'Okay, you might want to distract Nathan now," whispers Sarah Smith, the Walt Disney World guide assigned to my family for the day.
Then I see what she's pointing to. It's Chip and Dale sauntering across the parking lot, heading over to a set of picnic tables scattered near a squat, industrial-looking building. Smith is shuttling us from Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park to Disney-MGM Studios via back roads connecting the parks as part of a six-hour, whirlwind VIP tour.
Apparently, we've stumbled upon a ticking time bomb. "You never know what they're going to do when they're not in character," Smith explains gravely.
I imagine Dale suddenly flipping his buddy the bird in the middle of an animated conversation, or Chip yanking off his head to get a little air in this 35-degree heat. I quickly swing my son's stroller around.
"Hey, sweetie," I say a little frantically. "You want to see Beauty and the Beast now? How about some water? Are you thirsty? Want mommy to get you some water?"
And that's as stressful as our second day at Disney World gets.
Night and day. That's the only way to describe the difference between our first attempt at braving the Magic Kingdom on our own -- which included bouts of crying, frenzied searches for the washroom, waiting in queues and a general feeling of "Where the hell are we?" -- and our VIP tour on Day 2.
While Disney has been running these excursions for its executives' families and celebrities for decades, it was only in the early 1990s that the company began offering similar tours to the rest of us. Today, during the busiest times of the year, Walt Disney World operates up to 45 tours each day, despite little advertising and marketing. It's about $145 an hour, with a five-hour minimum, for up to 10 people. Guests who stay at one of the official Disney resorts pay $110 an hour. An extra $140 a day gets you private transportation.
The popularity of VIP tours like Disney's is part of a growing trend among theme parks aiming to offer guests more bang for more bucks. Universal Studios, Sea World, Busch Gardens and Cedar Point all give guests an opportunity to buy holiday happiness south of the border.
The trend has also moved north, with Montreal's La Ronde offering its own version of a VIP service on Saturdays and Wednesdays (the most popular days during the summer, owing to fireworks displays). Paramount Canada's Wonderland near Toronto, however, hasn't rolled out VIP tours and has no plans to do so.
Special events manager Kris Williams says this is because most of Wonderland's visitors are local, rather than vacationers seeking a no-holds-barred getaway.
Because of the tours' relatively small, mostly affluent clientele -- and perhaps owing to their elitist bent -- you won't find many big glossy ads touting these VIP services. But visitors are finding out about them anyway, says Chris Wojcik, who runs Disney's VIP Tour Services, mainly by word of mouth.
The parks have their own takes on the service. Universal Orlando, for example, touts a variety of VIP tours. For $120 a day (plus tax and admission), people can take a non-private, five-hour tour with up to 11 other people. For an $1,800 flat rate, up to 12 people can take a private guided tour for up to eight hours. It includes front-of-the-line ride access and reserved seating for shows.
But do Universal VIPs get the hairy eyeball from the poor chumps who have to wait in line? Rhonda Murphy, spokeswoman for Universal Orlando, sidesteps the question with, "Any of our guests are welcome to be part of the VIP tours."
Robert Bartholome, tours supervisor at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla., is more forthcoming about tour guides running interference. "Occasionally that happens. It depends on how busy it is that day," he says.
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