Is your kid a VIP? Theme parks certainly think so

Let the stadium-seated masses squint at sea-mammal aquatics. At SeaWorld, a backstage pass will put you in the water.

“It was fantastic,” says Gwen Stirling from Dampier, Australia. An extra $150 gave her access to the Dolphin Interaction Program and the inside of a 1.3-million gallon saltwater tank. “We got to dance with them, hug and kiss them and feed them fish.”

Social Hollywood, meet Sea World. Just as nightclubs bait their crowds with VIP rooms, theme parks have gone elite.

“You don’t have to stay at the Sheraton; you can stay at the W,” says Robert Niles, editor of online consumer guide Themeparkinsider.com. “Parks recognize that and say, ‘We want a piece of that action, too.'”

However, rather than spend millions on new rides and other upgrades, parks have found it more profitable to offer value-added services.

Let other guests wait in line before boarding a tram for the Universal Studios tour with 173 other people. For $150, you can get off the tram and venture inside sound stages; you also get park discounts and line-cutting privileges.

San Diego Wild Animal Park has added a Cheetah Run Safari (watch cats sprint) to Roar & Snore, an in-park sleepover where aardvarks and African-crested porcupines visit your deluxe tent. (Rhinos and lions linger, visibly, just beyond the barrier.)

At Legoland, $120 will take you to the front of the line; $1,000 will make you a lifetime Ambassador with a pass that provides unlimited admission and “an exclusive session with a Lego Master Builder.”

VIP treatments are proving a smart strategy. The only thing more difficult than getting a table at French Laundry may be booking breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table, a Disneyworld attraction that demands reservations exactly 180 days in advance. (Observes Niles: “If you’re a parent, nothing sucks money out of your wallet faster than a little girl.”)

 

The parks’ parent corporations won’t release sales figures, but the percentage of overall gate revenue for specialized options “is certainly increasing,” says Beth Robertson, spokesperson for the Intl. Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions. 

Sometimes, the best things in life are free; Disney’s FastPass allows Mouse House visitors to schedule their rides and costs nothing.

Besides, not everyone sees the wisdom of paying extra to spend less time in line.

 

“It’s like driving on the freeway,” says San Pedro resident Mitch Derenia, who decided to sweat out a 45-minute queue for Universal’s “Terminator 2: 3D” with his family rather than spend an extra $119.80 on Front of the Line passes. “You just learn to wait.”

Theme parks hope not; impatience could be key to supporting a consolidating industry.

In May, CBS sold its Paramount Parks to Cedar Fair; Six Flags Theme Parks placed Magic Mountain on the selling block last month. Another theme park chain could buy the Valencia attraction, but developers will likely see more dollar signs in real estate, rather than rollercoasters.

 

For a few dollars more

Looking to up the ante? “Plan ahead,” says Sea World’s Bob McMains, supervisor of the Dolphin Interaction Program. “It gets sold out, particularly summers, weekends and holidays.” Here’s our guide to the best of boutique theme park experiences.

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SEA WORLD SAN DIEGO ZOO

800-25-SHAMU; seaworld.com

Ages 10 and over, $54; children 3-9, $44; free for children under 2

Dolphin Interaction Program

$150, plus admission
A 30-minute class, followed by 20 minutes in the water in groups of three to six, feeding, touching and training dolphins.

Dolphin Encounter

$40 per person, plus admission
Similiar to the DIP, but lasts only 10 minutes and does not involve getting into the water.

Trainer for a Day

$495, includes admission, lunch and a souvenir T-shirt.
Participants don a wet suit and shadow a SeaWorld animal trainer. Allows guests to learn firsthand how trainers care for, train and build relationships with killer whales, dolphins and other animals. Offered September through May.

Girls play with a Legoland policeman

LEGOLAND CALIFORNIA

Carlsbad, Calif,; 760-918-LEGO; legoland.com

Adults, $57; seniors and children 3-12, $44.

VIP Tours

$200 an hour per person, plus admission

Personal tour guide, front-of-line privileges and special front row seating at all shows. Must be booked at least two weeks in advance.

Premium Play Pass

$120 for adults, $100 for children; includes admission

Front-of-line privileges and special front row seating at all shows. Can only be booked on the morning of your visit.

Camp with the wild things at San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park

SAN DIEGO ZOO’S WILD ANIMAL PARK

Escondido, Calif.; 619-718-3000; sandiegozoo.com

Adults, $28.50; children 3-11, $17.50

Roar & Snore

$129-$199 for adults, $109-$129 for kids 8-11, plus admission
A range of safari-tented accommodations (Classic, Vista or Premium), hot showers and private guided walking tours; dinner and breakfast included. Offered Fridays, Saturdays and occasional Sundays.

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<p/>
<p><strong>UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD</strong></p>
<p/>        <strong>Universal City, Calif.; 800-UNIVERSAL; <a href=

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Adults, $59; children under 48", $49

VIP Experience

$149; includes admission
A 2 1/2-hour tour with access to closed sets and special behind-the-
scenes locations. A personal guide provides front-of-line access/VIP seating to all shows and attractions, 25%
discount on most food and merchandise.

Front of Line Pass

$99.95; includes admission
Priority access to all attractions, reserved seating at all shows,
free annual pass valid for 12 months from date of visit.

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