Tour a theme park with no waits or hassles
America's biggest theme parks will pack in around 120 million people this year. That's a lot of standing in long lines for roller coasters, juggling show schedules and figuring out when and where to eat.
But there's a way to eliminate the stress of making the annual trek to Disney, Universal, Six Flags and other popular parks.
Many now have VIP tours with perks usually reserved for celebrities -- private tour guides, no waits for the biggest attractions, reserved seating at shows and parades, along with behind-the-scenes peeks at places normally off limits.
All of this, of course, comes at a steep price.
The VIP tours at Six Flags parks in New Jersey and near Los Angeles come in at $299 per person. Cedar Point in Ohio charges $395 apiece for a full day of perks that include front-of-the-line access to its 16 roller coasters. Disney World's VIP tour starts at $315 per hour for up to 10 people.
"Time is money, and when you're waiting in line, you're wasting money," said Joey Ray, of Sparks, Nev., whose vacations usually revolve around theme parks.
The ability to bypass the lines means he can see everything in a day instead of staying an extra night or two at a park. Ray said he's gone on a few of the VIP tours, including at Universal Studios Hollywood, where visitors get to see the studio's costume and prop departments and walk through the courtyard in the back lot where "Back to the Future" was filmed.
Just seeing that was worth the splurge, he said.
Those in the theme park industry say there are two distinct types of visitors now -- those who closely watch what they spend and those who are willing to shell out more but are limited by time.
Gone are the days when everyone pays the same price for a theme park ticket and waits in the same lines.
"Everyone is not equal anymore," said Dennis Spiegel, a theme-park consultant and president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati.
His company found in a survey just completed that the money parks make from VIP tours is small but growing. It also showed that VIP visitors are moving twice as fast through the parks with front-of-line access and that about 70 percent wouldn't come back without it.
"It became very apparent that this is something that's going to continue to grow in the future," said Spiegel, who noted that parks recognize the potential for ill will when guests with high-priced tickets sidestep lines full of other paying customers.
Their solution is to design rides so people won't notice when they are being bypassed.
Disney was one of the few theme park operators offering the personalized tours up until the past 10 years. Now they can be found at regional parks including Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., and Kings Island near Cincinnati.
Six Flags parks nationwide have several levels of VIP passes, depending on the location. At Six Flags Great America near Chicago, the four-hour express tour is $225 per person (with a minimum of four people) while the ultimate tour for $400 lasts all day and gets you unlimited games, food and a cabana at the water park.
The biggest perk is doing it all with no waiting, said park spokesman Brandon Bruce. "You can definitely cover a lot of ground," he said.
Tracy Bates, a roller coaster fan from Ridgeville, S.C., said he has shelled out for the VIP tours when he's making a one-time visit to a theme park or when crowds are heavy. His wife, Charlene, doesn't do roller coasters, so skipping the lines is a big bonus.
"I hate to leave her sitting while I'm waiting in line for an hour," he said.
The other benefit is that their personal guide is always willing to take photos, he said. "You don't end up with a bunch of pictures of just one of you," he said.
While nearly all of theme park VIP tours allow guests to skip the lines entirely, the ones at Disney don't -- they still must use the Fastpass lines that are available to everyone.
What they do get is a personal concierge who can monitor wait times across the parks, make dining reservations, arrange for the best seats at shows and make sure everyone in the group can get autographs and photos of Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Mary Poppins and all their other favorites.
Guides tailor the tours to whatever the guests want to see, whether it's the princesses or the big-ticket rides.
"They're looking for a carefree visit without all of the planning," said Chris Wojcik, who's been a Disney tour guide the past 17 years.
He also acts as a mediator to make sure everyone gets to see what's on their wish list and can find an air-conditioned attraction when they get overheated.
Some families request the same guide year after year and plan their vacations around when they are available, said Marvin Smith, who oversees the VIP tours at Disney World.
What makes Universal Studios Hollywood's VIP Experience unique is that it includes an up-close tour of the movie and television production studio where scenes in "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Sting" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" were filmed.
Sometimes those on the tour can get a glimpse of stars walking along the back lot, see the sound editing process or step onto a set just after shooting is finished.
"People say they never realized what it takes to make a movie or a TV show," said guide Bobby Machlin. "They walk away looking at it differently."
The $299 per person ticket includes a private trolley, gourmet lunch, a VIP lounge and sunscreen. Once the special back lot tour is over, they get front-of-the-line access to all of the park's shows and rides too.
Machlin said those taking part in the VIP Experience get more out of their day because he knows so many time-saving short cuts and can take guests through special entrances to shows and attractions.
"I'm able to get them through twice as much in the same amount time because I know the park so well," he said.