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When money talks to kids

At some amusement parks, paying to butt in is just business.

April 17, 2010|Sandy Banks

The boys' faces brightened when they got to the front of the line.

We're next! They'd been waiting an hour to say it.

But their smiles faded when another family was ushered in from the sidelines and slid into "their" Legoland ride.

We'd been waylaid by the Premium Play Pass, Legoland's wristband version of the front-of-the-line pass.

Almost every amusement park offers a short-cut these days for customers who are willing to pay. But what seems like good business to some felt to us more like a slap in the face.

I posted the question online this week: Is the fast-pass system at theme parks a worthy option for well-heeled families or a wrong-headed symbol of inequality?

Some readers saw nothing wrong with paying more to skip the lines. It's no different, they said, than flying first class, driving the toll road, springing for bottle service on a big night out.

"It's merely reflective of the inherent nature of capitalism and accompanying competition," posted Robert. "This may actually be a good lesson for the youngsters to witness and understand."

Maybe. But the cold, hard facts of capitalism aren't what I want a 6-year-old old to learn on a dream trip to Legoland.

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Compared to other amusement parks, Legoland's line-skipping program is admirably low-key, said theme park aficionado Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider.

"People just sort of have to know to ask about it," he said. "It's like In-N-Out's secret menu."

The Carlsbad park, aimed at the under-12 crowd, sells no more than 65 Premium Play wristbands each day, at double the price of regular admission, said Legoland spokeswoman Julie Estrada.

It's like a secret entrance for the well-heeled crowd.

"Jennifer Garner came with her two girls last week," Estrada said. Other families pay for Premium Play "because they can afford it" and don't want to waste time, she added.

Long lines are a chief complaint of amusement park patrons, Niles said. So most parks offer line-skipping perks, and they've become popular because "they're money makers."

They also erode enjoyment for the masses. As more people opt to move to the front, the wait for the regular folks gets longer.

Disneyland's free reservation system -- which assigns patrons a time to show up in line -- has become so popular that half the riders of some attractions rely on it.

So someone without a reservation who joins what looks like a 30-minute queue might take an hour to get to the front of the line, as people with assigned times merge closer to the ride.

"That means half the crowd is really happy about it, and the other half is really upset," Niles said.

"That's not the sort of conflict you want at a place that's supposed to be the happiest place on Earth."

As a businessman, Niles gets it. "Equitable treatment of customers has long since disappeared," he said. "Everybody is trying to de-bundle things and squeeze out as much money as they can."

But as a parent, he would "rather go online and . . . figure out a strategy that keeps my wait time to a minimum than hand over my credit card" to skip to the front at Legoland.

"These are little children -- 3, 4, 5, 6 years old. The whole fairness thing is such a big deal to them. . . . When somebody blows into the line right in front of you, gets into the car you're waiting to get in, that's a very hard thing to explain to a kid."

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For my nephews, it was a jarring note in a nearly perfect day. On the way home, we talked about how it felt to watch someone who hadn't waited take the spot they'd waited for.

They felt rejected, they told me, "like we didn't matter." They would never do that to somebody else.

But when I pulled into the carpool lane on the 405, the sting of inequality faded fast. "Cool!" the boys proclaimed, as we zipped past crawling rush-hour commuters.

We had become the wristband bunch.

Maybe online reader "Itsnotfair" is right: "There will never be a completely level playing field. I suspect your nephews already know this . . . and are simply trying to figure out where they fit in."

And I suspect the line-cutters bothered my sister-in-law more than it did her sons. She certainly knows, as one reader said, that waiting a few minutes longer for a theme park ride "is small potatoes. . . . Not like police services, or medical care."

But when you're standing in the hot sun with little boys who have been so good for so long and their celebration is suddenly shut down, it feels like a "rough and dirty reminder of your lack of status," she said.

And it's a stain on a day that Mom can't scrub: What should be "all fun and no worries [gets] dirtied up," said reader Alison Siewert. "It makes it about whose dad has a better job and whose mom makes more."

But should I begrudge parents who can afford it for grabbing the chance?

I can't. Because I remember how good it felt when my girls were small and Mom could still make miracles.

I can imagine paying the price and whisking my kids to the front of the line. And trying to focus on their smiles and not look at the faces of the kids left behind.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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