Saturday, July 17, 2004

Cutting in line is OK, and parks tell you how

By John Seewer
The Associated Press

SANDUSKY - With beepers, special tickets and hand stamps, amusement parks these days are actually encouraging visitors to cut in line.

Amusement parks are allowing visitors to jump to the front of the line. This is how some of the systems work:

• Disney's FastPass: Guests insert their park tickets into a FastPass machine and receive a pass that includes their time to return to the attraction. Each user has a one-hour window to ride. There's no added cost to use FastPass, which is accepted at 26 attractions at Disney's four Florida parks.

• Cedar Point's Freeway: The system uses hand stamps that are free and dispensed on a first come, first served basis at kiosks near six of the park's most popular roller coasters. There are a limited number of hand stamps based on the capacity of each ride. The hand stamps give each user a one-hour window to ride. Guests are limited to reserve two rides per day.

• Six Flags' Q-Bot: Prices vary at the five Six Flags parks that have the device. Rental at Six Flags over Georgia is $10 for the device and another $10 per person. The device is inserted into a machine near each attraction, and the user is then given a time to return. The wait is about the same as what it would take to get through the line. Other Six Flags parks use a ticket system for front of the line access.

Front of the line privileges for popular rides cost extra at some parks and are free at others. The parks benefit because less time standing means visitors can spend more money in shops and restaurants.

"Standing in line for two or three hours is just not going to cut it," said Tim O'Brien, author of Amusement Park Guide. "Things have to be done to avoid long lines and long waits."

O'Brien imagines that someday guests will reserve rides through hand-held computers even before entering the park.

Bypassing lines is more than just a guest service. It's expected by some visitors.

"No matter where you are, people are generally impatient," said Chris Knauf, assistant manager of ride operations at Cedar Point amusement park, which gives out hand stamps that allow visitors to skip ahead later.

The trend began five years ago with the FastPass reservation system at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, and has trickled down to regional theme parks. Complaints about long waits had been at the top of the list of what people didn't like about visiting, said parks spokesman Dave Herbst.

So the park came up with a solution. Visitors can avoid standing in packed queues for 26 of the top attractions, including The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Space Mountain.

Guest surveys show that those who use FastPass have a much better experience at the parks and are able to see 25 percent more attractions and shows.

"We're hitting at the one thing they dislike," said Todd Evans, manager for attractions at the Florida parks.

Paramount's Kings Island offers season pass holders timed tickets for five of its most popular rides on the weekends, and opens select areas an hour early for "Waterpark Wednesday" and "Thrill seekers Thursday."

The park is working on other ways of making the lines move faster, replacing low-capacity rides with big attractions that hold 50 or 60 people at a time.

"If we can manage all of the lines to where it's a minimal wait," said park spokesman Jeffrey Siebert, "there's no need for a ride reservation system."

While some systems are free, Six Flags parks charge a fee for getting to the front.

Six Flags, with 28 theme and water parks nationwide, sells front of the line tickets at most of its parks. Five parks rent an electronic device that works like a pager.

The costs vary at each park. At Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags Over Georgia it costs $10 to rent the device and another $10 for each person using it.

Guests insert the palm-sized device at a sign near the ride and reserve their time to come back and get on a roller coaster with little or no wait. The device, called a Q-Bot, vibrates and beeps when it's time to ride.

The system, developed by England-based Lo-Q, is used at Six Flags parks in New Jersey, Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and Georgia.

Leah Moss, director of Lo-Q's U.S. operation based near Atlanta, said more people would visit amusement parks if they knew they could cut to the front of the line.

"We're looking at people who work really long hours and don't have much leisure time," she said. "People have more money than time these days. It can let them know when they're near an area that has a special on drinks or food. It can suggest a hotel to stay at when they're leaving or tell when a show is about to start."

Not everyone thinks it's fair that some guests can buy their way to the front, especially when the have-nots see the haves bypassing them in line.

Sean Flaharty, a roller coaster enthusiast from Columbus, said some parks do a poor job of merging those two lines, resulting in clashes.

He said the system also can produce longer lines. Some parks reserve coaster seats for only those with the front of line passes, and those seats sometimes go unfilled.

Cedar Point has a low-tech solution to long waits. Its hand stamps allows guests to bypass the lines on six of the park's 16 roller coasters.

The stamps are free and available to anyone willing to wait from a few minutes to a half-hour. Lines start forming early, and a day's supply of stamps for the two top coasters can be gone in half an hour.

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