Cartoon characters come to life, heart-stopping adventure rides, a smorgasbord of virtual worlds — all wrapped up in a sunny Florida package. This is the classic American family vacation Disney World has promised for generations.
But that promise has faded with Disney’s recent announcement that prices will rise significantly at its signature theme parks — a move aimed partly at controlling ever-larger crowds, and a likely prelude to “dynamic” pricing based on demand. While thinner crowds will undoubtedly improve the experience for those who can afford it, the announcement prompted widespread fretting about inequality and the upscaling of an erstwhile middle-class vacation.
There are many for whom only the Mouse will do, and lots of Jewish families head to Disney World as a convenient day trip from the Florida grandparents. But Americans looking for affordable fun still have plenty of alternatives. Here are a few to consider:
1. SoCal: The original American playland. There is perhaps no city with a greater concentration of kid-friendly activities, diverse and largely inexpensive, than perpetually sunny San Diego.
The San Diego Zoo is arguably the nation’s finest zoo; together with the Zoo Safari Park and SeaWorld Diego, all ages can easily fill a week with adventure. Zoo tickets start at $38 for kids, but the best deal may be the San Diego 3-for-1 Pass, which costs $128-$157 for weeklong admission to all three attractions.
Still craving a theme park? Legoland, a half-hour north of the zoo, is a hit with the demographic enamored of its signature blocks. The Lego-themed park features dozens of rides and attractions, including a life-sized brontosaurus and a scale model of the Eiffel Tower made from Legos. There’s also a seasonal water park and the adjacent Sea Life Aquarium, where a see-through tunnel winds through a giant shark tank. Online combination tickets cost as little as $75.
2. Tivoli Gardens: Old World amusement. As long as you’re flying, why not head overseas? Europe’s beloved family attraction is Tivoli Gardens, a 170-year-old Copenhagen amusement park that is centered around a picturesque lake and lit up at night with so many twinkling lights that it feels like a fairy tale.
Tivoli combines classic park elements — the Continent’s largest roller coaster, glittering rides, swan boats, fantastical pavilions with foreign themes — and the simple pleasures of Danish family life: landscaped gardens dotted with fountains, beer gardens and cafés, and weekend concerts.
Even during low season, flights to Copenhagen cost triple those to Orlando. But you may come out ahead; park admission is only $14 during the week, $1 more on weekends, and the aquarium is $3. Rides are extra, but a multi-ride pass is less than $30, and an adult day package — about $69 for ages 8+ — includes all admissions, a multi-ride ticket, a souvenir ride photo, and dinner with wine. .
3. Knoebels: Amusement on the cheap — and no airfare! America’s largest free-admission amusement park lies just three hours from Manhattan in the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania (Elysburg, to be precise). It’s a sort of anti-Disney, an old-fashioned place that prides itself on affordability.
Knoebels attractions include vintage roller coasters, carousels and a train; magic shows; rides priced from $1-3; and plentiful cheap eats. In good weather, visitors enjoy a golf club, a campground with cabins, and a large, clean swimming area. Throughout the year, Knoebels celebrates with seasonal and holiday festivals — and while it’s definitely smaller than many parks, many see this as a plus. Besides admission, parking and entertainment are also free every day, along with wooded picnic facilities along a river with a covered bridge.
4. Who needs Orlando when you have Miami? It may not have Disney, but the city offers plenty to enjoy on a budget. A family can frolic amid elephants and lions at Zoo Miami; watch dolphins feed at Miami Seaquarium; tour a castle-style villa at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens; and hit the carousel at Crandon Park, all for less than the cost of a single day at Disney.
Locals cherish the low profile of Crandon Park Beach, a palm-shaded oasis on Key Biscayne. Along with picnic, golf and tennis facilities, the park is home to Crandon Family Amusement Center — a beachfront playground that keeps kids entertained with a roller rink, a seahorse fountain to splash in, a 1949 wooden carousel, and more.