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A disclosure to start. I am not rich. I come from a middle-class family that was closer to upper middle class than poverty. But one of the reasons we were on the other side of that line is my parents were very practical. With four mouths to feed, they rarely splurged on luxuries.
As I became an adult and later a parent, I evolved my own strategy. I am responsible with money but also aware that we only have so much time on this Earth and so, when the opportunity presents itself, you should splurge.
I am also a big kid. I got a late start on the thrill seeking of amusement parks. My fear of heights paralyzed me until my grandfather finally convinced me to ride a roller coaster at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H. when I was 11. I haven’t looked back since.
So, as my boys got old enough to make Orlando practical, we splurged on the Fast Passes and the express tickets at the theme parks. My sons, wife and I all share an impatient gene. Waiting in lines is never worth it when it comes to a three-minute ride. We’re not the “look at me, we were there” that need to brag on Facebook. We want value for every minute we are at the park.
For all of Disney’s achievements (and there are plenty), I have always found Universal to be more attentive to the guest experience and giving customers that bang for the buck.
That take got a shot of steroids on my recent trip to Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure.
If you’re staying at any of the Universal on-site resort hotels other than Cabana Bay, you are given Express Unlimited passes. You still need to pay for park admission, but these passes take down wait times significantly (no more than 20 minutes). Plus, unlike Disney’s, there’s no need to schedule ahead. Just walk up when you want. These tickets typically run $39.99 for one park and $59.99 per person for the two-park Express passes. A disclaimer: Big rides like the Harry Potter attractions aren’t included in Express, but more than 90 percent of the park attractions are included.
So then there’s the next level. The VIP Experience gets you a guided tour and priority entrance to the park (an hour earlier than the masses). You are part of a group tour and can walk up to eight major rides that the guide chooses. A two-park VIP pass costs $349.99 during non-peak and up to $419 during peak Christmas and Easter/Spring Break periods.
This tour includes a continental breakfast to start the day, no-line access to rides, reserved seating at shows and special viewings of parades, valet parking for one vehicle, Express Unlimited passes after your tour is over and a 10 percent discount on merchandise within the parks.
And then, there’s the epic. Say you don’t want to be touring the park with strangers. You want your own crew and your own private guide. Well, friends, the Private VIP Experience is for you.
Take everything I said before, get rid of the strangers in the group, add in free lunch at any restaurant in the park and building your own itinerary where you choose what rides, when and how many times you want to ride them.
The VIP Experience completely erased my previous focus on the hassle of theme parks.
Here’s five reasons why you must treat yourself like a VIP at Universal.
1. See the park like never before. Disney’s VIP tours still make you wait with the Fast Pass bourgeoisie. The Universal VIP Experience doesn’t just give you the Express access. No, you go through the back entrance of each ride, see the guts of the park operation, avoid the lines and end up at the front of every line. This is truly no lines, no waiting. You get first access to seats and the guides know just where to sit on each ride to get the best experience.
2. No need to schedule. It’s a beautiful thing when you don’t need to come up with the plan of attack. On our tour, Shawn gave us options and we constantly audibled throughout the day depending on timing. If we wanted to go on the Escape From Gringotts in Diagon Alley ride three times in a row, that’s what we did.
3. Details, details, details. You will learn secret hacks about the rides and about the parks that you would never learn just tackling the park on your own. Shawn had worked in just about every department in the park – from being an entertainer to park operations to public relations – so he gave us tidbits that made for an even more truly unique park journey.
4. More park in less time, and more exercise. Your typical trip to the park would involve you hopefully getting to maybe 10 rides maximum in a full day at the park, factoring in meal breaks and the waiting in lines. With the VIP pass, my small group did two parks in two days, walking for about six hours each day. We saw every ride we wanted to with time to spare. And we walked just about a complete marathon – a total of 25.5 miles over the two days. Was a great equalizer to the Butterbeer we had in Diagon Alley and Duff we had at Moe’s Tavern.
5. The luxury math still works out in your favor. So let’s break this down for a family of five.
If you want the two-day park pass and are smart and buy online, you’re talking about just shy of $1000 for the family.
Then factor in buying the Express passes and you didn’t stay at a Universal resort (which again, big mistake, but we’ll also look at that in an upcoming story). You’re now looking at $300 more for the family.
Then $30 for the valet parking, a smart option for families. And you have to eat, so breakfast and lunch for four would likely run you another $200.
Here’s where I get a little creative, but work with me. If you factor in the extra value you’re getting out of the rides, it would take you another day (conservatively) to see what you did in one day with the VIP pass. And you know your kids are going to want to see everything. So factor in another $750 for the family.
And then there’s the headache factor. It’s an intangible, but parents, you know what I’m talking about when you take out the “why are we waiting so long?” the “I’m so hot, I’m bored” and the “I want to go on Dr. Doom’s Freefall but Jimmy wants to go on the Rip Ride Rockit.” No choice needed here. You see them all, with no headaches whatsoever. Not just that, you feel like a pampered celebrity. You go from the one watching others cut the line and hating them to being that person with all the perks.
So let’s put a headache fee of $200 per person. There’s another $1,000. (Again, I get it. I’m being creative putting a value on this. But I’ve been there. If you are going to tackle the parks, you need to know the pitfalls ahead of time. As a friend once told me, “It’s not all Schlitz and letter fries.”)
That adds up to $3,200 and you’re still waiting in some lines.
The private VIP experience with park tickets will run you about $3,850 non-preak with park tickets included and that’s good for up to five guests.
So the question is, are you worth the $650 to get the once-in-a-lifetime park experience?
I really didn’t know how much I’d enjoy it until it happened. It has spoiled me forever. I will never see Universal any other way moving forward. So I vote yes. You're worth it.
Again, this is from a frugal middle class guy. Plan ahead and save a little extra. The reality is if you’re up for spending $3,200 at the parks in the first place, you can likely afford the extra cost. It will be the best splurge you've sprung for in quite some time.
Your trip will go from something that barely felt like a vacation to a story your family loves to tell all about your awesomeness for the rest of your days. Try putting a price on that.
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