On their recent trip to Orlando, Barney and Laura Barnett gladly forked over more than double Universal Studio's admission for themselves and their two kids two days in a row.
``It would have been worth triple the money for the VIP Tour,'' said Barnett, who paid $120 each for the privilege of having a guide whisk his family to the front of the lines, regaling them with ``inside'' stories all along the way.
In Colorado, Hillman Mitchell felt the same way about the $400 he paid for his two teens to spend an entire day with their own ski instructor. ``It's not that the money isn't important,'' the software entrepreneur said. ``It's that the time is valuable. We can do it on our schedule, not anyone else's. I gladly pay for the kids to get such personalized attention.''
SeaWorld is betting millions that 1,000 people a day crave that VIP treatment and will line up to pay $179 each (the same price for kids) so they don't have to wait on any lines once they're inside Discovery Cove in Orlando. When the new-style park opens this summer, the number of guests will be strictly limited so no one will have his or her experience swimming with the dolphins or snorkeling with the rays marred by unseemly crowds. You'll be met by a concierge when you arrive, who will arrange a sitter if your kids are too young for the dolphin swim. Later, the family will be served a sumptuous lunch. ``We already have people calling about 2001,'' says an ebullient Frank Murru, who has overseen the park's development and construction for the last five years.
No wonder. These days, the destination isn't enough. Neither is the experience. Traveling families -- from ski slopes to theme parks, beach resorts to luxury city hotels -- are all looking for the same thing: service with a capital S, for kids as well as adults. ``A family going on vacation deserves to have service and care and attention -- someone looking out for them,'' explained Adelaide Biggs, a mother of six and grandmother from Houston who is a big fan of Crested Butte Mountain Resort's VIP program for skiers. At Crested Butte, in Colorado, the family commits to at least $1,500 worth of private lessons: Instructors will help purchase equipment, make dinner reservations, meet the gang at airport, often becoming good friends in the process -- even standing up at their weddings. ``We've never sold so many private lessons to adults or kids -- double what we were doing six years ago,'' noted Crested Butte Mountain Resort Ski School Director Charlie Farnan. ``These people want the whole enchilada -- and they don't mind paying for it.''
Time-pressed families say that they simply don't want to waste a vacation minute doing anything as mundane as reading a map or waiting on line. So many families opt for Universal's VIP Tours that the Orlando park now offers a special family VIP tour and another for thrill seekers. Busch Gardens' VIP tours have proved big hits, too, as have the ones at SeaWorld. ``You learn a lot from the tour guides. You get the inside scoop,'' explained Elaine Harris, who lives in Pittsburgh and has enjoyed them with her family more than once. ``It makes the whole experience so much more special.''
And special is what these families want. ``It's all about bragging rights the next time they're at the country club,'' said Vivian Deuschl, a spokesman for Ritz Carlton hotels, laughing. At Orlando's new Portofino Bay Hotel, for example, families will pay nearly double the regular rate at the luxury hotel, upward of $500 a night, for a room with private butler service, so their darlings' every whim is anticipated -- from a teen's favorite magazines to a 4-year-old's favorite video. One family had the butler cater a Chinese picnic for the kids when thy returned from their day at the theme park. ``When they see their child pampered, they feel pampered as well,'' said Eric Muller, the Portofino's chief butler.
Parents certainly don't seem embarrassed seeking such special treatment for their family. ``It's love me, love my kid,'' sighed Deuschl. ``We're all sitting around trying to figure out what else can we do -- the next level of lavish.''
There already are pint-sized robes, special children's sheets, a huge lending library of toys and video games. But for this generation of young sophisticates who have been staying in luxe hotels since they were in diapers, Deuschl said, ``It takes a lot more to impress them.''
And the travel industry now recognizes it must wow these kids if they want their well-heeled parents to return. At the Las Vegas Four Seasons, the concierge books limos for teens who want to hit the hottest video arcades in town. Tennis and golf pros at the Broadmoor in Colorado work individually with youngsters, just as they do with adults. At the Hyatt Beaver Creek, the kids are getting massages alongside their parents. For some families -- probably more these days in a booming economy -- money truly is no object. But others simply figure these costs as part of the vacation budget.
``We were only going to do this once, and I wanted to do it right,'' explained Barnett, a Dallas builder. ``I didn't want to spend all of our time waiting in line. The kids felt really special. And I was able to relax.''
For SeaWorld Orlando's no-wait Adventure Express, call 800-406-2244 or www.seaworld.com. The fee is $55 per adult and $50 for children 3 to 9, plus park admission. Discovery Cove opens this summer where guests get a personal guide, the chance to swim with the dolphins, 10,000 fish and within inches of sharks. Admission is $179, including a seven-day unlimited pass to SeaWorld Orlando, which normally costs $46 for adults. Call 877-4DISCOVERY or www.discoverycove.com.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's VIP tours are $50 per adult, $35.50 for children ages 3-9, with advance purchase and plus admission. Call 888-800-5447.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate