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Timing the best deals for family entertainment

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How to time your next theme park or zoo visit

Image Source | Getty Images

Timing is everything — even, as it turns out, when you're deciding which day to visit the zoo or what time to catch a movie.

Consumers have gotten used to seeing prices fluctuate based on demand when they're booking a flight or hailing an Uber, but more businesses in the entertainment industry are now playing with the idea, said John Gerner, managing director at industry consulting firm Leisure Business Advisors. Some are putting in place fixed tiers by day, time or season, while others are using sophisticated algorithms for more fluid changes based on real-time demand.

"They're trying to discourage people from coming during the peak days when attractions tend to be at their fullest," he said.

For bargain hunters, the trend can mean taking a harder look at pricing policies and often, booking in advance. Don't forget to think about value, too. Cheaper rates usually mean smaller crowds — a boon for getting on more amusement park rides or an unobstructed view of the zoo's pandas — but it might also mean rainy April baseball games and so-so snow at the ski resort.

Here's how to nail the timing for six different outings.

— By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 15 Feb. 2016

Amusement parks

Pacific Park in Santa Barbara, California
Ashlee Espinal | CNBC

Disney made news last year for exploring the idea of different ticket prices for different days based on demand. While that's unusual, many parks already do a kind of soft-demand pricing, by offering discounts on lower-traffic days or blocking out high-demand days, said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com.

Universal Studios Hollywood, for example, offers up to $20 off gate prices for visitors who buy tickets online for a specific date. (Universal Studios is part of NBCUniversal, as is CNBC.) Most of the deepest-discount days currently on offer are Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At Disneyland, an annual pass with no blackout dates costs $1,049; two other pass tiers with more limited admittance cost $599 and $849.

But don't just look at price. "There's always been variable value when you go, even if the price might be the same," said Niles.

Park hours and crowds can make a difference in how much you're able to see and do. "'Visit on a school day' is the best advice I can give," he said. Families should look for times their school calendar doesn't sync with everyone else's — say, the variable weeks of spring break, or at the beginning or end of the school year.

Restaurants

Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

Beyond happy hour and early bird specials, diners already have a few opportunities to cut their dinner bill based on when they eat. Deal site Groupon offers discounts for reservations at partner restaurants; diners can save up to 31 percent at New York restaurant Circo, for example.

OpenTable.com users regularly earn 100 points for each free reservation, with rewards starting at 2,000 points, for a $20 dining check. But they can earn 1,000 points for making a reservation during what a restaurant deems its less-trafficked times. At Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas, that's from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly.

On the flip side, diners looking for a hot table could get one — at a slight premium — through reservation apps such as Resy and Killer Rezzy. On a recent Friday, a Resy table at NYC's Scarpetta was $10 per diner, while a Killer Rezzy table at Narcissa cost a flat $15.

Baseball games

Baseball fan
Grant Faint | Getty Images

Timing can make a big difference in how much you'll pay to see a favorite team in action. Even before the season starts, many teams set tiered pricing based on day, time and opponent matchup.

Many also use dynamic pricing to shift prices throughout the season based on demand, often to make prices more competitive with those on the secondary market, said Chris Matcovich, vice president of data for secondary market aggregator TiqIQ.com. That tends to work in fans' favor, he said — with few exceptions, prices trend downward as gameday approaches and both the teams and resellers look to unload unsold seats.

A 2015 analysis from marketplace ScoreBig found that day games can be as much as 26 percent pricier than evening games. Which day of the week you attend can shift prices by as much as 18 percent in either direction. Tuesdays (any time) and Wednesdays (afternoons) are cheapest, they found, while games on Saturday (any time) and Monday (afternoons) tend to be the priciest.

Aside from opening day and playoff games, fans can also find more bargains attending before Memorial Day and after Labor Day — i.e., when kids are still in school, said Matcovich.

Movies

Ale Ventura | PhotoAlto | Getty Images

Getting in for the first matinee of the day is still a winning timing strategy at most movie theaters, but some chains and individual locations vary pricing more than others.

Participating Cinemark theaters, for example, have a "discount day" where all tickets are a set price. At the Cinemark 14 in Chico, California, for example, all tickets are $5.50 on Tuesday; regularly, the first showing of the day is $6, and $7.15 for later showings. Cinemark Movies 10 in Plano, Texas, runs a $1.50 "early bird" on the first showing, with prices rising to $2, $2.25 and $2.75 as the day progresses.

Regal Crown Club promotions include 25 percent off candy every Monday and half-price popcorn on Tuesdays, as well as "value days" that vary by theater. At the Regal Columbia Stadium in Columbia, Missouri, that's $5.99 tickets every day between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., while the UA Greenwood Plaza Stadium 12 in Englewood, Colorado, has $5 tickets all day on Sundays (a discount of more than 60 percent off regular adult prices).

Zoos and aquariums

Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia
Ashlee Espinal | CNBC

On a February weekday, adult admission to the Indianapolis Zoo might cost just $8.20. On a weekend in July, it's already as high as $21.95. "There are about a thousand different variables," said the zoo's president, Mike Crowther, including weather forecasts and historical attendance.

There are two rules to keep in mind: Prices only move in one direction — up — and they are always higher at the gate than online. "We never want to provide a disincentive to purchase your tickets in advance," he said.

While the dynamic pricing Indianapolis uses is still rare, it's not unusual to see seasonal price variations, said Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There may be less to see offseason, but not always, he said. Cold-weather zoos often boost special programs and indoor exhibits, and some animals — like tigers — tend to be even more active in chilly temps.

Pricing can also vary by time of day. "Sometimes people will pay a premium to come in early," Vernon said, which is often when the animals are more active. The Georgia Aquarium offers special "Imagination Nights" rates of up to 36 percent off for visitors who arrive after 4 p.m.

Ski resorts

Couple at a ski resort
Dougal Waters | Getty Images

Spotting a ski deal used to be more about picking resort A versus resort B, said Evan Reece, chief executive of Liftopia.com. "Now, it's more about when you ski and when you buy," he said.

The latter is the easiest factor to control. "The further in advance you buy, the less you pay," Reece said. Prices rise as resorts get a better sense of expected crowds. In some cases, discounts can be as much as 80 percent for consumers willing to buy very far in advance, he said.

Skiers willing to avoid peak days can often snag better deals on lift tickets and annual passes. Stevens Pass in Washington charges $499 for a weekday-only pass, versus as much as $799 for an everyday pass. For the 2015-16 season, Vail Resorts charged adults $769 for an unlimited-access Epic Pass, or $579 for a local one with blackout dates.

Weekdays tend to offer more bargains in general, said Reece. For weekend skiers, Sunday is often cheaper. There can also be more bargains late in the season, but with a clear risk: The snow may not be great.