Fast Lane Plus

My son Oliver is 10, so he likes roller coasters. I mean, he likes them a lot. He watches YouTube videos about them. He has books about them. Want to know about the world’s tallest, fastest, longest, or steepest steel coasters? He can name them, tell you where they are, and probably even tell you when they were built. He proudly calls himself a “coasterologist.”

This summer, I promised him a trip to Cedar Point, a world-class amusement park about four hours away, on Lake Erie roughly halfway between Cleveland and Toledo. He was so excited he could barely talk for most of the drive, and when we finally saw the park all lit up, I thought I might have to call 911.

Cedar Point is a great park, with great coasters. (Next year, they’ll have more than any other park in the world, and they currently boast the world’s top-rated ride, the Millennium Force.) But they use a couple of pricing twists to wring more revenue out of visitors, and those are worth writing about here.

General admission is $50 a head. That gets you access to the park, access to the coasters, and access to all the lines you could ever want to stand in. Seriously, they ran up to two hours the day we were there. You can spend all day at the park and only ride a handful of rides. And up until a couple of years ago, it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

But never fear, coaster fans… the power of the market is here! Cedar Point, like many other parks, offers what they call a “Fast Lane” pass. For just $99 extra per person, you get a Fast Lane wristband that lets you take a special Fast Lane path to the head of the line. You won’t just waltz up to the front instantaneously – the Fast Lane lines can still run up to 45 minutes! But while the Fast Lane doesn’t eliminate waiting in line, it does let you enjoy a lot more rides for the time you do spend standing.

So, like a good planner, I ordered the Fast Lane pass and picked it up on the way in the park. We started off with the Raptor, then hit the GateKeeper (which turned out to be more of a vomit comet than I expected), and eventually worked our way back to the Maverick, one of Oliver’s top choices. Naturally, the Maverick’s line extended over the hill and out of sight. But never fear, we had the Fast Lane pass, right? Well, that’s when we discovered we would have to wait in line with the peasants anyway because we didn’t have the Fast Lane PLUS pass. Yeah, it turns out the top four rides are too valuable to waste on regular Fast Lane customers.

I had a difficult conversation with Oliver when I told him we might have to wait the full two hours to ride his absolute “must-ride” coaster, the Top Thrill Dragster. (It’s one of just two “strata” coasters in the world and when it was first built, it was the tallest and fastest coaster in the world. It launches you like a shot to 120 mph in 3.8 seconds, then shoots you 90 degrees straight up for 400 feet, crests at the top, then sends you 90 degrees straight down the other side before braking at the bottom. Total ride time, 17 seconds – and it’s absolutely worth the wait.)

We were quickly informed, though, that it’s easy to upgrade to Fast Lane Plus, as long as you’re willing to shell out another $40 per person. And there was no shortage of places where we could make that trade. So we did, and waited 20 minutes or so for the ride (versus the two hours we would have spent without the upgrade). As I write these words, I’m kicking myself that we didn’t invest another twenty minutes (and 17 seconds) to do it twice.

Here’s the lesson. Amusement parks have traditionally offered bundled “one price for all” admission that gives everyone the same access to the park. But Cedar Point and other park operators have figured out a way to unbundle admission, keep it lower for the masses, and generate more revenue from more affluent patrons who are willing to pay for the upgrade. And it doesn’t really cost the park operator anything!

I expect the net result is more admission revenue, plus more people in the park to take advantage of overpriced meals, tshirts, and other opportunities. (For lunch, we each had a chicken finger combo and soda, and paid $32 for the privilege.)

Amusement parks aren’t the only industry to unbundle for greater revenue. I hesitate to use this example, because they’ve been so ham-fisted about it, but airlines have taken amenities you used to take for granted, like checked bags, peanuts, and overhead bin space, and begun charging separately for them. You can still travel with the same amenities without playing that game, by flying Southwest (where bags fly free) or traveling with an airline credit card, or simply doing without. (Checking bags is an amateur move, anyway.) But even as passengers grumble, airline profits have never been higher. (The lesson here: consider unbundling, but don’t be obnoxious about it!)

What sort of amenities can you pull apart in your prices? What sort of “fast lane” can you give to clients who are willing to pay for access? Well, on yesterday’s Member Call-In, we talked about how members are handling last-minute filers who are still procrastinating before the October 15 deadline. One member mentioned she charges a $249 “late-filing” fee. Perhaps you can warn clients of your own late-filing fee, then waive it for your fast lane folks? Perhaps you can promise literally faster service with quicker turnaround? Perhaps you can reserve your best time slots for fast lane clients?

Think about this before you get ready to send out your 2016 organizers and engagement letters. Let us know what you come up with and share your successes!