Six Flags on a budget

A day spent at an amusement park can make your wallet feel like it’s taken one spin too many on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Simple planning and a few insider tips will make you and your wallet feel a bit less spent at Six Flags Great America and Hurricane Harbor in nearby Gurnee.

1 For starters, peruse or call Six Flags at (847) 249-4636 before you even think about packing your brood into the minivan. It’s nearly impossible to do the whole park in one day, so review the park map and create a game plan. Buy and print cheaper admission tickets online and consider buying season passes, which pay for themselves in fewer that two visits. Kids under 2 are free and expectant mothers and others with limited access to rides get in for half price.

2 Buy and print meal vouchers online, too. You’ll be able to stick to a budget and ensure that your kids don’t spend their meal money on games. Various dining options are available, but food at Six Flags can be a budget buster. Bring a water bottle to refill at water fountains and consider bringing your own food and tailgating. Picnic areas are located just outside the main entrance, so leave your cooler in the car (food other than baby food is not allowed in the park) and have your hand stamped for re-entry at mealtime. Early arrival at the park (before the gate opens at 10 a.m.) will ensure a handy spot for tailgating, made easier if you park in General parking ($25). Value parking is $15 but is a longer walk from the park entrance.

3 Eating at off-peak hours will save time in ride lines no matter how you dine, but buying a Flash Pass is the best time saver of all. Pricey at first glance (check Web site for options), the value of the Flash Pass becomes infinitely greater once you witness the lines at some attractions. Noah and I tried eight roller coasters (you only live once!) and were stunned to learn that the wait for the recently unveiled The Dark Night coaster was more than four hours. Even with the Gold Flash Pass we waited for more than 30 minutes to board (try it during off-peak hours. Better yet, hit the big rides after 5 p.m. or visit the park during off-peak days, Tuesday through Thursday and during September). We didn’t think the ride experience came anywhere close to matching the hype. We weren’t fans of the head-banging Iron Wolf coaster either, but I could have spent all day aboard the Raging Bull, a smooth ride with lots of twisty thrills. Noah’s favorite coaster is Batman the Ride and we both agreed that control freaks should steer clear of Superman: Ultimate Flight. This is one of those rides where you just have to give in to the experience and let go, folks. I recall squeezing my eyes closed and briefly praying (to a god who doesn’t object to swearing), but then I realized that since there was no way I was going to board that dang ride again I might as well let go and take in the experience. 4 If you plan to fly like a superhero, do yourself a favor and invest in a fanny pack. Noah said he saw my cell phone zip past his head like a missile and I watched in semi-amused horror as about $2 in change rained down from my baggy pockets to the ground. I had officially joined the club for‘fools without fanny packs.’ The Six Flags folks actually found my cell phone—sans battery (probably snapped off when it hit the ground). They do a sweep of the grounds daily and have a very busy lost and found department.

5 If you must bring personal items (remember sunscreen, bathing suits and towels for Hurricane Harbor, which is free with paid admission to Six Flags) budget for a locker rental: $9 to $15 per day. Lockers, which accept bills and credit cards, are located throughout the park and in Hurricane Harbor. At the water park, don’t miss the Tornado, a high-speed tube slide worth the climb.

6 Six Flags isn’t just for thrill seekers. There are several kids’ areas with shows and rides for children, including Holly’s favorites, the Great American Raceway and the Carousel. When it’s illuminated at night it’s a stunning picture spot (in front of the reflecting pond)—but keep your cash in your fanny pack and avoid getting suckered into one of those official Six Flags photos.

Jennifer DuBose, mom of two, is a columnist at Chicago Parent and featured blogger at

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