What Really Happens on a $3,000 Universal Studios Private VIP Tour
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Paying hundreds — even thousands — of dollars to wait in long lines for rides at a major theme park can seem kind of ridiculous. The rides and attractions are great entertainment, but waiting around with squirmy kids is hardly the highlight of anyone's day. There are FastPasses, Express Passes and touring strategies to significantly reduce the ride wait time (and maximize your time spent actually enjoying the attractions).
But for travelers willing to increase their theme park budget, well, a lot, there is another option behind a velvet-roped door. In fact, there are a number of VIP tours available at virtually every major theme park, including Disney World and Universal Studios.
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Theme park VIP tours and experiences can range from less than $100 per person to thousands of dollars per day. I've done a handful of Disney World VIP experiences with my family, for example, including the VIP Classics Tour ($199 per person) and Early Morning Magic, which is arguably the best $69 per person you can spend at Walt Disney World.
Why we splurged on a Universal Studios Private VIP Tour
As far as VIP tours go, those Disney options were both downright budget-friendly compared to the Universal Studios Private VIP Tour we splurged on this summer.
Like at Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando has a variety of add-on VIP experiences that start at $189 per person and skyrocket to a frankly embarrassing amount of money. My original goal was to find a Universal Studios tour that was roughly the same price as the ones we had experienced at Disney World. However, the $189 per person VIP group tours would have been, unfortunately, a very poor fit for our family.
These Universal Studios VIP group tours get you right on several rides, provide meals, valet parking and more — but most of the included rides have height-restrictions greater than the height of my almost three-year-old. And while Universal Studios has a great Child Swap program (permitting each parent to try a ride unsuitable for young children without the entire family waiting in line again), I was told the group VIP tours do not wait for Child Swap. This means if you have a child below the height restriction for any given ride on the VIP tour, only one adult can try each included ride.
Related: Is a Disney World VIP tour worth it
All in all, this made the Universal Studios group VIP tours a total bust for our current needs. As a result, we decided to uncharacteristically crack our budget wide open for the Universal Studios Private VIP Tour (in the name of hard-hitting travel research, of course). The grand total? $3,099 — not including park tickets.
What's included with a Private VIP Tour
A Universal Studios Orlando Private VIP Tour provides your group (up to five people) eight-hours of Universal Studios walk-on ride access, meals, backstage short-cuts, a knowledgable guide, valet parking, photos and a ridiculously easy and over-the-top theme park experience — in addition to other perks, such as complimentary strollers.
The day and the guide are yours, so you can ride the same ride all day long or switch back and forth between the two parks to ride as many rides as humanly possible. (We opted for something in the middle.)
Our experience with a Universal Studios VIP Private Tour
The exclusive entrance
Our Universal Studios VIP day started at 9:30am, when we arrived to the Universal Studios theme park to check-in at the VIP area and meet our guide (aka: our new best friend, Dawn). These private tours start at either 9:00am or 10:00am, depending on the day. The Universal Studios VIP check-in area is just after you cross under the iconic Universal Studios arch, and before you have your ticket scanned to enter the actual theme park.
In this area, we also had the girls measured for rides and received our park tickets on lanyards. Then, we were whisked into the park through a private entrance to get our youngest daughter's stroller for the day.
Not that it comes close to putting a dent in the cost of the VIP tour, but it was nice to not spend an extra $27.99 per day for the stroller rental.
A private VIP breakfast
Once inside the park, we were escorted to Cafe La Bamba, a Universal Studios restaurant reserved for VIP tour groups. (Picture this: On a prime weekend in July, my family of four had an entire air-conditioned restaurant inside Universal Studios entirely to ourselves.)
There was a breakfast buffet of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, potatoes and fruit neatly arranged with only us there to enjoy the bounty. But perhaps best of all for a family with a newly potty training toddler, we had private air-conditioned bathrooms with zero lines.
And my husband, who often struggles a bit through a crowded theme park day, had a big smile on his face. This doesn't justify the price of the tour — but it does also add to the value. After the private breakfast experience, we officially entered an alternate theme-park reality before even stepping on our first ride.
Absolutely zero lines
Since our eight-year-old is into all things Harry Potter, we began the day with a trip on the Hogwarts Express Train to the neighboring Universal Islands of Adventure theme park. There wasn't a line to ride the park-hopping train first thing in the morning, but if there had been, it wouldn't have impacted us. While on a private VIP tour, lines simply didn't exist.
Our guide, Dawn, was able to get us through secret entrances to the front of the line for almost every ride. She also wasn't shy about making way for our stroller through crowded bottle-necks — which was, honestly, a little embarrassing. While we were technically "VIP" for the day by virtue of purchasing the tour, we were certainly not VIP in actual reality. For me, that part was uncomfortable.
Once reaching Islands of Adventure, Dawn took us to Harry Potter's Hogsmeade. Universal Studios brilliantly (and somewhat malevolently), split the World of Harry Potter into two separate Universal Orlando theme parks. This is great for crowd dispersement purposes and, mostly, great for ticket sales, but it means you have to park hop to experience the Harry Potter theming and attractions in both parks. Theoretically, you could enjoy one park each day and not need a two-park ticket. But you would miss out on the Hogwarts Express Train ride: a genuine loss, as it was my favorite ride of the day.
In Hogsmeade, there are snow-blanketed shops including Honeydukes Candy Shop, with its chocolate-covered frogs, and an Ollivander's Wand Shop. We walked right past the 60 minute line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and directly into the Child Swap room, where one of us would wait with our youngest while the other rode the attraction with our eldest daughter. Three times.
More than a dozen unique rides
I'm not sure if our eight-year-old realized how insanely lucky she was to ride one of the hottest rides in all of Universal over and over again, without any wait, though we did try our best to explain that to her. She understood her fortune better when she waited in a multi-hour line at Disney's Animal Kingdom the next day.
Another very cool perk of having a Private VIP Tour guide is that the entire family can always get in the picture. This rarely happens unless you're willing to wave down a stranger.
After a few rounds on the Forbidden Journey (once was enough for me), we all rode the nearby Flight of the Hippogriff rollercoaster. This is a family-friendly coaster that only has a 36-inch height requirement, so our almost three-year-old could join us — on all three consecutive rides.
Next were a few rounds on the Jurassic Park River Adventure; a really fun high-flying lap on the Pteranodon Flyers; two rides on King Kong; a turn on Spider Man; and a ride on Cat in the Hat before we took a shortcut back to the Universal Studios side of the theme park for Minions and lunch.
Another private meal
Included in the tour price, we could have enjoyed a set lunch of an appetizer (for every two guests), an entree, dessert and non-alcoholic drinks virtually anywhere in the parks, or even at many CityWalk restaurants. When a private restaurant reserved for VIPs is on the list of choices, however, you have to try it while you can.
Once again, lunch was just our family, the servers and Dawn (who, thankfully, ate with us and made the entire experience a bit less awkward).
I loved the diverse buffet selections, which included some healthier choices. In addition to kid-pleasing chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese, there was bourbon chicken, mixed vegetables, a variety of fruit and salads, roasted chicken, jerk shrimp and even paella.
There were also more than enough cupcakes and brownie bites to go around. I won't tell you how many my girls ate that day, but let's just say they were living their best life.
By this point, our youngest was very tired and predictably passed out in her stroller. She kept sleeping while we carried her around and took turns on Mummy (twice), Transformers and Jimmy Fallon (twice).
In fact, our Sleeping Beauty was so comfortable in the Child Swap room at Jimmy Fallon, I probably should have finished the day with here there. But we had invested a lot of money to make the most of our time on the tour, so onward we went. (I will add that Child Swap rooms are where Universal Studios kicks Disney to the curb, as Disney has no such waiting areas for their rides.)
The level of treatment
Honestly, things were a little bit of a blur by this point in the afternoon, as we had experienced a ton of rides and everyone was tired. However, the classic ET Adventure ride was a tremendous late afternoon highlight — as was the Animal Actors show.
The show was superb, and I'm almost certain we would have missed it, if not for Dawn. She insisted we go when she learned how much my girls love animals. During the performance, my oldest was even selected to come on stage, and she enjoyed an after-show meet and greet with a canine movie star.
To be honest, the VIP treatment could be over-the-top and, frankly, mortifying. We were told, for example that we would get a post-show animal meet-and-greet — after a Make-A-Wish family.
I tried to make this a teachable moment. I told my daughter about the incredible Make-A-Wish Foundation, and what it meant for the children having their wishes granted. But I felt that we had no business getting the treatment reserved for Make-A-Wish families. I was thrilled my daughters were having a great time, but was simultaneously ashamed that we were getting access anywhere close to what Universal Studios reserves for children with life-threatening illnesses.
A final bit of Universal Studios magic
Diagon Alley is the newer half of Universal Orlando's World of Harry Potter. Despite having only one ride, many guests consider it the experience that feels the most like you've entered the wizarding world .
We entered Diagon Alley with only 30-minutes left to go in our eight-hour tour, so we headed straight for the Escape from Gringotts ride, which was spectacular. It was so spectacular, our oldest enjoyed it a second time — once with each parent. With that, our day of over-the-top access was just about over, and Dawn handed us vouchers for dinner at a variety of Universal restaurants.
As we said our goodbyes, Dawn walked us back to Ollivander's Wand Shop for a magical wand show. She told us that being there with a VIP guide would actually decrease the chance of our daughter being selected to participate: somewhat counterintuitive, but more than fair.
In the end, our daughter was picked for the show, and a ($50) wand chose her. It was a magical moment on her lucky day.
We subsequently ate our complimentary dinner at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, but we were all too spent to get the full value of the dining experience — though we did make time for a Butterbeer Challenge.
Is a Universal Studios Private VIP Tour worth the price?
Over the course of the eight-hour day, the four of us — in various configurations — experienced 15 rides and attractions (many two or three times) and had two completely private meals. We waited approximately zero minutes, enjoyed special access and, best of all, didn't have to plan a single part of the day. As the one usually in charge of the family's theme park experience, that last part was virtually priceless.
That said, at times I felt uncomfortable with the level of "special." And ultimately, I think we would have preferred fewer rides and more time to simply explore the Harry Potter portions of the park to simply explore. (No, you don't need a VIP tour to do that. But by the time our tour was finished and we had purchased our daughter's wand, we were all too tired to really stick around and let her use it. And these wands can do a number of magical things in Diagon Alley.)
In a perfect world, there would be a Universal Studios Harry Potter Private VIP Tour that's just a half-day long and only focuses on the World of Harry Potter. (Think: quick access to the rides and time spent exploring the fictional universe with someone much more magical than a Muggle mom and dad.)
At the end of the day, do I think a Universal Studios Private VIP Tour is worth it?
Dawn was fantastic — knowledgeable, personable and very much in-charge. And walk-on ride access was amazing. But you miss the set-up of some rides by entering through a back door. And frankly, the Express Pass lines typically move pretty quickly, and securing Express Passes is significantly cheaper than hiring a private guide. (This is especially true if you get them by virtue of staying at a property where they're included, such as at Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.)
Given that the starting price of the Private VIP Tour is $3,099 (not including theme park tickets, which start at $170 per person, per day, for park-to-park access) for five people, with additional guests ages 3 and up costing an extra $350 each (up to 12 people), it simply isn't an option for most families. It's prohibitively expensive, and the price tag could easily cover at least two separate family vacations.
If this number isn't out of reach, however, and you're trying to plan a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for your family, consider inviting a few friends (grown-up or otherwise) and other family members until you've got a group of five people over the age of 3. And be sure all of them have the stamina for an eight-hour day and will make the most of the walk-on ride access — over and over again.
For most of us though, no. A Private VIP Tour of Universal Studios probably isn't worth the expense. If you want a VIP Universal Orlando experience with a more stomach-able price tag, pay attention to the annual Daily Getaways Sale. Last year, a Universal Orlando VIP experience for five people sold for $1,545. It's still a ton of money, of course, but much less than the regular VIP rate.
How to book a Universal Studios Private VIP Tour
If you do decide to splurge on a Universal Studios VIP tour, call the Universal Orlando Resort VIP line at 407-363-8295. And remember that the massive charge for the tour and theme park tickets did not code as travel on my Chase Sapphire Reserve statement — so use a different credit card.
Theme park tickets often don't code as travel unless they're included as part of a vacation package or purchased from a company that codes as a travel agency such as Undercover Tourist.
Instead, book your Universal Studios Private VIP Tour with a card such as the Citi Premier® Card, which awards 2x points on entertainment purchases like amusement park tickets. Otherwise, simply use the rewards credit card that awards the points you value the most at 1x point per dollar spent. Because that's a lot of dollars spent.
I'm beyond grateful to have had the Universal Studios Private VIP Tour experience — but for me, the special treatment often felt a little too special. Still, this particular VIP tour will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience my family won't soon forget.