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Well-heeled theme park visitors get a thrill from VIP treatment

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Marcy Edwards, center, enjoys 'Olympus,' an Eurasian eagle owl at the arena for the Universal animal actors on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot in Universal City on March 14, 2013. At right is Rachel Salant, an animal trainer. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Marcy Edwards, center, enjoys 'Olympus,' an Eurasian eagle owl at the arena for the Universal animal actors on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot in Universal City on March 14, 2013. At right is Rachel Salant, an animal trainer. (Gary Friedman/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.”

West Mifflin amusement park Kennywood has been selling VIP passes for three years, spokesman Jeff Filicko said. While not as extravagant as some other parks, visitors to Kennywood can pay between $5 and $18 above a normal pass to skip lines on certain rides. Filicko said the park limits the number of VIP passes it sells each day to keep it fair for non-VIP customers.

“As an industry, we are seeing an increase in demand for VIP experiences from guests who want greater accessibility, convenience and a personalized experience,” said Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group in Virginia.

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.

Often the guests include Hollywood celebrities. Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie book the Universal Studios tour several times a year, according to park officials.

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.

SeaWorld San Diego offers a tour for as many as 15 people for $1,200, not including admission. Guests get to feed endangered turtles and moray eels and pet bottlenose dolphins.

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

This year, Disneyland modified its historic tour by adding a visit to the tiny apartment that Walt Disney lived in during much of the construction of the park in the 1950s. The apartment, decorated in a Victorian theme, overlooks Main Street U.S.A.

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.

The tours 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.”

Many who book the Universal Studios tour say they simply want to see as much of the park without standing in long lines for the attractions.

Marcy Edwards, a retired stock trader from Colorado, recently took her 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, for a spring break visit to Southern California. She said she booked the VIP Experience tour at Universal Studios to “get the best experience we can.”

In the behind-the-scenes visit to the Universal Studios' property warehouse and costume department, Edwards said she was most excited to touch and examine the dress Barbra Streisand wore in the 1968 movie “Funny Girl.”

“I was curious to see what size she wore,” Edwards said.

While she and her daughter rode Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, her tour guide patiently stood near the exit, holding her purse.

“We like to live like VIPs,” she joked.

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