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An Insider's guide to VIP and backstage tours at Walt Disney World

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Published: September 29, 2010 at 10:01 AM

Rides and shows not enough for your theme park visit? Have you seen all that you think there is to be seen at your favorite park, and looking for a more special experience?

Double rainbow at Epcot

Many theme parks offer special, guided tours and experiences for an extra charge on top of your daily admission. Since there are so many tour opportunities out there, we can't cover them all in a single article, as we did for theme park dining plans last week.

So today, we're starting with the world's largest theme park resort: Walt Disney World in Florida. Here are the tours and VIP experiences currently being offered at Disney World. Prices are per person and do not include tax. Tours do not include park admission, so you'll need to buy a ticket to the park as well, for those that go inside the theme parks (does not include Backstage Magic and hotel-based tours).

Note that many tours have age restrictions, so if you see a price for children above a certain age and no price for younger kids, that means the tour is not available to them. For tours restricted to ages 16 and above, Disney might check ID, so come prepared.

Resort-wide
Backstage Magic
This tour takes your behind the scenes to see how Disney designs, maintains and operates its theme parks. You'll visit the tunnels under the Magic Kingdom, backstage at Epcot and the central shops area. $224, 6-8 hours

Disney's Yuletide Fantasy
A guided tour of holiday decorations around the resort, including selected theme parks and hotels. $84 (ages 16 and up), 3 hours

Holiday D-Lights
Get a behind the scenes look at how Disney puts together its holiday light displays, including the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. The tour also includes a performance of the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. $199 (ages 16 and up), 4-5 hours

Disney's Animal Kingdom
Backstage Safari
Visit the backstage animal care facilities at Animal Kingdom, including the veterinary hospital. Keep in mind that the focus of this tour is the facilities, and not animal interactions. $72 (ages 16 and up), 3 hours

Wild by Design
This on-stage tour looks at how design and architecture within each themed land advance storytelling within Animal Kingdom. $60 (ages 14 and up), 3 hours

Disney's Hollywood Studios
Inspiration: Through Walt's Eyes
A tour of the studios theme park, with a focus on Walt and how he found inspiration for his film and theme park projects. $99 (ages 16 and up), 3 hours

Epcot
Around the World at Epcot
This is the Segway tour of Epcot, which starts with training on riding the two-wheeled, stand-up "personal transporters." Then you'll take a guided tour of World Showcase on your Disney-provided Segway. $99 (ages 16 and up), 2 hours

Behind the Seeds
Go behind the scenes at The Land pavilion to tour the greenhouse and fish farm more up-close than you could on the Listen to the Land ride. $16 (ages 10 and up) $12 (ages 3-9 yrs), 1 hour

Disney's Dolphins in Depth
Learn more about and get in the water with the dolphins at Disney's The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion. (You don't need to swim; you'll be standing on a ledge in shallow water.) Includes souvenir photograph. $194 (ages 13 and up), 3 hours

Epcot Seas Aqua Tour
Swim in The Seas and see the fish, using a Scuba Assisted Snorkel unit. Includes souvenir photograph. $140 (ages 8 and up), 2-3 hours

Epcot Dive Quest
For certified divers only - a dive inside the main tank at The Seas with Nemo and Friends. $175 (ages 10 and up), 3 hours

Gardens of the World
Visit with Disney gardeners as you tour and learn more about the topiaries, flowers and landscaping around Epcot. This tour is offered only at certain times of the year. $69 (ages 16 and up), 3 hours

The Undiscovered Future World
Consider this Epcot's version of "Keys to the Kingdom." You'll tour backstage and learn about the development of Epcot, meeting some of the international students who work in World Showcase, as well. $55 (ages 16 and up), 3+ hours

Magic Kingdom
Disney's Family Magic
Follow along in an interactive story adventure through the Magic Kingdom. $34, 1-3 hours

Disney's Keys to the Kingdom
This is Disney's most popular backstage tour, taking a behind the scenes look at several Disney attractions, as well as backstage support areas. No cameras or large bags permitted. $74 (ages 16 and up), 3+ hours

Disney's The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains
This tour begins before the park opens, and visits the backstage roundhouse for a look at how Disney's steam trains are maintained and operated. $49 (ages 10 and up), 3 hours

Mickey's Magical Milestones
A tour of the Magic Kingdom coupled with a history of Mickey Mouse. $25, 2 hours

Magic Kingdom Resorts
Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage
A pirate-themed boat ride from the Contemporary Resort for fireworks viewing on the Seven Seas Lagoon. $53.99, 1-3 hours

Wilderness Back Trail Adventure
A Segway tour in and around For Wilderness. $90 (ages 16 and up), 2 hours

The ultimate tour?
VIP Tour Services $175-$315 per hour, 6 hour minimum
If you didn't find exactly what you wanted among the tours above, Disney will customize a guided tour just for you.

To book any of these tours, call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687) or visit Disney's website.

If you've been on any of these tours, please share your experience in the comments. How did you like it? Would you recommend it? Would you go again?

Readers' Opinions

From Thomas Caselli on September 29, 2010 at 10:52 AM
I have done the Backstage Magic Tour twice. I did it with my wife in June,2008 and with my best friend in June,2009. Walt Disney World as been an amazing place to me for along time, but going on the tour made me appreciate WDW even more. Even with all that you see around you while visiting the parks and the hotels, you don't realize what it takes to keep WDW going. I would recommend the Backstage Magic Tour to anybody who is a Disney fan.
From Ray Schroeder on September 29, 2010 at 11:09 AM
I've taken many of the backstage tours. The best are the Segway tours at EPCOT. I did Around the World twice and Nature by Design. I also did the Segway tour at Ft. Wilderness. You Segway in the woods. Pretty cool. They're easy to use once you get the hang of it.
Keys to the Kingdom was very informative. You see some of the behind the scene magic. Magic Behind Our Steam Trains - Magic Kingdom was a good one if you're a train buff.
Wild By Design - Animal Kingdom great inside info.
Backstage Magic - 3 Park Tour I did this back in the late 90's. It was 7hrs and very thorough. It was more extensive back then. Because of security you no longer go into the computer rooms where eveything is controlled. We actually saw them working a parade from the computer room. There was a complete tour of the utildor. Very cool. We also got to paint our own cartoon cell at the studios.
If you're a fan do these tours. They give great insight to all the magic behind the scenes.
From 65.167.11.254 on September 29, 2010 at 11:19 AM
The Backstage Magic tour does not require you to have theme park tickets. It includes behind the scenes tours of all four theme parks. Here's the info direct from Disney website:
Guests must be at least 16 years old and carry government-issued photo identification. Lunch is included with the tour. Theme Park admission is not required or included.
From 71.100.180.3 on September 29, 2010 at 8:56 PM
I have been on Keys to The Kingdom at Magic Kingdom, though it has been a few years. I really enjoyed it and would like to do it again. Has anyone taken the backstage magic or the one in Epcot's Future World? I am considering taking one of them.
From Anthony Murphy on September 29, 2010 at 9:38 PM
I have been on three:

Backstage Magic
Keys to the Kingdom
Behind the Seeds
Segway Around World Showcase

Personally, I like Backstage Magic is the best! Backstage Magic is about the same as Keys to the Kingdom, but includes DHS and EPCOT. You go to all of MK's greatest hits. However, you do not get to go on any rides. It just shows how the World actually works.

However, Behind the Seeds is also not to be missed since its for all ages and much more affordable.

Either way, all tours are worth it! They also CHECK IDs!

From Crystal A on September 30, 2010 at 11:04 AM
We did the Keys to the Kingdom tour a few years back. The tour was well worth it and is one of my favorite things we have ever done at Disney. I would love to do one of the Christmas Tours.
From KJ Simpson on September 30, 2010 at 12:05 PM
I did Behind the Seeds, and it was incredibly interesing. I used to work in a greenhouse, so this tour was perfect for me. The cast member running my tour, however, was not very good- she seemed like she couldn't care less about being there. I kept wondering how much better it could have been with a different person. There were also only three of us on the tour, which could have made for an awesome, in-depth experience...but the CM just wasn't on board. The tour was very affordable, especially compared to most of the others.
From Anthony Murphy on September 30, 2010 at 1:18 PM
Ironically, the tour guide position for Behind the Seeds is pretty tough to get (they are usually interns that work in the greenhouses). I tried to get it, but did not get selected.
From KJ Simpson on September 30, 2010 at 1:38 PM
My Behind the Seeds tour guide was a person who had just finished her degree in horticulture (or something similar), and said she happened upon the job opportunity through her department at school. She made it pretty clear that she wasn't there to be part of Disney, just part of a very cool greenhouse. One of the guys in my group asked her if she had ever thought she'd be working at WDW when she started studying plants, and she sort of rolled her eyes, and said no, it's just a job...
Took a bit of the magic away, to say the least! I'm sure there are people who'd do anything for that post.
From Amanda Jenkins on September 30, 2010 at 4:39 PM
I have only done the Dolphins in Depth Tour. It was amazing! You get a behind the scenes tour of the Living Seas before getting into the "seas" with the dolphins. Anyone who would love to see this incredible attraction from every aspect should take this tour. It is offered early in the mornings (so it won't eat up your entire day).
From Joshua Counsil on September 30, 2010 at 7:41 PM
If the tours were standalone prices, then I'd consider. Paying for admission and the tour seems too steep.

Interesting point, KJ. I could see how an academic could get frustrated at Disney. Research needs are plentiful at academic institutions but funding is often hard to come by. Corporate research funds are easy to come by but the needs of the researcher come second to the wants of the corporation. Thus, she probably wanted a position at a university where she could choose her research, but the funding was unavailable and therefore ended up at Epcot where funding is available but research topics are Disney-centric. Still, that doesn't give her the right to sneer at her employer.

/academic rant

From Beth Schroeder on October 1, 2010 at 9:20 PM
We did Backstage Magic over 10 years ago, and while we loved it so much we are now hooked on tours, it was a VERY LONG DAY OF WALKING! It was well over 8 hours, but it was fantastic to learn so much. Just know that you will be an "Insider" to a lot of Disney tricks that may spoil some of the "magic" they deliver "on-stage".

Also, long ago we did Behind the Seeds and Gardens of the World, and while they were OK, we were not impressed enough to want to do them twice.

Now with that said I must say that we learned a valuable lesson on our last visit about 1-1/2 years ago. They do update and change the tours which we did not know, and were stupid enough not to ask! Check before you say "no" to repeating a tour to see if it has been updated.

We learned from the Backstage Safarai at AK. When we went the first time, soon after it was first offered, it was a VERY LONG WALKING TOUR. Again I was exhausted after about 5 hours, but it was wonderful. On our last visit, figuring it would not have changed, only my adult daughter went, and was I bummed! They have added a tram to relieve some of the walking and she said that I very easily could have done the tour. They also added a lot of interesting things. You can bet that next time I will be going!

On the last visit we also did a special VIP tour at AK Lodge (you have to stay at the Lodge) where we were with a small group in a safarai truck with the animal handlers and we rode around all over AK Lodge savannahs and then had a private dinner with wine at Jiko served by the head chef. THIS IS EXPENSIVE. CALL IT AN ADULT TREAT! Also, if you are not a fan of trying what I would term unusual and exotic food or you don't drink, I would say you should try to get this tour without the dinner. That's what we are going to do next time since I don't drink, and I am a peasant when it comes to food.

Most excellent tours at Epcot are the Aqua Seas and the Dolphins in Depth. Well worth every penny. They are expensive, but a lot of the money goes to research and upkeep of their very large acquarium. Do not expect to get to do more than touch the dolphins and give them a few signals. This is an on-going dolphin research project and not like Discovery Cove's more entertainment oriented dolphin swim where you get to be pulled by the dolphin through the water. Still it is a memory worth having and much less expensive than Discovery Cove.

We are going to Orlando this fall and doing Discovery Cove, and Universal. A shock! No Disney! Too much to see and do. I'll let you know about the Dolphin Enocounter there which is an additional fee. Discovery Cove is expensive, but everything in the park is paid for, including all your food and drink for the whole day, your parking, locker, sun screen, etc. They limit attendance to 1000 people a day so you are not packed one on top of each other either. Also, they only part that is limited on time is the Dolphin Encounter. Otherwise if you want to snorkel all day you can. You get to go to SeaWorld or someplace else for a day on the same ticket. I think it is well worth the money if you can plan ahead and afford it.

On any of the these tours definitely don't take any kids under teens, and then only if it is something they really want to do. Younger kids are going to look at this like going to a museum where all you do is look at stuff and read signs. They'll be bored in no time. If your older kids have an interest in something then for sure take them along. My only caveat is that of course how good your experience is has a lot to do with the person(s) that you draw as your guides. Be sure to answer their surveys truthfully at the end if you don't like a tour guide.

I am glad to see that there are many new tours we haven't tried yet! Can't wait. We saw the segways at Epcot, and those looked the way to go. Can you imagine if they would just rent a segway to get around the parks! I hate trying to get out of World Showcase though I love seeing it. It seems I always end up at the wrong time or place and have to walk all the way to the front of the park or around to one of the resorts to find a bus. Poor planning on my part, but no fun!

Love to see other folks opinions on tours!

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