While I know next-to-nothing nothing about economics, I do know that after going to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey this weekend, the free market can be a cold and unforgiving arbiter of pain. As a Six Flags patron, you have to buy into the park’s insidious economy, and very quickly everything you knew about equity and price is re-calibrated. There are water fountains, but their water was almost always warm or had just been slobbered on by a child, the frequency of such made me question whether or not these were just chance occurrences or if the park was paying eight-year-olds to contaminate the only free commodity in the park. In comparison, $3.59 cold, sterile water was a deal. We bought several, and it hurt less each time. In a word combination I never thought could exist, I ate Six Flags sushi for lunch and washed it down with a Powerade for a cool $15. My friend Kelly bought a $6 ice cream cone late in the afternoon, and at that point, it seemed like a fire sale. Despite these gluttonous profit margins, the clandestine economists behind this bastion of greed did not stop at charging outrageous prices just for food. Food, as it turned out, was just the beginning.
Everything at Six Flags costs extra. Despite all of the pricy food that we wantonly kept buying, we drew the line at the $1 lockers. For some reason, after shelling out so much cash for so many things without blinking an eye, the $1 “ride lockers” were an outrage. Six Flags expected us to pay this fee every ride to store purses, coats, and bags. Out of principal, we ignored the ominous “items stored for longer than 120 minutes may be removed” and left our stuff in one locker next to the Superman roller coaster the whole day. Even though this location was not close to the entrance and we had to trudge all the way back to it just to trudge back to the exit to leave, we held firm in our belief that $1 was already too much to store our stuff. The total value of everything in that locker was over $100, and yet we left it to the mercy of Six Flags, daring them to confiscate it as they legally said they could. But we won the game of brinksmanship, and our stuff was still there at the end of the day. It was one of very few victories we had.
In this strange Six Flags society, the minimum wage labor is imported from nearby middle schools and high schools. The park is run, almost exclusively, by 14 year olds. The kid running the second fastest roller coaster on the planet was born in a post-Savage Garden world. His brain is completely dominated by chemicals that place far more importance on the Rutgers sophomore with the low-cut top in the front seat than the lives of the twenty five people sitting in the rest of the cars. I say this with authority only because I was a 14-year-old boy once, and I certainly wouldn’t let my teenage-adled brain perform harness checks with so much cleavage afoot. It’s practically begging for mass manslaughter.
By far the most egregious part of the micro-society is the “Flash Pass.” If you decide to lay down an additional $45-$120 (depending on the level of privilege), you can be the proud owner of a digital dongle that expedites you to the front of the line, passing all the plebeian saps who have to wait for upwards of two hours in the sun. “Elitists!” I shouted several times throughout the day when I saw these silver spoons sneak in front of the masses to wait only a paltry five minutes for El Toro or Kingda Ka. I’ll admit, however, that I limited my volume to the point where the bourgeoise couldn’t hear me but my brothers and sisters around me would be able to nod their heads and agree. “This man should be our leader,” they were probably thinking. In reality, I was afraid of what the Flash Passers could do to me if I irked their rage. If they could so callously drop $120 down on an already extravagant venture, what else would they be willing to pay for? A small child to kick me in the shins? Some goons to rough me up? A police coverup of my mysterious and grisly murder?
During the day, my friends and I thought up myriad names for these high society types. “Flash Bastards” and “Douche Badges” were the best we came up with, all during the morning when we still had the requisite energy to pun. But around 4 p.m. with the sun still baring down, we had descended into simply “those dickheads.” Six Flags has sneakily commodified time and comfort. You can pay for privilege of non-waiting, just as you can pay for a first class plane ticket or the laundromat to wash your clothes or an Emilio Estevez impersonator to read you the newspaper (or perhaps even the real Emilio Estevez). The stinging part of the Flash Pass is that it comes at the expense of the people who don’t opt-in, further creating a compelling sales pitch for the Flash Pass. When 15% of the ride is being populated by people who waited in line for one twentieth the time you did, there is this sinking feeling of “maybe I should just get the damn thing.” Truly, this mentality is the worst part. Even in my most vile, carefully-volumed screed, I knew that had I sprung for this privilege, I would be high-fiving my friends down these exclusive paths paid with gold, relishing in the ire of the slobs waiting for upwards of two hours. “What are they whining about? Do you think they’re hungry?” I’d ask my fellow aristocrats as we strapped into The Nitro. “Well, then let them eat cake.”
Six Flags is constantly one dirty look from devolving into complete anarchy. It’s inhabited mainly by throngs of people who have been subjected to the sweltering sun, outrageous prices, sugary beverages, and the extreme dichotomy of 90 seconds of thrilling g-forces alternated with 90 minutes of existence-questioning boredom. And the park has also subjected these people to jacked-up food, locker, and retail prices, pushing them even further to the brink. Even so much as a perceived sleight from a Flash Passer and it would be storming the Bastille circa 1789 France except, I imagine, much much bloodier.
Six Parks management is really playing with fire. How much longer can they cash in on the extra Flash Pass revenue before their parks are righteously burned to the ground? And what jury will convict common people coalescing against tyranny? None would; not in my America. Then, and only then, will we be able to rebuild amusement parks, the way they were always meant to be: for the people, and by the people. In this thrill-utopia, the cost of admission is the only cost to get equal access to rides, food is reasonably priced, and, for the love of god, the people controlling the death machines are at least old enough to vote.