Does Universal Orlando's Private VIP Experience Tour Deliver What It Promises?
How much would you pay to have a theme park all to yourself?
Pretty much no one has the kind of cash it takes to buy out a theme park—no one you'd probably want to hang out with for long, anyway. But some amusement parks sell special tours that try to approximate the feeling by assigning you an escort who makes sure no one else gets between you and your fun.
Universal Orlando sells what it calls the VIP Experience, which gives customers guided tours of the resort's two main theme parks and ushers tourgoers to rides without making them wait in line. The VIP Experience comes in two varieties: the regular version for small groups of up to 12 people (you'll probably share a guide with other customers you don't know on these tours), and the Private VIP Experience, which is just for you and your party.
We wanted to know if the Private VIP tour was all it was cracked up to be. Among the perks of the tour, as promised by the official Universal Orlando website:
• Priority front-of-the-line access to all rides and attractions, including The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D, and all of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions
• Exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences in the parks (subject to availability)
• Complimentary valet parking (for one vehicle, based on availability)
• Reserved seating at shows (excludes live performances during Mardi Gras and Mannheim Steamroller during the holidays)
• Complimentary continental breakfast and lunch (dinner included in Private VIP Experiences only)
• Universal Express Unlimited ride access at participating rides and attractions throughout the rest of the day (during normal park operating hours)
• Exclusive VIP Experiences lanyard and credential
• Universal CityWalk Party Pass, valid only on date of VIP Experience (during normal CityWalk park operating hours)
• Discounts at select Universal Orlando–owned and -operated merchandise locations in the theme parks and CityWalk
So did the Universal Private VIP Tour measure up to its promises?
Pictured above: the Jurassic World VelociCoaster from a front-row seat
Even though my group and I were doing both theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure) in one day, check-in was at Universal Studios. To the right of its front gate, there’s a special VIP reception area, well away from the throng of people trying to get through the main turnstiles.
At our assigned time (10am, an hour after regular park opening), we were greeted by clipboard-bearing managers who matched us with our guide, handed us our I.D. lanyards (as promised!), checked our tickets (you have to buy those separately from the tour), and sent us on our way.
Our first stop was inside Universal Studios. The rambling, California-style restaurant Cafe La Bamba had been set aside as a home base for VIP Tours. Sometimes, tour guests take breakfast upstairs from the reception area instead.
After too many years reviewing terrible Orlando hotels, I expected our continental breakfast to consist of some stale bagels and single-serving cereal boxes. Instead, we found a full buffet of hot, cooked food and no other guests competing with us for it (save for the other VIP tour groups, who all have breakfast here together before setting off with their designated guides). Another promise met.
So that there would be no disappointments around boarding rides later on, guides measured the heights of all the kids while we were busy getting breakfast. A special gauge (pictured above) lists all the attractions’ minimum requirements.
Universal's pitch promises "priority front-of-the-line access." Really, isn't this is the thing people want most out of a special tour?
The pitch wasn't bluffing. The moment we met our assigned guide, Abriann, he asked us what rides we wanted to do. He told us we could program our time with anything we chose. We could go on the same coaster all day. We could make slow, detailed rounds of the Harry Potter stuff and nothing else. We could even go to restaurants one by one to try all the french fries, if that's what lit up our wands. Anything.
We said we wanted two things: to ride the big tentpole attractions and to explore as many secret spaces as we could.
Given Abriann's very permissive ground rules, we could have chosen any ride we wanted for our first experience of the day. I knew that the elaborate Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (pictured above), reportedly the most expensive roller coaster ever built, frequently has unexpected downtime. So our group decided to ride that one first, while we knew it was up and running.
We got there via a backstage shortcut—your tour will use a lot of previously unnoticed wormholes through backstage areas—and, true to the marketing, Abriann walked us so far ahead of the queue at Hagrid's that we only had to wait about 3 minutes to board.
When the ride was over a few minutes later, Abriann asked if we wanted to go again, this time in different seats. So we rode again, barely 2 minutes after the first ride.
We could have spent the rest of our VIP tour doing this all day—if our bodies had cooperated. After the second go on Hagrid's, most of us learned one of the little-discussed disadvantages of never having to wait for roller coasters: Your body actually needs the recovery time that waiting in line provides. Human equilibrium and nausea, especially as they manifest in people old enough to pay for VIP tours, are not suited for the pace of said VIP tours.
Sure, we rode Hagrid's twice in 10 minutes (and again later on), which was a huge victory—and another marketing promise fulfilled. But afterward, with our heads spinning, we all agreed we probably shouldn't go for another time quite yet. Even with the almighty power of a VIP tour guide, you have to pace yourself.
What good luck it was for our churning stomachs that one of our goals was to see as many exclusive spaces as possible. That allowed us to calm our inner gyroscopes with some fun walk-through surprises. Here's one of the "Exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences" promised in the VIP tour sales materials: the "Immigration Floor" that is in view of, but not accessible to, guests in line for the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride.
Here, you can walk among the animatronic aliens that most people can only see from above. You can rifle through their desks, push their papers, and pose for pictures to make your theme park–loving friends mad jealous.
Normally, guests who want to tour this area have to locate an employee who works on the ride and ask to be shown around. But if workers are swamped, the Immigration Floor is off-limits. Having a VIP tour takes care of that—as long as the ride is up and running, you'll have an escort.
Some other great secret spaces we were allowed to see (but not all of which we were allowed to photograph) included: the vehicle maintenance garage for the seminal The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride, a walk behind the city walls of both The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Village, a private overlook on a bridge that leaps over Islands of Adventure's Port of Entry area, and this panoramic-view balcony hidden down a side corridor of Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.
If you're less interested in going behind the scenes, VIP guides will show you what you do want to see. They know where all the great photo spots are, for example.
During seasonal events such as Mardi Gras, guides can also get you access to whatever special things are going on. Abriann offered to place a few calls to make us guests of honor in the Mardi Gras parade. We could literally end our day riding on a float through the parks, waving at everyone else. We declined. We were fine cutting all the lines, but playing parade royalty felt a bit too entitled for us.
Islands of Adventure has two of the most diabolically wet flume rides in all of theme parkdom: Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges (pictured above). Especially on hot days, when their soaking effects are turned up to full blast, there's no way to escape a drenching, which is why, if you stand outside either ride's entrance for more than a few minutes, you'll hear family after family deciding not to ride because they don't want to get their things wet.
Normally, we'd have to pay to stash our belongings in a locker while we rode. But having Abriann as a guide was like having a new sorority sister who wished only to hold our hair during a messy night out. He took care of our stuff and kept it dry. He also bought us plastic ponchos (normally over $10 each at the souvenir shops) at no extra charge.
Technically and for the record, VIP guides are permitted to ride along with the guests they lead as long as guests invite them to join and there's room—so be sure to ask your guide along if you want to. The other determining factor—and this is key—is that the guide must actually want to ride. Strangely, Abriann decided not to get doused along with us. He remained just as dry as our things.
I've been reporting on Universal Orlando for Frommer's since the first years of this century, but until this tour I didn't know there's an entire school hidden among the soundstages that divide the two Universal Orlando theme parks.
It's called the DAVE School—the Digital Animation & Visual Effects School. The 18,000-square-foot facility is equipped with a production stage, a motion capture system, and labs for creating and learning about virtual and augmented reality.
Surprisingly, from beneath the screaming profile of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, students earn bachelor's degrees in either Visual Effects Production or Game Production before setting out for careers in the entertainment business. This institution has produced award-winners of every stripe (you can see some of their accolades on the tour) and is a division of Puerto Rico's largest for-profit private university, National University College.
I can honestly say that my VIP Experience taught me something new.
Wherever we went in the parks, employees would take one glance at Abriann and clock that he was leading a VIP tour. Suddently, all barriers would vanish. We were ushered through back doors and snuck into side exits, avoiding queues entirely. We were even allowed to claim whichever seat (first row or last row included) we wanted on nearly every ride.
The one ride we couldn't grease our way onto was Pteranodon Flyers, which added a rule many years ago that requires one child to ride with every adult. Since we didn't have any kids in our group, we couldn't ride—but that also means that if you take kids on a tour, you'll technically get even more access than if you don't.
The promotional materials for the VIP experience promise "Complimentary continental breakfast and lunch." It turns out that if you opt for the VIP Private version, you also get dinner. Most tour guests go back to Cafe La Bamba, where we started our day with breakfast, to do their big lunch there.
But without the slightest pushback, Abriann's coordinator let us convert our dinner voucher into a lunch voucher at Mythos Restaurant, a cavernlike lakefront institution that is, without much debate, one of the best sit-down restaurants at any theme park (the venue has won many awards and Universal won't let you forget it). Everything was arranged before we arrived, and this perfect waterfront table had even been set aside for us.
Alcohol was not included in the price of the tour, but other drinks at mealtime were. Butterbeer in the Wizarding World wasn't included when we bought it at a kiosk, either.
Pro tip: Ask your guide to eat with you, too. Guides will bow out unless you explicitly invite them—but they've been selected for this job for being knowledgable and charming, so they tend to make for good companions at mealtime. Over lunch, we learned that Abriann had a second role at Univeral Orlando: When he isn't leading tours, he's a stunt performer in the cutting-edge Bourne Stuntacular show.
Your guide will bid you goodbye after about nine hours. Then you're on your own again—but you do get Express passes good for the rest of the park's opening hours. Express passes don't eliminate lines but at least they put you in the shorter ones. Think of the pass as a step-down dose to wean you off the royalty treatment and ease your way back to feeling like a normal person again.
Booking either VIP Experience, private or standard, also comes with free valet parking. The valet lot is closer to the parks' entrances than the main parking structure is. But if you use that perk (and you don't have to), time your exit well—when the parks close and everyone leaves at once, the wait to get out can be long.
So did the VIP Experience deliver on its promises?
It surely did—and if I had never been inside the parks before, I could have used the tour to do everything I wanted in a single day. That comes with a high price that not everyone is willing to pay. The non-private tours (with up to 12 people you might not know) visit 10–12 attractions, depending on the speed of everyone else in the group, and cost $189–$449 plus admission, depending on how busy the parks are that day. It’s better to reserve VIP Experiences ahead of time and not wait until the day of.
Fully private guided tours cost up to $3,500 for up to five people, and $400 for each additional person. Only you can say if that price tag merits the remarkable level of freedom, speed, and access you're given.
I can only tell you that from my experience, the VIP tour does deliver what's promised. It's up to you to decide if it's worth the expense.
Universal Orlando's VIP Experience can be booked by calling 866/346-9350 or visiting the resort's official website.
At these prices, you'd better be prepared to squeeze every drop of value out of your VIP Experience day at Universal Orlando.
• Know what you want to do most (a copy of our award-winning Orlando guidebook will help).
• Know what you can leave off your to-do list.
• Universal will tell you what time your tour begins—get there about 20 minutes early so you don't lose a minute.
• Eat a little first. The breakfast at the park is good, but the less time you spend eating the more time you're touring.
• Make sure everyone in your party agrees on the plan of attack—don't waste time debating while your guide is on the clock.
• Any photos you've seen on social media that you'd like to have your own versions of? Your guide will know where to make that happen—and will snap pics for you.
• Be nice to guides. They have wide discretion, and their willingness to make calls and get doors opened for you is everything. Yes, you're allowed to tip at the end of the day.