By Elise Meyer
If a theme park visit sounds like anything but a vacation, think again. The primary annoyance—waiting in those dreadful lines—can be magically erased with a little advance planning, and some cash. A little-known program of VIP tours is run by Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World, and also by private tour companies. Celebrities like Mariah Carey and John Travolta have visited Orlando’s theme parks this way, and you can too.
The services don’t come cheap, but the time savings and convenience factor may be worth the additional expense. With a guide, you can "do" a park in one day, and still have energy for an evening out. Expect to be treated like a star—whisked you through every line, steered to the best photo spots, and delivered on-time to your lunch reservation. With an experience like this in mind, writer Elise Meyer ventured to Orlando with her 25 year-old daughter, hoping to cover a lot of ground in one weekend, and be spoiled by efficiency. They did, and they were (and they even volunteered to do it again). Read about Elise’s experience below.
Universal Orlando VIP Tour
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The experience: Our guide, Katrina, knew Universal Orlando like the back of her hand. We met her at 10 a.m. at Guest Services where we picked up cold bottles of water and VIP passes to hang around our necks. Slipping us through the park’s exit doors to the obvious envy of onlookers, Katrina deposited us at the front of every line, even the popular, new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Her beeper buzzed with updates on ride closures and congested lines. After lunch at Moe’s Southwest Grill, she accompanied my daughter on the upside-down coasters. We were in the right place at the right time for all of the shows, and escorted to prime viewing locations. Having the guide provided a significant saving in terms of time and effort, and we were easily able to cover all the major attractions and rides and be back at our hotel in time for a late afternoon swim. And, when I noticed I had lost my sweater as we boarded The Pirates of the Caribbean ride, she had tracked it down by the time we walked out through the gift shop.
The cost: The Universal group VIP tour of one park, either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure (12 people maximum) lasts about 5 hours, and costs $150 per person. The seven-hour tour of both parks is $185. A private group tour, for up to 12 people, costs $2,000. Note that park admissions, tax, meals and gratuities are not included.
The catch: The group tours feature a minimum of 8 attractions, which are chosen by the group. There’s a risk that the attraction you’re dying to visit may not be one of those selected.
The details: Call 407/363-8295 or visit Universal Orlando Resort’s VIP Tours page for more information.
Michael’s VIPs Tour of Disney World
The experience: A former Disney guide started Michael’s VIPs. Before our arrival in Orlando, the company called to inquire about our travel itinerary and preferences. Shay, our assigned guide, also contacted us by phone to arrange meeting details. At her insistence we met at our hotel at precisely 8 am, because, "there is a strategy" to getting the most from your VIP tour. Unlike at Universal, the guides from Michael’s don’t take you in through the park’s back doors, but they do know how to avoid the crowds, and to expedite your passage through the park. Shay picked up Disney FASTPASS tickets, which—like a restaurant reservation—allowed us to bypass longer lines and get on rides during a specified hour-long window. With Shay’s help, we never waited more than about 10 minutes for an attraction. Our lunch reservation at Tony’s Towne Square, also arranged by Michael’s VIPs, put us in the perfect spot for the parade, and we "magically" found Minnie and Mickey, and the appropriate princesses without glancing at a map. Michael’s also offers tours of Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.
The cost: $100 per hour with a minimum of 6 hours and a 20% service charge. Admission fees and transportation by private car are extra.
The catch: There is a four-hour charge for cancellations less than 24 hours in advance.
The details: Call 407/445-7253 or visit Michael’s VIPs
Note: You can also book VIP tours directly through the park. Visit Walt Disney World’s VIP Tour Services page for more details.
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Photo credit: courtesy Universal Orlando Resort