It didn't take long for me to decide on the subject for my first editorial on this site. There is one single theme park topic that riles me more than any other, that is so incredibly frustrating that it makes my blood boil. What is it? Paid-for queue jumping - the profit-grabbing gimmick that makes most of a park's customers feel like second-class citizens.
There was a golden age in the early 2000s, following the introduction of Universal's Express system and Disney's copycat FASTPASS scheme, when free queue-jumping was in-vogue at theme parks around the world. Systems like Alton Towers' Virtual Q were genius in their simplicity. Guests could head to a popular attraction and grab a time-stamped ticket. When their time window came up, they could return to the attraction and bypass the regular queue. By restricting the number of passes given for a particular time slot, parks ensured that guests using the system could have a short wait for even the most popular attractions.
Time to make some money...
Of course, it could never last. Witnessing the popularity of free line-skipping schemes, it didn't take long for park owners to realise that they could charge extra for the privilege - and that some guests would be willing to pay. Free schemes have toppled like dominoes over the last few years, replaced by expensive "VIP" schemes like Alton Towers' Fastrack, QuickQueue at Busch Gardens and - most galling of all - Universal's Express Plus. Yes, even the pioneers of virtual queuing have succumbed to the temptation of fleecing customers for a little extra cash - and are now one of the worst offenders.
The most troubling thing about the paid-for schemes is that they are nowhere near as efficient as the free schemes that they replaced. Although many of the VIP schemes restrict guests to one queue-jump per attraction, nearly all of them have done away with time windows. That means there is nothing stopping herds of hopeful "express" riders turning up at the same time to ride a super-headliner attraction and being forced to wait in line anyway. It happens - we've witnessed it at Universal parks.
On top of that, the "normal" guests - who have paid to be in the park just like everyone else - are made to feel like pondlife. I'm amazed that full-scale riots have never broken out at some parks, where "peasants" who have waited in line for hours have to stand and watch the rich elite stampede by in the adjacent queue.
Turning to the dark side
And yes, I've been on the other side of the fence. Visiting Busch Gardens Tampa Bay last year, when we knew we only had a single day in the park during an expensive trip to Florida, we succumbed to temptation. Handing over our dirty money at the guest services counter, we received our QuickQueue pass for the day. And it worked - we skipped a full two-hour line for Sheikra and waltzed past waiting families to hop on-board Rhino Rally. But - and it's a big but - I hated every second of it. I felt like a sell-out for paying extra to cheat others out of their rightful place in the queue, and I think less of Busch Gardens for tempting me into it.
Universal Orlando's system is even worse. Not only has Disney's arch-rival done away with timeslots, but in trying to fill up their bland resort hotels they have also given resort guests unlimited queue jumping privileges. Unlimited! The Disney-loving families that head to Island of Adventure for the day this summer to check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are going to love that.
A beacon of hope
Of course, Disney remains one of the last hold-outs with its beloved FASTPASSes still giving everyone a chance to avoid the lines at all Disney parks. Not everyone takes advantage of it - I'm still staggered by the number of people who arrive late and then stand in endless lines for attractions that had no queue an hour earlier - but the most important thing is that everyone can. It means that those who plan ahead are rewarded with a shorter wait, and can feel guilt-free as they bypass the "standby" line.
FASTPASS is not a perfect system, and it can't solve capacity issues on its own. Witness the morning stampede to the FASTPASS machines outside Toy Story Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios for evidence of this. But it helps - and it's a fair, non-discriminatory way to reduce waiting times. It's another reason why I don't begrudge paying more to go to a Disney park than elsewhere - everyone pays extra, but they all get treated equally.
There are other ways to reward high-value guests. Disney provides resort guests with early entry to its parks (as does Universal), as well as other benefits. But the early-entry perk only applies when other guests are not in the park, which doesn't leave everyone else resenting the company for profiting from its own attractions' under-capacity. Everyone accepts that on the busiest days there will be queues, but don't charge us extra as a result.
Disney has experimented with paid-for "Ultimate FASTPASSes" in the past. My message to the company is simple and straightforward. Don't destroy one of your most important differentiators and damage guest goodwill to make a short-term buck. We love FASTPASS, and we want it to stay free.
What do you think of Universal Express Plus and other paid-for queue-jumping systems? Have you used them, and are you a fan of them? How would you like to see Disney improve the FASTPASS system? Let us know in the comments section below.