I've always felt so sorry for rich people at Disney World. For once, their money won't do them any good. They still have to endure the lines, the traipsing from one "land" to another, the confusion as to what to do next or where to eat or where the high-end shopping is. The poor upper class is reduced to the level of the common man, and this must be humiliating for them, particularly in front of their grandchildren. And then to add insult to injury, they see pictures of Angelina Jolie taking that kid, Maddox, to Disney World and believe me, she ain't waiting in any line. "Why can't I do that?" you fume. "I'll pay."
And now you can. Disney has a program called VIP Services (call 407-560-3601) whereby your own private guide whisks you around and does all the dirty work. In my self-appointed position as the magazine's new Luxury Editor-I also handle weddings, certain of the smaller social events, and the monthly Cosmetic Dentistry Update-it is my duty to sample such schemes and report on their effectiveness. This one is very effective indeed. In fact, as I was being whisked (I love that word, and it's a very appropriate one, I may add) around the back roads of Disney World in a Cadillac with my own personal guide on his cell phone, alerting the Hollywood Haunted Tower of Terror that the Plunket party would arrive in exactly one minute, I kept thinking-this only costs $1,000 a day? I'd gladly pay five times that.
The beauty of the VIP Services program is that it either eliminates the drawbacks of Disney World or figures out a way to turn them into pluses. Some of the benefits are quantifiable and some are priceless, like the envious glances from other park guests.
Here are the flaws it eliminates. First of all, ignorance. With all we have to do these days, how many of us really have the time to keep up with the latest goings-on at Disney World? That would mean that if you're going to take your grandkids there for three days you have to go to Barnes and Noble and pore over the guide books and jot down things on little slips of paper you find in your wallet (rich people are famous for their small economies), which can easily take up a whole afternoon. And even so, the information you get is very noncommittal, with everything sounding equally wonderful. The restaurants are mystifying. How on earth are you going to know which ones are any good? Besides, you've heard about the food there, and it's not exactly the Beach Bistro.
That's why having your own live guide is so convenient. Ours was named Luis, and he had worked himself up through the ranks to his current position, one of the plum assignments at the Magic Kingdom.
Luis comes from Guatemala, but his family is very Disney. His sister is a Cinderella. It turns out they have two kinds of employees at Disney World, the normal ones and the "characters." Characters get paid more. And with good reason, as they get poked, kissed and grabbed with sticky fingers by one little brat-er, small child-after another. And the ones with those full body suits like Goofy can only work for so many minutes at a time in that heat. One of the highlights of the private tour experience is to see all these Goofys and Mickeys and Donalds behind the scenes away from public view with their heads removed, slumped over panting.
But I digress. Luis was a wonderful guide, and he had years of Disney knowledge in his head. Disney World operates on a rigid schedule, some of it written down, some of it oral tradition, and if you know it, you know what time whichever ride will be practically empty. Disney knowledge also holds the answer to where is the best place to watch the fireworks, or which restaurants will be too full of children, even at 10 p.m. Like the best guides, Luis was able to psych out your taste within a couple of hours and come up with plans and options, so that you not only see what you would most enjoy but see it in the most efficient manner, wasting no time whatsoever.
Next, lines. This is my personal bête noir. Who wants to stand in the Florida sun for 45 minutes? And that Fast Pass thing I can't quite get a handle on. Apparently you make a reservation for later in the day. Well, the VIP Services program says quite clearly that even they can't cut in front of people and take you to the head of the line. So what they do instead is have this Fast Pass thing all figured out and coordinate it all by cell phone, with the net effect being that I never once had to stand in line. Several times we had to wait, but that was only because we got there early and the last show hadn't gotten out yet. By the way, unless you tell him to hit the road, Luis will stay with you during the ride. I found this a pleasant part of the experience since it implies you are too important (or possibly too incompetent) to be left alone for even a minute. That's what people stare at, I found. You and the neat, well-starched guide.
Next, getting around. The VIP program can accommodate up to nine people per guide, and if you have that many, you travel around in a van. If you have two or three you use a Cadillac, which Luis drives. I was rather hoping we would drive through the crowds, like those annoying golf carts at the airport, but instead we did something even more interesting-we took the back roads. Yes, it turns out that Disney World is full of secret doors that lead backstage where everything is all propped up and unpainted and utilitarian. It's a shock at first, but then becomes fascinating, and one of the most interesting things-and a largely unintentional one, I suspect-about the whole experience is that you get to see how the magic is made.
There are two places to stay in Disney World. Well, actually there are scores, but only two are generally acknowledged as the "best" when price is no object. The most unique is the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is slightly removed from everything else and surrounded by wild animals-giraffes, water buffalo, antelopes-that you can watch from your balcony. They also have a wonderful restaurant with delicious steaks, hopefully not giraffe, water buffalo or antelope.
But the flagship Disney hotel remains the Grand Floridian, which is based on the famous Del Coronado in San Diego. Make sure you get in one of the concierge rooms, for they have endless snacks, canapes, tea, and a buffet breakfast, too. And make sure you have dinner at Victoria and Albert's, the fancy restaurant that's quite fancy indeed, and blessedly doesn't allow children. (I believe Cinderella will come and babysit if you pay her enough.) I found Victoria and Albert's a little self-conscious in its pretend formality, but the food was delicious. You get seven courses and they're all delicacies like caviar and pheasant. It's the sort of place where the chocolate dessert is decorated with gold foil, which you are supposed to eat. Yes, it's a restaurant where you actually eat gold.
The deluxe version of Disney is perfect for indulgent grandparents who live in gated communities, but is it right for parents? Do you want your children to grow up knowing they can buy their way into anything-or out of anything? Shouldn't there be some experience in this country where there is no privilege, that remains totally democratic? Once again Disney has presented us with a puzzling moral dilemma.