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TAKING THE KIDS

The theme this summer: discounts

May 18, 2003|Eileen Ogintz | Special to The Times

Looking for a bargain?

Who isn't these days? But the kids are begging to try out those new bigger, faster roller coasters, and everyone knows that just getting your family through the gates of a theme park can set you back $100 or more. That's not even counting the pricey souvenirs, or snow cones and sodas the kids consume before hitting a single ride. Then there's lunch, ice cream and popcorn. Before you know it, you've spent upward of $200 -- or significantly more at some of the mega-parks, according to Amusement Business magazine, which tracks the industry.

You should be able to get more bang for your theme-park buck this year, however. Like hotels and airlines, theme parks are dangling an array of deals in an attempt to get your business.

"There are more discounts than ever this summer," said Amusement Business senior editor Tim O'Brien, author of "The Amusement Park Guide," which reviews 382 theme parks and water parks in North America. "No one has to pay the rack rate."

There are also plenty of new attractions. Check out the world's tallest (420 feet high) roller coaster, the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, www.cedarpoint.com. Or visit Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, www.sixflags.com, which added Scream, a floorless coaster, in April. Younger coaster fans who visit Legoland California in Carlsbad, www.legoland.com, will give a thumbs-up to the Bionicle Blaster, based on Lego Bionicle toys.

More significant than the 19 roller coasters debuting this summer is the emphasis on family entertainment at theme parks, such as the multimedia Shrek 4-D at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, www.universalstudios.com, the SpongeBob SquarePants motion-simulator ride at Paramount's five parks, www.paramountparks.com, and R.L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse 4-D at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla., and Willamsburg, Va., www.buschgardens.com.

"Families want to spend time together at the parks," said O'Brien, "and the parks feel like they have to do more for younger families and young kids."

That's good news for those of you who figure a theme park getaway or two won't bust the budget, especially if you can go someplace close to home. For example, the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau is targeting the car-traveler market with deals that include not only significant theme park discounts but also hotel rooms for as low as $39 a night, free breakfasts and transportation to the parks.

Stay at one of the three Universal Orlando hotels, all operated by Loews Hotels, and you can show your room key to jump ahead to the front of every line at both Universal parks.

"The focus is giving families more for their money," said Danielle Courtenay of the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That's also true in California, where Disneyland Resorts (www.disneyland.com) offers an extra two days of park admission and a free hotel night with a three-night hotel package. Going to San Diego? The new Southern California CityPass, www.citypass.com, can save you 30% on tickets to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, as well as Disneyland and Knott's Theme Park.

You can get unlimited admission to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and other theme destinations with a Williamsburg Flex Vacation Package, www.williamsburgflex.com. A three-night package, which includes hotel, averages less than $750 for a family of four. Besides enjoying the rides at Busch Gardens, families can learn a little history at Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center.

O'Brien also suggested saving money by picnicking outside the park and by refilling water bottles rather than letting the kids guzzle sugar-laden sodas.

Grab discounted tickets on the Web and avoid long lines at the entrance gate. Check with the park's guest services office for other local discounts. Supermarket or soda coupons, for example, can save you $10 or more per ticket, O'Brien said.

Consider a season pass to Six Flags or Paramount parks. The cost is usually less than the price of three or even two visits. The passes are good at Six Flags or Paramount parks nationwide.

Too bad there aren't many discounts on souvenirs. And unfortunately the kids usually don't get excited about the T-shirts that are on sale. But insist that they wait until the end of the day to shop. If you're lucky, they'll be too tired.

Taking the Kids appears twice a month. E-mail Eileen Ogintz at Eileen@takingthekids.com.

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