Travelers are used to the idea that airline passengers who pony up big bucks get special treatment in first class. As theme park VIP tours spread, more travelers are enjoying behind-the-scenes tours and line-cutting privileges—which wouldn’t be so bad except these perks turn the rest of us into (bitter, jealous) second-class citizens.
This week, Legoland Florida introduced a new VIP Experience for guests. Sign up and you’ll get a Legoland host to escort you around the park, a private tour of the “secret” model shop where life-size Lego creations are built, priority access on rides, lunch, and souvenir photos. As you’d imagine, the cost of this VIP treatment is pretty hefty: $445 per child (ages 3 to 12), and $495 for adults. That’s for a single day, no lodging included. Add another $100 per person and admission to Legoland’s water park is thrown in, along with access to a private cabana for your group.
At least the Legoland VIP program includes admission to the park with its princely price tag. That’s more than can be said for expensive VIP tours at Disney and Sea World parks, according to a recent roundup of theme park VIP tours compiled by USA Today.
Yes, there are enough high-priced VIP experiences at theme parks to justify such a compilation. The Legoland program may stand out as perhaps the priciest VIP package, but it’s hardly the only one. In fact, it’s become unusual for a theme park to not offer some sort of special access high-roller VIP ticket.
The list of theme park VIP options includes the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience, which comes with breakfast, lunch, a private trolley tour of the park, and front-of-the-line access on rides, for $299 per person (single-day admission included!). Disney’s parks in California and central Florida, meanwhile, offer private VIP tours for groups that range from $315 to $380 per hour (guests pay for admission separately). SeaWorld Orlando’s VIP tour costs $299 per person (plus admission), and even Six Flags and Busch Gardens parks offer a “supersized” ticket that rolls out the red carpet for visitors willing to pay up.
While few would begrudge anyone for paying extra in order to sleep in a nicer hotel or sit in first class on a plane, many view the VIP trend along the lines of class warfare—especially because those who pay up get to cut in front of the regular customers (who are probably paying close to $100 per day, remember, not chump change) waiting on lines for rides and attractions. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Aren’t you a loser because you can’t afford to be a line-skipping V.I.P.?’” one theme park enthusiast said to the New York Times, discussing the advent of Universal Studios line-skipping passes.
What really burns up some park visitors isn’t just that the rich can pay for special perks, but that these perks have a negative impact on the average customer who is forced to wait a little longer in line so that a “VIP” can jump ahead. By creating a level for VIPs, the parks have turned the vast majority of guests into second-class citizens.
What’s more, the rise of VIP passes presents an odd incentive system for theme parks. In the same way that when airlines basic services decline, passengers are more likely to pay fees for better service and amenities, theme parks have a financial incentive to make the waits for rides and attractions—and the “regular” experience as a whole—more unbearable. The longer the lines are, after all, the more inclined guests will be to pay up for the privilege of skipping them.
Disney parks remain egalitarian in that there are no special VIP line-skipping passes, though a company called Dream Tours apparently found a way to help clients jump lines anyway: A scandal erupted earlier this year when it was reported Dream Tours clients paid $1,040 per day in Walt Disney World to be escorted by a host who was disabled—and who therefore had line-cutting privileges for the group. Even so, admission still cost extra, of course.