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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

A luxurious new way to get to know Mickey Mouse

Three-night offering by group travel outfitter Adventures by Disney is the latest way to open up the gates of the Happiest Place on Earth

Visitors stroll along Main Street at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. A new service lets those with the cash get a sneak preview of upcoming attractions. John Raoux/AP
Visitors stroll along Main Street at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. A new service lets those with the cash get a sneak preview of upcoming attractions. John Raoux/AP

If crawling in and out of roller coasters and carrying a Mickey Mouse-shaped balloon all day strikes you as the opposite of a luxury vacation, well, a lot of people would agree.

Hit the Walt Disney parks in Anaheim on your own, and it’s hard not to feel like giving up somewhere between lunchtime and Splash Mountain’s 90-minute wait. But there’s a much better way to conquer Mickey’s kingdom - one with secret passageways to bypass queues and personal attendants to hand you ice-cold bottles of water as soon as the sunshine creeps up over Main Street, USA.

A new, three-night offering (from $2,129 per person) by group travel outfitter Adventures by Disney is the latest way to open up the gates of the Happiest Place on Earth. The company typically takes families to such global locations as Italy or Japan, rather than to the parks themselves.

This new, exclusive package is part of Disney’s broader push to court luxury travellers. Along with record-setting visitation numbers to Orlando and Anaheim, local tourism boards have showed a 6.2 per cent year-over-year increase in per-passenger spending in 2017 proving that Disney and luxury can and should overlap.

The move comes as Disney posted stronger than expected overall results in its fiscal first-quarter earnings period this year.

Revenue grew 4 per cent to $15.4 billion, largely helped by major gains at its parks and resorts units, which soared 13 per cent to $5.2bn. Analysts were expecting a 1 per cent rise in overall revenue.

Adventures by Disney debuted this month with a slew of long-standing VIP opportunities - skip-the-line access, personal tour guides - as well as never-seen-before amenities. Most notable among them: unprecedented access to “backstage” locations, such as Walt Disney's apartment and Walt Disney Imagineering.

Being granted entry to Walt Disney Imagineering - the studios in which all the rides and experiences for the company’s global theme parks are created - has typically been the Disney equivalent of earning top-level clearance at the Pentagon. Even Imagineers need special “camera” passes to take photographs with their phones in certain areas of the building that Adventures by Disney is opening up to its groups.

On a recent trip, the highlight was a conversation with artists working on the forthcoming Frozen-themed land that will open by 2023 at Hong Kong Disneyland - and possibly in Paris after that. No design details or attractions have been publicly announced for that project, but travelers were able to see scale models that hinted at a bobsled-style roller coaster, a traditional Nordic village, Elsa’s ice palace, and a Frozen-themed confectionery. Even members of Disney’s trusted inner circle are unlikely to see these designs for years.

For real Disney die-hards, the Imagineering tour also offers a fun, retrospective look at how far the company’s attractions have come. On display are pieces that most people have never had a chance to see, such as the molds that were used to create the audio-animatronic pirates in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride or the original statuettes from Snow White’s Grotto. They’re vestiges of a time when ride designers were more sculptors than robotics wizards.

Many of the off-site activities are more appropriate for adults than younger children, for whom a full day without rides can prove challenging. But guided group tours within Disneyland are loaded with perks that cater equally to all ages.

A dedicated team will escort you into secret locations, including Walt Disney’s private, Victorian-themed apartment hidden above the Main Street Fire Station. (Among the curiosities on display are the separate pull-out couches on which Walt and his wife Lillian sometimes slept.) A real-life ride on Radiator Springs Racers includes a lesson on the complex systems that magically move the Cars-themed ride’s anthropomorphised automobiles through the attraction - and glimpses of the “Hidden Mickeys” underneath their hoods.

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Nighttime events such as World of Colour and Paint the Night can be seen from reserved locations, complete with complimentary light-up mouse ears that flash in unison with that evening’s show. And when you skip the line on Peter Pan’s Flight - a ride whose legendarily long queue is otherwise impossible to skip - it’s via a little-known side gate. As we slid through, one regular park guest asked, “How do you get to cut the line?” Only half-joking, a tour attendee responded: “You spend a lot of money!”

It’s important to note that none of this is fully private. Each tour is sold as a group experience with up to 40 participants (ours was nearly sold-out) meaning you’re often roaming as a large entourage. While that does knock down the luxury-factor, these are experiences you can’t purchase in any other way.

Case in point: on a busy Saturday morning, Disneyland Park opened up early, exclusively for Adventures by Disney, allowing for unencumbered photo shoots, crowd-free walks down Main Street USA, and picture-perfect memories in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, all while ordinary day guests were corralled just outside the gates.

Already, the company has seen success with Club 33, the members-only lounge and restaurant at Disneyland Park; it’s so much in demand that spin-offs will open at Walt Disney World’s four theme parks later this year. Disney's Polynesian Village Resort in Florida now offers waterfront bungalows with patios and plunge pools. Golden Oak, a private community of multimillion-dollar homes within Walt Disney World, is perfect for Disney fans who can’t get enough. And thanks to a new Anaheim tax incentive for luxury builds, Disneyland will soon shut a third of its “downtown” district to make way for the first of five planned high-end hotels, slated to open in 2021.

Still, Adventures by Disney’s package is the first experience of its kind within the parks themselves. The closest option, Disney Parks’ VIP Tours, offers private guides who can act like personal concierges, with skip-the-line service. Pricing starts at $425 an hour, with a minimum six-hour reservation - at least $2,550 per day, probably more. By comparison, the Adventures by Disney packages cost about $3,000 per full day for a family of four - ncluding hotel, transportation, park admission, select meals, and of course all that glorious behind-the-scenes access.

For all its draws, Adventures by Disney still has some kinks to iron out. The Walt Disney Studios tour - in which guests walk through the original Animation building - was slow-paced. And despite being a heavily emphasised selling point, the Disney archives visit was more of a self-guided library perusal than a dive into the unknown. The itinerary would also benefit greatly from a surprise visit by Mickey Mouse, whom we did not meet.

Praise must be given, however, to the two exceptional and energetic guides who kept nearly three-dozen travelers engaged and on schedule throughout the trip. With days beginning as early as 7am and going until evening, that’s quite the feat.

Adventures by Disney promises a “Disney Difference” for every trip; here, that’s all about the execution. It’s the difference between holding a FastPass for Indiana Jones Adventure and remembering the time your family went backstage to operate the hydraulics of its Jeep-like vehicles.

You may have visited these parks hundreds of times, but you’ll never again look at that light flickering on Main Street or board Radiator Springs Racers without thinking of this splendid trip.