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Are you SURE you want to pay $10 for that burger?
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Theme Park trips can get to be EXPENSIVE.

Really. Expensive. With rising costs on everything from tickets to parking to special events at places like Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s and Sea World, it can sometimes be hard to justify spending that much for a family.
A smiling couple sitting in the back train car of Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland.
Ah, back in the days before kids when we could actually ride a ride at Disneyland NEXT TO EACH OTHER, without rider swap.
A family visiting Disneyland with their baby, standing in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle
When we were first married, we often visited Disneyland multiple times a week in the evening. I was a Cast Member, so I had free passes at the time, to see the parades or catch a few rides before the fireworks. 
But once we had kids, we quickly realized that there would be a lot more extra costs involved in doing a theme park day.
two smiling little boys sitting in a purple chair in Mickey's House in Toontown at Disneyland
Sure, they LOOK cute now, but if you feed them too late, they turn into gremlins...

Over the years, weve now learned how to cut costs and save money at the theme parks we visit. And we want to share those tips with you! So with that, lets look at one of the biggest hidden costs that can surprise a budget-conscious family at attractions: Food.

Saving Money On Food at Theme Parks

Surprise! You don’t HAVE to purchase multiple, expensive meals when you spend a full day at a theme park. 
A dining plan can often be a great deal, but it is not an option for everyone (food allergies can be difficult to navigate, for example), and sometimes you don’t want to wait in long lines for both rides AND food. 
For best cost savings, try to limit your food purchases by eating a big breakfast at home (or getting an inexpensive breakfast bowl or burrito at a fast food place on the way).
You can plan on buying one large meal and maybe a treat or two at the park, and bring your own snacks for the rest of the day. 
A bowl of cashews and pistachios, for the article on how to save money on food at theme parks

Here are a few ideas of what we like to stash in our backpacks that keep us from getting “hangry":

  • Protein bars, pre-mixed protein shakes (we like Chocolate Soylent…they’re very filling and make it easy to “eat lunch” while in line! Add ice if you want it cold)
  • Snack foods: nuts, raisins, apple slices, veggie straws, beef jerky. Plastic sandwich bags are your best friend for these! 
  • Frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (they thaw throughout the day!) or meats like Vienna sausages/hot dogs, pre-cooked grilled chicken strips or deli meat.

Saving Money On Drinks

Drink purchases can REALLY add up, when you have a thirsty family who walks around in the sun all day.

Fend off your thirst by making sure everyone drinks plenty of water. You can buy filtered water in bulk, but the standard bottles can get a little heavy in a bag and they’re hard to carry around. We suggest packing refillable water bottles for each family members, and keeping an eye out for water fountains to fill them up throughout the day. 
blue reusable water bottle with a cap and clip
Ideally, the bottles should have a cover over the top to prevent germs, and possibly a loop or clip to connect it to your backpack. A big clip to attach it to something helps as well!
We like this giant caribiner that holds multiple water bottles or shopping bags on our strollers. 

Make Water More Exciting

Not everyone likes the taste of plain water. If that’s you, one thing you can do is bring some small individual packets of your favorite drink powder, like Gatorade or Crystal Light. This is useful when you get dehydrated, because it encourages you to drink more water! 
Our favorite thing to add to (the grownups) water bottle is Zipfizz (we like the Fruit Punch flavor …you can find it in bulk at Sam’s Club or Amazon). Neither of us like the taste of coffee, so this B-12 vitamin powder has just enough tangy fizz to pep us up in the morning or in the afternoon slump. It kind of tastes like a bubbly strawberry lemonade. 

Sometimes You Just Want a Soda, Though. Am I Right? 

In that case, Instead of paying nearly $5 for each drink, see if there is a more economical all-day refill option. 
At Knott’s Berry Farm, for example, they allow you to purchase a souvenier bottle at one price that’s valid for THE WHOLE YEAR. You can fill it up every 15 minutes, so you’ll never run out (and let’s be honest, if you need to chug a large soda more often than that, there’s a problem!). 
I simply cannot handle spinning rides most of the time...so instead, I take pictures!
While we’re trying to limit the amount of soda we drink, it does come in handy when I need something bubbly to settle my tummy after a spinning ride! At Knotts, I like mixing half Sprite and half boysenberry punch. Yum!
And of course, there are other options to fill your bottle with, like lemonade or tea.
If you do the all-day drink refill, don’t forget the bottle at home though (yep, we’re guilty of this)!

Bringing Your Own Food Doesn’t Mean You’re Depriving Yourself.

Remember, the whole point is to save money, not to make your food the blandest possible, or to starve yourself. Bringing your own food simply helps you keep the edge off, when your growling stomach might cause you to make decisions that empty your wallet. 

Try to weigh what is important to you about your trip…is it maximizing your time riding rides? Being able to afford one super fancy family meal at the themed restaurant? Picking out a special thing in the gift shop?

Maybe skipping the park's food and eating on the curb will allow you stake out a front row parade viewing spot!
Cutting costs on food and drink can help you achieve these goals. For us, simply replacing an expensive but boring burger-and-fries theme park lunch with our own protein shake and apples allows us not to stress as much when we decide to spring for cool merch in the gift shop. For other families, it might save you enough to afford an annual pass!

What are your favorite snacks to bring to theme parks? Do you have any tips to share with other families about saving money on food there? Tell us in the comments below!