How One Family Spent Under $100 on a Theme Park Trip

What happens when a family of four tries to manage expenses at a theme park?

A day at a theme park might make memories to last a lifetime, but it with tickets running over $150 for a family of four, it's an uncomfortable investment to say the least. So we challenged our writer to take her two sons and husband to Six Flags and spend less than $100 inside the park, not including tickets. Here's how they did it.

My family of four needed an end-of-summer adventure but we didn’t want to travel too far or spend too much money. Our solution: A trip to Six Flags’ Hurricane Harbor. Admission cost $38.99 a person, for a grand total of $116.97, including one son’s season’s pass, so our challenge was to spend $100 or less while at the park. We told ourselves: “It’s so crazy… it just… might… work!”

Here’s how we did:

11 a.m. arrival. We made it! And we avoided the $18 parking fee because we had one season’s pass. Incredibly, we found a parking place less than a day’s hike from the main entrance.
Budget Breakdown: $0 spent!  

Soon after, mobbed by the Park Paparazzi. En route to the front gate, we were approached by eager young photographers who wanted to sell us a keepsake family photo for $14. I’m a sucker for the “lasting memories” spiel but, this time, I politely resisted.  

Budget Breakdown: We still have our entire $100 budget in hand by the time we walk through the gate!

Time for fun. In no time, we were cozily ensconced in two chaise lounges beside the family-friendly Wave Pool. My husband and I read and let our free-range offspring roam the park. The boys had soon scaled the Taboo Tower and ridden The Secret Passage, and tackled the Tornado—a daunting, enormous yellow and blue funnel which spits out screaming riders like a clown spits out seltzer.
Budget Breakdown: Having fun is what we already paid for!  

Feeding frenzy. Here's where things add up.  Hurricane Harbor prohibits outside food and beverages. Our dilemma: Do we go for the Flags Famous Family Meal Deal at $39.99 which includes 2 lbs. of french fries, 12 chicken strips and sodas for all, or do we get individual meals with 4 chicken strips a person for $10.99 a pop and spend more for drinks? We decided my perpetual eating machines needed more chicken fingers and went for the individual meals.
Budget Breakdown: $43.96 spent on meals, $3.99 more than the family meal.  

And drinks … A young server at the counter graciously offered us souvenir Sport Bottles for our drinks. I gasped, “But they’re $14.99 each!”  She assured me it was a great value that included unlimited 99 cent refills, and a cup we could bring back again and again this season. I repeated “But they’re $14.99 each!”  To her credit, she laughed and dropped the sales pitch. My older son preferred a $3.45 20 oz. bottle of water to a fountain drink.
Budget Breakdown: $18.14 spent on 2 regular sodas, 1 large diet soda (I’m an unrepentant addict), and 1 bottle of water. The grand total for lunch was $62.10. That’s a lot of green for virtually no greens and virtually double the family value meal cost, which included drinks.

More fun on the schedule. We returned to our chaise lounge outpost and once again I sent the boys off, in search of water-based thrills at Reptile Ridge (which exceeded their expectations) and Tiki Falls, which featured exciting rides through “black-out slides.” The entire family did a couple of relaxing stints in the Wave Pool.
Budget Breakdown: $37.90 left to spend.  

3 p.m. Snack.  Our remaining $37.90 was burning a hole in our pockets. Off to the wooden snack shack, where sugar cones cost $4.99/each and the large, manly Waffle Cones cost $5.99/each. 
Budget Breakdown: 3 waffle cones and a bottle of water, $23.84. $14.06 left to spend.

4 p.m. departure and a little regret. With a little more than $14 left in our pocket, I felt a twinge of regret that we hadn’t posed for that photo at the front gate. The kids were hot and tired and ready to leave. So we packed up and left.  

Basking in the warmth of family togetherness, we drove home from the park. We looked forward to a quiet evening and an extra $14.06 in the college fund.

Here are some tips for how you can spend a day away and not break the bank:

  • Consider becoming members at your favorite day trip destination. In some cases, going three times a year will make you break even. Also, scour the internet and local papers for the latest bargains and coupons. Most pass-holders are granted a certain number of coupons and even a few free passes.

  • Find out what it costs to park your car and whether free shuttles or valet parking are available. We would have gone over budget if free parking wasn’t included in our season’s pass.

  • Once you pick a place, research that park’s food and beverage policy. Few parks allow you to bring in your own food but some look the other way if you choose to sneak in a few bottles of water.  I wish I had snuck in more bottles of water. Some parks also post their menu options online, which allows you to identify healthier choices before you arrive.

  • Establish a budget for your day-trip before you leave the house.  Once you get to the amusement park it’s hard to resist the siren song of adorable souvenirs and delectable snacks.


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