Once upon a time, before I moved to Orlando, I was one of the herd of tourists who dutifully visited the theme parks at least once a year. Normally I stayed on Disney property and didn’t bother to rent a car. Still, I made it a point to book a shuttle and devote a day to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
With such limited time, I always booked a VIP tour to make sure I’d see all the main attractions. It’s a pricey proposition (around $170 to see one park in a day and $190 to see both if you book a general group tour and private tours just for your own group that start at a flat $1899). I did the general group tour and was always lucky enough to get paired up with relatively compatible strangers who were open to riding the thrill rides rather than hanging out all day in Seuss Landing.
I’ve lived in Florida 10 years now, and I have a premier annual pass that gives me Express access to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure lines after 4 p.m. every day, so I haven’t been on a tour since that time. However, the good folks at Universal were kind enough to let me go on a two-park VIP tour as part of my grand-opening stay at Cabana Bay Resort (I wrote about the hotel in this article). I decided to play tourist and see if the tour experience was still worth the money as it had been in the old days.
The media tour was sort of a hybrid between the general and exclusive VIP experiences. You can have up to 12 people on your tour if you book the non-exclusive version, but my group had seven. The two park tour typically lasts seven hours, which includes a lunch break (food is not included), and you’re guaranteed to do a minimum of eight major rides and attractions between the two parks. You also get lots of fun facts, trivia, and secrets from your tour guide. Our group racked up an impressive number, enjoying the following 13 attractions
- Spider Man
- Dr. Doom
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- One side of Dragon Challenge
- Ollivanders Wand Shop
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit Roller Coaster
- The Simpsons ride
- Revenge of the Mummy
- Men in Black
That was with a lunch break, and we really didn’t rush. We paused for photos at regular intervals, met Dr. Doom, and watched the Marvel super heros parade out on their ATVs. You might actually get in even more rides than we did if you do the exclusive VIP tour, which runs for eight hours and includes a meal. The secret is that you get back doored onto all the rides, so you don’t even have to wait in the Express line. It truly is a VIP experience, from the moment you sign in, get your special lanyard, and enjoy coffee and bottled water as you want to get started to literally bypassing every ride wait. The only lines you don’t bypass are the ones for character photos, but my group lucked out and caught Dr. Doom just as he was coming on stage, so he graciously paused for photos with each of us. Who said villains were all bad?
All that might sound like enough to entice you into booking a VIP tour, especially if you’re visiting in the peak season, but all that instant riding wasn’t the highlight for me. Sure, I loved it and felt spoiled rotten, but I’m fortunate enough to visit Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure regularly, so it takes something extra special to impress me. The priceless part of the day for me was getting to go into two backstage areas where I’d never been before.
First, on our way into Men in Black, we actually got to go downstairs into the room where the aliens are sitting at the control panel. Yes, we were actually running around and taking photos with the aliens and over in the sitting area that’s part of the scene while people in the queue line above stared at us in wonderment. The only restriction is that you can’t touch the aliens. I felt like a kid in a candy shop! I had no idea that anyone was ever allowed down there. I almost felt a little sorry when I had to tear myself away from the scene and try to earn my suit on the ride.
Second, after riding Revenge of the Mummy, our guide, Matt, took us back inside and underneath the actual ride track. We couldn’t take pictures, since the flashes would spoil the darkness, but we were right under the spot where riders think they’ve come to the end. It was amazing to see the trains zipping over our heads.
If you book a VIP tour, you may or may not have the same experiences, although you’ve got a good chance. It depends on your party’s age and bravery make-up (for example, obviously little kids might be scared to go into the darkness of the Mummy’s inner workings). It’s also dependent on time and the consensus of what everyone prefers to do. If your exclusive group has an interest in seeing how the magic is made behind the scenes, or if you’re on a general group of compatible people, you’re got a good shot at it.
I got some great photos in the Men in Black alien scene so I can prove that once upon a time I was actually down there. I even got to fill out a page in the Earth immigration log. The rest of the tour was a blast, too, as I can never get too much of rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, Transformers, Spider Man, and Revenge of the Mummy, but I can do them any time. The only way to get that something extra is to book a VIP tour, and if I didn’t live within 15 minutes of Universal, you can bet I’d still be doing that every time I visited Orlando.
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