The Royal Treatment

disney-world-logoThere is advertising on buses and billboards throughout Disney World posing this question: “Heard the Best Kept Disney Secret?”

As a first-time visitor to Disney World one weekend in October, I hadn’t. But before I reveal their secret, I have a few of my own to share. My first disclosure is that I was an invited guest of Disney for three nights and stayed at the newly opened Bay Tower Resort, linked by bridge to the iconic Contemporary Resort Hotel. The hotel was comfortable and had a pool in the back with a waterslide that got a 10 out of 10 from my travel companion, my energetic 9-year-old son. The Bay Tower is one of Disney Vacation Club’s destinations, part of a world network of timeshare properties owned and managed by Disney both on Disney parks and offsite. (More on this later.)

My second disclosure is that I was not born in the United States. I tell you this because from my vantage, Disney World is truly a concept and a place that could only come to life in America. The exuberant optimism, a place where Dreams Come True, where politicians and cartoon characters are treated with equal respect is so red, white and blue. In America, a child’s first trip to Disney is a rite of passage—one that his father better not mess up.

So I did what first-timers do, going on websites, leafing through Disney’s rather good Birnbaum Guides, chatting with parents who have been there, and I assembled my big list of main attractions, including Splash Mountain, the Indy Speedway, and Pirates of the Caribbean in the Magic Kingdom; the General Motors Test Track, and Mission: SPACE in Epcot; the new (last year) Toy Story Mania!, American Idol Experience, and infamous Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and the safaris, and Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom.

And I found it all a bit daunting. (The list presented here is a mere summary of my fuller list.) So what’s a parent to do?

Enter the world of VIP Tour Services—folks who have the keys to the Magic Kingdom, more or less. They can’t guarantee happiness, but if you’re inclined to have a personal sherpa to help both in the planning stages and when you’ve arrived and are ready to enjoy the sprawling playground, they are a terrific means to make the most of your experience. You will have a financial question, since they are not cheap. You may also have a moral question. Princess Diana made a conscious effort to have William and Harry stand in line. Will you want your little princess or prince to do the same?

Disney itself offers VIP Tour Services through its Special Activities department. There are around 120 special tour guides, dressed in Disney tartan, who work with families who want orientation, speedy access to rides and other attractions, and a direct way to go between parks. Disney provided us with one on our first day, and she was simply magnificent.

After meeting us in the lobby of the hotel, Kymberli Brydges (originally from Michigan) gave us an astonishing first day with attentiveness to our ever-shifting needs and moving us right to the front of the line every time. Using a car, she had access into the staff car parks in the center of each park, allowing us to cover three parks in one day and hit all the attractions we’d marked off to hit (and some we hadn’t but were glad we did). And don’t assume everything was linear–in our three-day trip, we hit Pirates of the Caribbean nine times. (I can’t get that yo-ho-ho song out of my head–I curse you Jack Sparrow!)

Depending on the season and some other factors, the Disney Special Activities guide costs between $250 to $350 per hour. Our first day was an eight-hour tour. The direct number at Disney to call to find out more and make a reservation is 407-560-4033.

For the remainder of the trip, we decided to try one of the several private non-Disney operators who offer their own VIP tours. The concept is the same–to help you maximize your time and energy around the parks, as well as the un-Disney part of central Florida with Universal Studios and Sea World. While the do not of course enjoy the same access to the front of the line or central parking that Disney does, they do work through the Fast Pass system, and their knowledge of the ebbs and flows of Disney visitors allows you to use your time efficiently to access rides.

One of the most established services, Michael’s VIPs, hosted us on our second and third days. Adam Borgos, the manager of the dozen or so guides that work for the service, was our sherpa. Again, a wonderful, very personal service, mindful of my son’s quirks (he needed to try Splash Mountain again to prove to himself it wasn’t as scary as it felt the first time round–a proud Disney moment for his dad–even though we’d planned to spend the day in Epcot). Adam also realized our trip wasn’t about maximizing rides but providing for the best vacation experience, which was why he was happy to spend the afternoon at Typhoon Lagoon shooting down the water slides with us at short notice. Michael’s VIPs can be accessed via the web at michaelsvips.com or phone at 321-206-3933.Rates are around $120 per hour. There are other services, which can be accessed through Google searches, but we have to say we had a very good experience with Michael’s. 

When you start to add up the cost of your trip to Disney World, the addition of a private guide service (official or unofficial) might not break your budget and will almost certainly enrich the experience. To me, it’s a secret worth sharing with everyone I know. 

As for Disney’s other Best Kept Secret, that’s a pretty good one too. Check out Disney’s Vacation Club offerings at dvc.disney.go.com.

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