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 off season. 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.