×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Parks with perks

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.

Play with dolphins at Sea World

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.

Go directly to the front of the 



<p/>line with Universal Studio's VIP Experience

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD

Universal City, Calif.; 800-UNIVERSAL; =”_blank”>themeparks.universalstudios.com

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.

More Scene

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • Bebe Rexha

    Mumford and Sons, Sting, Ciara, Bebe Rexha Light Up Cannes Lions

    There was no shortage of excellent music at the 2019 edition of Cannes Lion. The international gathering of creatives drew top music brands – among them: Spotify, Live Nation, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM/Pandora, VEVO and Universal Music Group – and a slew of well-known acts to stages across the Croissette, to villas above the city and onto [...]

  • Patrick Wilson

    Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace on Scary Stories From 'Annabelle Comes Home' Set

    Tales of spooky occurrences on the sets of horror movies like “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” have circulated for years, and it looks like “The Conjuring” franchise is following in their footsteps in that regard. The cast of “Annabelle Comes Home” shared their unnerving stories from set at the film’s premiere on Thursday night at the Regency [...]

  • Donald Trump Chucky Childs Play

    'Child's Play' Stars on New Chucky's 'Creepy' Resemblance to Donald Trump

    At Wednesday night’s world premiere of the “Child’s Play” remake, it was obvious that evil doll Chucky — the star of seven films over three decades — had a little work done. And now he bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump. “Oh, you caught that?” Aubrey Plaza asked Variety on the black carpet outside [...]

  • Cara Delevingne attends The Trevor Project's

    Cara Delevingne Recalls Producers Saying That Being Queer Will Hurt Her Career

    Hollywood may be celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month with displays of the rainbow flag and lots of talk about supporting diversity and inclusion, but Cara Delevingne says there’s still work to be done. “Behind closed doors, we are still being told, as I have, by powerful Hollywood producers that we can’t make it if we’re queer,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content