Theme park travelers may be disappointed to learn that Walt Disney World has already reached its goal of 1 million volunteers who received a free pass in exchange for one day of volunteer service.
The good news? It’s not too late to catch a cheap ride to Orlando theme park fun. Travel value hunter Jackie Perrin uncovers five ways to catch a deeply discounted ride—or in some cases, a free visit—to some of America’s most popular theme parks.
From behind-the-scenes educational itineraries meant for groups that are open to individuals, to bargain beds for athletes and their fans, organized programs at Orlando-area theme parks can offer substantial savings that aren’t necessarily well-publicized.
Here’s how you can find your way to some real theme park deals.
1. GO TO SCHOOL
Hands-on educational workshops for students are the hallmark of theme park youth education programs, which provide a wide range of learning opportunities for students from preschool on up.
Whether your kids dig marine science, have a knack for culinary arts, or want to go behind the scenes to see what it’s like to be a trapeze performer at Cirque du Soleil, it seems there’s a course for every interest.
Theme park ticket packages for participants can average 25 percent to 50 percent or more off regular gate admission prices, and the savings is often multiplied with discounts for family members and complimentary chaperone passes.
For only $158 (based on 2010 rates), groups of at least 10 students participating in Walt Disney World’s Youth Education Series (Y.E.S.) can purchase a package which includes one educational session plus a five-day “Park Hopper” pass—a savings of up to $130. For each enrolled student, an additional ticket package can be purchased by an accompanying adult at the special student price.
Ride Design and School of Rock are just two of the interactive classes students can enroll in through Universal Orlando Resort’s Youth Education Program. Group minimums are 40 for the Firsthand Learning Series and 20 for Behind the Scenes Tours, and discounted multi-day ticket packages are available. For specific pricing information, contact Universal Orlando Group Sales at groupsales @ universalorlando.com.
Meanwhile, at SeaWorld Orlando, student groups of 10 or more can combine science or animal seminars with self-guided learning tours and theme park admission for just $25 per person. A Nighttime Sleepover session allows members of groups numbering 20 or more to tour the facilities, bunk with the animals, and play at the park the next day.
But privileges aren’t limited to students in traditional school settings. Walt Disney World’s Home School Days is another program that combines educational workshops with bargain-rate admission packages. Since the days take place September 7-9, 2010 and January 24-25, 2011, visitors can take advantage of off-season lodging rates as well as light crowds … meaning more savings, more rides and more theme park fun.
Universal Orlando Resort opens its doors to home schoolers, too. Through its Home School Families program, liberated Florida learners can save on admission throughout the year; each September (the next event is September 10, 2010), the resort opens the program to residents of other states, adding in free seminars and complimentary behind-the-scenes tours.
In January 2010, Walt Disney World Resort introduced a new Y.E.S Individual Enrollment Program. During certain times of the year, students traveling solo can join in on savings, as well as the education, via this already popular plan. Book early, as news of this option is bound to gain momentum, and fast-action by cost-conscious travelers will likely ensure that choice spots fill fast.
2. BE A SPORT
More than 300 sporting events, 85 percent of them youth-oriented, are held annually at the recently expanded ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but you don’t need to be a competitive athlete to cash in on Disney sports program savings.
Accompanying friends and family members are eligible for many of the same ticket and lodging discount offers available to athletic program participants, while those with some extra time and a do-gooder spirit can earn free entry to theme park fun.
In the Youth Sports division, programs run the gamut from football and cheerleading to soccer, lacrosse and volleyball, while new events like midget car racing, robotics and archery provide expanded opportunities for Orlando-bound competitors and fans.
At Universal Orlando Resort, groups converge to compete in a number of cheerleading championships. Through events like the U.S. Spirit National Championships cheer athletes have the opportunity to purchase reduced price tickets for themselves, as well as friends and family members, and to secure special lodging rates at onsite properties like Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
Looking for more ways to save while rooting for the team? A sports volunteer program at Walt Disney World Resort makes it possible for single and group helpers for certain charity events to earn a complimentary single-day, single theme park ticket after a designated period of service (typically 16 hours; tickets mailed within 30 days of service completion).
Those who complete a volunteer shift for certain Endurance Series events like the Inaugural Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon (October 2, 2010), the Walt Disney World Marathon (January 9, 2011), or Half Marathon (January 8, 2011) will receive complimentary single-day admission to the theme park of their choice.
Although it’s not affiliated with an athletic event, SeaWorld Orlando presents another rewarding opportunity to be a good sport: Now through December 31, 2010, U.S. residents who purchase a full-price single-day adult admission ticket can buy an additional ticket for a child ages 3 to 12 for only $5—a savings of $64. The entire amount of the second ticket will be donated to one of three wildlife conservation projects of their choosing. For more information, visit www.SeaWorldCares.com.
3. TAKE THE STAGE
For many school-age performers, few experiences match the thrill of performing before a live audience of international guests on an Orlando theme park stage.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2010, Magic Music Days boasts an illustrious alumni corps, ranging from Billboard award-winning Jazz artist Jessy J. to MercyMe bass player Michael Scheuchzer. In scheduled performances and musical workshops taught by professional entertainers, dance, vocal, and instrumental groups get a brief taste of stardom, combined with sweet deals on theme park tickets and group rates at budget-friendly on-site hotel properties like Disney’s All-Star resorts.
But you don’t have to be a shining star to make melodious Walt Disney World memories—even a banner holder in a marching band can qualify to participate in Magic Music Days and its affiliated discounts. Two complimentary Director ticket packages are provided for each performing group of 10 or more, and for each ensemble ticket package purchased, a corresponding discount ticket package can be purchased for an accompanying friend or family member.
The Stars Performance Program at Universal Orlando and SoundWaves at SeaWorld Orlando present additional opportunities for student groups to strike up savings along with a tune. Star-studded performance venues include CityWalk Plaza at Universal and Wild Arctic Plaza at SeaWorld, and group minimums for these programs are 40 and 15 performers, respectively.
4. GO TO WORK
Perhaps the most conventional among group theme park deals, meetings and conventions offer conference-goers and business attendees the opportunity to bring the family along for the theme park ride, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional leisure vacation.
Special room rates allow attendees entry to deluxe convention properties they might not otherwise be able to afford, such as Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resort and Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando. Other perks often include late-entry theme park tickets for attendees, cut-rate ticket packages for participants and their guests, and opportunities to go behind-the-scenes via experiences like Disney Institute’s Innovation in Action and Universal Orlando Resort’s Scavenger Challenge.
SeaWorld Orlando welcomes convention-goers with a Show Your Badge and Save program ($10 to $40 off, depending on time of entry for attendee and up to five guests) and Discovery Cove’s Afternoon Escape (20 percent to 35 percent off for attendee and up to five guests), Universal Orlando’s After 2 p.m. Tickets and Walt Disney World Resort’s After 4 p.m. ticket option match the savings with similar workday-friendly deals.
5. GET TOGETHER
Whether you’re headed to Orlando for a special event or for pleasure, you can save a bundle by joining a like-minded clan.
At Walt Disney World Resort, groups of 10 or more can qualify for reduced-rate lodging (10 room minimum) and discounts for popular ticketed events including Night of Joy, a contemporary Christian music festival, which features a Gospel Choir Fest competition. Group discounts are also available for special events like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios and Rock the Universe, another Christian music celebration.
For savings on theme park admission throughout the year, youth group leaders might consider Disney’s Theme Park Adventures Program. Available to groups of 10 or more youth ages 3 to 22, this bulk buying savings plan provides two complimentary chaperone ticket packages for each traveling group, and for each paid student ticket package, a corresponding adult ticket package can be purchased at the special student price. This deal can even apply on dates when non-ticketed Walt Disney World events are scheduled, like Star Wars Weekends and Earth Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
A similar program at Universal Orlando Resort offers reduced-price, year-round entry for sports and religious-based youth groups (minimum 15). The pass can be used during non-ticketed events like Mardi Gras and Macy’s Holiday Parade. Similarly, reduced-rate group admission for youth (15 student minimum) and adult or mixed-age groups (15 person minimum; youth and adults) at SeaWorld Orlando can yield savings of up to 50 percent off the regular gate rate. This pass can be applied during special events like the family-friendly Halloween Spooktacular.
By Jackie Perrin for PeterGreenberg.com. Jackie Perrin has covered the best of Orlando family travel for over a decade. Beyond the theme parks, she enjoys catching a wave and some z’s whenever her companion crew will cooperate.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Orlando, Florida
- Preventing Family Meltdowns at Theme Parks
- Beyond Disney World: Family-Friendly Travel in Orlando, Florida
- New Theme Park Attractions: King King 360 3D at Universal Studios
- Theme Park Travel section