“Merlin VIP pass good start faded into memory”

Back in December 2013, it was announced that Merlin Entertainments were to introduce another level to their popular annual pass. The VIP pass, at a princely sum of £500, was to include such features as unlimited fastrack and premium parking, but other than that, details were somewhat sketchy.

Even a few days before the pass actually went on sale, some of the benefits were still unclear, but after becoming tired of experiencing crowded Merlin parks and unwilling to queue for attractions we had been on numerous times, we decided to invest in this VIP pass.

First experiences were good, the phone call whilst purchasing the passes was faultless and as promised a few days later, a welcome package was delivered by courier. For any lover of packaging, Merlin produced a fantastic product here.

These first impressions were very favourable and this was followed when it was time to pick up our passes from our chosen attraction. A personal phone call was received advising what we needed to do on arrival. However after some confusion at the gates, we were told to join the pre-booked ticket queue, only to be retrieved out of it when they realised we shouldn’t be there.

We were greeted at the park gates by a host and taken down to the box office to get our passes processed. There did however seem to be a bit of a grey area when we asked about what to do when joining the queue for the rides. We were told to just go to the fastrack entrance, but when we asked what happens if the fastrack queue is closed, they didn’t know. We were issued our wristbands and headed into the park.

That first visit was perhaps the best visit we have ever had at a Merlin operated theme park. We were really made to feel welcome by staff. The only problem we had on that first visit was trying to get our unlimited drinks capsule refilled. It seemed as though not all staff had been advised that VIP pass holders could get the refills free.

We left the park completely exhausted, but on a high. For the first time in many visits we had managed to ride what we wanted, when we wanted and as many times as we wanted. The unlimited fastrack on this first day proved invaluable, as a 270-minute queue for The Smiler was reduced to a 5-10 minute queue and allowed us to ride eight times.

Unfortunately, the heady heights of that first visit quickly faded into memory as trips to other parks were made. It was quite clear, even at this early stage in the life of the pass, that there were major inconstancies across the parks. There did not seem to be any defined procedure on where to go to enter the queue. Some staff said go to the exit, others the fast pass line and some didn’t even know what this pass was. All this led to a lot of confusion for everyone.

A section of the VIP pass holders website allows you to inform the parks when you were going to be visiting so that they expected you, but this was very hit and miss. Sometimes you got a phone call back, others you didn’t. Even when you booked for some parks you didn’t hear anything back, so just turned up at the entrance not knowing what to do.

Getting into Thorpe Park was confusing on our first visit. We were told to wait at the entrance and when the park opened, we went to scan our passes only to find they wouldn’t scan. We couldn’t get in! We were then told to wait in reception until someone came to let us in. After waiting nearly 30 minutes we were told that we had to get our wristbands from the fastrack sales booth, which when we got there had a queue!

Same with Chessington, we weren’t allowed to just go to the gate and enter the park, we were told we had to go to the hotel and wait for our wristbands to be issued by a member of staff and then walked into the park. I appreciate that Merlin wanted to create a pleasurable experience, but sometimes it can be quite frustrating when all we wanted to do was get into the park!

One of the worst aspects of this pass, is perhaps the name of it. The very term VIP has actually made some of the pass holders really believe that they are VIPs and demand extra special treatment. We have witnessed with our own eyes some truly petulant behaviour from fellow pass holders who, just because they have purchased this pass, think that they had an automatic right to avoid even queuing at all or to get extra special treatment.

Of course it didn’t help in the early days of the pass that Merlin staff gave special privileges to some people when other received none, even on the same day of visits. From hearing what other pass holders have said and what treats and discounts they received, it was clear to see that there was also another level of VIP pass; a level for those who asked for/demanded other things and controversially for those who had children as it seemed as though Merlin staff did extra things for kids and families with this pass.

Anyway, as the season progressed, it seemed as though the initial enthusiasm given by staff members faded until it just became another aspect of the job. No doubt this was also because of the minority of holders who still demanded extra perks and gave staff members a hard time.

Still there was confusion, as there was no sign of an official explanation of a valid procedure for getting on rides or even entering the parks. Do we use the ride exit, fastrack queue? What happens when fastrack is closed (it does happen!) and there is a queue, where do we go then?

It wasn’t until the beginning of October, nearly four months after the pass was launched, that Merlin sent out a document detailing the exact procedure for getting into and on every attraction at the Merlin parks. This confirmed for each ride where we could go. Finally!

Aside from the inconsistencies and confusion, the most disappointing aspect of the passes for us, are the Golden Ticket Experiences. These were promoted before the sale as something truly magnificent that money couldn’t buy. Well, it turns out that these ‘money can’t buy’ experiences are something that money can actually buy, as all what has been offered, at the time of writing, are things like Giraffe feeding at Chessington and behind the scenes tours at Sea Life, which can all be bought for £15 to £20. Hardly the ‘money can’t buy’ promised experiences. Personally, we were expecting either lift hill climbs or behind the scenes of a coaster to be included, but alas at this moment, we still have our golden tickets sat on a shelf unused.

One big positive though, were the two celebration tickets included. These allow us to bring along a quest who can enter the park for nothing in exchange of a celebration ticket. Again though, there was confusion and sometimes anger as the Merlin parks did different things with guests who turned up. Some parks also gave these guests unlimited fastracks, whereas others didn’t.  Again this was eventually confirmed in October when Merlin officially announced that anyone using a celebration ticket would receive unlimited fastrack. This is therefore a major benefit of the pass.

Into October, and it was revealed that pass holders would get limited free access to the Alton Towers scare mazes during Scarefest, IE once on each paid maze per visit. This was not a fastrack ticket just allowed entry into the main queue. Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to please some pass holders who in one case I saw demand that they bypassed the queue and go straight to the front of the line. I do not know if they were successful or not.

Thorpe Park allowed you one fastrack visit to each of their scare mazes during Fright Nights. However in a park which ran the mazes terribly, this resulted in some long queues and, yes you guessed it, we witnessed some pass holders complaining and yep, they got moved to the front of the line.

As the Theme Park season came to an end and Christmas openings were revealed, it became apparent that this pass, would not cover the additional events like the Legoland and the full Chessington event. This of course led to more inconsistencies and confusion.

It has also become clear that even though the pass can be used in any park or Merlin attraction overseas, trying to get into these attractions has been somewhat of a farce. Some pass holders have commented on how bad this has been and again it seems as though this comes down to inconsistency. Some have reported that they were left at the gates whilst the admission staff had to make a call to the UK. Surely this pass must have been communicated to all attractions.

So as the days tick by and we enter the New Year, it is now six months into the life of the pass and therefore time for a mid-year season review.

I suppose the burning question has to be, has it been worth the money? Was £500 a good price to pay for the benefits gained? Well for us and the number of visits that we have made, we may have just broken even. I know that others have used the pass a lot more than us, but we personally wouldn’t want to visit Merlin parks every week.

The major benefit for us is the use of fastrack. Previously when visiting Merlin parks we have avoided queues of any kind as even queuing 15 minutes for Oblivion was too long. Now with no queue, as such, we will now ride. We can actually enjoy the park without the need of spending all our day in queues.

The main problem we had with the pass, was how long it took Merlin to come up with defined procedures. To wait four months to receive a copy of this was rather strange and all the initial problems could have been sorted with this one document from the start.

It was reported that Merlin did not sell the full number of 1,000 passes in June 2014, but that there is a waiting list for 2015. Merlin have commented on Facebook that there will be only ever 1,000 passes and that when this number is reached, spaces will only become available from people who don’t renew.

So I suppose the big question is, will we be renewing? Well that is a very loaded question. I cannot fault the unlimited fastrack as this has actually made us fall in love with the parks again, but with limited investment being shown across the estate in 2015, there are no real incentives to renew unless unlimited fastrack is the incentive.

It is unclear what the price of the pass will be when it goes on sale again in June 2015 and even if current holders will get a renewal discount. Until that is announced then we simply cannot make our mind up.

It will be a difficult decision to make, but it all depends on how Merlin price this product for 2015. Would I pay more than £500 per person? No, I wouldn’t. How about £500 again? Well again probably not, I would hope that Merlin offer a discount renewal rate, especially as the first half of the pass has been shrouded in inconsistencies. What would I think to be reasonable? Well as the Premium pass is now at £209 per person, I think a realistic value of the VIP pass would be £449, with a renewal of £409.

If we didn’t renew, we would not be tempted to buy a different level of pass. The amount of restrictions on the standard and premium really devalue those products for me. Of course we could just visit on off peak days, with no queues, for a fraction of the cost and use the endless supply of Merlin BOGOF to enter the park. We could even get the Sun free tickets for Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures and just pay for parking. However one of the biggest perks of the VIP pass is knowing that you can turn up and enjoy the parks even on the busiest days and not have to plan weeks or months in advance.

Either way, June will be a very interesting month for current and potential new VIP pass holders. This real money maker for Merlin, will give them a solid injection of cash, but just do yourself a favour Merlin, rename it to something other than VIP.

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