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Paying to skip the line: bad example or good business?

April 14, 2010 |  5:59 pm

Banks http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/04/11/disneyland.jpgThe day was hot, the rides jammed. But the promise of the Treasure Falls flume was enough to keep my young nephews waiting patiently for an hour in line on their Spring Break trip to Legoland.

They were vibrating with excitement when they finally reached the front. Then another family suddenly materialized from a secret side entrance, snagged their log and stole their ride.

“Did they get cuts?” the 8-year-old asked, as the ride attendant waved that family on and held his back. “Maybe we got in the wrong line,” his 6-year-old brother surmised, looking back at the other families still queued up behind them. 

The newcomers weren’t line-cutters, at least not the type whose muscling-in draws security officers. They were simply folks with the money and the foresight to buy their way to the front of the line.  

I guess it’s been too long since I’ve been to an amusement park. When my kids were small, the only way to bypass the wait was to roll in a wheelchair to the front of line. 

Now, it seems every tourist attraction has a way for patrons to bypass aggravating long lines if they’re able  to pay the price.

At Legoland, the Premium Play Pass buys orange wrist bands that take you to the front of the line.  It costs $150 for an adult and $130 for a child.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain, there’s the Flash Pass – regular, gold or platinum, priced from $41 to $89. At Universal Studios, “priority access” to all shows and rides costs $104 if you order online, and $239 if you want a back-lot tour and private guide. At Knott’s Berry Farm, the VIP Tour offers “backdoor admission” for four hours, for six people, and costs $1,000, with a guide.

Only Disneyland doesn’t make money dividing lines. Its FASTPASS program lets anyone use an admission ticket to stake out a spot in line.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Amusement parks are businesses. Premium passes add to profits and keep well-heeled customers coming back. 

So why does the notion bother me so? Is it any different than a Dodgers’ game, where some families can afford field boxes and others look down from the bleachers?  Why waste time standing in line if you can be whooshing though the water on Treasure Falls?

But I’ve always considered amusement parks a sort of leveling endeavor. Even if you had to save for months, bring food from home so your kids wouldn’t beg for $7 hot dogs and skip the games and souvenir shops, once you lined up for Bionicle Blaster, your children were no different from the rich kids behind them.

I’m wrestling with my feelings now, thinking about the look on my nephews’ faces as the orange-wrist-band kids breezed past them in line. Waiting in line is for chumps, they learned; no matter what your teachers tell you.

Would I have bought wrist bands if I’d known? I’ll take that on in my Saturday column:

Is the fast pass system an intrusive reminder of inequality or just a simple pleasure for deserving families?

Help me figure it out. Tell me what you think.

--Sandy Banks

Photo: Lines at Disneyland. L.A. Times file