20.7.13

COMPLICATING THE KUHN-TUCKER CONDITIONS.

Megan McArdle goes to the Virginia theme parks and channels her inner Walter Oi.
Being roller-coaster fans with an economic turn of mind, we were very excited to learn that both Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion offered customers the opportunity to jump the queue.
It's the same phenomenon as priority boarding on airlines, or High Occupancy Toll Lanes.  And yes, I've been alluding to a positive theory of the phenomenon for years.  One part of the story introduces a particularly messy complication for the model.
Which is why it’s something of a mystery that they don’t sell more of these passes. There’s a low hard limit on the number of passes they can sell; the clerk at Water Country USA told us that they were only allowed to give out 150 on any given day. That’s smart: It means that you never have a line for the fast pass, and the experience of people who don’t buy the queue-jumpers isn't materially affected. But that’s almost irrelevant, because the clerk also told us that they almost never hit the limit, an opinion that employees at other parks echoed. Either people don’t know about the option, or they aren’t willing to pay extra to avoid standing in line.

I find it hard to believe that the problem is a lack of awareness; all three parks prominently hawked Quick Queue or Fast Lane passes at concession stands.

Perhaps the problem is the price -- though with the bucks people were dropping on concessions, I can’t believe that this is the issue. No, I think the answer is in the hard stares we got as we walked through the fast-pass gate. People just don’t like fast passes. It doesn’t feel right.

It didn’t even feel completely right to me, and I’m pretty close to homo economicus. I could tell myself that we weren’t actually hurting anyone in a meaningful way, and this was true -- because so few queue-jumping passes were issued, the most anyone ever waited because of us was another minute. Arguably, our passes even helped to slightly lower the price of their tickets. But it felt bad to see everyone else patiently standing in line while we stepped onto the roller coaster with no wait. And a lot of the theme park attendants clearly didn’t approve of us.
The price has to stay high in order to elicit favorable self-selection. That's standard, and it goes back to an observation by Walter Bagehot about third-class railway carriages being so miserable as an incentive for the passengers of means to purchase the first-class seats. In the United States, the all-Pullman overnight train or all-parlor day train probably required less desirable timings for the coach trains to provide the same incentive.

What's non-standard is the potential loss of goodwill the amusement park faces from simply offering the priority pricing.
On our last day, at Water Country USA, I understood why. We were heading to Big Daddy Falls, a tube ride. There was no way to walk directly into the Quick Queue lane because a line of a hundred or so people completely filled the entrance. A 15-minute line was hardly a hardship after the ease with which we’d breezed onto the other rides, so we waited patiently with everyone else.

Pretty soon, a woman with three small children came pushing up behind us. “Excuse me … excuse me … we’re just going to the Quick Queue lane.” Why should she wait in line? After all, she’d paid $20 apiece for her passes. Clearly, everyone else should stand aside so that she could get onto the ride slightly more quickly.

The real problem with fast passes isn't that they allow a tiny number of people to jump the queue; it’s that those people start feeling that they should never have to mingle with the people who don’t have the passes. They act like entitled jerks who have the right to shove everyone else out of the way. No wonder the theme park attendants were suspicious of us.

Perhaps the reason they’re so obnoxious -- and hers wasn’t the only family I saw pushing through the line while we waited to get to our entrance -- is that more people are living a fast pass Life. Getting a special queue with special service isn’t a rare treat, something to indulge in on your first vacation in three years. It’s a permanent condition. Jump the security queue at the airport because you’re a frequent flyer. Walk straight into your rental car because you’re a Hertz#1 Club Gold member. Don’t like the kids your children are hanging around with? Push them into an elite program, or buy a house in a more exclusive school district. Join a gated community so the wrong people can’t even walk near you.
It's the tackiness of New Money on display.  Old money used to have its Bar Harbor Express or Cunard's Blue Riband liners for the Grand Tour of Europe.

Complicates the math, though.  Adjusted for ride capacity, are the regular prices charged by amusement parks with the fast pass option lower to compensate for the disutility compared to amusement parks with no such plan?  The regular price also has to be lower to prevent fast-pass types from masquerading as hoi polloi and paying less.

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