By Heather Mullinix
I used to love riding roller coasters, and then I got older. I'm not sure what happened, exactly. It's just somewhere between my dare-devil youth and my level-headed 30s, I stopped enjoying the screaming, the plummeting and the turning upside down.
Well, it's not that I stopped enjoying it so much as my stomach stopped enjoying it. I would ride those roller coasters all day long, but my stomach has a ride limit. If you don't believe me, you can ask my date to the fair in 1997, the last time I dared board any ride that sent me turning upside down. The vomit eventually washed out of his shoes.
My avoidance of roller coasters hasn't really been a hindrance in my life. After they closed down Opryland, the only option for such thrills nearby was Dollywood, but there you can enjoy lots of other neat things, like artisans and musicians putting on great shows. I wasn't going to drive hours and hours to get to a Six Flags or Universal Studios and, since I hadn't met him before, I didn't see any need to head to Florida and meet the Mouse.
I could have continued on in my no-roller-coaster existence if not for a recent family vacation with my nephew. He's a teenager now. I knew I couldn't expect him to go to the Jamestown colony and tour Colonial Williamsburg without spending a day at Busch Gardens.
There, you'll find several large roller coasters, from Apollo's Chariot with its daring heights and sudden drops to The Griffin with a 75 mile per hour free fall, there's certainly enough thrills to excite a teenager and his dare-devil mother. Aunt Hess, however, was less then thrilled with the adventure. But I'm a trooper. I rode with my sister because her boy, a teenager, didn't want to be seen walking around with the adults. I held out as long as I could but back-to-back trips on the Alpengiest found me battling nausea and nursing an aching head.
We lucked up on timing our trip. Many of the school districts in the surrounding states hadn't let out for the summer just yet, or it was graduation weekend. That meant fewer than usual numbers in the park and we didn't have to stand in the sweltering sun for 30, 45, or even 90 minutes to wait for a ride that would be over and done with in about 90 seconds.
We didn't know this when we first arrived, though, and my nephew had spotted information on the ticket about a "Quick Queue." For an extra fee — that's on top of the price of admission that's not exactly pocket change — you could enjoy the top rides over and over and over again, with unlimited priority boarding.
Never mind that signs warned cutting line was cause for immediate ejection from the park, and no refund of the cash you just put down to get in the place. If you didn't mind shelling out more money, you got to cut line with the blessing of the park.
I'd never heard of such foolishness in my life. That was the thing about an amusement park. You stood in line and waited, patiently, for your turn. You'd figure out how to pass the time. You'd fan yourself with the park map. You'd suck down $8 soft drinks. You'd talk with your ride mates and even strike up conversations with those around you. And everyone was on equal ground. Those that were at the head of the line were there because they'd timed it just about perfectly or they'd been there waiting, just like you. It gave you hope and assurance that, soon, you'd be at the front of the line.
I suppose that's too old fashioned in this new age. Today's youth can't possibly be expected to go 10 minutes, let alone an hour, without some sort of entertainment. These quick passes, which aren't limited to this one particular park, are offered just about everywhere, ensuring that kids never have to be bored — as long as someone's willing to pay.
That brings me to my second objection to these passes. It's created a caste system of amusement park patrons. There's the haves that can waste money on $20, $50, or even $120 beyond the price of admission (per person), and then there's those that don't have the cash for that on top of $60+ per person admission and the $8 drinks and the $15 hamburger and the cotton candy and the funnel cake. Or those that think it's ridiculous to pay all that extra cash just so the kids won't whine about having to wait a few minutes.
Some of the "haves" have taken the quick pass to new levels. There's special park tours you can arrange for ridiculously high prices that sweep you to the front of the line. Apparently that wasn't enough so some parents, according to recent news reports, had taken to hiring people with physical disabilities to pose as family members for the day, taking advantage of policies that would let them skip to the front of the line.
You'd think such abhorrent behavior would be unilaterally condemned, but you'd be wrong. On one such news report, people actually defended the practice, saying it offered a way for those with disabilities to make some extra cash, despite the terrible example it was setting for the kids involved in the schemes.
Some parks are working on ways to reduce wait times at its most popular rides with ideas that don't cost more money or allow for sanctioned line cutting. I hope they can find the happy medium that keeps the lines moving along, but doesn't rob us of the ability to amuse ourselves at the amusement park.
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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published each Tuesday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.