Imagine that you've just spent an hour and a half waiting in the extra-long queue that guarantees front seats on a theme park's fastest, coolest roller coaster. You're finally at the head of the line. The coaster rolls in, the restraints open to receive you, and then you're blocked from joy by a theme-park goon while a troop of smug bastards hustles out of a side door and into your seat.
If you visit a Universal or Anheuser-Busch (Busch Gardens and SeaWorld) theme park this summer, that scenario could very well happen to you. Both Universal and the Busch parks have adopted programs that grant line-breaking privileges in exchange for extra dough. And though the parks won't release numbers, judging by the proliferation of new levels of privilege, the practice of paying to break in line is on the rise. Gone are the days when the theme-park queue was the great equalizer, where every vacationing family waited its turn in democratic fashion.
Some of these "express-lane" programs are free and open to all park visitors willing to put in a little effort. These are a great idea and reduce congestion in a way that feels fair to all. What's potentially irritating to the average park-goer are the expensive passes and "tours" that, in exchange for a large chunk of money, allow those willing to pay more to cut in front of even the express lines. Universal and Busch offer so-called "VIP" tours that anyone willing to pay between $130 and $3,000 can go on. These tours brazenly let you cut to the front of all lines. And you even get a theme-park factotum who escorts you and runs interference between yourself and the understandably enraged little people.
Since Walt Disney ushered in the modern theme-park era with Disneyland, the line has been considered a necessary evil of the business. To maintain comfortable profit margins, theme parks need teeming throngs, which means long lines for attractions. Back in the day, the only way to get ahead of the lines was to sneak or break in line (read some classic maneuvers), practices that risked park ejection or a mob lynching.
Regardless, a funny thing happened in the last decade. Theme-park owners—who in the past had simply focused on getting people through the gates—started paying more attention to internal park dynamics. They started trying to herd the crowds in ways that relieved guests of more of their money: A chump free to purchase armloads of food and souvenirs is infinitely preferable to a chump trapped in line. In a happy marriage of commerce and convenience, theme parks started trying to help people get through the lines faster.
Universal was the first to experiment with a method that allowed guests to "schedule" rides on its Hollywood attractions, based primarily around its famous studio tram tour. (Riders on the tram arrived at certain rides at certain times, thus making line congestion more predictable.) Disney swiped the idea and took it to the next level, and so was born Fastpass, the Disney crowd-management program that has revolutionized the way theme parks work—and incidentally made going to theme parks enormously more fun.
Fastpass (which is free) allows Disney park guests access to express lines, as long as they visit an attraction during a certain time period. This allows the Disney overlords to manipulate line size based on each attraction's speed and loading capacity, distributing crowds more evenly throughout the day. Of course, after Disney filched the basic concept, Universal went back and re-engineered its scheduling scheme and launched Universal Express, which one-upped Fastpass by offering even better perks for those willing to pay more. (Read how Fastpass and Universal Express work.)
The "VIP" tour line-breaking drops all egalitarian pretense, however. These programs include an in-depth tour, but that's merely the aperitif. At Universal, for an additional $130 per person over the normal park admission (about $50 per person for a one-day pass) you can get the "VIP Tour Experience," where you join a small group of other elites (and an official handler) and skip both the plebe-choked standard queues as well as the relatively rarified express lines. If you're visiting Universal's two parks in Florida, and you're willing to fork over $3,180 for two days of the "Exclusive VIP Tour Experience," you'll get completely personal attention—i.e., no tour group. The Busch parks have similar options, starting at $60 over regular park admission. Disney has yet to go the VIP route, and may not ever want or need to, but only time will tell.
As someone who's broken in line while escorted (I was evaluating attractions for a guidebook), I know it can be an awkward scene. To put it delicately, words were exchanged, and those in line were barely mollified by my perky publicist escort. The VIP guides spend a good bit of time running interference between their line-breaking charges and the irritable masses: Few things are quite as galling as someone breaking in line ahead of you, and it's often aggravating out of all proportion to the extra wait it requires. At a theme park, where no one really needs to break in, it's the principle of the thing. Unfortunately for those who can't afford the perks, the emerging principle in theme parks is that those who pay more are those who play more.