Saturday, January 8, 2011

Entertain Your Family Cheaply With Parks

Tip #282 - Entertain Your Family Cheaply With Parks. Every summer and winter break I hear about my friends' visits to Disney World, Great Wolf Lodge (an indoor waterpark resort), local amusement parks, arcades, make-your own pottery places, professional theatre, and similar costly activities. All of these places are entertaining for children, are impressive to adults, and cost a fair amount of money. And if you have the money to do these types of activities every day of winter break or every week during the summer, then you don't have to worry about how your money is being spent. But if the idea of spending $60 per child per day for an amusement park or blowing $30 for an afternoon at an arcade doesn't appeal to you, look to parks for cheap entertainment.

No matter where you live, there are parks nearby, I am sure. They may be local playgrounds, county parks, state parks, wildlife areas, nature trails, or national parks. What they all share is that they all can provide low-cost entertainment and educational activities for you and your family. If you have young children, you probably know every local playground within a 5-mile radius of your house. And after a while, it might not seem like a big treat to go to the same playground over and over again. But what if you go outside your community and plan an outing to a playground in the next town? Look online for a town or city's website, and they will often describe the parks that are contained within their limits. A new place with different equipment can have a huge impact for entertainment purposes. Try to find reviews of playgrounds or talk to people who live nearby about which are the best parks around. I have found that most towns and cities have many average-type playgrounds, but there is often one playground that is a showcase of their town. It might include the latest play equipment, zip lines, water sprays, and other fancy features. Here is a town near my parents that has an amazing playground with a kids' castle in it. No admission required. My children would LOVE to spend the day here.

If you want to go somewhere for the afternoon beyond a playground, check out state or county parks in your area. Features at these types of parks may include hiking trails, water activities, and beaches. Even if you are not the outdoorsy type or if it is winter, some of them may have indoor educational buildings to explore. Just doing a quick search of state parks in my area (Northern Virginia), I came up with a wide variety of parks within an hour or two of my home: State Parks of Virginia.

Talk to people at the state or town/city parks to find out if there are any other consortium of parks in your area such as by the region. Around here there is a Northern Virginia Park Authority which is a group of parks in multiple nearby counties. These also happen to be the parks our family use the most. These parks are so varied that you don't feel like you are doing a typical hiking trail in the woods. The parks included swimming pools and waterparks for low-cost, historic homes, miniature golf, gardens, in addition to the typical playgrounds and hiking trails. Going to just one park a week from this group of parks would take us half a year!

Of course, we all know about National Parks and how great some of them are - such as the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains. But even if you don't live near a well-known national treasure, there may be some smaller parks, beaches, battlefields, historic buildings, or wilderness areas near where you live that are run by the National Park Service. The best thing to do is go to the National Park Service website and choose your location to find out what is offered. When I choose my state, I see such varied locations as the Shenandoah Mountains (probably the most well-known around here) to civil war battlefields to historic homes to beaches to colonial farms to waterfalls. Even if I am not an outdoor wilderness, hiking-type person, there is so much to see through the National Park Service. What I like most about these options is two-fold:
1. most of them have indoor interpretive centers which are wonderful and educational on colder days, and
2. admission is usually by the carload - either $5 or $10. For a day's worth of entertainment, it's hard to beat that!

In Real Life (IRL) - My family and I just spent about 10 days in Florida visiting our parents. While we would have loved to have been handed a vacation package to spend a week at Disney's parks free of charge, we were not. And we wanted to keep costs down on the entertainment portion of our trip. What we did instead was look at the parks surrounding the area where our folks live. We spent under $50 to entertain all 5 us for 10 days! And we had so much fun! Most of the activities we did were the types that I mentioned above - parks of various types. We were in the Palm Beach County area of Florida. And as a quick example to show how cheap you can entertain a family using natural resources, here is what we did for 10 days and their cost:

Day 1: Visited Jupiter Lighthouse and beach - we did not climb the lighthouse because we did not have time as this was part of our drive down. This would have cost money. Cost: Free
Day 2: Went to City of Boca Raton's Patch Reef park. This park had brand new playground equipment and a splash pad with cannons and spraying palm trees. Cost: Free
Day 3: Went to City of Deerfield Beach's beach. Spent all day in the sand and ocean. Cost: Free
Day 4: Went to City Of Boca Raton's Sugar Sand Park. Spent time in the indoor science explorium and outside in their oversized, amazing maze playground. Cost: $10 for the science explorium (donation).
Day 5: Spent the day at an indoor flea market. Cost: $5 in fresh fruit purchase
Day 6: Went to Boca Children's Museum and a farmer's market. Cost: $9 for museum (with coupons - would have been $15) and $9 for fruit and jam purchase.
Day 7: Swimming in my parent's condominium pool and playing at a City of Delray Beach's playground. Cost: Free
Day 8: Went to the beach and playground on Miami Beach. Spent the day walking around South Beach and playing on the beachside playground and the sand. Cost: $1.25 to park (person leaving parking spot still had time on meter so this would have been $4).
Day 9: Went to Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge taking a hike and spending time in the interpretive center. We saw alligators and turtles in their natural habitat! Cost: $5 per carload.
Day 10: Went to Palm Beach County's Wakodahatchee Wetlands. We saw lots of wildlife! Cost: Free

The total cost of our activities including purchases was: $34.25 for 5 people for 10 days! My husband and I, along with our 3 children saw alligators, turtles, and birds, picked fruit, shopped, swam, built sand castles, climbed playground equipment, sprayed water at each other, played pretend in a children's size boat, supermarket, and bank, took a hike, ran around, learned about Florida wildlife and flora, and enjoyed fresh air, exercise, and sunshine for less than $5 per day. Take that, Disney!

Now that we are home, we plan to look into more of the local, state, and national parks in our area to find some more inexpensive, educational, close-to-home fun. What parks are near you that you can enjoy for low cost? For other low-cost ideas, check out Frugal Fridays.


cassie said...

I LOVE parks! My son loves them too, so we make frequent visits. It's a heck of a lot cheaper (FREE) than going to pricey ammusement parks!

Lynn said...

Great write up on the park idea. Fresh air and doing your own thing outside is a fun way to not spend a whole lot of money!

We have a small playground near us and ever since my grandkids have been visiting/staying with us we have walked to it. Sometimes we take a snack or sandwiches - we look at the houses on the way and see what's going on in the neighborhood.

Yes, parks are a good thing!

Frugal in Florida said...

As a South Floridian, I was very impressed with the places you landed at! Next time, though, do be sure to look at Red Reef Park in Boca Raton ... it's really really cool (not sure how old your kids are?) and there is a reef right on the shoreline to snorkle on and see some really cool fish, sand dollars galore and shells too!. Also, Bathtub Reef about an hour north of there is another ocean reef area that is FREE in Hutchinson Island/Stuart area ... totally cool (a lot of sharks OUTSIDE the barrier rock reef) with lots of shells and sea life and my first time with rock formations on the beach!