm, $59.99 (save $30)
Kansas City area: Worlds of Fun, $74.99 adult (save $5), $59.99 kids
San Jose area: California's Great Adventure, $69.99 adult, $49.99 kids
Minneapolis/St. Paul area: Valleyfair, $69.99 adult, $54.99 kids
Grand Rapids/Muskegon, MI, area: Michigan's Adventure: $89.99 (save $5 when you buy 4 or more)
Disney Parks (it rarely discounts except for locals):
Southern California: Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure, $299, with some blackout dates
Orlando: Walt Disney World (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom): $489 adult, $432 kids
Los Angeles: Universal Studios Hollywood, $69.99
Orlando: Universal Orlando Resort (Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure), $139.99 with some blackout dates, $219.99 without blackout dates
Busch Entertainment parks:
San Antonio: SeaWorld San Antonio, $89.99
San Diego: SeaWorld San Diego, $69 adults, $59 kids, with blackout dates
Williamsburg, VA, area: Busch Gardens, $99.95
Orlando: SeaWorld Orlando, $99.95 adult, $89.95 kids and seniors ($149.95 for Busch Gardens, too)
Tampa: Busch Gardens, $99.95 adult, $89.95 kids and seniors ($149.95 for SeaWorld Orlando, too)
A few more:
Southern California: Legoland, $129 adult, $99 kids 3-12
Southern Indiana: Holiday World, $109.95 adult, $99.95 kids
Wisconsin Dells: Mt. Olympus Park: $120 for 12 months, $99 for 6 months, $79 for 3 months
Pittsburgh: Kennywood, $89.99 (available starting March 1)
Denver area: Elitch Gardens, $59.98 (save $10 if you buy 4 or more)
Gilroy, CA: Gilroy Gardens, $80 for one, $68.75 for 2 or more
Some more advice:
Parks that also have companion water slide parks, such as Six Flags Great Adventure and Hurricane Harbor, offer separate passes for the parks, or combo passes that include both coasters and slides.
Some major destination parks, such as Disney's and Legoland, grant further discounts for people who live in the same state. For example Disneyland will sell locals a limited-access pass for as little as $169, versus $299 for the non-locals version. So make sure to ask about that before settling on a pass.
Some parks' passes will expire at the end of their operating seasons or at the end of 2010, so for those, buy early to maximize your dollar. Other parks that operate year-round may be good until the same time next year.
Also make sure the park you choose isn't offering a pay-once-get-in-all-year deal, under which a single day's ticket can be converted into a pass for the rest of the year. Some parks, particularly those in major tourist destinations, have been known to temporarily offer promotions that enable this, so it could pay to ask.
This year, a few Six Flags parks (such as Six Flags Over Texas) are selling two versions of season passes. The basic one, the Play Pass, is what you probably think of as a normal season pass, with unlimited admission for its holder. The other version of the pass is what it calls the Season Pass (yeah, it's confusing), and that includes the Play Pass plus four free tickets for friends who may not have their own Play Passes. It costs just $10 more.
Here's a downer: Except for Disney's passes, parking is almost always extra -- at Six Flags America, for example, a season pass for that alone costs $45. Considering the right to turn off your car in the vicinity of the coasters can cost $10 or more, the themers are still gonna stick you for some extra cash.
Theme parks offer more thrills than just roller coaster rides. Check out Lemondrop's story recounting tales of terror at theme parks. (Don't worry, if you keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times these horror stories won't happen to you.)
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