Have an Amusement Park & TV Free Summer (and if you can’t, find a way to make it cheaper)

Photo: Keith Song

• If you haven’t begun to plan summer vacation for your kids—lest they spend the majority of it in front of the idiot box (as my mother called it) watching bad re-runs of bad sitcoms–now is the time to begin thinking about it. The more occupied the kids are outside of the house , the better. But left to their own devices kids will always find the most expensive diversions possible, but with a little planning and networking, summer vacation doesn’t have to be expensive and their minds don’t have to turn to mush. First my take on the amusement park issue and then, my suggestions for free or nearly free summer activities to keep the kids away from the TV and the video games.

• When my kids hear the word summer nowadays, even at the ages of 3 and 5 , they think two things: they are going to be in a wedding (three so far) and they are going to Disneyland (thanks to one of the weddings being next door to Disneyland, thank you cousin Briana). This is problematic for me. Disneyland costs something like $70 for my three year old to get in and the only thing they don’t seem to charge for is breathing and going to the restroom. And technically you could use the picnic tables outside the gate and bring your own food, but socially you do so and you scar your children (I can see the therapy couch now). If one must be dragged to Disneyland, befriend an employee to help you out with tickets. Seriously, I haven’t paid full price for Disneyland since they started making “Passports” and we could no longer just bring the Buster Brown shoebox full of E—through A tickets saved up and stored above the microwave in Grandma’s kitchen.

• Disney employees tend to be geeky and take their employment as a brush with fame and greatness. They like to show off they work for the Mouse. Exploit this factor. They love feeling a little bit special and different from the rest of us. Use it and save $400. Of course the easiest way to get a family of four in is probably on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February but you can try a week day in June as well.

• Other amusement parks have the same sort of employee and friends and families discounts but even if there are block out dates, the next best exploitation is to saddle relatives with a wonderful day out with your children at said amusement park. This works well because if they take them , you don’t have to go! What works in my family is cultivating relationships with my twentysomething childfree but in a relationship cousins and sister with my two kids. Of course it helps that my kids are well behaved, independent with an uncanny savvy streak when it comes to well placed hugs and I love yous for their aunts and cousins. This summer, I don’t even have to go to Disneyland. A cousin and her husband want the challenge of faux parenthood for a day, bless their silly souls.

• But still, amusement parks set a dangerous precedent of summer expectations so in reserve, I keep a good deal of other activities handy that hopefully will become routine enough that they’ll never notice they were suckered into free and intellectually stimulating activities.

• Museums and libraries. Often both of these have summer programs for kids that either cost nothing or next to nothing. Library summer programs usually come with free t-shirts and crafts and pizza parties at the end. I schedule kids museum visits for the one free day a month. For example, when I do this in San Francisco, I can get about three free museum trips in if I plan ahead and hit the right museum on the right day (first Tuesday of the month for one, first Wednesday of the month for another). Most museums have ‘family activities’ on Sundays that are free or low cost.

• Little kids are entertained by empty boxes and playgrounds and wading pools. I drive the extra mile to take them to bigger or better playgrounds and parks with more stuff in them because it entertains them longer and wears them out (key). These things might seem boring to you but can give you lots of mileage. We’ve also mastered the art of having a really cool picnic basket and blanket that we cart everywhere so we don’t have to stop for food. It helps that we’ve seldom gone to fast food so they don’t really know it exists as a temptation and money sucker.

• My son’s preschool teacher has started giving the kids the task of creating ‘trash art sculptures’ when they get bored. They clean up the neighborhood, make art out of found free objects (some of the last couple were pretty darn cool). They can clean up the neighborhood AND make art at the same time.

• We’ve been collecting old puppets from thriftstores all year and have created a ‘puppet theatre’ in the backyard. I’ve told each of my kids to think up the characteristics for each of their puppets. For preschoolers and kindergartners they’ve got some pretty elaborate storylines developing. Puppet theatre in the backyard can eat up whole afternoons and you only need to bring out some snacks and keep them hydrated.

• Good old swimming lessons. Many communities offer scholarships for swimming lessons at local community centers since swimming is something all children need to know how to do. You are sure to qualify if you live in a high cost of living area with more than one child.

• My husband uses the summertime to teach our son more computer skills. The fun type. The old delayed reaction digital camera is now the kids’ camera and the old eMac with iLife ’06 is now the kids learning and creating vehicle for them to learn on.

• There’s always farming the kids out and getting them to take on jobs. We’ve told our five year old if he wants any more Star Wars Lego he has to start his own blog and get his own Google Adsense account. Of course he just barely started learning to read and write so , he might need a bit of help on this one. But older kids can always be forced into labor with enough shame and guilt. My mom forced my butt off of the summer couch with a summer hire job at the age of fourteen. My clothing options were much better in the fall that year—that works too.

• With a little creativity and advanced planning the coming summer doesn’t have to be expensive or lethargic. Who knows? Cultivating their creative side could always work out in your favor. And perhaps any residuals from their fifteen minutes of creative fame they might share with you. And if that doesn’t work, there is always Disneyland.

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Guest's picture
Mike 2

One time I was more or less forced by my friends to go to Disneyland with them and oh, man, that hurt my wallet. It was pretty fun, actually, but to save money I ended up ordering 5 hamburgers with no french fries because this was the cheapest possible meal I could find in the whole park. You've really got to buckle down to stay frugal in these places.

Guest's picture

This post is barely readable. Yikes.

Guest's picture

Wow! Am I glad I am not your kid. They must have no fun at all!

Guest's picture

How sad that "guest" thinks the only way to please kids is to buybuybuy. Can't wait to see the outcome of *that* (okay I'll turn off my sarcasm now!)

My family plans trips to a regional amusement park for once a month during the summer. We live way too far to consider trips to DIsney and it is way beyond consideration in our budget at this point. Besides- our youngest two kids are 1 and 3 respectively- does it make sense to spend thousands on airfare and hotels for them on something they will not remember? NO.

We instead go to Knoebel's Grove AMusement Park in Elysburg, PA. And yes- I am advertising-- the park is amazing at the low costs/high value they offer! A bit of a drive for us- but no cost to get in the park. Most amusement parks charge you to park and even get in the park at all- not Knoebel's. They have all day wristbands you can buy- or packs of tickets. We usually buy wrist bands for the kids (but not the one year old!) and ticket packs for adults- since we know we won't be riding that much anyways. We stop at Mickey D's for lunch on the way in and maybe Wendy's on the way home for dinner. Kids ride as much as they want and often ride their favorites several times. We find we don't end up needing to consider going to field days or carnivals-- just once an month to Knoebel's is enough. After dinner, kids get in pajamas and sleep all the way home. We have introduced many other families to Knoebels and they have all been pleased- and go again. It is also a half way point between us and other family- we have met my sister and her family for kids to have a day with their cousin.

Otherwise, my kids have swimming lessons free from the city every week day- with free swim afterwards for fun. We live across the street from a playground; we give liberal permission for friends to come over and play in the backyard. The sprinkler is frequently on for cooling off. We make popsicles for snacks everyday. My eldest is going away to summer camp for 3 weeks- we will pay for one week of church camp, she got a grant from our church for the second week of church camp (she has gone before and really loved it)-- and one week of girl scout camp was earned by her high volume cookie sales. Next eldest is not quite ready for sleep away camp, but he wants to go to day camp- we will pay for 2 weeks of this-- very inexpensive thru city school program available to us.

Guest's picture
Amy K.

Mom bought a state parks pass every year when I was young. We would go to the beach almost every day, it was great. And yes - definitely enroll the kids in swimming lessons!

Guest's picture

My sister worked at a food stand at Sea World last summer, so we took advantage of it and my sister got my daughter, my wife and I and 6 of her siblings in for a day with food and parking for a grand total of $5. That was money well spent!

By the way, Sea World and Busch Gardens have free admission for military personnel.

Guest's picture

I think that we forget what fun can be had in the backyard or in neighborhood parks. Kids should be able to run and make their own fun. When I was little we were let lose to run around the neighborhood.

Trips to Disney are not in our kid's future. Thee are way better ways to have fun and travel without paying homage to Mickey and Minnie. Sounds like torture to me.

Guest's picture

I'm facing a summer full of nothing for my elementary school aged kids. Normally, they would have a long road trip to see their cousins and two weeks of day camp. This isn't in the budget this year. My kids tend to fight if parked in front of "the idiot box" and that drives me crazy since I telecommute. I can't plan enough play dates.

Splash pools are useful even for older small kids - just to get wet. I have a friend that has a larger temporary pool with a pump that she uses every year. An 8 YO can get some swimming in that. The cost was maybe $200 in initial investment and this is her third year.

I am planning a library day each week because my kids do well with schedules. Libraries do have good free programs for kids in the summer. They also have air conditioning. There will be a grocery day. There's air conditioning at the store too. I'll probably drag those visits out a little (math games? scavenger hunts?). Also, I will have to invest energy in finding the free museum days, though I have difficulty in crowds.

This past Saturday was National Parks Day and we visited one about an hour from our house and it was SPECTACULAR! I love National Parks and their junior ranger programs are fun and informative. Also, they are pretty much everywhere. Even when they require a fee, you can bring a lunch and carpool with friends and it's still affordable.

I'm also thinking of getting my kids in the garden. Their teachers have set them up for that real well and even though we live in the desert there's lots of stuff to tend. Plus we can watch the lizards scurry. This is only good early mornings and evenings.

All this requires a lot of time and energy that, frankly, I'm not sure I have. So, coming to my original statement, I would love to see more posts (and comments) on just this sort of thing. Thanks!

Guest's picture

I was raised by very frugal parents. They took me to Disneyland twice (when I was 4 and when I was 16.) My only souvenirs were ears and lots of pictures. I know that going to Disneyland was a major splurge for my parents.

I don't feel like I had a deprived childhood at all. In fact it's the other trips we took that I remember. One of my favorites was when we would take day trips to Carmel, hit the white sand beaches to fly kites and then browse through the art galleries.

I think sometimes the best thing for kids is to allow them creative freedom (supervised though.) I remember making up all sorts of fun activities with the neighborhood "gang". We'd have parades or pretend we were in Hawaii (put on our swimsuits and use a towel as a "boat".) We'd also make a "Bedouin" tent in the living room using chairs and a blanket and pretend we were Nomads. Camping in the backyard was fun too. I think lack of video games and no cable helped with this, but I'm sure todays kids still have imaginations.

I don't believe that you'll scar your children by limiting or forgoing the amusement park vacations.

Maggie Wells's picture

I love some of the constructive ideas here. We live in a national forest near horse camps and such so we tend to go urban for vacations (hence, Disneyland). I was also raised close enough to Disneyland to hear the fireworks at night! (9 PM) LOL

The highlight of my kids' summer last year was the library's summer program. A few hours every wednesday, they got to read, play games, interact with other kids, and make crafts. All for free.

 I agree that many things are time consuming! That's what I like about puppet theater. I set it up on the side of the house and let them go crazy with them. Works best if a few other kids get to come over too.

We're hoping California will be able to keep a few state parks open this year. We'll see.



Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Carrie Kirby's picture

Come on, Guest, I'd say Margaret's kids have been to Disneyland a lot more than most other kids. They must not live that far away. I only went once, when I was really too old for it, and I'm not planning on taking my kids at all. Yet all my friends are telling me that I'm the "fun" mom because of the (cheap) 4th birthday party I just threw for my daughter.

Our big fun summer project? We're getting compost worms! Does that make me a curmudgeon?

Maggie Wells's picture

But now live a blissful 14 hour drive away....the compost project sounds fun! We garden as well but the wildlife usually breaks , enters, and eats...

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

When you think about it, it IS pretty odd to take children on a big, expensive trip (for us- half a continent away!) to what? See adults in mice costumes. And ride on a few rides that can take hours to wait for (don't start on the "fast pass" and all that insider gobbledy gook- I don't want to go there!).

Guest's picture

Lots of movie theatres offer free G and PG rated films in the summer. Movies are a big bonding experience for our family and are also air conditioned! Eat before the movie to avoid buying snacks.

Guest's picture

From one guest to another -

That's right. We have a theater that shows free movies every wed at 10 a.m. during the summer. Daycare centers will often pack the house, but it is available. Also, toward the end of the summer, we had a free international children's film festival. They said it was the first annual, so I guess I'll get to add that to my national parks, library, gardening plans. Oh, I've also been instructed to make my 2nd grader read aloud to help with reading and writing issues involved with a speech impairment. We'll probably have a quiet hour after lunch where we do shared reading.

Regarding Disney, the first time I ever went I was 35 YO and it was with my kids. It was fantastic, but not something I can do much and not something I fault my parents for not doing.

Guest's picture

When the kids were little I was a stay at home mom and we would go to the park with kool-aid and some snacks. They would run and run and have a good time. When they were older we would go for long bike rides together to another park that had a pond in it and then come home to have a movie marathon. We had library days that we would get the movies from and also books. There are a lot of good places to go to that do not cost money.

We did go on vacations. We went to Las Vegas and stayed at Circus Circus and saw lots of acts. We also went to San Diego and did not go to Sea World but went to the beach a lot. My husband had to go there on business and I flew with the kids and we stayed in his room.