Some of The Best Theme Parks for Kids Have FREE Admission!

One of the BEST theme parks that we've taken our kids to is...

close to our home...

has FREE admission...

FREE parking...

and screaming rides...

For both the young kiddies and the trying teens!

Curious? I thought you might be.

The theme park I'm talking about is the Park of America (formerly Camp Snoopy - we miss Peanuts!) at the Mall of America in Minnesota.

It's great for kids of ALL ages without breaking the bank.

To escape the looong frozen Minnesota winter, my husband and I would bundle up our toddler and grade school age kids and head to the Mall of America.

We loved being surrounded by lush green plants, flowers, and trees...

the smell of popcorn & cotton candy...

giggly children...

and bright red cherry snowcones in the middle of winter...

Without spending wads of cash.

Unlimited Fun ALL Day for Under $100

Can you imagine a seven acre amusement park right in the middle of the Mall?

If you ever come to Minnesota, you HAVE to check out the Mall of America...and maybe splurge on some shopping too!

There is NO admission price to walk through the theme park and watch the excitement.

There's even a FREE lego play area for the little ones.

If you want to ride on any of the 28 rides like...

Ripsaw Roller Coaster that rips around the park for 2 minutes and takes your picture that can be purchased after you disembark...

the Log Chute that plunges free fall some 30 feet (and yes, you do get a little wet)...

the Corkscrew that twists and winds its wild ways...

Bumper Cars to crash and bump into Dad on...

and the nostalgic Ferris Wheel to watch the crowds below...

Just buy an unlimited ride wrist band for $21.95.

It's by far the best value.

Not a Huge Fan of Rides?

No problem.

If you're not a huge ride fan like me, you can buy points as you go for the 1 or 2 rides of your choosing.

But you'll get a BIG Kick out of watching your own kids and people watching too!

So for less than $100, all six of us can hang out in the best theme park and be entertained ALL DAY.

A far cry from spending $300 or more at a Six Flags theme park.

We usually come right when the park opens (10 AM), with less crowds too, head to our nearby hotel room for a break for lunch and a dip in the pool or jacuzzi, and then head back for more thrilling rides.

It's a great way to take a mini-vacation in the dead of the winter on a family budget.

Bathing Suits, Swimming Goggles, and Ice Scrapers?

It's February...

It's snowing outside...

It's 22 degrees below windchill...

Yet people are toting their bathing suits, goggles, and ice scrapers in SUVs with giddy families...

for a weekend of water slides and lazy rivers?

Nothing unusual about that.

They're heading to America's largest indoor water park in beautiful Wisconsin Dells.

Who needs Florida when you can...

Test your skills at surfing or boogie boarding in a standout continuous wave pool...

Float down a lazy river in inner tubes and enter a pirate-themed area complete with fire and talking buccaneers...

Be propelled at 40 MPH into a spiral around a funnel-like structure before dropping into a pool below--sort of like a giant toilet bowl...

Be a daredevil and careen around rafters in two 500-foot slides...

Wisconsin Dells is THE BEST waterpark theme park around.

And of course you can do it on a budget...

Even budget minded college kids are heading to the Dells for their spring break!

How about heading to America’s Largest Indoor Water Park resort for $119 a night for a family of 4?

The Kalahari, at 125,000 square feet, is a mega indoor water park...

Plus...Take your pick of 3 out of these 7 “goodies”

1) Overnight stay in a beautifully appointed Desert Room

2) Admission to America's Largest Indoor Waterpark for each registered guest!

3) Your choice of 3 of the 7 fantastic options listed below!

Upgrade to a Kalahari Guest Suite

$20 Pottery Pizzazz coupon

2 Free kids' breakfast entree voucher (ages 10 & under, with purchase of 2 adult breakfast entrees at equal or greater value)

100 Big Game Room Arcade Tokens

14" Pizza & 4 Sodas I highly recommend the Kalahari Resort as one of the best theme parks for indoor water park FUN There are great weekday price discounts as well as five different price categories at the web site.

If you love water, and would enjoy an authentic African themed waterpark resort, then check this out for some budget family fun with the kids.

And as a bonus - you don't have to worry about getting sun burned!

What About Pricey Walt Disney World?

Walt Disney World definitely has cornered the market on being the best theme park to make kids dreams come true.

And who can resist those perfectly shaped character hedges?!!

But the good news is that you can have a good time and still save some money...even at pricey Walt Disney, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld.

And get more BANG for your buck!

But you'll have to hang on to your wallet because this theme park is the "Master" at picking your pocket before you even realize what's happening.

It starts the second you drive on to Mickey's grounds with...

Inflated parking fees...

Overpriced food...

And rides that dump you directly into a gift shop...

But take heart - you can still visit Mickey and the gang on a budget.

But first you need to:

Do Your Research

Forget spontaneity.

Yes, it might be nice to "discover" the theme park as you go along...

but you'll spend most of your visit standing in lines -- and spending most of your money on souvenirs and junk food to quiet whiny kids.

A little planning goes a LONG way at theme parks that are famous for being pricey.

So do your theme park research in advance so you can plan a strategy for your visit and use your time wisely:

1) Get maps and brochures from the park to identify which attractions you can and can't miss. Many offer elaborate "planning guides" for free; check their Web sites.

2) Consult unofficial theme park Web sites devoted to tips and tricks. Some unofficial theme park websites to try are... 3)Consider investing in a guide, if one is available. I like Bob Sehlinger's books, "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland" and "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World."

These books can stand in for the knowledgeable friend who knows how to whisk you to the park's best attractions while bypassing the crowds.

When we took our kids to Walt Disney World, we stayed at a nearby inexpensive hotel so we could take breaks during the day, make our own lunch, and come back in the evening from 8 to 10 PM when the crowds really thinned out.

Most families leave the park about 7 PM - so the lines were a breeze!

Get the Best Deals On Tickets

There's no reason to pay full price since you can always find some kind of discount if you look around a bit.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Don't buy at the gate. Most parks give you at least some discount for buying tickets online at their Web sites, and promotions have become common even during "high" seasons.

Consult the Web sites for deals. Check the parks' own deals with those touted on the unofficial sites listed above. Pay attention to expiration dates and other details that could limit the usefulness of the discounted offers; you don't want to get to the gate and find your ticket has expired.

Consider waiting. If you're planning to attend a theme park during July or August, you might hold off on buying tickets until the latter part of June.

Theme parks typically don't decide whether to roll out summer promotions until they see how much attendance they get during the first couple of weeks of summer.

If you're willing to gamble a little by waiting, you could take advantage of a deal.

Exploit your ZIP Code. If you're a local, you may be able to score significant discounts. Disneyland regularly offers cheaper tickets to Southern Californians, and some other parks sell annual passes for the price of a one-day ticket.

Also, many corporations and government agencies located near theme parks offer discounted tickets to their employees; ask your human resources department.

If your kids attend a college near a park, have them check with the student union for discounted tickets.

Use your memberships. Your AAA, AARP or warehouse club memberships could win you discounts.

Also, you may be able to trade frequent traveler points for tickets. Hilton and Marriott hotel chains, for example, allow you to trade points for 3-Day Park Hopper tickets at Disneyland. (The exchange rate for tickets isn't great, though; you'll typically get a better deal if you use the points for your hotel room instead.)

If you'll be in Southern California for a week or more, consider buying a CityPass, which gets you a 3-Day Park Hopper ticket for Disneyland Resort plus one-day admissions to three other parks.

A recent price check showed a cost of $199 for adults, and $159 for kids ages 3-9 for the CityPass -- pretty good when you consider the Park Hopper alone retails for $169 for adults and $139 for kids!

Or $149 and $119 when purchased through Disney's Web site.

But the Costco Web site revealed an even better deal: $174.99 for adults and $139.99 for kids.

Don't buy more ticket than you need

Disney, especially, likes to push multi-day tickets, but it's easy to go overboard.

Unless you're an absolute Disney nut, a five-day ticket is overkill.

When we went with our preschoolers, one day at any theme park is more than enough. Especially since many of the rides will be off-limits to the little ones.

Some theme parks tout special, high-priced passes that sweep you past the crowds in line for popular rides.

Thank goodness Disney's terrific FastPass system is FREE (and essential for retaining your sanity)

At Six Flags New England, for example, the "standard" Flash Pass costs $10 upfront plus $10 per guest, so a party of four will shell out $50 for the privilege of reserving a place in line and then being paged when it's time to return for the ride.

If you actually want to reduce those waiting times, you can pop for the "gold" Flash Pass, which is $25 up front plus $25 per guest, so your party of four would pay $125 -- all this on top of your admission fees.

No thanks.

Here Are Some Ideas to Cut Standing in Line Time:

Schedule your trip during the park's off season. For most theme parks, that's any time other than holidays and summer vacations. September is usually a great time, since most kids are back in school.

The last official school day before the winter holiday break often has the shortest lines of the year.

Get to the park right when it opens and ride the most popular attractions first. When in doubt, go left; the herd tends to move through parks counter-clockwise.

At Disney parks, use the FastPass system.

Use the "single rider" option if it's offered. Many parks scoot single riders to the front of the line at their most popular attractions. If you don't mind breaking up your party, you can cut a multi-hour wait to minutes.

"Switch off" if you have a non-rider in tow. You don't have to stand in line twice if you're a couple with a child who's too young for certain rides. Take your party through the line as usual, then Dad (or whoever) stays on the loading platform with the child while Mom (or whoever) hops on the ride.

When Mom returns, she takes charge of Baby while Dad takes his place on the ride. Just let the ride attendants know in advance that you want to "switch off."

Stay Overnight Without Overspending

Staying right on park property gives you some perks: early entrance at the Disney resorts and "Universal Express" privileges that get you into shorter lines at Universal Studios Orlando.

But these hotels are never cheap, and they're sometimes mind-blowingly expensive.

A room at the Disney's Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim can set you back $455 a night, while suites at Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Fla., can run over $1,000.

If you want deals, you usually have to come during the off-season. You can call the resort hotels directly to ask about specials, and prowl the park-related Web sites for early warning on hot discounts. You might also check travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity for deals

In the post-Christmas lull, for example, you can often find steep discounts at the luxurious Grand Californian, the newest hotel at the Disneyland resort in Anaheim.

I've booked rooms there for as little as $165 a night, when the normal rack rate in winter is $265 and up. (In the summer, rates generally start at $365.)

But the best hotel deals are off-site.

Booking a hotel with shuttle service can save you on parking fees, but you may find the cheapest hotels are a short drive away. (Kissimmee, Fla., for example, which is near the Orlando entertainment complexes, is filled with motels that offer rooms for less than $50 a night.)

Even if you don't stay at the park, there's nothing to keep you from enjoying the resort hotels' public areas when you need a break from the crowds.

Even when we're not staying at the Grand Californian, I like to take a quiet breather in its impressive arts-and-crafts lobby.

Stretch Your Food Dollars

Even the best theme park food is expensive and usually bad, or at least bad for you.

That's why we always bring our own food - especially drinks and snacks.

Theme parks have different rules about bringing in "outside" food, but in more than two dozen visits to various parks, I've never had to give up my water bottle or granola bars!

The water bottle can be refilled from any tap, and it beats sugary, dehydrating sodas any day.

Also, keep a cooler handy. Stash it in your car or in your hotel room and fill it with fruit, milk, cheese -- maybe even a bottle of wine for you and your husband!

We've also retreated with the kids to the parking lot for lunch.

No lines, no waiting, no hastle.

And the BEST theme park bargain, besides.