When I was a younger man, I used to spend most of my free time at night hopping from concerts to films to theatrical productions. It was easy then. I needed only to purchase tickets for myself and I could often find a way to get myself added to guest lists. As long as I did not indulge at the bar or restaurant, I could easily find a full evening of entertainment for less than twenty dollars. If I decided to go to a ballgame or other sporting activity, I could sit in the cheap seats and still enjoy myself.
Then I got married. My wife is many wonderful things and there are many great places where she belongs. I quickly learned, however, that she did not belong in the cheap seats or in grimy nightclubs. I adapted. We still went out a lot, but our tickets were now to finer events.
When we had our kids, things changed. Suddenly, we needed four tickets to every event. By the time our kids were old enough to understand that we had options when we went out, we could never find a four way consensus as to what we should do. Travel became much more of a hassle, as the kids complained about travel time. I found that I was spending too much time planning and negotiating our events and then spending far too much money to “enjoy” the event. None of that was fun. More importantly, it often was not fun for my wife or kids.
Based on those experiences, I adopted a new approach to entertainment. I would not travel great distances for an afternoon or evening out. Rather, I would look closer to home at the more economical options that I could pursue. Surprisingly, at least to me, I found more, and often better, live entertainment options within 20 miles of my home than I ever expected to find. My wife and kids were happier. I was happier. My credit card bills were not nearly as painful. Here is what I learned:
I love baseball. I have always loved baseball. My kids, at least when they were truly kids, also loved baseball. I used to spend a lot of time and money to take my kids to games to see the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston and, after we moved to Florida, to see the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg. Tickets always cost me at least $100 (after factoring service charges and related costs). Parking added more. Concessions still more. Despite my comfortable salary at the time, I was still appalled by what I spent at each game. I also found that by the time we got to our seats, my kids were often ready to go home due to all of the time it had taken to get to the game.
After a particularly woeful experience of driving through a powerful Florida rain to get to a Rays game, I decided that I just could not go back again, especially when I could still watch those games (if I chose to do so) in the comforts of my home on TV. That said, I did not want to give up on seeing live baseball. Accordingly, I explored the area around my Orlando home and found that I could take my family to see college baseball for a fraction of the cost of a Major League game.
At our first game, we saw the University of Central Florida play Rice (then the top team in the country). Both teams had several players that were drafted to play Major League baseball later in the year. We saw a great game and it cost us only about $12 (4X$3 for tickets) and the 40 minute drive to the stadium. Moreover, we were among only 800 spectators so it was much easier for my kids to get foul balls that went into the stands and to get chosen to participate in on-field activities between innings. Eventually, we even got to bring our Little League team to a game and the kids took the field for the National Anthem. The biggest treat for me was that I got to watch players who gave everything while they were on the field. There was no holding back and they played hard!
If you are reading this in the USA, chances are that there is a college team located near where you live. We quickly learned that with just about any college sport, other than football, we could enjoy a great evening for less than $10 a head. You can also get your kids used to the college atmosphere and support young men and women who, in general, really appreciate the privilege of being able to play a sport for their school.
I also enjoy football, as do my kids. My wife joined us because she is a good wife and mother and did not want to leave me to struggle with both kids in a packed stadium. (At least I like to think that even though a part of me wonders whether she was just convinced that I would lose the kids!) I tried college football games but found that college football is not nearly as economical as other college sports. My kids and I did not want to give up on live football altogether, however, so we explored other options.
We have been fortunate to live near the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training camp at Walt Disney World. I was surprised to learn a few years back that the Bucs training camp was open for free. (This is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which it is located at a Disney property. Disney would charge for the air we breathe if they could!) I began attending Bucs training camp in 2002 and we had much more fun than we ever could have at a game. There were no travel hassles and the players were much more accessible. Players were always available for autographs – some more than others – but we were 99% certain to get a few signatures every time we attended. (And we always stocked up on items that could be autographed by going to eBay in the months before training camp opened.)
During football season, we turned away from the pros and college teams (except on TV) and began to attend the local high school’s games. A community atmosphere prevailed and we all had a lot of fun cheering the local team to success and then watching our local players go on to college careers. (We also learned that high school football tickets are more expensive than college baseball tickets. That taught us a lot about America’s preferences!)
Most Americans live near one of the 32 professional teams. I believe they all hold training camp somewhere in their television market so you should have a good chance of being able to get to their training camps. Check on their website first, to make sure that they camps are open to the public and that there is no fee (or at least to assess the ticket charge). Even if you do not live near an NFL training camp, you do live near a high school, so get out there and support the kids!
Although Americans do not always realize it, life is not all about sports. We try to go to a lot of museums and we always made sure that our kids were exposed to culture as much as they were engaged in athletics. You probably know all about the major museums in your area but if you check your local paper, you will probably be surprised to realize that there are many small museums that no one ever hears about. In reading the magazine section of my Sunday paper earlier this week, I found listings for over 30 museums, including one (the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, Florida, which has an exhibit on the Art of WWII, a special interest of mine). The museums often offer free admission on certain days of the year so it is worth planning ahead. Even if admission is not free, it is often less than $5 per person.
If you live in a populated area, chances are good that you live near several museums and historic sites. Take the time to check them out. You will find an inexpensive afternoon or evening of culture and enjoyment and you will support your local community. Years ago, I worked in a museum in Salem, Massachusetts and I was always dismayed that people traveled great distances to come to our museum but I never saw anyone from Massachusetts. I always closed my tours by reminding visitors that they did not need to spend large sums of money or travel great distances to go to the museum because there were probably several in their own back yards!
There are many ways to find inexpensive musical performances. Of course, you are probably not going to find free tickets to see a mega band or Miley Cyrus, but there are still a lot of options out there.
As with museums, you need to read your local newspaper, especially on Fridays and Sundays and you will find many listings for free and discounted music events. This past week, I found that there is going to be a free performance of Handel’s Messiah at a local performing arts center on November 30. Of course, I shall be attending. I also found that our many area colleges offer many shows, often for free, by local and national artists. For example, I am greatly looking forward to a free show that I found which will be given by Larry Coryell, a jazz guitarist of who I am particularly fond.
After exploring the newspaper, it is also important to sign up for e-mail alerts from your local music venues. If tickets have not sold out by a certain date prior to the show, the venues will often start to offer discount tickets. I have even received several offers for free tickets just to fill up a venue and, I assume, increase the restaurant and bar revenue to help justify paying the band. Just today, I received an offer to obtain free tickets to an event on Saturday at a large arena. The tickets are priced at $150 but I have been offered them (as I am sure have many others) for the cost of discounted handling and shipping (less than $10 per ticket).
In this summer of Dark Knight, it is hard to get around the costs of seeing a movie. In our area, first run films generally cost $10 per ticket (more for an IMAX show). For a family of 4, that means that a first run movie on a Saturday night is going to cost at least $40, plus the cost of any exorbitantly priced concessions that you may elect to purchase. For that price, it is not worth fighting the crowds to get a big movie when I know that I can see it on DVD later.
That said, we do appreciate the magnitude of a film seen on a large screen and we do not want to give that up. We get around that by not going to the movies at night. My wife and I can go to a movie on a Saturday or Sunday morning before Noon (even 11:55am) and the ticket price is only $6. If our kids are in town, we save $16 on the ticket price and we do not have to fight crowds to get a good seat. Often we are alone in the cinema or sharing the movie with only half a dozen other patrons. It is a great experience. When we add the benefits of using our frequent movie patron cards (so that we get free tickets and concessions periodically), the cost of attending a film drops to about $5 per head. At that price, we are getting a great value for a few hours of entertainment. Of course, if you must go to the cinema in prime time, it is always prudent to have a stock of AAA movie vouchers, which still offer considerable savings as compared to the regular ticket price.
You can find bargains in the entertainment world but you have to do your research first. Sign up for every mailing list when you go to a museum or music venue or sporting event. Check websites regularly. Listen when your friends tell you about their weekend discoveries. You can spend well over $1000 to take a family of 4 to a pro football game and sit on the 50 yard line or you can spend $1000 to enjoy a year of family entertainment. For me, regardless of what I earn, that is not a difficult decision to make.