VIP tour is a walk in the parks

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By Sarah Sekula, Special to USA TODAY

ORLANDO — “How many Muggles?” asked the lanky teen decked out in a Hogwarts robe. “One,” I replied with a goofy grin.

I was about to board Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, one of the most popular rides at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, where high-season wait times often top 75 minutes. But, not for me, not this time; I spent a mere 45 seconds in line.

It’s as if I was sporting an invisibility cloak, sneaking past everyone. And I was there on Memorial Day, to boot, when attendance typically skyrockets.

It wasn’t magic. But it sure felt enchanted. It’s all thanks to the VIP tour I booked a few days in advance, which guaranteed me a five-hour walking excursion alongside an expert guide, the ability to bypass lines on eight attractions, valet parking and behind-the-scenes glances.

Having been to this park nearly three dozen times since it opened in 1999, I figured I was familiar enough with the ins and outs. Still, my guide, Shawn, a chipper young man and an expert on all things Universal, proved me wrong.

Take, for example, when we entered Seuss Landing. He pointed out how the palms are perfectly twisted in true Seussical-style because they were brought from South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. He also accompanied me on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride, and pointed out four times where Stan Lee, co-creator of the popular comic-book series, is featured. Best of all, we never had a false start because Shawn’s trusty beeper alerted him to any ride closures.

Plus, if Shawn didn’t accompany me on the ride, he was there at the exit letting out a spirited woohoo and holding my belongings like a pampering parent. He also had a poncho handy in case I opted for water rides and steered me to the most photo-worthy backdrops. (Note: You can take a killer shot of Hogwarts from the Dragon Challenge queue).

“This is the best way to see the park,” he said as my tour came to an end. “You get to experience all of the greatest hits.”

After five hours, eight rides and a boatload of park trivia, I wholeheartedly agreed. It was a huge time-saver, and I felt like an A-lister, albeit a blissfully exhausted one.

Here’s our guide to some VIP theme park tours around the USA.

Walt Disney World Premium VIP Tour

Duration: Minimum of six hours (up to 10 guests).

Details: Expedited entry to FastPass attractions. Guide helps you navigate the park of your choice and may assist with special viewing areas for fireworks, parade, more.

Parking/transportation: Door-to-door transport in private vehicle.

Price: Starts at $315/hour per group for resort hotel guests (admission not included).

Pro: Having a private vehicle means you don’t have to wait for trams or search for your vehicle in the parking lot.

Con: No line-jumping privileges; instead you go through the FastPass line.

Info: 407-560-4033; disneyworld.disney.go.com/

tours-and-experiences/vip-services

Disneyland Resort VIP Premium Tour

Duration: Minimum of six hours (up to 10 guests).

Details: Expedited entry to FastPass attractions. Guide helps you navigate the Disneyland park of your choice and may assist with dining reservations, special viewing areas for fireworks, parade, more.

Parking/transportation: Valet parking at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.

Price: Starting at $315/hour per group for resort hotel guests (admission not included).

Pro: Possibility of visiting Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park in a single day if you buy Park Hopper pass.

Con: No line-jumping privileges; instead you go through the FastPass line.

Info: 714-300-7710; disneyland.disney.go.com/tours

Universal Orlando Non-Private VIP Tour

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

Details: Guided walking tour of Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure, chance for private character meet-and-greet, select backstage access (when available), select discounts on food and merchandise, reserved seating and special viewing area for shows.

Parking/transportation: Complimentary valet parking.

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

Pro: After the tour, your VIP lanyard works as an Express Pass.

Con: The group tours feature a minimum of eight attractions chosen by the guide. So you may not hit all of your favorites.

Info: 407-363-8295; universalorlando.com

Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience

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

Details: Breakfast and private gourmet lunch, front-of-line access at all rides and shows, behind-the-scenes look at production studios and editing bay, tour of the four-story prop warehouse and costume department.

Parking/transportation: Valet parking.

Price: $299 per person (includes admission).

Pro: Guests ride in a 20-person, air-conditioned trolley equipped with iPhone chargers and bottled water. You might spot a star during the tour. Guests receive an amenity kit that includes sunscreen, lip balm, poncho and water.

Con: Guide chooses the rides; however, you can still use your Front of Line pass after the tour is over to hit any rides you missed.

Info: 818-622-5120; universalstudioshollywood.com

SeaWorld Orlando Private Elite VIP Tour

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

Details: Walking tour, front-of-line access to rides of your choice, reserved seating for shows, animal interactions, meal at the full-service Sharks Underwater Grill.

Parking/transportation: Preferred parking.

Price: Starts at $299 per person (admission not included).

Pro: Guests get to feed dolphins, sea lions and stingrays.

Con: If you don’t purchase an admission ticket ahead of time, you must wait in the general ticket line or go to a kiosk.

Info: 888-800-5447; seaworld.com/orlando