With a mecca of wild roller coasters, cute kid rides, and a newly remodeled water park, Carowinds is a summer hot spot. One problem: It can be really, really expensive.
I love amusement parks, but I’m a 20-year-old college student and I don’t have $200 to drop in one day. With overpriced food, lockers, and a $60+ admissions ticket, the expenses can really add up and take a toll on your wallet.
My mission? To find the cheapest and most efficient way to effectively experience Carowinds in all its glory.
I dug up all of the deals and hacks I could possibly find to minimize my Carowinds costs, and found the best way to get everything done in one day to get the most for the money I spent on my admissions ticket. I’ve done my best to construct a guide so that you can experience Carowinds as cheaply and fully as I did. Let’s do this!
How can I save on admission?
This is the first step to your Carowinds experience. I highly recommend buying the ticket online ahead of time since the regular ticket price at the gate is $65 per person. Keep an eye out for deals on their website, because there are random daily admissions deals all the time. About a week ago, they had a one-day sale where daily admissions tickets were available for $30 each, which is the deal I grabbed. They also offer a military discount at $39 per ticket.
If you’re reading this on your way to the park and you’re very upset that you missed out on the online deals, never fear. Swing by your local Bojangles and pick up a coupon for $18 off a Carowinds admission ticket at the front gate (the coupon isn’t valid online). There will be a similar Burger King deal cropping up sometime in September.
How can I ride everything in one day?
I recommend arriving in the park with a planned strategy for what order you’re going to hit the rides in, because efficiency is key if you’re trying to ride everything in one day. You’ve got to plan around what rides get the busiest and get them out of the way first thing.
There’s absolutely no way to get to everything if you aren’t there from opening to close. I went on a Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fair warning: Weekends at Carowinds are very, very crowded. Definitely go on a weekday if you can, and you’ll have an easier time getting around the park and riding everything.
I started with the Nighthawk. It’s right near the park entrance, and it’s the ride with the most notoriously slow-moving long line. If you wait beyond the opening hour to ride it and you don’t have a fast pass, be prepared to wait 2-3 hours. Seriously, just get it out of the way when you arrive in the morning.
Then move on to the other main attraction roller coasters, the Intimidator and the world record-breaking Fury 325. They have long lines, but not nearly as awful as the Nighthawk.
After that, I’d recommend heading to the water park, Carolina Harbor, since it closes earlier than the rest of the park — at 7 or 8 p.m. depending on the day. Then, you’re pretty much home free to move about the park as you please.
From Carolina Harbor, I moved down into the County Fair, through Carolina Boardwalk and the Thrill Zone, and then walked through Celebration Plaza and underneath the Nighthawk to get to the Crossroads section of the park, which was my last stop of the day.
A few of my personal favorites outside of the major rollercoasters are the Afterburn, the Windseeker, and the Flying Cobras.
I highly recommend riding the Windseeker at night. It’s the classic chair-swings ride you know and love, but it’s just over 300 feet tall, making it the second-tallest ride in the park. When it gets dark, an elaborate multi-colored light show makes the ride look awesome. From the top, you have a beautiful panoramic view of the entire park and beyond. There’s a great view of Uptown!
I skipped out on the Planet Snoopy section of the park because it’s mostly kiddie rides, and I didn’t have time to explore that section while still getting to all of the thrill rides and Carolina Harbor water park.
I used the Carowinds app a lot to navigate while I was there. It’s honestly really handy. It’ll show you ride wait times and directions to whatever attraction, food, or restroom you’re headed to next.
Although, be wary about the accuracy of the wait times. When I went over to ride the Intimidator, the app said it would be a 90-minute wait. I was doubtful of this because it was only about 11 a.m., and sure enough, the wait actually turned out to be a mere 20 minutes.
The app also has a “car finder” in which you can mark where you parked your car in their massive lot, which really comes in clutch when you’re trying to find where you parked 12 hours ago within an indistinguishable and endless sea of vehicles. Trust me, it’s a lifesaver.
Carowinds will send you special deals like BOGO Dippin Dots or 20% off merchandise through the app. So, download it and save your cash money.
If you can afford it, I would definitely recommend getting your hands on a Fast Lane pass. Obviously, not having to wait in hour-long lines is a great addition to your Carowinds experience, but you’ll still have a great time if you can’t swing one. It just takes a lot more strategic planning when it comes to getting to rides at certain times when the lines aren’t as long. The Carowinds app’s ride wait times are really helpful in that respect!
If you plan on hitting the park multiple times in the summer, consider investing in a season pass and/or one of the dining plans they have available. It’ll save you a fair amount of money if you’re a frequent park visitor.
Should I check out Carolina Harbor?
Decide ahead of time if you want to go to Carolina Harbor, the newly updated water park at Carowinds. You’ll need to be prepared with a bathing suit, a towel, and sunscreen. And if you’re going to go, definitely get it out of the way first thing after you ride the big three roller coasters: Nighthawk, Intimidator, and Fury 325.
I’d definitely recommend going! Admission is included with your ticket, so why not? Plus, the great thing about Carolina Harbor is that there really is something for everyone, whether you’re a daredevil or not.
Thrillseekers should prioritize Blackbeard’s Revenge.
The body slide there, the Pirate’s Plank, is by far the most terrifying water slide I have ever ridden. You get into a plastic case positioned above the tube slide’s entrance and stand there. Then, the floor drops out from underneath you and you plummet into a near 90-degree drop down the slide. It is an intense thrill.
Storm Surge also has a really fun, really intense small and twisty body slide. But if both of those make you want to hyperventilate and burst into tears, don’t worry. Blackbeard’s Revenge and Storm Surge have tube slides as well that are much more mild than the Pirate’s Plank.
If extreme thrills aren’t your thing, I’d recommend the wave pools, the lazy river (Coastal Currants), and pretty much any of the tube slides.
Warning: Lockers in the water park are a whopping $20 for the day, and that’s for the smallest size.
However, there are lockers by the Fury 325 which are $2 an hour. I would highly recommend changing into your swimsuit in the bathrooms by Fury 325 and storing your clothes/other possessions in the lockers over there, then just walking over to Carolina Harbor. It took me about four hours to ride everything there, but if you’ve got a fast pass or you don’t want to ride every water slide, you could definitely finish it in 2-3 hours.
If you rent out a locker near Fury 325 at $8 for four hours instead of renting the $20 locker at Carolina Harbor, you’ll save $12. I bought a meal with those savings!
Where and what should I eat?
Honestly, all of the food is expensive. You’re not really going to find any incredibly cheap food, and the only deals are the ones offered on the Carowinds app that day. Since pretty much everything is $10+, it’s more of a game of which food is the best tasting for that $12 per meal you’ll inevitably spend.
I ate both lunch and dinner at the park and split a funnel cake with a friend for dessert, and spent about $30 total on food for the day.
For lunch, I had a jumbo hot dog and fries combo at Fair Fries, which I would definitely recommend. It was, sadly, $11, but at least it was a quality meal and I wasn’t disappointed with the taste nor the amount of food.
I’d also recommend the BBQ at Harmony Hall and the funnel cake from Funnel Cake Emporium, which you can get customized with your choice of powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, chocolate or caramel sauce, and strawberry topping.
If you’re not feeling any of that, there’s plenty of chain options within the park. Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon, Starbucks, and Panda Express all have a spot near the main entrance.
There’s free cups of water available at any and every food or drink stand in the park, so never let yourself dehydrate because you don’t want to buy a $6 water bottle!
If you’ll be there from open to close, it might be worth investing in the All-Day Dining Plan for $29, which allows you to eat a meal every 90 minutes. That’s a lot of food.
Don’t underestimate the shows. Admission is included with your ticket!
Prior to my most recent Carowinds visit, I’ve been like 5 other times and I have never even thought about seeing one of their shows. I went to go see Cirque Imagine not expecting much, but it was really, really good. Definitely arrive 15 minutes ahead of the show time to make sure you get a seat, because it can fill up pretty quickly.
You can catch the show at multiple times any day of the week except Tuesday, when the show doesn’t run.
At 30 minutes long, it’s a great break from the blazing Carolina heat, but it’s not so long that it eats up a lot of your time for rides.
Just remember that planning is the key to getting the best bang for your buck at Carowinds and making the most of your time.
Know what shows you want to see and what you want to ride ahead of time, download the app, and take advantage of as many food and admission discounts as possible. Do this, and you’ll have a great time!