Is Six Flags' line-jumping Flash Pass worth the ransom you pay for it?

If you haven't been to a Six Flags lately, you won't know that it, too, has adopted a strategy popular at airlines, hotels, and on cruises. It's charging customers extra for smoother service. The Flash Pass is the chain's for-rent gadget that grants guests the right to leap to the front of the long ride lines.

That's right: Only the little people wait in line anymore. Whether it's United Airlines and the TSA or Six Flags, the wealthy are being teed up to get a clearer swing.

But is it worth the money? And does it work? I went to two of Six Flags' most successful properties -- one in Georgia and one in California -- in a little over a week, to see how it breaks down.

The price of the most basic Flash Pass, a Tomagotchi-like pod that clips onto your belt loop with a mountaineering carabiner, is priced as high, or higher, than admission itself, although the per-person price scales down as you add more people to a unit. The units, which use the brand name "Q-bots" and are made by the British company Lo-Q, allow you select your next ride using a little black-and-white screen. You're given a time to go ride it, but you can only hold one reservation at a time. Every now and then, you receive an ad for park food or a notice about a ride's operations.

The "Regular" Flash Pass version estimates the waiting time for each major ride and "holds" your place in line while you do something else (like ride a different ride). When it's time for you to come back for your ride, the Flash Pass vibrates, like the discs the hostess gives you at The Cheesecake Factory. You return to the ride, duck into a side door, and show your pass to an attendant, and usually, you find yourself immediately in the boarding area, ready to go.

Then there's the "Gold" version, which is the Porsche of line-jumping gadgets. With it, you can do ride after ride, one after the other, without regard to what the true waiting time should be. This has the potential of getting you on and off everything quickly, in the space of a few hours, if you have the stomach for it.

Flash Pass: Six Flags Over Georgia
One-person price: $29 (Regular) or $59 (Gold)
Daily ticket price: $40 adults / $30 kids ($30 for everyone online); season pass $60

You can't get your Flash Pass until you pass through the gate, and Six Flags forces all renters to endure a four-minute-plus video training session about how it works, even if you've used one before. The video, shot at Six Flags Over Georgia and screened at the other parks, is essentially fine print in moving form, and it runs down the basic rules of how to use one. Among the notable warnings is that if you break your pass, you must pay $250 to replace it.

The rental desk also took my I.D., which made buying souvenirs later a little tricky, since Six Flags cashiers now often ask for I.D. when you use a credit card. (I just showed them my Flash Pass and said the company already took my credentials. It worked.)

Even though Six Flags Over Georgia was going to be open for 12 hours on the day I went, I had intended to spend only about six hours there, so my Flash Pass was going to be put to the test. It passed. Of the 15 or so rides that were available on the pass that day, about eight of them had waits that were longer than 15 minutes. So using my Gold pass, I was able to storm through all the ones I wanted to ride within about 3 hours. Often, I spent more time walking between attractions than I did waiting for them.

I spent my remaining time re-riding Goliath (easily the coolest coaster in the park with the most air time) so many times that the staff joked I must have gotten addicted. Each time, while I was preparing to board the train, I'd queue up my next run, and by the time I rode and got off, it would be time to slide in the back door and ride again.

Here's the crap-shoot in using the Flash Pass: Some of the rides didn't have much of a line anyway. I didn't have to use the pass at all for The Great American Scream Machine, even though I could have. But other, wait-intensive rides, such as Goliath, Superman Ultimate Flight, and the newly renovated Monster Mansion, were welcome targets. So it all depends on how busy things are and if you have your eye on the newest, and therefore busiest, rides.

Having the Flash Pass also meant I didn't have to spend as much on the lockers that Six Flags now mandates for its most aggressive rides. The locker bank outside each big ride gives two hours of time for your money, and without the pass, guests will have to keep renting new lockers as they go. Because the pass squashed my waiting times, I could get five or six rides in the same general area out of a single locker rental, saving about $5 in accumulated fees. Not much, but it's still a savings.

Really, the benefit for the pass was in being able to enjoy all the good stuff in the space of a few hours, which I did. I got about 14 rides out of it, or $4.21 per ride on top of my ticket price. I think that given the manageable midweek crowds, I could have also gotten away with a Regular pass, too, but if I had, I probably could only have ridden everything once. The Gold pass let me ride my favorites repeatedly, and without stress.

Verdict: Addictive as Goliath. You don't usually need it, but it's worth the money if you're the type who wants to ride everything at least once. I was back in town in time for a non-fast food dinner.

Flash Pass: Six Flags Magic Mountain

One-person price: $34 (Regular) to $62 (Gold), plus $10 per reservation for X2 and Terminator Salvation (only available with Gold)
Daily ticket price: $54 adults/ $30 kids ($27 for everyone online); season pass $64

A little over a week later, I hit Six Flags Magic Mountain, north of Los Angeles. My plan of attack was exactly the same as it was near Atlanta: See how much I could squeeze in within four or five hours using the Gold pass.

Unfortunately, this time the Flash Pass was a train wreck. When I got through the gates and hit the rental office, I was told the rental systems were down and that there was no guess for when the IT department would have them working again. I endured the orientation video anyway (and noticed this time it contained the invented word "un-accepted" instead of "unacceptable") and waited for another 20 minutes before realizing my time would be better spent waiting in the lines before they grew too long.

Technology issues are bad enough, but there's another, permanent problem with Magic Mountain's version of the Flash Pass: If you want to ride its two most popular rides, X2 and Terminator Salvation, you have to pay another $10 per reservation. Making matters more expensive, to obtain timed reservations at all, Magic Mountain forces customers to rent the $62 Gold pass, not the $34 Regular one. So to ride those two only once each, you'd have to pay $82 in total.

Is that $10 surcharge worth it? X2's usual waiting time in mid-summer is two hours, and Terminator Salvation takes 90 minutes, spent mostly waiting exposed to the brutal desert sun. Without the Gold pass, you could spend a significant chunk of your day -- nearly four hours -- waiting for just those two rides.

But like I said, I couldn't get a pass. So I tried to ride as much as I could in a few hours the old-fashioned way: by waiting with the hoi polloi. And, surprise-- I could. I hit nearly every roller coaster except for the two blockbusters. Many of them, particularly the ones built in the '90s or before, had virtually no wait at all -- not trendy enough for the locals, I guess -- which I was happy with, but which also ended up revealing the Flash Pass as mostly unnecessary at Magic Mountain.

Essentially, it's only of use for getting into the two most crowded rides, and if you look at it that way, it means that riding each one using the Gold Pass would cost you $41 each. Spending $82 for what boils down to markedly quicker access to two rides is not what I call a bargain.

After I had done most of the non-blockbuster roller coasters (Goliath, Scream!, Superman The Escape, Gold Rusher, Colossus, The Riddler's Revenge, and others), I tried to see if I could get onto X2 without a pass. After waiting for a half hour in the heat, it broke down. I waited another half hour, strictly to test my theory, but it was still out of commission, with no end in sight. (Flash Pass reps told me that if that happens while you're holding a paid reservation, you get your $10 back.)

X2 was a bust. If I had justified a Flash Pass rental based on getting into X2 quicker, it would have turned out to be a big waste of my money.

By suffering a computer meltdown, Six Flags Magic Mountain inadvertently forced me to discover that for many guests, buying a Flash Pass there is unnecessary, particularly midweek. You can often ride whatever you want in four or five hours -- I got eight rides in three hours, with plenty of dawdling -- and if you endure the standard wait on X2 and Terminator Salvation (my advice is doing one of them as soon as gates open, when lines are shorter), you're fairly likely to enjoy everything you want in within the standard operating hours, anyway.

Verdict: Magic Mountain has made its Flash Pass virtually useless by charging extra to use it for its two most popular rides. Because generally minor weekday waits essentially boil the product down to a $82 pass for two rides, it's only good (when it works) if you want to be in and out by dinnertime and you insist on riding X2 and/or Terminator Salvation. Otherwise, pass on this pass.

It's worth noting that not every Six Flags double-charges you for reservations on its busiest rides. Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, home of two of the chain's most exciting roller coasters (Kingda Ka and El Toro), includes both on the Flash Pass ($35 Regular, $80 Gold), without surcharges.

A few other Six Flags parks impose other rules on their passes, although none are as harsh as the ones at Magic Mountain. Kentucky Kingdom only lets you use a Flash Pass five times among eight rides, but then again, it only costs $10. And Six Flags Great Escape in Lake George, NY, doesn't charge extra for its most popular ride, Sasquatch, but it does restrict its access to the more expensive Gold pass.

I should also point out that both parks were in surprisingly good condition considering they're operating in bankruptcy. They were clean, rides were working well (with the exception of X2, which is admittedly a very complicated machine), and the clientele was well-behaved. So those rumors about Six Flags crumbling into disarray are just that.

And the Flash Pass? My suggestion: Only when things are very crowded, if you don't have much time, or if you want to hit the most popular rides repeatedly. Otherwise, you may not need one.
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