Amusement parks have become known for their lengthy mazelike lines, but easily the worst one to stand in—from a budget perspective, anyway—is the one at the ticket office.
Parks often raise their prices in spring ahead of the peak summer season. Earlier this week, Walt Disney Co. announced its latest round of increases, pushing the cost of a one-day ticket to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, up from $96 to $99. At Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, prices cracked the hundred-dollar mark at $105, up from $99. Universal Orlando followed suit Thursday, raising the cost of a one-day adult ticket to $102, up from $96. (Universal Studios is an NBCUniversal company. NBCUniversal is also the parent of CNBC.)
Relax. Odds are good you won't pay the full sticker-shock gate price, at Disney, Universal or any other park. "Really, only a small percentage pay that," said John Gerner, managing director at industry consulting firm Leisure Business Advisors. "Most people are able to find some discount. Pricing has become so much more sophisticated."
Case in point: Plenty of parks offer discounts for buying your passes online, in advance. A two-day, two-park ticket to Universal Studios Orlando is $195 for adults, $20 less than the gate price. There may also be exclusive online deals for visiting during less-popular weekdays, or other low-traffic times.
Destination parks also offer cheaper prices when you purchase multiday passes. An adult five-day ticket to Walt Disney World parks, for example, runs $315, or $63 per day. Discount brokers such as Undercover Tourist offer even deeper discounts on bundles, with savings of up to $61 per person off the park's online prices.
For regional parks, an annual pass can be one of the better deals. Most pay for themselves on your second visit to the park. And this early in the year—when many parks aren't even open—there can be early-bird offers that sweeten the deal. At Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, you can currently buy two or more two-park combo passes for $85 apiece. Regularly, the price is $110.
Before you congratulate yourself on money saved, keep in mind that parks are relying more on revenue from on-site spending for food, souvenirs and games, said Gerner. Many are also dangling extra services like passes that let you cut the line. "What we're seeing is more and more in that direction," he said. Factor that in when budgeting for your trip.