A day in a theme park isn't usually a bargain. Frugal visitors may find admission deals or resist souvenir stands, but we've gotta eat, right? When a soft drink price is twice what you'd pay at a 7-Eleven, you've got to swallow hard.
Ah, but there are ways to keep meal costs down, too. We asked Theme Park Ranger readers and Twitter followers (twitter.com/themeparks) to share their top tips for saving on sustenance at the parks, and their suggestions mainly broke down into two categories: Pre-Visit and Post-Turnstiles.
Many folks say pack a snack — or more — and none of them reported shakedowns during bag check. Once, I watched a family spread out a feast of peanut-butter sandwiches in a queue during a rain delay for a coaster. They seemed pretty dang smart as we watched other food options close up shop amid the lightning strikes.
Some of the inside-the-parks tips might seem borderline dishonest, but let your conscience — and your wallet — be your guide.
Before you go•Rule No. 1: Eat a big breakfast. It will give early energy and can sustain folk through the noon hour. Then hold out for a late lunch, before dinnertime pricing kicks in.
•Fruit snacks are easy to pack and eat. Likewise, the peanut butter and jelly Crustable sandwiches. "They defrost throughout the day and are perfect as an afternoon snack," says Vicki.
•Bring frozen water bottles, which will last through the day and provide cool water at all times.
•Bring packages of flavored mix (like for punch or tea), ask for a cup of water at restaurant counter, combine. You can make that work at any water fountain as well.
•A reader named Steve says he packed a soft-sided, insulated cooler/backpack with cold meals, sandwiches, juice boxes and the like. Then put blue ice packs on top. The bag was always searched, of course, but he was never turned away. "I would lock it in one of the park's rental lockers so I didn't have to lug it around all day," he says.
•Hotel guests, especially those with refrigerators and microwaves in their accommodations, should eat breakfast, snacks and late meals in their rooms.
Once inside•Some counter-service restaurants have self-serve drink stations. Guests refill their drinks — sometimes even hours later. This is offered at Epcot's Electric Umbrella, the Backlot Express at Disney's Hollywood Studios and others.
•Order a double hamburger but ask for an extra bun — some readers report they aren't always charged for it. Then you can create two burgers on your own. This works even better in locations with a toppings bar.
•Or share in a bigger fashion. A more expensive meal, divided among two people, might be a better deal. (I also recommend splitting the delicious/lethal peanut butter and jelly milkshake at Hollywood Studios' 50's Prime Time Cafe.)
•Eateries bundle food into combo packages, but you can order a la carte. I ordered a barbecue sandwich, hold the baked beans, and was charged about $1.50 less than the listed price. And I didn't have to eat beans.
•Think small, suggests reader Michelle. "I have been known to purchase the children's portions, which are less expensive and also more realistic portions, calorie-wise, for an adult."
Or just go for itSometimes, you must splurge. But you can do that intelligently and economically. Here are places our readers recommended:
•"The Brown Derby [Hollywood Studios] is a wonderful place to sit down and splurge and take in a quiet meal."
•Boma, the bountiful buffet at Animal Kingdom Lodge. The fare's a bit exotic, yet kids find familiar choices, too.
•"Totally worth it to do Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary — but reservations always fill up fast."
•And lunch at the lobby restaurant at Wilderness Lodge. "Pricey but all-you-can-eat barbecue — chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket — and they bring it to you and put it on a Lazy Susan in middle of table. Rib rub to die for."
Get in lineCan't get a FastPass fast enough? Disney's Animal Kingdom is testing a centralized location where guests can obtain some passes without trooping over to the attraction. Check out our first impressions at OrlandoSentinel.com/tpr
• ANIMAL MAGNETISM: SeaWorld has a new tour with reserved seats for shows, photo ops with animals, including a penguin. Details at OrlandoSentinel.com/tpr
• CIRQUE CITY: Florida-resident discount deals for "La Nouba" (buy one, get another for $25) go on sale Tuesday. Details at OrlandoSentinel.com/tpr.
Dewayne Bevil can be reached at 407-420-5477 or email@example.com.
Keep smiling: Big prize on line Broad grins were not in short supply for finalists of the 67 Days of Smiles competition, which is put on by the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Ten two-person teams vied this week for the top prize of spending 67 days doing 100 attractions in town (plus lodging, use of a car and $25,000). The winner will be announced next week, and the 67-day stint starts Aug. 26. Even the "boot camp" elements — including hang gliding, karaoke, dinner show, attractions and more — were happy times for the contestants, who blogged and Tweeted along the way. Social media skills were seen as vital to winning the extended free vacation. Finalist Rommy Kopp, teamed with her cousin Tanja Höhn, has lived in Orlando for five years after growing up in Germany. For a while she worked at the German pavilion at Epcot, but takes a broader view now. "I just wanted to make Orlando more popular and show a different side of Orlando, not just the theme parks," Kopp says. "There's so much changing here. There's always something new."