Let’s face it: Tickets for theme parks are expensive. Every year, we have come to expect price increases that exceed inflation, and every year, we somehow find a way to pony up the extra bucks.  With that said, I am under the belief that a visit to a theme park is a wise way to spend your discretionary entertainment dollar. With a bit of planning, you can really maximize your investment. If you live in Southern California or Central Florida, your choices are almost limitless. So where to spend that precious money this summer?

Let’s start with a disclaimer. My publisher for the The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream is the guy who writes the best-selling Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It is their philosophy (one that I share) that it is best to pay for everything and to avoid freebies. For example, at one point, I was offered a private tour of the savannah at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but I declined because this was not something that was available to the general public. This is how Disney does it. Disney PR guru Charles Ridgeway once said: “Show them so they can see for themselves.” Accepting such an opportunity would be fun, but that means standing on a slippery slope and I don’t want to go for the ride. Thankfully, enough of you buy my books and read this column and that allows me to afford this monkey on my back.

Back to the original premise…who deserves your money this summer?



There is not much that is new this year, is there? Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is still under construction, the Fantasy Faire hype is over, and everything else seems normal. I am not usually a show guy but the new Mickey and the Magical Map show in Fantasyland is really good. This is an example of why nobody even comes close to Disney in entertainment. Since it is summer, the crowds are large but the mighty Disney machine seems to be in high gear and efficiency is the result. Personally, I wish they would just leave Billy Hill and the Hillbillies in the Golden Horseshoe instead of being exiled out back, but I am just glad they are still in the park at all.




Last summer was the relaunch of the park, and, for the first time, this dog has started to have a real bark. Buena Vista Street and the immersive environment of Carsland remind us that Imagineering still has what it takes, at least as long as it is close enough for John Lasseter to visit frequently. The result is one of the really bright spots in Disney’s North American portfolio, both creatively and in attendance. If you have not visited, then this is the summer to go. Everything seems to be working. The bugs have been worked out (except those in A Bug’s Land, of course). The park is now a full day experience, with plenty to do from morning until late in the evening. This is a case of money well spent.


This is the first summer of a major transition, and they are not quite ready for prime time (and will not be for quite awhile longer). Universal has never been good with big crowds and now they are stuffed between construction walls and fewer things to do. If you have a child in a stroller, there really is nothing to do or see. If the weather is hot, there are few places to escape the heat. In an apparent move that makes the park less enjoyable, it seems they have assigned more people to try and upsell you on a front of the line (or VIP) pass than manning the parking lot. I get it. It seems that regular visitors are a burden at USH, but if you have the bucks…


The center of the upper lot is under construction and will become Universal’s version of the hub at Disneyland along with a performance space. This will be a good thing when done. For the first time, entering the park will be a positive impression. The construction continues on changing Terminator 2- 3D into the world of Despicable Me. I have been on the ride in Florida and expect the LA version to be the same. Not an E-Ticket but a cute ride, and something desperately needed in California. But that is for next year. This year, you get a retooled Special Effects Show that isn’t as good as it was before and an animal show that is comparable to one of the neighbors kids playing with their pets. Universal Studios Hollywood’s greatest weakness is the entertainment. The fact that this summer depends on them is the reason why you should go to….



This park is doing everything right at the moment. First, they focused on improving the food, which is how the place got started in the first place. Although I think the fast food stuff is expensive, the sit down restaurants are some of the best in the business and a really good value. Just typing this is making me hungry for Boysenberry pie. Knott’s has cleaned up and repaired Ghost Town without removing any of the charm. Real flowers are everywhere and there is a renewed attention to detail. The three new rides are exactly what they should be; family friendly, familiar but with a twist. Mystery Lodge is still one of my favorite shows and I can’t get enough of Silver Bullet. And then there is the revamped log ride. Brilliant. A fresh update for one of the most important rides in the history of theme parks. Knott’s has kept their prices family friendly as well. You can get 2 family members in for the price of one day at Universal, and you most likely have a much more enjoyable time. Go.



I am as old as a mountain at Disneyland and must confess that I am no longer the demo for Six Flags. The park is cleaner than it has been in some time, and it does sport a world class collection of roller coasters. Tatsu is still one of my favorites. If you love coasters, then you must go at least once this summer. Thankfully there are many different discount programs (even a free ticket on My Coke Rewards) so take advantage. The fact that they have most expensive parking of all the theme parks did not go unnoticed.

SUMMARY: Visit Knott’s so they will continue on this positive path. Aim for Disney California Adventure and see what $1.2 billion will buy you. I could never say no to Disneyland but I am happy to take a pass on Universal Studios Hollywood this summer – but when Potter opens, all bets are off. And bring me those youth pills or some Dramamine and ride some roller coasters at Six Flags (but only with my free ticket from soda caps).


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  • bkeyes19

    I love the Disneyland marquee! Count Basie at Disneyland! that would have been a great day at the park.

    • Saskiwi

      Why oh why did they take that iconic sign down?
      The current signage is so understated it is ridiculous!

  • I mostly agree with you Sam. Knott’s is the Must-See this summer with the revamped Log Ride. Though, for me, Universal places well above Six Flags and is always an enjoyable experience.

    I can ride that wonderful Tram Tour and be perfectly happy if I did nothing else. Though, it will be nice when Despicable Me and the new heart of the park open. And I’m so excited for the Harry Potter construction to start!

    • Mousecat

      I agree about the Universal tram tour but is the one hour experience worth $84? Their advertising campaign “The Summer of Survival” is meant to warn guests that it is a battle to get around and see anything. You know I am a fan of Universal but this is just not the summer to visit.


      • Ryan120420

        I thought the Summer of Survival was to advertise their two newest attractions: King Kong 360:3D and Transformers The Ride 3D.

        I haven’t seen anything in the commercials or billboards around town that its to warn guests that its going to be a battle to see anything.

        Don’t know were you getting that from.

        As for pricing, Yes, $84 for the tour is a great deal, as you get not only the tour but the theme park with that price.
        And depending on the ticket, $84 gets you a year pass to the park and tour. Compare the $84 to the $52, 1-time, 2-hour Warner Brothers tour down the street, and its a steal.

      • Mousecat

        I think we will chalk up my comment as a piece of parody of this season’s advertising campaign. A swing and a miss I guess. The reality is the park had always struggled with huge crowds because it wasn’t really designed for them. Those issues are being addressed with the current construction and I have high hopes.

        You are right, you do get a year free with admission. There is a reason. Universal is just starting to get used to the idea that locals want to go inside the park and not just to the mall. This was never the case historically. With all of this new stuff they are making that transition now and if Florida is an indication, it will be very cool.

      • TacAlert

        Mousecat, I got your joke.


  • StevenW

    You only live once. This is why I ask why not accept freebies. It isn’t like the public isn’t offered freebies. The public gets many opportunities for freebies especially locals, the employed, and contacts. This is especially true for the Disney fan who finds things out.

    As a journalist, don’t they get offers for “deep background” or “off the record” information? I would think the theme park offer for a free tour is the same idea.

    • It’s a tricky issue. I don’t have a problem with exclusives if they are disclosed, but sometimes it’s really just a bribe. And that’s the problem. There are so many sites and even mainstream reporters out there who can’t give an honest opinion because they are trapped on the gravy train and afraid they’ll get thrown off.

  • KingEric

    What about SeaWorld?

  • pianojohn

    I did all of those parks except for Universal this past spring.
    DCA was wonderful. I spent the majority of my time at this park and had a great time just walking around at night, admiring all of the attention to detail.
    Disneyland was good but a bit hard to navigate around the closed Big Thunder. Also, Space Mountain was still closed from the OSHA mess so I will need to come back.
    Knotts was a great surprise. Very clean park, friendly and efficient staff, and a beautiful amount of landscaping.
    Six Flags I will never waste my time visiting again. Half of the coasters were closed (no signs out front saying so) and those that were open had painfully slow loading procedures. No thanks.

  • DisWedWay

    I promised after my last visit to Universal. that I would not return until Victoria Station returns in its old location with it’s great menu offerings and ambiance. It was the Club 33 of Universal with no membership required. A close friend once presented Disney’s WDI leaders with a chance to build a similar heavily themed restaurant at Disneyland near Big Thunder Falls just behind Big Thunder Mountains exit. The old Natures Wonderland tunnel near there would be unboarded and you would follow the tunnel and trail up to the mining related establishment. Live music and a menu much like Victoria Stations would prevail. As you know this was never done and it’s doorway remains boarded up for now, but then tomorrows another day!

    • ralfrick

      My sister worked in Victoria Station’s corporate office in the SF Bay Area. They had many restaurants, and went under a looooooong time ago. They ain’t coming back. I only saw 1 coaster down at 6FMM last week; and we rode 8, plus 2 trips on Orient Express, in 5 hours; no complaints. And on value, $75 for a year at every 6 Flags park in the country. This years that’s gotten me 6FOG, 6FDK 3X, and 6FMM twice. Is it the same experience as Disney? Of course not. Outback Steakhouse won’t give the same experience as Steakhouse 55, and no one would expect it either. But beyond IOA, there aren’t many places that combine a quality “theme” park with big honkin’ roller coasters.

  • Big D

    I finally made it to Universal a few weeks ago for the first time since the 80’s, and I was pretty disappointed with it despite all of the positive things I’ve read here on Mice Age. The truth is that Disneyland is still head and shoulders above any other So Cal park, but if you’ve been there hundreds of times and want to go somewhere else, then Knott’s is a lot better then it used to be (although the lines there are longer too then they used to be — no more going to Boomerang 20 times in a row), but not a terribly pleasant place to be when it’s hot outside. I hate waiting in line for Ghostrider and being in that overcrowded, hot, smelly wooden structure you have to wait in for half of the line, and Xcelerator is one of the slowest moving lines for any ride I’ve ever seen, and in the summer time there is very little shade for that line. The whole park suffers from a lack of air conditioning and shade in most places. My vote would be go to Disneyland for the summer, just don’t go to Universal until they build A LOT MORE to justify the ticket prices, and save Knott’s for Christmastime when it’s not hot and the park is decorated and they have the cool craft village thing they do every year. I haven’t been to Six Flags in decades so I can’t comment on that one.

  • Somes

    Magic Mountain is a regular favorite for me and my youngest thrill seeker. It is an amusement park, not a theme park, so it does not dress up for any occasion but to simply entice you to ride the thrill rides. The summer heat is brutal in Valencia, and the scenery is bleak. It is with ironic acceptance that they chose a blighted Gotham for its theme around the park as they were not planning on planting flowers or maintaining the rides with anything but what is needed for ride operations (The jet stream vessels appear not to have been painted since the park’s opening in 71′).
    However, and as noted, it is a cleaner park and a safe family park. Since the rummage days of the 90’s, Six Flags execs have gotten the message that the rides are not enough. Park security is notably visable for almost every large coaster and roaming throughout the mountain. Any day of the week, you will find a multitude of Disney-esque families enjoying the thrills of a coaster park. It is a full day of adrenaline-packed awesomeness and is as much a far cry from Disneyland for its thrills as the presentation and aesthetics are for Disney. Its worth a full day, and you’ll be talking about it for months.

  • RSZero1

    I was watching a movie late one night – The Get Smart TV movie – The Nude Bomb. There was a nice long sequence with him pursuing an enemy agent through the Old Universal Studios – it was AMAZING to see the old park and how much has since changed – the old west stunt show, the incredible shirking woman props, the battlestar galactica stage of the tram tour…

    I showed our daughter and she was in awe…

  • Crazee4mm

    Sam, I thought I was the only one who “purchased” theme park tickets with MyCokeRewards points! This summer I “bought” 4 tickets to the San Diego Zoo, 2 tickets for the San Diego Safari Park, 3 tickets to Universal Studios Hollywood, 2 tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm, and 5 tickets to Magic Mountain. Of course, I have AP’s/SP’s to all these parks BUT it allows me to bring friends without forking over the extra money. I’ve “purchased” tickets via MyCokeRewards like this for years and stock up on points all year long for the inevitable rolling out of theme park tickets every summer. This year MyCokeRewards is even offering a Six Flags 2013 Season Pass w/coupon book! It’s good to be able to treat my friends again. One day tickets were getting just too expensive to invite them along.

  • MWH1980

    I must admit, that having been to DCA and Disneyland over 8 times in the last 4 years, and even though i’ll be within walking distance at the D23 Expo, I’m trying my hardest to resist the ‘discounted tickets for D23 event participants.’

    As I spent about 4 days there last year, I must admit that I was enthralled with DCA for several days, but spending about 1 1/2 days in Disneyland, I felt a little bored by it. I guess I had gotten the excitement out of being on my own in Disneyland out of my system in 2010. Guess after one has gone on every ride at least once in 1 1/2 days, things seemed a little different.

  • lynxwiler

    Hello Sam!

    I don’t agree that Knott’s fast food is overly expensive. I give the example of a simple chocolate chip cookie at Knott’s which costs $1.50. At Disneyland, a similar size chocolate chip cookie is $3.29.

    On the other hand, Knott’s churros are spendy. But then again Knott’s churros are made fresh in Ghost Town with Knott’s own batter recipe – they’re not frozen.

    Have you noticed that I’m more than a little biased?

  • jedited

    to lynxwiler, I HAVE to defend Sam on this one.
    Although I haven’t been since they “upgraded” their food, Knott’s food is VERY, VERY expensive (ALOT more than Disney) and it was HORRIBLE.
    The problem is both Knotts and Disney need to show a profit. The problem with Knotts is when you let everyone in for almost free ($30ish ticket prices, buy and day, get the year free, etc, etc), you HAVE to make it up somewhere else and at Knotts that somewhere else is in the food.
    I’m glad that Knott’s is making great strides in the right direction, but you can’t defend Knotts on their food prices. It’s simply a different business model.
    Knotts = cheap front gate prices – gouge them on the food and upcharge attractions
    Disney = gouge them at the front gate – food not as expensive