Cheaper Than Disney: 7 Fun Theme Parks for Little Kids in the Northeast
Yes, Disney World is a magical place, especially for a child, but the cost of a vacation there can go through the roof. In addition to flights and hotel rooms, you are hit with expensive daily ticket prices, optional Magic Morning add-ons, character meals and — let's not forget — the souvenirs. There are ways to reduce the cost, but it still adds up.
For many families, spending thousands of dollars (or lots of points) for a single vacation is just not realistic. Many young children can easily experience similar magic at alternative theme parks around the US for a fraction of the cost (all under $50 a day). Kids can still enjoy thrill rides, meet some of their favorite characters, watch shows and, in some cases, have character dining experiences without traveling to Central Florida or California.
My daughter has been to Disneyland a couple of times and every time I take her to one of these other theme parks, she tells me that she had just as much fun as she had at Disney. Here is a list of theme parks in the Northeast that are best suited for young children between the ages of 1 and 10 years old. Just keep in mind that many of them are only open seasonally, so be sure to check their operating dates and hours before planning your trip.
Sesame Place, in Langhorne, Pennsylvania — about a half-hour from Philadelphia and less than 90 minutes from New York City — is the perfect theme park for your “Sesame Street”-loving child. Aside from the 16 rides and nine water attractions, your family can also experience three “Sesame Street” shows and a daily parade. There is also a Mini Monster Clubhouse for kids under 5. Your kids will love seeing “Sesame Street” characters, such as Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Big Bird, wandering around the park. Sesame Place is also the first theme park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center.
Best of all, you can dine with your favorite “Sesame Street” characters. Pick between breakfast, lunch and dinner (breakfast is $27 for adults and $11 for children 2–9; lunch and dinners are $32 for adults and $13 for children 2–9; and children under 2 are free for all meals).
Sesame Place has private nursing stations, bottle warmers and changing tables available. You can even rent strollers in advance.
Daily ticket prices: A one-day ticket ranges from $35 - $60 (when purchased online), although you can purchase a two-day ticket online for just $69.99 (children 23 months and younger are free). Many times you can also find discounted tickets on Groupon or purchase a package deal with a nearby hotel. There is also currently a discounted sale with tickets available for $48.
Hotel accommodations: The Sheraton Bucks County is right across the street from Sesame Place (from 17,500 Marriott points a night). Just a quick shuttle ride away, you can also stay at the Holiday Inn Express Philadelphia NE-Langhorne (from 20,000 IHG points a night) and Residence Inn by Marriott Langhorne (from 17,500 points a night).
Dutch Wonderland is set in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There are 34 rides, plus an entire water-play area during the summer months. In addition to the thrill rides, you can also enjoy Exploration Island, where you can get up close and personal with many dinosaurs and even dig for their bones. During the holiday season, there is a special Royal Light Show, and you'll have the opportunity to meet Santa.
There are daily shows, where you can meet Dutch Wonderland's own princesses and princes. You can also have breakfast with the Dutch Wonderland characters ($15.99 per guest; children 3 and under are free).
Daily ticket prices: Preseason sale tickets cost $37.99 (children under 3 are free). Also, you can visit the park for free for the last three hours the park is open on the day before your full-day visit.
Hotel accommodations: The DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Lancaster (between 29,000 and 40,000 Hilton Honors points a night) features both an indoor pool and an indoor water playground as well as seasonal activities for kids.
Storybook Land, based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes, has a ton of theme-based rides to enjoy. During hot summer days, there is also a large water play area for kids to cool off. New in 2019, you'll even be able to experience the CinderRoller Coaster.
Storybook Land is in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, about 10 minutes west of Atlantic City. This means it could be the perfect one-day activity for those vacationing in Philly (only an hour away) or the Jersey Shore.
Daily ticket prices: $25.50 a day (if purchased online in advance); children under 2 are free.
Hotel accommodations: Just 3 miles away, you can stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Egg Harbor Township (between 26,000 and 40,000 Hilton Honors points a night) or the Residence Inn Atlantic City Airport Egg Harbor Township (from 25,000 Marriott points a night).
Thomas Land / Edaville Family Theme Park
Thomas Land is about to celebrate its fourth year and is a great one-day trip for Thomas the Tank fans. It is part of the Edaville Family Theme Park, which will also give you access to Cran Central and Dino Land. There is also a 20-minute scenic train ride that your kids will love.
In addition to the 11 Thomas-themed rides, there are also daily shows as well as meet-and-greets with Thomas and his friends. This theme park is in Carver, Massachusetts, which is not a vacation destination in itself but is just 20 miles from the Cape Cod bridges, so you can combine the trip with a beach vacation. Or you can easily take a day trip to Carver when visiting Boston (less than an hour drive).
Throughout the summer, there are also many special events, such as a Pete the Cat appearance or the opportunity to have breakfast with Sir Topham Hatt. Like Disney, the theme park does it up for Halloween and Christmas, so kids can get into the spirit. In October you can enjoy its "Not So Spooky Halloween." Then comes the "Christmas Festival of Lights" — probably its most popular event — in which you can take the 45-minute train ride in an interactive search for Santa.
Daily tickets: If purchased ahead of time, tickets cost $35 a day (for adults) or $30 a day (children 2–3 years old and seniors 60+); children under 2 years old are free. The theme park also offers many discounted rates on select days throughout the year, such as complimentary tickets for nurses, teachers, military, police, fire rescue and veterans. There are even days when children can enter for free by showing a report card with all A's and B's or that they've completed their summer reading.
Hotel accommodations: Edaville is in Carver, Massachusetts, which doesn’t have many hotel options nearby. The closest points hotel is the TownePlace Suites by Marriott Wareham Buzzards Bay (from 25,000 points a night) which is about 13 minutes away.
Storyland is in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and is a great destination for an extended family vacation. Storyland will allow your children to relive their favorite storybook stories, including Mother Goose. They have 30 attractions, four different shows throughout the day (including Daniel Tiger) and a royal parade at the end of the day. You'll also see many characters, such as Cinderella, Tinkerbell, Peter Pan, Little Red Riding Hood and Humpty Dumpty, wandering around the park with no wait at all to meet them and snap a photo. Like Disney, there is also a magic castle where a pumpkin coach will take you to meet Cinderella.
My daughter's favorite part of Storyland was tea time with Cinderella. For just $10 a ticket, you can enjoy an hour in Cinderella's presence learning how to properly drink tea and then listen to her read a story. My 5-year-old absolutely felt like a princess, and it was just as special for her as any Disney meet-and-greet event.
You can also dine with many of the characters, Cinderella included, at the end of the day. The ticket price is just $19.99 per adult or $9.99 per child (ages 3–12). A similar experience at Disney would cost at least three times that.
The absolute best perk of Storyland is that if you enter during the last three hours of the day, you can receive a ticket to return any other day of the season. This is great for families who do not want to spend an entire day at a park and would rather spread it across two days. You can also use the rest of the time to explore the surrounding area.
Daily ticket prices: Tickets start at $31.99 per day, and children under 3 are admitted free.
Hotel accommodations: Staying in North Conway is highly recommended, as there are a ton of kid-friendly activities in the area and Storyland is only 6 miles away. There are many points-friendly hotels, such as the Hampton Inn & Suites North Conway (between 23,000 and 60,000 Hilton Honors points a night), which features an indoor waterpark. Another popular hotel, although on the more expensive end, is the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort, which is also known for its indoor waterpark. While you cannot use your traditional chain hotel points at this property, it is the ideal opportunity to use flexible points.
You can experience Christmas every year on Memorial Day Weekend and through the summer at Santa's Village. This Santa-themed park about an hour from Storyland offers 20 rides, three waterslides, a waterpark and a splash pad. On a daily basis, you'll get to experience its 3D movie, a Tinkerdoodle Christmas and Santa's Christmas Light Show. The summer months will also bring additional daily shows. An entirely new water area with additional waterslides is expected for 2019.
During the fall you can experience the park’s "Silly, Spooky Halloween" event — of course, costumes are welcome. Then this theme park fully comes alive for Christmas. During its "Christmas Time," where there quite possibly could be snow on the ground, there are about 1 million lights throughout the park, and you will absolutely hear caroling.
Daily ticket prices: Tickets start at just $29 per person and children under 4 are free. It also offers a free return ticket, if you arrive within three hours of the park closing. This allows you to get extra "free" hours at the park and really extend your visit.
Hotel accommodations: Similar to Storyland, Santa’s Village is also in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, although on the opposite side of the mountain. If you want to experience both parks in one vacation, make North Conway your home base. Or, if you are looking to just do Santa's Village, your closest option for using points is the Hampton Inn Littleton (usually 40,000 Hilton Honor points a night).
Idlewild & SoakZone
Idlewild & SoakZone, an hour outside of Pittsburgh, has more than 35 rides and an entire waterpark. There is also a Story Book Forest, where your kids can enjoy many popular nursery stories and meet familiar characters, such as Mother Goose, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Princess-loving children will also love the enchanted castle, where they can meet the park's own Princess Lily.
To top off your visit, families can take a trolley ride through Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. And if you visit during Halloween, you'll be able to watch Daniel Tiger's "Hallowboo!" show, where your child can meet Daniel Tiger and Katerina Kittycat in person.
Daily ticket cost: Tickets cost $32.99 and children under 3 are free.
Hotel accommodations: Just six minutes away, you can stay at the Ramada Ligonier (15,000 Wyndham Rewards points) or 12 minutes in the opposite direction, there is the Springhill Suites Pittsburgh Latrobe (from 17,500 Marriott Bonvoy points).
If you want a theme park adventure less expensive and closer to home than Disney, these alternatives offer your child a memorable day filled with rides, shows and characters without leaving the Northeast. You will probably not have to fight long lines, pay an inordinate amount on parking or walk 10 miles to navigate the park. These theme parks can also serve as a preview on what a day at Disney might be like should your family decide to go on a future trip. You'll learn the types of rides your child likes, whether or not they can be patient in line and if they love characters, or not.
Looking for more theme park advice? TPG has you covered:
- Tips for Keeping Your Family Safe at a Theme Park
- Splash Down at Top Waterparks Across the Midwest
- Orlando’s Best Hotel Waterparks
- Tips for Booking a Birthday Bash at Great Wolf Lodge
- Best Southern California Theme Parks