Nearly every form of family entertainment has ascended to luxury status.

At least when it comes to price.

A matinee showing of Dreamworks Animation's Bee Movie, for instance, set us back $50, including tickets for four people and food ($7 per child, plus one adult).

Take the kids to a pro sports game and prepare to hemorrhage more than $400 in about two hours.

A Broadway show? Cough up a stack of Benjamins.

At those prices, it's no wonder so many U.S. families rack up huge credit-card debt.

When my family hits the movies, we pay to have a business try to sell us something else -- from ads on popcorn bags to endless trailers before the show even starts.

I filled up the kids with grilled-cheese sandwiches and potato chips before we caught the Bee Movie showing, hoping to curb their appetites. I've shamelessly ignored the "no outside food" policy for years, lugging extra water and juice in my purse, to quiet pleas for a reload on the $5 soda.

But we ran up our snack bar tab in a flash at an AMC Theater, where a small popcorn and soda cost is $5 a pop. A weak-moment promise of nachos that I made on the way there stung me for $7, raising the total damage to $21.

Bring a child's friend, or go to an evening flick, and the costs skyrocket. The Simpsons Movie, last summer's big-screen edition of the News Corp. ( NWS)/Fox Entertainment Group television show, was a $100 affair.

The quality of family entertainment should match the price -- at least in theory -- but that's not often the case. I'll pay to see an animated film from Disney ( DIS)'s Pixar or Dreamworks so my children will share a common experience with their classmates -- and because they're usually creative and witty productions (although not necessarily worth $50 for a matinee). But trailers for Sony Pictures Are We There Yet? and Daddy Day Camp practically begged us to wait for the DVDs.

Sticking It to Us

We enjoy a New Jersey Devils hockey game now and then, but always wait for promotions, such as Scout Night, to lessen the otherwise $325 price tag for a five-person family to sit in nose-bleed territory.

The discounted tickets are usually about half price, but we can't pick our seats. They always require a heart-pumping climb to the top of the arena, from where we always spot hundreds of empty seats in better locations. One time, we had to crane our necks to watch the action.

My husband and I take turns running the stairs for the kids' bathroom breaks. Then we haul expensive, lousy food up the same path. A barebones lunch costs at least $40. The $12 parking fee always galls me, because the arena is located in New Jersey's massive Meadowland Sports and Entertainment Complex, and I can't park anywhere else.

On Broadway

Last year, we spent an exorbitant sum -- over $400 -- for our children's first Broadway theater experience, "Tarzan on Broadway." We were lured, once again, by a discount opportunity, which made the cost somewhat more palatable than buying five full-price seats.

I expected to be wowed.

But listening to Phil Collins music that I could hear on the radio, and watching people dressed as apes swing from bungee cords, fell way below the mark, especially for that amount of change. Many others consumers agreed -- the show closed last summer.

Think Local

So, how do parents find entertainment quality and value?

Stick with regional productions and college and minor-league sports. We stretch our dollars much further in these venues than at glitzy national events, and often enjoy a more meaningful experience.

This year, we'll attend a production of "A Christmas Carol" at the historic McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J. The moving performances rival anything I've seen on the New York stage, and orchestra seats cost a mere $37.

We can pay less to sit in the back and still have a good view. Afterward, we'll walk through the campus of one of the nation's most elite universities, mixing a bit of history and education into our outing.

Our proximity to a university also means access to college sporting events. We've watched hockey and basketball games for as little as $6 per child. A college rivalry, such as Princeton versus Harvard, can be even more exciting than watching the New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers.

The entire family attends for about $40, and we find parking on the street. In the springtime, we can attend a Trenton, N.J., Thunder baseball game in a modern stadium that overlooks the Delaware River for about $10 per seat. A five-game "mini package" costs our family about $250 -- a fraction of the cost to see just one major league game.

On Christmas Day, we'll watch the annual re-enactment of George Washington's historic crossing of the Delaware River, en route to the Battle of Trenton, a turning point during the Revolutionary War.

Cost: Free.

Rating: Four stars.
Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.