BRISTOL, Conn. - This year, the top prize for playing skeeball or ring toss here at Lake Compounce Family Theme Park isn't a 3-foot tuxedo teddy bear, but a $50 gas card.
"I've had some kids win the gas cards and they wanted the plush," said Jerry Brick, general manager of America's oldest continuously operating amusement park, which attracts more than 650,000 visitors a year. "Their parents said, 'Are you kidding?' "
With the economy eroding and travel costs escalating, New England amusement parks have been trying harder to appeal to cost-conscious fun-seekers - and their efforts have been paying off with increased attendance or spending on food and games. Six Flags New England has been heavily promoting its "everyone pays the kid price" online ticket sale and proximity to Boston and Providence, but even tiny theme parks that barely have advertising budgets have been benefiting from the pocketbook pinch as bargain hunters seek them out - a trend operators hope will continue until their season closes around the end of October.
Consumers certainly are looking for more affordable vacations closer to home as they're squeezed by higher costs for travel, food, and fuel, coupled with a weak job market and a credit crunch. Almost 50 percent more Americans researched in-state destination and tourism websites this year than last year, according to June data crunched by Compete Inc., and Massachusetts had the largest annual increase with 104 percent of residents researching in-state vacations.
Belt-tightening has been a boon to New England amusement parks, which aren't big enough draws for vacationers who fly to visit them but are surrounded by large communities within a two-hour drive. While Economics Research Associates found the 20 largest North American parks tracked by the consulting firm are seeing steady or declining visitors, some smaller New England parks say they're seeing modest increases in attendance.
"Typically in economic downturns, the regional parks either tend to be flat or slightly up because people stay closer to home and they make more local or regional visits instead of going out of state," said Christian Aaen, an ERA principal who heads entertainment research. "This year has been a tougher year for most parks because gas prices are very high."
This year, more visitors have been calling Lake Compounce to inquire about discounts - and hearing a chorus of kids repeatedly singing "one-day getaway" while waiting on hold. Once there, they slurp free soda - a popular offer now in its seventh year. And they're finding other ways to make the outing more economical, including having tailgate lunches in the parking lot and redeeming more coupons for $3 or $4 off park admission.
All these measures helped Lake Compounce boost its six-year streak of strong 5 percent annual attendance growth to almost 8 percent this season, even though this year's adult $33.95 ticket price held steady with last year's and the advertising budget didn't budge.
At the tiny, free-admission Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Conn., revenue from rides, food, games, and souvenirs is up 10 percent compared to the 2007 record year. Interest in the summer Friday night specials, which have been offered for 15 years, rebounded this year as visitors were eager to pay just a quarter for any ride, cone of cotton candy, or small Pepsi.
This 100-year-old, family-owned park can't afford big advertising campaigns or market research to figure out how to drum up more business, but Quassy president Eric Anderson said that doesn't matter now because visitors are taking more initiative to find fun no more than a tank of gas away.
"They're looking at those options a little more closely this year," he said.
Summer attendance at the mammoth Six Flags New England was up slightly from 2007, although through mid-August it was the same as or slightly lower than the same period last year. Park president Larry Litton said the volume of visitors has increased on average annually for the past five years, and the periods of dampened turnout were "almost always predicated on weather."
Meanwhile, from July to mid-August, attendance at Six Flags' 20 North American amusement parks rose a collective 5 percent compared to the prior year, said Six Flags spokeswoman Sandra Daniels.
This year, Six Flags New England in Agawam lowered its adult admission price by $10 to $39.99, its lowest since 2004, and discounted it further to $29.99 for online purchases or in-person ones accompanied by a Burger King coupon or a Coke product.
And guests this year have been splurging more on food, games, and souvenirs than last year, Litton said, although he declined to specify how much is due to park policy. He believes spending has been on the upswing because the park has done a better job appealing to young families with Wiggles-branded rides, shows, and merchandise, and increasing and diversifying what it sells, with offerings like VitaminWater, Johnny Rockets burgers, and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream.
And the 31 percent of park attendees who drive about 95 miles from Greater Boston to Western Massachusetts' Six Flags may view this day trip as their summer vacation, Litton said, so they're willing to make it more memorable.
Tony Herries, who took his family to Six Flags in July, offers a simpler explanation for buying so many goodies for his two daughters: "I'm weak."
The 40-year-old electrician from Dover, N.H., whose family has gone on summer or fall vacations to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios each of the last five years, decided they would break with tradition by staying closer to home after being battered by rising gas prices and a worsening economy. So they booked a hotel room for one night in Agawam and returned to Six Flags New England for the first time in nearly eight years.
The parents cautioned their 8- and 14-year-old daughters that they each would receive only $30 of spending money for the day, "but when we got in there, that went out the window," said Herries, who gave into pleas for trinkets and a T-shirt. "It turned into double that."
Alice and Eugene Kim often take their 1-, 3-, and 5-year-old children to New Hampshire, conscious of how much gas they're guzzling along the way. But this year the Everett family enjoyed Labor Day at Six Flags New England surrounded by The Wiggles and Thomas the Tank Engine.
"This was actually one of the things we felt was a little bit pricier, but since I found some coupons that's what allowed us to go," said Alice Kim, 33.
The family - she's a part-time social worker and he's an associate pastor - has been watching its wallet, especially as they try to sell their condo amid the weakening housing market. During the two-hour drive home, the couple calculated how much they spent on the excursion. The coupons they used allowed one child to get in free with each paying adult, and the kids only got to play one game - jointly - so the family scouted out all the options until they found one that guaranteed a prize.
"Everything came out to $150," Kim said. "I was really trying to be money-conscious about it."
Nicole C. Wong can be reached at email@example.com.