Roller Coasters for the Rich

The real problem with fast passes isn't that they allow a tiny number of people to jump the queue; it’s that those people start feeling that they should never have to mingle with the people who don’t have the passes. 

In between my time at Newsweek and Bloomberg, the Official Blog Spouse and I did something unusual: we took time off. It was our first vacation since our honeymoon ... at least, the first vacation that we've had that the demands of work didn't effectively cancel. Since we're both transplants to the District of Columbia, we decided to spend our vacation touring the Commonwealth of Virginia... or more specifically, the Old Dominion's theme parks. We were gone for seven days, of which three were spent either riding roller coasters, or sliding down water slides.

Almost none of those days, however, was spent standing in line. Being roller-coaster fans with an economic turn of mind, we were very excited to learn that both Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion offered customers the opportunity to jump the queue, for a price ranging from $20 per person (at Water Country USA, the Busch Gardens water park) to $55 for the roller coasters. This is real money, of course, but it wasn't prohibitive; it was less than we were spending on hotels and food, or for that matter, the theme park tickets.

If you love roller coasters and hate standing in line, a fast pass improves the theme park experience in ways that are hard to communicate. Most of the days that we were there, the lines on the favorite rides stretched to several hours. With a fast pass, it took us longer to walk between the roller coasters than to get on the rides and hurtle around the track. We easily doubled or tripled the number of rides we were able to take.

Of course, speed did have some surprising drawbacks. My vertigo tends to act up on a certain sort of twisting coaster. Under the old system, this wasn't a huge problem, because my inner ear had time in between rides to recover. With a fast pass, however, we could step off the roller coaster, exit down the stairs, and then get right back on. By the time I noticed how unhappy this made my inner ears, it was too late; I spent several hours in the middle of the day trying to sit very still as waves of nausea rolled over me. By the end of day three, I also had small hemorrhages in my ankles that itched madly in the heat.

On the other hand: wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! And I doubt my feet would have been all that happy about standing in line in the heat.

Which is why it's something of a mystery that they don't sell more of these passes. There's a low hard limit on the number of passes they can sell; the clerk at Water Country USA told us that they were only allowed to give out 150 on any given day. That's smart: It means that you never have a line for the fast pass, and the experience of people who don't buy the queue-jumpers isn't materially affected. But that's almost irrelevant, because the clerk also told us that they almost never hit the limit, an opinion that employees at other parks echoed. Either people don't know about the option, or they aren't willing to pay extra to avoid standing in line.

I find it hard to believe that the problem is a lack of awareness; all three parks prominently hawked Quick Queue or Fast Lane passes at concession stands.

Perhaps the problem is the price -- though with the bucks people were dropping on concessions, I can't believe that this is the issue. No, I think the answer is in the hard stares we got as we walked through the fast-pass gate. People just don't like fast passes. It doesn't feel right.

It didn't even feel completely right to me, and I'm pretty close to homo economicus. I could tell myself that we weren't actually hurting anyone in a meaningful way, and this was true -- because so few queue-jumping passes were issued, the most anyone ever waited because of us was another minute. Arguably, our passes even helped to slightly lower the price of their tickets. But it felt bad to see everyone else patiently standing in line while we stepped onto the roller coaster with no wait. And a lot of the theme park attendants clearly didn't approve of us.

On our last day, at Water Country USA, I understood why. We were heading to Big Daddy Falls, a tube ride. There was no way to walk directly into the Quick Queue lane because a line of a hundred or so people completely filled the entrance. A 15-minute line was hardly a hardship after the ease with which we'd breezed onto the other rides, so we waited patiently with everyone else.

Pretty soon, a woman with three small children came pushing up behind us. "Excuse me ... excuse me ... we're just going to the Quick Queue lane." Why should she wait in line? After all, she'd paid $20 apiece for her passes. Clearly, everyone else should stand aside so that she could get onto the ride slightly more quickly.

The real problem with fast passes isn't that they allow a tiny number of people to jump the queue; it's that those people start feeling that they should never have to mingle with the people who don't have the passes. They act like entitled jerks who have the right to shove everyone else out of the way. No wonder the theme park attendants were suspicious of us.

Perhaps the reason they're so obnoxious -- and hers wasn't the only family I saw pushing through the line while we waited to get to our entrance -- is that more people are living a fast pass Life. Getting a special queue with special service isn't a rare treat, something to indulge in on your first vacation in three years. It's a permanent condition. Jump the security queue at the airport because you're a frequent flyer. Walk straight into your rental car because you're a Hertz#1 Club Gold member. Don't like the kids your children are hanging around with? Push them into an elite program, or buy a house in a more exclusive school district. Join a gated community so the wrong people can't even walk near you.

The economic elite used to just buy more of the things we all enjoyed. Now they have access to a different set of experiences entirely. No, that's not quite true -- of course the rich used to be able to afford better vacations and nicer cars. But increasingly they're enjoying an exclusive version of the things we all do -- right there in front of us, where we can resent them for it.

The other problem with fast passes is that once you have tasted the delights of line-free roller-coaster riding, it's hard to give them up. No one wants to throw their lot in with the entitled jerks of the world. But no one wants to spend hours in line, either.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Megan McArdle at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.