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Museum memberships, family attraction passes can add up to big money savings

Museum visits and family attractions can be a great way to fill a weekend, but they can quickly empty your wallet, so deciding to become a member or getting an annual pass requires a little self reflection — and math.

"People are loathe to do the math," said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family vacation expert at Travelwithkids.about.com. "I see people all the time who sort of panic, and they pull the trigger and buy the most expensive pass and every bell and whistle. The trick is to buy what you need, but not more than you'll use."

We tend to think of buying museum memberships as acts of benevolence. At the more expensive upper-category levels of membership, that's true. In most cases, though, you are the one who receives the greatest benefit.

And when it comes to theme parks, the dirty secret of the industry is that single-day tickets are for suckers. When you are looking at $100 a ticket to get into a theme park, it's tough to swallow an even higher price, but a two- or three-day pass brings your daily cost down to less than $40 a day, far less than the cost of most concerts or plays.

Many annual passes and museum memberships pay for themselves after two visits, not to mention the perks ranging from early admission to food or gift shop discounts to the creme de la creme: reciprocity to other museums, especially nationwide, which helps vacation planning. We'll give you the numbers for individual and family admissions so you can see the math yourself.

MUSEUMS

Dalí Museum

1 Dalí Blvd. (Bayshore Drive at Fifth Avenue SE), St. Petersburg; thedali.org

Admission $24, $22 seniors/military/police/firefighters/educators with ID, $17 youths 13-17 and students 18+ with ID, $10 kids 6-12, free for 5 and younger

Membership $60 individual, $100 family

Perks Free parking as available (nonmembers pay $10); $2 admission discount for member's guests.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; ringling.org

Admission $25, $23 seniors, $10 active military, $5 youths 6-17 and students 18+ with ID, free for 5 and younger

Membership $75 individual, $125 family

Perks $10 for Ca d'Zan Private Places tour, a 50 percent discount; one member-for-a-day pass for a guest.

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; fine-arts.org

Admission $17, $15 seniors and military, $10 youths 7-18 and college students, free for 6 and younger

Membership $60 adults, $115 family

Perks Admission to Southeastern reciprocal museums; use of the museum's art reference library.

Tampa Museum of Art

120 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa; tampamuseum.org

Admission $15, $7.50 seniors and active military, $5 youths, free for 6 and younger

Membership $50 individual, $80 family

Perks Admission to North American reciprocal museums; discounts on classes.

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

600 Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs (on St. Petersburg College campus); leeparattner.com

Admission $6, free for youths, students with ID and active military

Membership $40

Perks Admission to Southeastern reciprocal museums; invitations to cultural travel opportunities.

FAMILY ATTRACTIONS

Busch Gardens

3605 Bougainvillea Ave., Tampa; buschgardens.com

Admission $97, $92 for ages 3-9

Annual pass $97-$156

Perks Fun Card is admission for the calendar year for $97, a no-brainer at the same price as a single-day ticket. Annual pass ($156) valid 12 months from date of purchase, gets free parking (normally $18) and dining and shopping discounts.

Lowry Park Zoo

1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa; lowryparkzoo.org

Admission $27.95, $25.95 seniors, $20.95 ages 3-11, 2 and younger free

Membership $70-$170 for family with four children.

Perks Free or discounted admission to more than 150 zoos and aquariums nationwide. Free admission to MOSI and the Florida Aquarium during September.

Florida Aquarium

701 Channelside Drive, Tampa; flaquarium.org

Admission $23.95, $20.95 seniors, $18.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free

Membership $60 to $180 for family of eight people

Perks Discounts at more than 150 zoos and aquariums. Free admission in September to MOSI and Lowry Park Zoo.

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)

4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; mosi.org

Admission $22.95, $20.95 seniors, $18.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free

Membership $95-$155

Perks Access to more than 450 institutions nationwide. Discounts at 21 local attractions including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Tampa Museum of Art. Free admission to Lowry Park Zoo and Florida Aquarium in September.

Clearwater Aquarium

249 Windward Passage, Clearwater; seewinter.com

Admission $21.95, $19.95 ages 60 and older, $16.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free

Membership $50-$99 for a family of four

Perks Discounts on boat tours and birthday parties. Discounted admission to more than 20 zoos and attractions, many of them local.

Glazer Children's Museum

110 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa; glazermuseum.org

Admission $15, $12.50 military/seniors, $9.50 children, under 1 free

Membership $100-$300

Perks Member Mornings access 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. the first Sunday of the month.

Great Explorations Children's Museum

1925 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; greatex.org

Admission $10, $9 seniors, 1 and younger free

Membership $100-$250

Perks Free admission to a dozen Florida children's attractions; premium members get hundreds of others.

Purchase wisely

There are smart and dumb ways to go about using memberships. Here are tips for maximizing your membership or pass:

Know yourself If it's the kind of attraction you'd like to go to more than once in a year, you'll likely find a savings in getting a membership.

Location is key If the attraction is in town, the decision is easiest. If it's less than two hours away, you can be there by 9 a.m. and be home by 4 p.m. with a fun day in between. But if it requires more than a two-hour drive, decide if going will require a weekend away or consume a whole day. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family vacation expert at About.com. "We use it as an incentive to get away a few times a year as a family. So, buying a pass gives us that incentive because, for us, the break-even point is two trips."

Give and take One of the best benefits of membership is the reciprocity with other institutions. That means you enjoy free, yearlong admission to multiple museums, so plan your vacations accordingly. The best deals have reciprocity to the North American network of many major U.S. museums.

Consider parking costs Free parking can be a big savings. Consider Disney and Universal's increase to $20 for parking, and the Dalí Museum's costing $10. A smart strategy is to get a premium pass for one member of the family to get free parking and discounts on food and store items, and to buy a basic pass for everyone else.

Consider the ages of the kids This is one time where being a preschooler really pays off. At many attractions and museums, little kids are free. And since they often only have a few hours of stamina in them, it makes more sense to have a multiday option, so you can leave for a much-deserved nap and come back another day.

Watch the calendar Maximize value by timing your purchase. The Busch Gardens Fun Card, for example, expires Dec. 31, so it's best to buy it early in the year. Some memberships have blackout dates, so buy the annual pass after a blackout date.

Family versus individual Most museums and some attractions have both individual and family admission passes. Do the math. At the Dalí Museum, for example, a family membership for $100 gives you free, yearlong admission for two adults and up to five children younger than 18.

Museum memberships, family attraction passes can add up to big money savings 10/20/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2015 1:10pm]
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