A Disney expert who charges $2,500 a day to guide VIPs through the parks shares how to get the most out of a visit – DIGIWIZ CENTRAL

A Disney expert who charges $2,500 a day to guide VIPs through the parks shares how to get the most out of a visit

Michael Hewell.

David Steele

Michael Hewell founded Michael’s VIPs, a private tour service for Disney World and other parks.For $2,500 a day, Hewell or his guides seek to help families make the most of their visit.Hewell says his strategies rely on knowing what’s possible — not on cutting lines.

Michael Hewell, a 56-year-old Marine veteran, started working at Disney World after leaving college almost 30 years ago, intending to join its management training program. His first role at the park was as a ride attendant for the Haunted Mansion. One day, a singer came to do some research on the ride for a music video.

To observe every detail, the singer spent hours riding the Haunted Mansion in secret, always accessing the ride via its load area. To do so, he had to rely on Hewell to help him.

Hewell’s efficient, cheerful manner caught the singer’s attention so much that he asked for Hewell to act as his full-time assistant for the rest of the week, while he explored the park’s other rides. “At the end of the week, they told the office, ‘Michael is the best host I’ve ever had,'” Hewell told Insider.

In 1996, Hewell was then tapped to join Disney’s VIP-relations department, a small team earmarked to handle visits from celebrities and dignitaries. Three years later, Hewell broke off on his own and started a word-of-mouth service for elite Disney-loving visitors called Michael’s VIPs.

Today, Hewell and his team of 17 work with about 200 families a year. Rates start at $2,500 a day for a single guide who works with groups of up to eight people.

As the founder, Hewell reserves his personal tours for grandfathered-in clients or the highest of VIPS. Here’s what it’s like showing the rich and famous around Disney World.

Hewell is a lifelong Disney fan

Walt Disney World crowds in April.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Hewell was obsessed with Disney while growing up in West Palm Beach in South Florida. “I was a walking encyclopedia, and Walt was my hero — I modeled my life off all his encounters,” he said.

In his future role at Disney, he said, VIP hosts were empowered to do whatever it took for their clients to enjoy their visit. “It was for celebrities, royal families, and friends of the corporation, and they backdoored everybody in part as it was the only way for them to experience the attractions without getting mobbed. That would also ruin the experience for the other guests.”

But while he was in the Disney role, an article in a major media outlet that mentioned Disney’s VIP service changed everything. The day it published, “we got 500 phone calls about it,” he said. It rapidly morphed from a discreet service offered gratis to a pricey VIP machine that offered a formulaic high-end experience. It was this shift that caused Hewell to strike out on his own.

Disney’s official VIP program is still operating; its website advertises peak-season rates starting at $7,000 a day for groups of up to 10 people. “I was just in line,” Hewell said, recalling a recent experience, “and a woman behind us was complaining about having to pay so much money for a Disney guide — there were 12 of them, so they were paying $14,000 per day.”

Think of a weeklong trip to Disney like a safari, and conserve energy accordingly

Hewell is often contacted by a travel agent or a traveler directly who’s planning a Disney trip. “We don’t advertise anywhere,” he said, “and it’s mostly word of mouth — when you break into certain social circles, a certain private school, then you become the VIP service.”

Once booked, he’ll talk through a client’s weeklong trip in advance on a Zoom call and then will plot out the visit accordingly. He often explains how his service works by likening the trip to a safari: Start early to see the animals or avoid the crowds, and then expect to be back at the hotel by lunchtime.

Hewell emphasized that none of his strategies involve bribing staffers or taking any frowned-upon shortcuts. “It’s about knowing what’s possible,” he said, “And I know who to call, and what to ask for.” For example, Hewell doesn’t help clients cut lines to meet the characters — he’ll set up a character meal or position the guests in the right part of the park to snag a photo when he knows the characters will walk by.

Hewell often works with the office that typically handles corporate groups of 300 or more; for an additional fee, families can tap their services, too — think a private roped-off area for desserts and drinks at the day-ending firework display. For most of his clients, cost isn’t a factor when pursuing setups like this.

Knowing the ins and outs of all the parks

There are distinct visitor patterns, he said, and working around them is another insider move. “Never go to the Magic Kingdom on Monday,” he said. “Most Americans get off work Friday, rest Saturday, fly Sunday, and that’s always their first park.”

He learned the rhythm of operations inside the park by chatting with ride attendants. “I’d introduce myself to cast members and say, ‘Help me out, I’m trying to have the best possible day — could you answer all my questions about when to be where?'”

The focus of his work in Orlando has shifted since he started in the 1990s, though. Back then, Hewell worked almost entirely with visitors to Disney World, but since the Harry Potter attraction opened at Universal Studios, about 40% of clients also ask him to squire them around there.

Age requirements on rides mean these are often repeat clients, who’ve visited with their preschoolers and waited until they are 7 or older to venture there. Hewell does have a small operation at Disneyland in California, too, though the vast majority of his client base centers on Disney World.

He works independently of Disney and has no official affiliation with it. While on Disney property, Hewell’s staff must remain invisible. “You’re not allowed to advertise any other company on property, or wear anything that does, so we blend in with our guests,” he said. “I do everything I can not to have a spotlight on us.”

Business cratered early in the pandemic, but it’s bounced back

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hewell went from a guide roster of 28 to just two once the parks reopened. Hewell has slowly rebuilt his team via a training program that takes a minimum of three months.

When he’s hiring a new guide, passion for Mickey Mouse is less important than attitude. “The vast majority have no knowledge of anything Disney, but they work in the service industry, so they know how to take care of people,” he said. “You can train anybody to know where so and so is, but you can’t train personality and attitude.”

He’s also seen a major shift in his clients as a result of COVID-19: The families are much closer.

“Prior to the pandemic,” he said, “the father was a businessman on the phone all day, and perhaps the nannies were closer to the children than their mother or father, but coming out of COVID-19 the families are so close now.”

Whatever the travelers’ makeup, his guests have one thing in common: They have more money than time.

“The wealthiest percentile doesn’t want to come to Disney anymore because it’s such a huge hassle, and there’s nobody to help them,” Hewell said. “That’s my niche.”

Read the original article on Business Insider
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