Theme park visitors get thrill from VIP treatment

Tours, escorts to rides, swanky buffets worth price for growing lot

Los Angeles TimesApril 26, 2013 

BIZ THEMEPARK-VIPS 1 LA

Guest relations guide Victoria Dale, left, takes VIP guests on a "Walk in Walt's Disneyland Footsteps," at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., on April 18, 2013.

DON BARTLETTI — LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT

During a honeymoon trip to Los Angeles, Chris Hansen and his new wife, Shoni, decided not to skimp on their visit to Universal Studios Hollywood.

They booked a pricey tour for the theme park that included a buffet lunch, an escort to the front of the line of every ride and a behind-the-scene visit to the property and wardrobe departments on the studio’s television and movie lot.

The experience set the couple back $299 each, compared with the regular $80 admission price. But they didn’t complain. “The lunch alone was worth it,” Chris Hansen said.

Just as airlines charge extra for first-class seats, theme parks have learned that upgraded packages can be a big source of extra revenue from those few well-heeled visitors who want to be treated like VIPs. The tours offer the velvet-rope exclusivity that high rollers get at restaurants, nightclubs and hotels.

The tours often include upscale food served in a private lounge, a private escort to the front of lines and access to areas not open to other parkgoers. The price can soar to more than three times the price of regular admission.

The demand for such theme park tours has been on the rise because of an improving economy and a surge in big-spending foreign tourists, according to theme park experts. Many theme parks are trying to recruit Mandarin-, Japanese- and Portuguese-speaking tour guides to serve more international visitors.

“Expect to see more of this, because it does generate lots of revenue for theme parks,” said Pete Trabucco, a theme park expert and author of “America’s Top Roller Coasters and Theme Parks.”

The tours also let park visitors enjoy the attractions without waiting in long lines, he noted.

“This ensures they are going to do as much as possible in the shortest amount of time,” Trabucco said. “It’s a way to save a lot of time.”

Theme park officials decline to divulge how many VIP tours they sell a year but say they can’t keep up with demand.

“Every year they get more popular,” said Sue Carpenter, a spokeswoman for Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., where park visitors can pay $299 for an escorted VIP tour that includes all they can eat and no waiting to get on any ride. “Especially in the summer, they sell out.”

VIP guests are typically wealthy theme park buffs or out-of-town visitors who want to make the most of their visit, according to theme park managers.

At Disneyland, a historical tour of the park – A Walk in Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps – is offered to 15 visitors a day for $109 a person. On a recent Monday morning, Disney officials said the tour was overbooked by six guests. The price does not include admission.

The Disneyland VIP Tour, which is favored by celebrities, ranges in price from $315 an hour for nonpeak times to $355 during peak periods for a group of as many as 10 guests. The price includes a tour guide, a customized itinerary, front-row seating at shows and parades, front-of-the line access to rides and valet parking. The price does not include admission.

In response to strong demand, some theme parks have upgraded their VIP tours.

Universal Studios Hollywood this year upgraded its tour – dubbed the VIP Experience – to include access to the property and wardrobe room at the adjacent production studio and movie set back lot. The dining lounge where guests are served a continental breakfast and a buffet lunch was also remodeled this year. The $299-a-person price includes admission.

“We introduced our enhanced VIP Experience in response to the growing demands of our guests seeking a luxury opportunity when they visit our theme park,” said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.

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