Our Frugal Theme Park Getaway

Is it possible to enjoy a frugal theme park getaway? Although prices at theme parks are notoriously high, where there is a will, there's a way.

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This past weekend, my husband and I took the kids on a frugal theme park getaway to King’s Island – a fun, family park just a few hours from our home. Although it wasn’t our first choice, we had an awesome time.

You see, I initially had this crazy idea to take a frugal trip to Disney World in Orlando. I was even offered two free park tickets if I sat through a 90 minute timeshare presentation. The thing is, I still couldn’t pull the trigger. Why? Because Disney is so freaking expensive!

It’s true that you can save some money by buying Disney tickets through a discount site like UndercoverTourist.com. The problem is, the best deals can only be had if you’re willing to stay 5, 6 or 7 days. Sorry, but that’s waaaaay too freaking long. Since we would only want to visit Disney for a maximum of two days, tickets are more like $90 per person, per day. In other words, it would cost us $720 for just two days. And that’s just to walk through the front door!

I could easily fly for free with Southwest Rapid Rewards and stay for free with Starwood Preferred Guest, but there aren’t many ways to save on tickets. {Please do not insult me by suggesting I get a Disney Savings Account. Thanks.} So I said “screw it” and scrapped the whole idea. Here’s what we did instead:

Our Frugal Theme Park Getaway to King’s Island

Since my kids are not that picky and have never been to a theme park anyway, Disney would probably be overkill. Instead, we decided to take them on a weekend getaway to King’s Island, a theme park near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Our savings started right away. Since we were able to drive, we didn’t have to use airline miles or pay for airport parking. Meanwhile, tickets were only around $35 each, making park entry only $140 for the day (compared to Disney, which would have been $360 per day).

We used cash-back to book two nights at the Comfort Suites down the street from the park. The hotel was only $109 per night and had an indoor pool and free breakfast. The hotel wasn’t fancy, but it was more than sufficient. Since we got to the area Friday night, we were also able to swim in the hotel pool for several hours before visiting the park the next morning.

Our Day at King’s IslandIs it possible to enjoy a frugal theme park getaway? Although prices at theme parks are notoriously high, where there is a will, there's a way.

First of all, something totally random and weird happened when we arrived at the park. Once we walked through the gates and started looking around, a team of people approached us and informed us that we had been selected as the “Family of the Day.”

Ummm…..okay. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was willing to go along with it. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything crazy. They gave us free t-shirts, took us to a private area where my kids could meet Snoopy and Charlie Brown, then walked us over to the park opening area parade-style. Once we got there, we counted down as a family to open the park. It was a really sweet, cute gesture, and a great way to start our day!

After that, we were on our own. The cool thing about King’s Island is the fact that it has a really awesome kid’s area. Even though my kids are only 40 and 44 inches, there were a ton of rides their size.

In addition to miniature roller coasters and some fun child-sized rides, the kid’s area also had a petting zoo with pot-bellied pigs, a huge pregnant cow, sheep, lambs, and miniature horses. My kids loved it!

Another perk: King’s Island recently started doing kid’s shows during certain hours each day. My kids were pretty mesmerized by the shows and characters and loved all the singing and dancing! They even got up and started dancing with Snoopy and his friends. It was pretty cute.

In addition to the theme park, King’s Island also has a water park. We spent the second half of the day on that side of the park, and had a great time. In addition to some fun water slides, we also spent some time on the lazy river. I must admit, that was my favorite part!

How We Saved at King’s Island

Paying only $35 per ticket to visit a theme park and a water park is a crazy good value. Meanwhile, the fact that we could drive was icing on the cake. I also liked thatfamily of the day we were able to book a cheap hotel with breakfast included. And the continental breakfast offered at Comfort Suites wasn’t just cereal and fruit either – the buffet had a waffle bar, scrambled eggs, yogurt, toast, bagels and cream cheese, cereal, fruit, juice, and coffee. On our second morning, they also had hash browns.

Aside from scoring free breakfast both mornings, here are a few other ways we saved:

We shared meals at lunch. Since I didn’t want to haul a bag around the park, we opted to eat lunch in an on-site restaurant called Red’s Hall of Fame Grille. Prices weren’t that bad at all, and we saved money by sharing meals. My kids shared this huge chicken finger basket thing for $11.99. It was so big that 3 or 4 people could have easily shared it! I expected higher prices at a theme park, so I was pleasantly surprised.

We shared a snow cone. The snow cones were huge (and expensive) so we shared one four ways. I just asked the snow cone guy to separate it into two giant cups then picked up four spoons.

We didn’t play any games or buy anything. Despite my children’s pleas, we did not play any games or try to win them a stuffed animal. The last thing I need is a stuffed dragon that’s bigger than my kids! We were also able to avoid the gift shops altogether. The rides were distracting enough that my kids didn’t notice all the stuff King’s Island had for sale.

Although I know that local theme parks are not the same thing as Disney World, we still had a great time. Our cheap hotel was more than adequate, the

Lots of food for decent prices.

park was more than I could ask for, and we made it through the weekend without spending much money at all.

Will we make it to Disney World in the future? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s hard to justify the cost when we have perfectly nice parks closer to home.

And let’s be honest – if we’re going all the way to Florida, I’d much rather go to the beach!

Have you been to a theme park lately? Do you think Disney is worth it?

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  1. Sounds like a fun day was had by all! Disney really is insanely expensive. I’m not even sure kids would really appreciate it anyway. I like Snoopy πŸ™‚

    1. I’ve been to Disney twice – it really is awesome. It just isn’t awesome enough to pay 500% more and fly across the country!

  2. Sounds like a great time! The most important thing is that your kids enjoyed themselves. I’m sure it was the same thing as Disney to them- but with a much nicer price tag πŸ™‚

    1. They don’t know the difference at this point, and they may never know the difference!

  3. Even living as close to Orlando (about 4 hours), I’ve only been to theme parks twice in the last decade. It’s just so expensive and exhausting. Friends with kids actually prefer getting the yearly passes to Busch Gardens in Tampa since it’s closer and cheaper and the kids (pre-K) are too young to really know the difference.

  4. Wow! You guys got picked as the “Family of the Day” right off the bat? You must have a very good looking crew!

    We have something very similar to this in MI called Michigan Adventure. Anymore we prefer to go to it over the big parks because its 1) cheaper 2) easier to get around at 3) only 2 miles away. I’d love to go to take the family to Disney again, but for the price it costs we go for a week to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico again – TWICE!

    1. Yeah, I hear ya. The pricing is crazy. I priced out a Disney cruise not too long ago and thought it was a typo. A 7-day cruise was something like $4,000 with Disney where a comparable cruise with Carnival or RC was more like $1,500 for the four of us.

  5. We recently visited Orlando and skipped Disney all together because of the cost, but still had an amazing time at Universal for a lot less money.

  6. I have been to Disney World, and honestly it’s impossible to go through the experience frugally and I don’t really think it’s worth it. We spent thousands to take my son there when he turned 5 and he loved the pool at the hotel as much as anything else. The following year we spent about $200 to take him to this indoor water park and arcade and stay at a cheap hotel and he said it was one of the best trips of his life. Kids really just want time with their parents outside of the usual home routines, they really don’t care what you do once you’re together.

    1. I agree with you. My kids just want to spend time with us and have fun. Their expectations are pretty low. They LOVED the tiny little pool in our Comfort Suites hotel too. It cracked me up.

  7. Since having kids, we haven’t been to any theme parks. The last time we went to Kings Island was for my birthday a couple years back. Since my birthday is in October, it lines up with their freight fest thing. It also is a time the park is even less expensive and you get haunted houses. During the day the lines are basically non-existent and at night, it is a little crowded, but heck where else can I go and see 10ish haunted attractions (on and ride the Beast in the dark).

    Sounds like you had fun. Have you considered going to Holiday World? I have only heard good things about them for families… We have never been because King’s Island is just easier to get to.

    1. Yes, we also looked at Holiday World. The problem with them is that there aren’t many hotels nearby. The major chains that I could book with points were 30-40 minutes away. They had some cabins on-site and nearby but I thought they were expensive. King’s Island was a much better value in that respect.

  8. Sounds like a great time Holly! I think I’d go postal if I had to spend an entire week at Disney, lol. We went to Disneyland while we were in San Diego last fall and got really good prices on tickets since we could get military rates (they were like less than half the normal price) and just drove in, but it was still expensive. That being said, our kids just love if the hotel we stay at has a pool – anything beyond that usually gets forgotten.

    1. Pretty much! It’s funny how kids will swim in a cold pool and think it’s the best thing ever!

  9. Sounds like a really fun time! I can’t justify the cost of Disney at this point as my kids are too young and not into Disney characters at all!

    1. I hear ya! My kids would like Disney, but still not enough to justify it. Besides, I don’t feel that I owe them the Disney experience.

  10. I always forget we’re so close! I’m in Columbus. I haven’t been to Kings Island in years though (*Team Cedar Point πŸ™‚ *). I will say that I do enjoy any cheap getaway that I can – especially in the summer. Although this summer it will be bachelorette parties and weddings. I am looking forward to FinCon at the end of the summer. Hope to see you guys there!

  11. Sounds like a blast!!! I can’t wait til our girls are a little older (like the ages of yours!) so we can do fun things like this πŸ™‚ Now that we’re in NC, we could definitely drive to Disney World which would save us some money, but I really don’t know if I’ll ever be able to justify the expense. Growing up in AZ, I went to Disney Land once when I was 7 with a friend’s family. I’m sure I had fun but honestly I don’t even remember it. We’ll see what happens when our girls are older, but as of now I plan on sticking to less expensive amusement parks!

  12. I didn’t even know King’s Island was open anymore. I thought when I was a kid they finally shut it down because some of the rides were breaking or too dangerous. Hmm! Glad you had fun. My go-to theme park is Cedar Point. Big scary rides. Nothing even comes close. I try to make it home at least every other year and go there even if I have to drag someone with me. πŸ™‚

  13. You know what is even better than KI or Disney? Cedar Point!! We get season passes every year as our summer vacation for the kids (we live a couple hours south). It is really nice because you can just stay for the afternoon or whatever and not worry about not getting your moey’s worth for the entire day. You also get admission to the water park and free parking. Just thinking about Disney give me anxiety!

    1. Sounds fun! =) We wouldn’t really benefit from the big rides yet. Kids are too small =)

      1. Mine are small too–ages 2 and 6. Cedar Point is a lot like King’s Island, except it is surrounded by Lake Erie and has a nice beach. We just hang out in Planet Snoopy all day. We actually went by ourselves a couple weeks ago and determined that the big rides had too long of lines so we just rode the railroad and other “old” people rides. haha πŸ™‚

        1. I like the old people rides! I don’t like big roller coasters at all anymore! The last time I went on one it felt like my brain was shaking in my head.

  14. Sounds like such a fun time! And I don’t blame you for not wanting to put up with those Disney fees. I used to go to a amusement park called Kiddie Land when I was young but they closed it down. I’m all for local amusement parks though since I feel there’s plenty of time to take my son to Disney World when he gets a little older. For now we do a lot of summer carnivals with rides and I got a good deal on an indoor water park a few months back.

    1. We did an indoor water park last year. It was a blast!

  15. I rode my first roller coaster ever at King’s Island. It was the forward racer. Is it still there? We are actually going to Disneyland Paris next month, and it was cheaper and is much smaller than Disney Orlando. I doubt we’ll ever go there. Even if it was cheaper, it’s just too big and overwhelming. The older I get the less I like crowds.

  16. I know some families who go to Disney almost annually. Way too expensive…way too hot and way too many lines. I think it might be fun for the kids to go…and to get to say they went. I’m sure they would have a blast…but maybe when they’re a little older, and definitely not a yearly event. We have a few driveable theme parks like Hershey Park, Sesame Place which I think is better for younger kids, and easier on the wallet.

    1. Yes, definitely! I also know people who Disney all the time. If they love it, they hey, who am I to judge? It’s just too expensive for my tastes.

  17. catherine says:

    Great weekend away! There are no theme parks anywhere near where I live…thousands of miles away being closest. I’ve been to Disney a few times and love it. It really is a special place but don’t waste your money until your kids are old enough to appreciate the trip. I’d say at least 7-8 years old for the youngest and I also think your travelhacking abilities might be able to find better deals. I have a friend who goes every year off season and says booking through an agent is always cheaper because disney gives them deals that you can’t get online. Is disney worth it, yup but wait to go.

    1. Oh, I can stay there and fly for free. The problem is the crazy price of park tickets. I don’t want to pay it.

  18. Amazing getaway! The kids are enjoying it. Great post. Thanks for sharing God Bless.

  19. How to Travel Hack Disney- they sometimes do a free Disney Offer for volunteering with an organization like the boys and girls club. When I volunteered in college, one of the other volunteers let me know, and I got a free pass (just had to sign up oonline). It was awesome to go for free- something I would never pay for on my own.

    1. That is probably the only way it will happen. Doing a timeshare presentation seems like a possibility, although two tickets isn’t enough. I need four free tickets!

  20. I always love water parks. Growing up in Alaska, I didn’t have access to them. So they’re a big treat. For awhile we were going on my birthday each year. It’s in August, so the park offers Groupons each year to boost attendance. For $17, you get admission and free soda all day.

    For people who do opt for Disney parks, I’ve heard the best idea is to hit the outlet stores before the park. Let your kids pick a toy there and bring it with them. This’ll help keep them from wanting a full-price plush buddy.

    Alternately, my mom told me I could have one stuffed animal on our one trip to Disneyland. So I spent the whole day scouting my options. It made me choose carefully, and I wasn’t begging Mom all day for “just one more.”

    1. I feel fortunate that my kids didn’t ask for a single thing while we were there – unless you count edible stuff. =)

  21. My son’s first long-term memory was actually of Mickey Mouse kissing him at Disneyland. The best way to do Disney is to live nearby (even better is to get your in-laws to take the kids) or to go while you’re in SoCal (or Orlando) for another reason, preferably during the week when it’s not a holiday week. Even better if you have a cousin in the OC with annual passes and a guest pass/discount.

  22. I bet the girls were tickled pink to be chosen as the Family of the Day. πŸ™‚ With Disneyland so close to us, we do have annual passes because it is a favorite of the girls. It’s definitely not cheap, even without hotel and airfare needed, so we make sure we go there often enough to justify the costs. It helps because almost everyone who visits wants to go to Disneyland. πŸ™‚

  23. Good to see that there are still great values out there for penny-pinching families this summer!

  24. Sounds like a great day! There is a local theme park in the Twin Cities metro, perhaps you’ve heard of it, Valleyfair? It’s gotten more and more expensive though and honestly it’s difficult to justify going.

  25. I got nostalgic reading this post. I used to love bringing our girls to a theme park in Toronto – a few hours away for us. Almost every Canadian I know has been to Disney World, so I’m in the minority up here. I have to battle this sense that I’ve deprived my children of an essential rite of passage by not bringing them. Fortunately, we all have great memories of the theme park closer to home.

  26. Yeah it’s impossible to do Disney cheaply – the brand is just so strong.

    We splurged on Disney in California since odds are we will probably only ever return to the USA like once in the future and who knows when that would be. It was pretty rad!

  27. This is the frugal way, Holly. I agree Disneyland is so expensive, and there are theme parks out there that can give as much fun as we can get in Disneyland. It’s all about fun and experience, as long as kids are having fun and the family is having quality time! That is all that matters.

  28. That is awesome guys! We are kind of fortunate that we live within driving distance of Disneyland and we usually stay with friends when we go to California. Haven\’t been in a while, but now that we have a son, I see a trip on the horizon in a few years!

  29. Sounds like you all had a wonderful day – that family of the day designation is adorable! These are great tips for a fun and cheaper family outing. I am still dying to take my kid to Disney world (I am someone who totally gets caught up in the magic of it all), but we will wait several years before we do. She’ll probably be 5 or 6, so I figure that gives us plenty of time to save for that kind of trip since she’s turning 1 this month. I think her Dad and I (and grandparents that want to come) will have more fun that her anyway hah.

  30. Sounds like a perfect family vacation! And, I’m with you, Disney is just absurdly expensive. Plus, I bet King’s Island was less crowded and less hectic anyway. That’s pretty cute they made you family of the day–maybe they recognized you from the blog!

  31. We did Cedar Point Platnium passes this year – we’ll go at least 3 times, so they pay for themselves (with free parking, it’s an even better deal!). We’re also going to Disney for Daughter Person’s birthday – the flights and hotels and even the tickets are “free” with points, but we want to do something special for her birthday – that’s where they’re getting us!

  32. “I know that local theme parks are not the same thing as Disney World.” Well, you know that and I know that, but your kids probably don’t know that! And I’m sure they had a great time! Maybe even better since mom and dad weren’t worried about spending tons of money. When I was a kid I could always sense when my parents were spending more money than they wanted to be and it made me uncomfortable. I bet you were all happier in an environment that met your desires and your budget.

  33. We went to Disney World twice when my son was little. It was stupid expensive even back then, but it was definitely worth the memories. Now that we live down here and my son’s an adult, there’s not much point. However, I have to say that taking him to the local water park, Enchanted Forest Water Safari, where we used to live in New York state was WAY more fun than Disney, and as you pointed out, WAY cheaper too. I think your King’s Island adventure sounded perfect AND budget friendly. This post is a great lesson in having fun in your own area’s backyard. πŸ™‚

  34. Hi Holly,

    I have two little guys at home and we are always looking to find new frugal activities for our family. Thanks for the post!

    Also wanted to thank you for the inspiration. This world of blogging is all new to me. I’ve always wanted another outlet outside of my 9-5. I started a blog two days ago and it has been so great to get my thoughts out there. If you have any advice for me I would greatly appreciate it. There seems to be so many aspects of setting up a site, collaborating with others, developing content, etc. that it’s a bit overwhelming. But I’m looking forward to embarking on this blogging journey.

    Best regards,

  35. Socal fun says:

    I am not a Disney person but like to take our son every few years for just a day, we live about 10 miles away. I was able to purchase 6 each $50 Disney gift cards from sams club using the amex sync deal they cost 48.88 and when you spit two amex cards and get 40 back each 50 gift card only costs 8.88. So we bought 6 of them and got 300 in GC for $53.28, this will cover parking and three admissions to the park.

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