UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Theme parks have traditionally been the ultimate melting pots. Tourists, retirees, hormonal teenagers, families and fathers who would rather be golfing are all thrown together in an egalitarian experience in which the line for one is the line for all, and cotton candy is the food of the masses.
As stratification becomes more pronounced in all corners of America, from air travel to Broadway shows to health care, theme parks in recent years have been adopting a similarly tiered model, with special access and perks for those willing to pay.
Now Universal Studios Hollywood has pushed the practice to a new level. It has introduced a $299 VIP ticket, just in time for the summer high season, that comes with valet parking, breakfast in a luxury lounge, special access to Universal’s back lot, unlimited line skipping and a gourmet lunch. VIP visitors also receive “amenity kits,” which include mints, a poncho to wear on the “Jurassic Park” water ride and bottles of hand sanitizer.
Disney still serves up its roller coasters the old-fashioned way — one rank for everyone, white collar next to blue — but Universal says it had seen rising demand for special access and price distinctions.
“Consumers want what they want,” said Xiomara Wiley, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Universal Studios Hollywood, which charges $80 for a no-frills ticket and $149 for one that allows for limited line-skipping.
But others see it differently. While there is no “Occupy Universal” movement blossoming, some customers contend that the park has created a conspicuous class system that threatens to overshadow the fun.
“It creates haves and have-nots, which is disturbing,” said Robin McQuay, a teacher and fervent fan of theme parks. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Aren’t you a loser because you can’t afford to be a line-skipping VIP?’”
She added, “Oh, sure, by all means zip to the front of the line with that grin while the rest of us sweat it out next to the screaming baby.”
On a recent Friday at Universal, a breeze rustled the palm trees as several hundred people waited in the snaking queue for a tram tour of the park’s back lot. It was the quintessential theme park scene: foreign tourists chattering noisily, a chubby man digging through his fanny pack, boys using the railings as a swing set.
“How much longer?” one whined to his mother.
People who recoil at crowds but enjoy theme parks used to come in the offseason. But relentless advertising, new attractions and an improving economy now keep attendance high year-round. Universal’s parks in the United States attracted roughly 20 million people last year, a 19 percent increase from 2010, analysts estimate. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World recently recorded the single busiest day in its 41-year history.
“If Universal didn’t offer a VIP option, I wouldn’t go,” said Mark Lieber, chief executive of Rethink Entertainment and Media. “I just don’t have the time to wait in a line, and I want a certain level of service.” (He did feel a twinge of guilt, however: “They should give deserving students access to the VIP tours once a week. That way it’s not just for the privileged.”)
The amusement park industry urgently wants to expand profits without introducing costly new rides every summer. NBCUniversal, which recorded $953 million in profit from its parks in 2012, has no major new attractions planned for Universal Studios Hollywood until next year; the VIP Experience, in the meantime, is a relatively low-cost way to generate revenue and send a message of bigger and better into the marketplace.
Universal upgraded its VIP Experience — and raised the price by 50 percent — after realizing that the old one, which did not include lunch, the lounge or other perks, “was selling out more and more frequently,” Wiley said.
How is the new offering going over? Wiley declined to disclose sales data, but said that “we’re seeing double-digit percent increases in terms of volume.”
As for worries about creating a sense of class warfare, Wiley said Universal had none. “We don’t find any of our existing guests giving us that feedback,” she said. “People who come on a regular Joe ticket give us really good ratings.”
Fearful of puncturing its utopian image, Disney has stuck to a single class of ticket. VIP tour guides are available, but Disney charges an exorbitant price — up to $380 an hour, with a minimum of six hours — to limit demand. (Some critics contend that such pricing also restricts guides to the truly rich.)
There is clearly rabid demand at Disney for a special-access offering to be more broadly available. Last month, The New York Post reported that a few wealthy Manhattan parents had paid a disabled stranger more than $1,000 a day to pose as a family member, allowing the whole group to skip Disney World’s often brutal lines. (“We are thoroughly reviewing the situation and will take appropriate steps to deter this type of activity,” Disney said in a statement.)
Will Disney ultimately join Universal in charging for special access and enhanced experiences, perhaps using its new MyMagic+ park navigation system? A spokeswoman for the company said it had no such plans. But analysts are watching closely. “Parks are trying to maximize their revenue in a marketplace that’s becoming more and more economically stratified anyway,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com.
Alan Plotkin, for one, was thrilled that special access was available at Universal Studios Hollywood.
“It was expensive, but we saw much more than other people, and the guides really treated us royally,” he said. With DVD extras, people know a lot about how movies are made now. “But this took it to another level,” he said. He particularly enjoyed poking through Universal’s prop and costume shops.
Plotkin, the chief executive of a health care organization in Pennsylvania, and his wife, Merle, were part of a nine-person tour that recently set out from that luxury lounge, hand sanitizer at the ready. “There go the VIP people — wave goodbye, you may never see them again,” an announcer boomed into a microphone.
Indeed, the group was subjected to minimal mingling with the masses. The Plotkins even got to eat lunch in a private, quiet dining room, sampling items like sake-poached shrimp, New Zealand mussels and New York sirloin from a lavish buffet. (Outside, no-frills ticketholders stood in line for hamburgers at the Flintstones Bar-B-Q pit.)
The VIP day started on new 20-person trolleys equipped with iPhone chargers and bottles of water packed in ice. One of the first stops was Courthouse Square, where movies like “Back to the Future” were filmed.
As the Plotkins and other high-end ticket holders peeked inside the set, one of the park’s 175-person trams, carrying average customers, turned a corner and slowed to a stop. Riders started taking pictures, but they were unable to step off — the tram stopped for only about 30 seconds — and some were still snapping photos as it drove away.
The VIPs lingered. “Take your pictures at your leisure,” a guide told them.