Z-Tickets: 10 Worst Things about Theme Parks

An About Theme Parks Guide Rant!

The worst of theme parks
••• ©Arthur Levine. Licensed to About.com.

In the early days of Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the theme parks used an alphabet-coded ticketing system instead of today's pay-one-price policy. An "E-Ticket" was the most coveted because it allowed entry into the parks' very best attractions. I'm coining the term "Z-Tickets" to highlight what I think are among the worst that theme parks have to offer. Not individual attractions per se.

Think of Z-Tickets as the citations that fans like you would write if you could issue a citizen's arrest to theme park, water park, and amusement park officials.

Is something bugging you? Driving you crazy? Are you mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Well, put on your dark shades, sidle up to the guest relations window at the offending theme park, ask the rep for his license and registration, and get out your sharpest pencil. It's time to give 'em a Z-Ticket. Here are my top ten Z-Ticket rants (in no particular order):

1. Food

Most parks offer the same old bland junk. For shame! There is a rich and grand tradition of delicious treats at classic amusement parks. I'm not talking about gourmet cuisine (although the Disney and Universal parks prove that it is possible). Think of Nathan's hot dogs at Coney Island, frozen custard at the boardwalk piers, or the fresh-cut Potato Patch fries at Kennywood and Lake Compounce.

The food is almost as much of a reason to visit the parks as the coasters. It's an indelible part of the amusement park experience.

Today, parks get a frozen slab of chemically enhanced dough, tasteless tomato sauce, and cheese that is indistinguishable from the wax paper on which it is served. Then they warm it up and have the nerve to call it pizza -- and the audacity to charge up to $9.99 a slice for it (Yeah, I'm talking about you, Six Flags parks).

Even worse, they forbid us to bring food into their parks (and rifle through our bags in the name of security to make sure we don't), so they hold us hostage with their overpriced, gastrointestinal excuses for dining. Far too many parks seem to consider food an afterthought. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

2. Parking Fees

On top of the $50 or so per person we pay to get into a park, we have to keep reaching for our wallets to pay for food (see above), games, t-shirts, and other doodads. These days, however, the bloodletting starts before we even get out of the car. When parks charged a couple of bucks for the privilege of parking at their lots so that we could go to their parks and spend more of our money, it was a minor annoyance. With places like Six Flags Great America now squeezing us for $25 JUST TO PARK THE CAR, I'm getting ticked off before I even get in the gate -- and that's not a good way to set the tone for a fun-filled day at a park.

3. Mandatory Locker Policies

Prohibiting loose articles on rides such as roller coasters makes a lot of sense. (The eyeglasses I had stuffed into my shirt pocket during a ride on Universal Studio Florida's Revenge of the Mummy years ago are probably still strewn among the archeological ruins of the coaster's building.) But the mandatory locker policies that some parks, Six Flags chief among them, are enforcing for some of their rides make little sense.

In most coaster loading stations, guests can leave their backpacks, hats, stuffed animal prizes, and other articles in bins while they ride. Six Flags has removed the bins at many of its most popular coasters and is requiring guests, before they even get into line, to stow loose items in lockers located at the ride--for a fee. That plush animal you won at a Six Flags game booth will cost you an additional $1 locker charge each time you board a coaster, since the lockers at the head of the ride queues expire after a two-hour limit.

The park chain says that the locker policy helps speed up the loading and unloading process and cuts down on property theft. I say that it's mostly a money grab for Six Flags. Guests can make the decision, and assume the responsibility, whether to risk leaving anything valuable in the loading station.

And if Six Flags' policy was focused solely on guests, the parks could offer complimentary lockers (as Universal Orlando does for some of its attractions). Instead it is nickel and dimeing its patrons and sacrificing customer goodwill in the process.

More Z-Tickets: Dueling discounts and other rants!

4. Line Cutting

How many times has this happened to you? You've been standing in the hot sun for a good forty minutes, you're inching along in the line to ride one of your favorite coasters, and a couple of hooligans elbow their way past you toward the front of the queue. That's not the park's fault you say? I say you haven't carefully read your copy of the Z-Ticket infractions. There on page 23, Code 48, Subsection R, it plainly states: Parks must provide adequate security to properly monitor lines and eject line-cutting perpetrators. If a park is firm and fair, patrons will, um, tow the line.

5. Dueling Discounts

There you are at the amusement park's ticket window. The person in front of you brought five specially marked soda cans and saved $25 in admission fees. The person next to you has a visitor's bureau fun book coupon and shaved $38 off of his tab. And some guy walking toward the turnstiles avoided the ticket line altogether; he saved $45 by going online and brought his home-printed tickets to the park.

But you, you poor schlemiel, seem to be the only person paying the posted admission fee. Sure, parks need to advertise and entice guests to visit their parks, but a dizzying array of discounts can alienate the have-nots. It seems to me a one-price policy makes a lot more sense. Since that probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon, we need to be savvy consumers and stay on top of park promotions.

6. Front-gate Slowdowns

You've driven two hours to get to the park, you've shelled out your hard-earned dough for the admission fees, you know you have a day of waiting in lines to get on the rides ahead of you. Why, then, are you waiting in an interminable line just to get into the park? We all understand the need for greater security these days. But parks often have a handful of harried ticket-takers and bag-checkers at the most popular arrival times, while employees inside the park twiddle their thumbs. Wouldn't it make more sense to cross-train employees, redirect them to the front gate, move guests into the park quickly, then move the employees to posts inside the park after the rush is over? I think so.

7. Drinks

As with no-food policies, many parks prohibit guests from bringing cans or bottles into parks. Then they offer a few low-flow, warm, grungy, foul-tasting water coolers...or bottles of water at $3.00 (gulp!) a pop. When did we as a society decide it was OK to pay for water? Rest assured, as long as we're willing to pay for it, parks will be only too happy to charge us for it. If parks allow it, tote your own water into the park.

8. Lazy Ride Ops

Lines are the bane of theme park fans. But we know that the hours we spend in lines are the price we must pay for the minutes we spend aboard rides; we accept our lot in life. What we don't accept are ineffective ride operators that unnecessarily slow lines down. Roller coasters -- or any popular rides -- should never leave the station with empty seats. Do you hear that, Marineland of Niagara Falls?

Good ride ops seek out single riders and fill every seat every time. They also quickly and efficiently move guests onto and off rides, check safety restraints, and keep lines flowing. A ride comes from a manufacturer with a theoretical throughput number--the volume of guests that the ride can accommodate at peak efficiency. It's up to the ride ops to provide the peak efficiency.

9. Crowd Control

We know that lines are part of the park experience (see above). But there is a limit to our patience. Sometimes parks allow far too many patrons into their gates and every ride, food stand, and bathroom becomes an intolerable crush of people. At some point, it ceases being fun (and may become unsafe as well). While I don't begrudge any park from making money, particularly considering the relatively short peak season, it seems to me they should set a limit for the number of guests they allow inside their gates.

Of course, this will make the people shut out quite upset, but there has to be a trade off. And when parks anticipate huge visitor counts, they should do everything they can to increase the number of employees, open all of the rides, and keep things moving as efficiently and equitably as possible.

10. The Weather

OK, this is one area that parks can't control. But doesn't it stink when a day of rain ruins a long-anticipated visit to a park? That may be part of the reason for the incredible success of indoor water parks. They're weatherproof.