Are You an Asshole for Buying a Flash Pass?
My wife, Victoria, recently took our oldest kid on a two-day Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor getaway for her birthday. It was a grand time for the two of them, and I was happy to guard the home front and allow them a girl's trip. Because it was just a treat for two and not our entire brood of four kids, they splurged on Flash Passes for the two parks; paid access to shorter lines to get on rides and waters slides faster. Victoria sent me a text message in the middle of day one letting me know how many amazing rides they had managed to get on in the short amount of time they had been there. Jokingly, I warned my wife not to accrue too many hexes and bad juju from the hot and sweaty people whom they breezed by to move to the front of the line. My wife admitted to feeling like an asshole doing it.
I recall a trip to Hurricane Harbor a few years back. My kids and I stood in line to ascend one of the park's many water slides. The accent was a concrete staircase split down the middle by a metal handrail, one side packed with sweaty masses, waiting in the oppressive heat, ready to advance a single step at a time, up the multi-storey tower for the opportunity to bolt down a waterslide. The other side was empty most of the time, punctuated by the occasional group of teens who would sprint past us on their way to the top of the tower. They held Flash Passes and that allowed them to wait in a shorter line, whose members were cycled in at the top of the slide tower at a much faster rate than the people waiting in the general admission line.
I'm an adult; I accept that a privilege like cutting to the front of the line is something we can acquire with money and it's completely within the rights of the park to sell. For me, waiting in the line is deciding after a cost-benefit analysis (My wife saying, "Nope, we can't afford that.") that having more money in our pockets is a greater need than going on a waterslide faster. It was tough, though, to look down at the faces of my three and six-year-old kids to see the concern on their faces that we were somehow in the wrong line and that waiting patiently for our turn seemed to be utter bullshit. There was an explicit plea on their faces for me to explain why we didn't simply get into the line that was apparently moving faster. "We wait our turn," was good the first time. It was less satisfying the second and third time the same group of kids climbed past us as we waited more than an hour in the heat and humidity to get to the top. Every lesson my kids had heard from my mouth was about waiting one's turn and not taking more than your fair share. Yet, embodied in real life, in a display more impactful than any abstract lesson I had ever tried to impart to my kids, were teens, whose parents no doubt sprung for Flash Passes, reaping the benefits of paid access to privilege right before their eyes. You don't' need to wait your turn if you can afford it.
I got to thinking about the idea of a Flash Pass, which nearly all major amusement parks offer these days under one name or another, the notion that someone can pay a premium to cut ahead in line to go sooner on a ride. So ingrained in us is the idea that possessing money can grant privileged status, a better seat, a shorter wait, a preferred station to those who were willing and able to pay for it that we hardly ever stop to consider whether those who can pay really should have those ability to gain that status. We have been conditioned to accept that those privileges are gained deservedly and whoever earned said money and can spend it how they like. That's the basis for our capitalist economy for sure and yet seems at odds with "Little D" democracy, the notion that we are all equal, each with the same say in things, the same status.
Americans didn't invent amusement parks, but we did perfect the idea of a gigantic, sprawling theme park where a single price of admission grants access to all the attractions inside. Like fairs and carnivals, historically, theme park rides were sold individually and had values associated with different rides, so the ability to enjoy an attraction was related to how much money you had with you. Disneyland ran like this into the 60s. Six Flags Over Texas introduced a single price admission in 1959; a single price to participate in theme parks became an equalizer of sorts. A low-income family could save up the money to attend a park, and while they were there, they had the same access to all the rides as any other person. Certainly, they might not be able to visit a park as often as their wealthier counterparts, but when they did visit, their access was the same. They rode the same rides, they waiting in the same lines, right next to each other.
The idea of waiting in line, of deciding on priority based on the earliest arrival to an attraction is actually undemocratic. Consider the myriad reasons why a person might be privileged to be the earliest arrival at a particular activity, however waiting in line is near-universally regarded as the fairest and most acceptable way to distribute a finite resource. Humans defer to cueing, and all seem to accept its premise. So without trying to deconstruct the entire idea of waiting in line or attending a theme park in general, let's consider how we distribute the finite resource of a theme park ride.
The best estimate I could find for the attendance on a busy day at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA is about twenty thousand people. My wife took our kid last Sunday, and it was packed, being a sunny day in June, so let's assume that we are dealing with twenty thousand people who all want to ride the roller coasters. I'm about to make a lot of assumptions here but follow my logic. (I gladly invite you all to work through this problem with better data or point errors in my logic or reasoning or use a more mathematically sound equation; I'll happily publish any better version of this.). Half of those people at any one time are eating, wandering, pissing, yelling at their kids, finding their way to the next attraction, applying sunscreen, actually riding roller coasters or waiting for lesser attractions like carnival games, going through an Existential crisis, anything besides waiting in line for a roller coaster. There are 19 rides at Six Flags Magic Mountain that would allow someone with a Platinum Flash Pass to skip ahead in line. Let's assume that at any one time, ten thousand general admission people are waiting in line to ride one of those coasters; that's about 526.3 per people per line. An average coaster car can seat four people, two in the front row and two in the back row and an average coaster train may have five cars. That means that a single run of a coaster can accommodate 20 people. Based on that number it will take about 26.3 runs of a coaster to service all the people waiting in line for that coaster at any one time. Most of these coasters run multiple trains at once, so we can double the capacity to 40 people being served by a coaster at a single time, even if the second train is loading and unloading while the first train is running. Checking my assumptions, if you figure an average wait time of 90 minutes per ride on a busy day is divided by the number of runs it takes to service 526.3 people, you are looking at about 3.4 minutes for a full turnover for an individual roller coaster train which would include embarkation, the ride, the slowdown, the cue to return to the chalet and disembarkation, I think I'm right in the ballpark.
The Flash Pass that my wife bought was $130 on top of the $80 admission rate per person to Six Flags Magic Mountain. It promised to cut waiting time for each coaster down by 90%. Based on her recollection, she waited 10 minutes on average and for some rides, much less. Considering the hour and a half wait time average for each ride's general admission, the park's claim seems to be right on target. Over the course of six hours, from 11am-5pm, they managed to enjoy twelve of the park's premium attractions and only spent about a half their time waiting for or riding actual rides. With the other three hours, they ate, got lost, fucked around with the lockers, and shopped. In the same span of time, a fellow park attendee might have been able to fit in only two or three rides.
What exactly are these parks packaging and selling as Flash Passes? I think if you had to name the actual product being sold, you might name something intangible: privilege, or access, or rights to go first, but I think the parks are selling something a bit more measurable and concrete: they are selling other people's time.
The park's claim and my wife's experience that holding a Flash Pass reduced wait time by 90% is another way of saying that it reduced the capacity of a roller coaster train by 10% for regular admission riders. There is a second, much shorter line for holders of Flash Passes, and if the average is correct, that means that for every cart holding 20 people, two of those seats would have Flash Pass holders from the fast line. I don't assume that ten percent of the park's attendees have Flash Passes, but if they can move from ride to ride quicker as my wife and kid did, getting on 75% more rides than the average person in the same time, they can reasonably add 10% more demand on a ride's capacity. If two of these seats on a 20 person train are effectively off limits to regular riders; while it may have taken 26.3 runs of the roller coaster to service a line of 526.3 general admission passengers now takes 29.2 runs of the coaster to service the same line. The last guy in line, Mr. 526.3, ends up waiting for an extra 9 minutes and 52 seconds more his hour and a half. 10 minutes of his time waiting in line per ride has been packaged and sold as shorter waits for Flash Pass holders who can cut ahead of him.
Let me be clear; it's not just the last guy in line, but every person who starts at the back of the line whose eventual ride is delayed anytime the ride attendant holds the general admission line to let a Flash Pass holder ride instead. For every person who would otherwise spend an hour and a half in line, but instead is ushered through quickly, the balance of that time they would have waited is divided up and shared amongst every general admission rider who they walked past on the way to the front. The more rides one goes on during the day, the more wait time one accrues on behalf of Flash Pass holders.
This enables Flash Pass holders to experience more rides, more fun in a shorter amount of time. If I extrapolate the value of each ride based on the $80 admission plus the $130 premium for Platinum Flash Passes, a dozen rides in six hours cost $17.50 each. A general admission park attendee who could only get to three rides in the same time pays $26.60 per ride. In addition to the time spread amongst the general admission attendees, they also bear a $9.10 price differential per ride they enjoy.
This brings me to a sidebar about whether these passes really contribute to having more fun. My wife's experience was that after about the fourth ride, the thrill of each ride seemed to plateau. Victoria has always loved roller coasters and seems to rate them on how terrified she is at the end. A strange way to measure how much "fun" they are but certainly anyone who loves horror movies, or being scared knows the feeling. "It was weird, after the fifth or sixth ride, I couldn't really feel my body react in the same way as it had before." I asked her if the downtime normally spent between rides, standing in line for the next, allowed her emotions to reset thus each ride, an hour or two later was more fun. "Perhaps, but also I was exhausted from running up the stairs to the next ride. Usually, you take those steps one at a time while you're waiting." This conversation raises an interesting question, is the wait part of the ride itself? Is anticipation of the ride part of the thrill of the eventual release? Can the boredom of the wait reset your adrenaline response so that you can experience it again anew later?
Do I care about this process? Not at all. Amusements parks are private businesses and can organize themselves however they see fit. Although it's a bit sad to see one of the last bastions of truly American amusement finally go the way of travel and live theater and other old-world pleasures that have age-old traditions of selling privilege and status, access to better seats, faster lines, and upgrades services. But I'd never deny their right to operate as they see fit.
Ultimately as an English major, the metaphor is my real interest, as I'm sure I've demonstrated I'm not any sort of mathematician) this occurred to me this is a great metaphor for the current state of American democracy and economics. No one denies the nature of money and privilege; we all aspire to it. We defer to the privilege of the rich because we all hope to be rich one day and enjoy those privileges too. Just as we accept the Flash Pass program because we'd like to be able to skip the lines now and then. We all grant that people should be able to spend their money as they want and that business can operate in a way that makes them money and selling access to privilege and status is perfectly acceptable. But when we as a nation claim to be democratic and believe in ideals like equality and fairness, we should take a look at processes that not only fast track the success and access of some over others but also systematically deprive many of that same access and, occasionally that system isn't merely privileged but structured in a way that provides privileged at the expense of the impoverished. This is what Bernie Sanders labeled a "rigged economy."
No one thinks being wealthy is inherently wrong, but if your wealth and status are due to paying your employees less than a wage they can live on, that is a privilege at the expense of your employees. If you can only pay your shareholders profits by lobbying for tax breaks, so your company stays in the black, that status is earned on the backs of all taxpayers. If you can't offer health insurance to your workers, and they rely instead on government programs, that's the rest of population paying your bills. If you can't compete in a free and open market except for lobbying against common sense regulation for guns, environmental issues, defense defunding, fair market adjustments, or any number of other concerns, you are asking others to provide your privilege.
My wife acknowledged she felt like an asshole for skipping the line at an amusement park even though she paid for it fair and square. What word do we reserve for those who do this on a scale that deprives millions of the right to a decent livelihood and fair access to the levers of success, or to health, or dignified living? Can we deny that a process so innate in us as granting special access to some based on wealth could exist on a national level, and it could be abused easily to grant access to success and privilege for some at the expense of others?