Love VIP treatment? Here are the best behind-the-scenes theme park tours ever

As a longtime resident of Florida, I’ve paid more visits to Disney World than I can count. I thought I’d covered nearly every nook and cranny of the Mouse House, but it turned out there were some surprises left.

As theme parks move toward more immersive, high-tech experiences, fans are asking, “How’d they do that?” or “What did I miss?” The parks are answering by offering VIP experiences that give a sneak peek behind the veil or offer more of what they came to see.

Of course, you’ll fork over a bit more moola for specialized tours that take you away from the crowds and personalize the experience. But often it is well worth the price.

Here are a few that will have you feeling like a VIP in no time:

1. Animal Kingdom’s Wild Africa Trek

 (Kent Phillips)

Forget the typical 20-minute drive through a recreated African savanna. Guests on this tour don safari gear and walk through the Pangani Forest, past naked mole rats and black-and-white Colobus monkeys, to get to the starting point. And that’s when it gets a lot less crowded and a little more rugged. After traipsing through the Ituri Forest, a canopy of massive oaks and bamboo, guests get up close to hippos, one weighing in at 3,500 pounds. Then they shuffle their way across two suspension bridges that bounce and sway about 30 feet above a handful of crocodiles.

After the walking portion, the group hops into a private safari jeep that has seats around the perimeter to give everyone a prime view of the wildlife. Guides stop along the way for photographs and in-depth chats, and Disney photographers document the whole thing.

There’s an impressive spread at the end of the tour – the boma, a hut on the savanna near the rhinoceros area and flamingo pool where you’re likely to see baby elephants playing and giraffes grazing. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll hear a lion growl (Pride Rock is nearby).

Duration: 3-hour tour (up to 12 guests).

Parking/transportation: Not included.

Price: Starting at $189/person (park admission not included).

For more information, check out

2. Walt Disney World Keys to the Kingdom Tour

PLAID-CLAD MAGIC MAKERS:  Wearing their familiar plaid waistcoats, Walt Disney World V.I.P. Tour Guides (L-R): Danielle Warner, Laurie Sintay Fox and Les Tsui -- all three Celebration residents -- pose with Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom. (Gene Duncan, photographer)PLAID-CLAD MAGIC MAKERS:  Wearing their familiar plaid waistcoats, Walt Disney World V.I.P. Tour Guides (L-R): Danielle Warner, Laurie Sintay Fox and Les Tsui -- all three Celebration residents -- pose with Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom. (Gene Duncan, photographer)

 (Walt Disney World)

You’ll get a walking tour of the Magic Kingdom, a chance to hop on three rides (which vary) and a quick peek into the utility tunnels – the behind-the-scenes areas that Disney employees use to avoid seeing guests or where park support operations, such as trash removal, take place.

During the tour, guests learn about Walt Disney himself and some interesting little facts about the magic behind the Magic Kingdom. Who knew there was a special vacuum system that sucks up all of the park’s trash? Or that more than 250,000 pounds of clothing are washed daily?

The tour starts on Main Street, where you’ll learn the stories behind some of the names on the street’s windows and how Cinderella Castle was built. It continues to Adventureland and Frontierland and then to Liberty Square for lunch. The best part: You get to ask all the questions you want. And there’s a good chance you’ll find a lot of hidden Mickeys along the way.

Duration: 4½ to 5 hours

Parking/transportation: Not included

Price: Starting at $79 (park admission not included)

For more information, check out

3. SeaWorld Orlando Behind-The-Scenes Tour


Did you know that SeaWorld has been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of more than 23,000 animals in the past 40 years, many of them marine mammals affected by ocean trash like fishing hooks, nets and plastic bags?  Or that the park’s rescue teams are on call 24 hours a day to assist animals in need?

The park’s behind-the-scenes tour provides these insights, shares wildlife facts and lets guests see how experts care for rescued manatees and sea turtles. Guests will also touch a shark, explore a hidden polar bear den and interact with a penguin.

Duration: 90-minute tour (up to 16 guests).

Parking/transportation: Free preferred parking upgrade

Price: Starting at $29 ages 10 and up; $9 ages 3-9 (admission to SeaWorld is not included)

For more information, check out Sea World Orlando.

4. Busch Gardens Williamsburg Roller Coaster Participant Tour

©2012 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 (Busch Gardens)

Roller-coaster enthusiasts rejoice. This tour gives you a heart-pounding look at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s most insane rides.

This early-morning tour gives you special ride time on five coasters and fun facts about the history and mechanics of the rides. Before the park opens, ride the Griffon trolley and then go behind the scenes of Loch Ness Monster, Verbolten and Griffon. You’ll walk away with a working knowledge of what makes these rides so thrilling. You’ll also get a photo CD, so you’ll have the bragging rights, too.

Duration: 3 hours

Parking/transportation: Not included

Price: Starting at $80 (park admission not included)

Check out Busch Gardens Williamsburg for more information.

5. Universal Orlando VIP Tour

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction b-roll for publicity grand reopening
Employees on vehicle
at Marvel Super Hero Island MSHI at Islands of Adventure IOA

 (Universal Orlando)

This guided excursion lets you bypass lines on eight attractions and get behind-the-scenes glances of some of the park’s most popular rides. Expect your guide to point out things like the unusual-looking palm trees in Seuss Landing – a space that was designed with no straight lines, anywhere. They are perfectly twisted because they were brought in from South Florida after Hurricane Andrew.

Your guide may also accompany you on a few rides to point out details. For example, Stan Lee, co-creator of the Spider-Man comic book series, is featured four times on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride – but you need to know where to look.

Choose from a tour of either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. You’ll snag some private character meet-and-greets, select backstage access (when available), select discounts on food and merchandise, reserved seating and a special viewing area for shows. After the tour, your VIP lanyard works as an Express Pass.

Duration: Up to 7 hours (up to 12 guests).

Parking/transportation: Complimentary valet parking.

Price: Starts at $169.99 per person (admission not included).

Check out Universal Orlando for more information.

6. Universal Hollywood VIP Experience

Dan MacMedan

 (Universal Hollywood)

Board a trolley for an insider’s look into movie-making. Guests check into the VIP Lounge, meet their personal guide, enjoy breakfast and receive an amenity kit that includes necessities for the day: sunscreen, lip balm, poncho and water. You’ll tour several sets that are currently in TV production and the historic backlot sets made famous in more than 8,000 movies and TV shows.

Stroll along the cobblestone streets of Little Europe, the filming site of “The Pink Panther” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and roam Brownstone Street, which places guests at the doorsteps of memorable scenes from “Bruce Almighty.”

Also included is a gourmet lunch prepared by the theme park’s executive chef. Guests dine in a private VIP Experience restaurant that’s both indoors and outdoors. The seasonal menu includes penne pasta with garlic Alfredo sauce, shrimp scampi, beef sirloin with demi-glace, portobello mushrooms with barley, soft-shell crab with lemon butter and Ahi and yellowtail sashimi.

The VIP Experience features unlimited front-of-line privileges for the rides, too.

Bonus: Given the volume of ongoing movies and television shows currently shooting on the lot, stars are often strolling around.

Duration: Up to 6 hours (up to 27 people).

Parking/transportation: Valet parking.

Price: $299 per person (includes admission).

For more information, visit Universal Studios Hollywood.

7. Six Flags Great Adventure Safari VIP Tours

 (Six Flags)

Guests board a private, four-wheel safari vehicle to get an up-close look at exotic animals from six continents. As you travel through 350 acres of well-manicured landscapes, you’ll not only spot lots of animals (there are 1,200 animals representing 52 different species), but you also get the chance to pet and feed some of them. Keep your eyes peeled for giraffes, zebras, bears, tigers, rhinos and elephants, to name just a few.

Then, explore some of the park’s winter houses, like the elephant/rhino barn, and visit the tiger dens, which house massive Siberian tigers and white Bengal tigers.

Duration: 2 to 2.5 hours

Parking/transportation: Complimentary parking

Price; $129.99 for season pass holders; $189.99 for regular admission (includes park admission)

For more information, check out Six Flags VIP Tours.