The Morality of Paying to Skip the Line (at Theme Parks)


Today in The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, a long and thoughtful essay by Ron Lieber on the messages both “society” as a whole and parents as individuals give their children when they pay to skip the lines at theme parks.

(Lieber isn’t referring to Disney’s free and egalitarian FastPass, available to anyone who enters the park, or systems which allow people with disabilities or other special circumstances to go to the front of the line. He specifically means the theme parks, such as Six Flags, that allow people to literally pay in advance for the privilege of shorter queues.)

To quote Lieber directly:

The spread of such services has given rise to much concern over the increased tiering of American life in general, where the haves need not interact with the have-lesses except when breezing by them in the queue. But something very specific is going on when we involve children.


So for parents who are tempted by these services, how best to describe them to kids if they do partake? The problem with avoiding the topic is that children fill the silence in their own heads. Perhaps the internalized explanation goes like this: We have more money than the other families in line, but nobody wants to admit this or talk to me about it. So just try not to look the kids in the long lines in the eye because this whole system makes everyone a little uncomfortable. They’ll get to go on eventually, right?

The line-jumping pass could be a simple economics lesson delivered aloud: A single express ticket, at three times the normal price, lets us cover the same ground in one day that it would otherwise take three days to cover at the regular ticket level. So it’s an even trade financially!

He covers just about every argument I could think of both for and against paying extra to bypass the queue, and does not propose that one argument is better than another.

What do you all think?

Photo: Jeremy Thompson


19 Comments / Post A Comment

gyip (#4,192)

“The problem with avoiding the topic is that children fill the silence in their own heads.”

I think this is a great point for parents and anyone else with a parenting/mentoring to kids and younger people.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

Re-reading the piece, I’m surprised that neither Lieber nor any of the NYT commenters propose what would seem like the obvious decision: the parents pay for the basic entry fee and suggest the kids pay for the line-hopping pass out of their allowance. That lets the kids decide if they want to make the financial tradeoff and gives them ownership of the benefit.

@HelloTheFuture But wouldn’t you then just be saddling your children with the burden of class guilt? “See those sad children looking at you with a mixture of envy and rage, Susie? They’re doing that because of the extra money you spent.”

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)


Usually I cringe away from Motherlode/all other tone-deaf NYT pieces, but that is an interesting question I’d never thought about. I’m one of those people who prefers Disney’s model and spends the countless hours combing message boards to figure out how to optimize their more “egalitarian” system (I think they just built the pricey part into their base costs). But given the opportunity, I certainly wouldn’t and don’t hesitate to pay extra for VIP/expedited services, when I can afford them. I mean, I’m an Amazon Prime member. The last time I was on a cruise, I paid extra so that we could be in the first group of people on the ship, the first to our cabins, the first off in port. If I flew a little more, I’d sign up for Pre-check. I am willing to pay a fair amount of money to save relatively small amounts of time, particularly when traveling, but I’d never thought about whether/how that would change if I had kids.

When I was a kid, my folks were pretty upfront about how we budgeted for the trips we took, and why we made the choices we did. We drove to see my father’s family, even though it took much longer than flying, and stayed in motels along the way, because it saved money. But we would spend enough money every year to rent a nice beachfront house in the Outer Banks for a week in summer. I like how the author ultimately suggested handling it – it’s a good opportunity to talk about the money you are spending, and the choices you made in saving and spending it, and how you can make decisions about whether the money you spent on something was worth it to you or not. Otherwise, standing in long lines on family vacations on principle is a pointless exercise in suffering for the sake of building character. And not everyone needs to be Calvin’s dad.

cjm (#3,397)

@bowtiesarecool I think Disney does it in a different way: “Magic Mornings.” If you can pay/ stay for multiple days, then you can get in an hour earlier than the plebes. The difference is, the plebes are still in bed or the parking lot and they don’t see you and you don’t see them.

Also, VIP tours get to skip lines. It’s just instead of being an extra $50 per person, its an extra $300 for at least 6 hours for up to 10 people. It’s just so expensive, most people don’t do it.

Put aside the issue of standing in long lines on principle, or of amusement park fast passes in general. The interesting question here is, “How do we talk to children about inequality when they can see that they are its beneficiaries?”

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

@Josh Michtom@facebook The author forgot about inequality when they can see OTHER children are its beneficiaries.

@SterlingCooper05 Explaining inequality to children when they’re on the losing side of it is easy.

garli (#4,150)

@Josh Michtom@facebook There is a company in town here (which I am tragically forgetting the name of) that specializes in talking to extremely wealthy children about their money and trying to put some kind of moral spin on it. It’s a pretty interesting concept.

@garli They should hire me. I would get fired right away, but a few lucky kids would get an important lesson.

The author left out the most obvious general economic point which is that where price discrimination is workable it usually benefits *everyone*. Yes, the people willing to pay more get less time in line than they otherwise would, but it’s also true that the people willing to wait longer in line get *cheaper tickets* than they otherwise would! And everyone gets a park that is more convenient in other ways (more solvent, has more rides, has better rides, etcetera) than it would be if the park couldn’t expect to gouge a few people willing to pay a premium price for a premium experience.

Without “first class”, airlines couldn’t afford to run as many planes as they do or charge as little as they do for coach fares. Without “express bands”, theme parks couldn’t afford to open as many new rides or invest as much money in them or charge as little as they do for a basic admission.

It might also be a good opportunity to explain the concept of “early adopters”. When something is shiny and new, it is expensive. If a few people are willing to pay a lot more than the average person, nice things that are shiny and new can be created more quickly. Then once these things exist, a few year later they are no longer shiny and new, costs come down, and the vast masses who aren’t willing to pay so much can have it too. A few rich nitwits willing to pay more to be the FIRST help drive and debug and prove the usefulness (or not) of technology; the rest of us get to ride in on their coattails.

Cerasi (#4,234)

It’s such a cop-out for this article to conclude with, “You just need to explain that you’re not actually any more privileged than the other people in line; you just chose to spend your money differently.” That might be true for some people, but what if you’re just plain rich (or comparatively rich), and the money doesn’t matter as much to you?

Teaching kids the value of money and hard work and good choices is great and all, but it seems so dangerous to suggest to kids that any personal wealth and privilege they may have is somehow based on anything other than pure luck. This is an uncomfortable thing to think about, but that’s the seed of a thought I would want to plant in my hypothetical kids’ heads, even if they were too young to fully comprehend it.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Cerasi Yeah, that’s the worst part of the piece, the line about how “other parents might be able to save for this next year.” BOOOOO.

fullbodied farts (#2,005)

Great, it’s awesome that nicely dressed, well-to-do middle-class people who live good lives and have the semi-popular kids can pay to cut ahead of the poors. I mean, why shouldn’t we have institutionally mandated ways for poor people to feel more like absolute shit

I mean, what about poors only grocery stores and poors only clothing stores where they can spend the money they earned from their poors only jobs they had to fight for with their poors only public school degrees thanks to them living in poors only neighborhoods

This is awesome, let’s keep it up, why shouldn’t the children of the poors learn their place early on, it is their privilege to experience the joys of capitalism

Trilby (#191)

I don’t think Disney Fast Pass is actually free because you have to have either a season ticket or be booked at a Disney hotel to get one, if I’m understanding correctly.

But I think this new model of different ways to avoid waiting that involved paying more, they stink! I went to Disney a long time ago with my two little girls, and we waiting in long lines but Disney was committed to keeping them moving. One thing I appreciated was the line-minders who would continually urge people to “move up! Give hope to the others!” We were all the same in our experience. America! Now, not so much….

Allison (#4,509)

@Trilby the last time I was at Disneyland (in uh, 2001?) the fast pass was free, but only good for one ride at a time, so you had to wait until your fast pass time came up, skip the line then. After you rode that ride, you could go and get another one? but it’s been 13 years.

umlauts (#977)

@Trilby Anyone who gets a ticket to the park can use Fast Pass. It’s good for three rides initially, and then you get one “rolling” pass after that. If you buy your ticket to the park ahead of time, you can book your Fast Pass before you even get to the park, so the earlier ones book up fast and if you book them the day of you will probably have to wait until the afternoon. It was slightly complicated, but as with all things in Disney, they really make it as easy as possible.
I just went a couple of weeks ago- I had free day passes because my bf is an employee, so we couldn’t book Fast Passes ahead of time, but I found it didn’t matter. I thought even the regular line times weren’t that bad (like 15 minutes for low-key rides and 45 for bigger rides). Then again, I don’t have kids!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Allison Yeah, Disney keeps tweaking its Fast Pass system to improve the user experience, which is a sentence I can’t believe I actually typed.

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