SANDUSKY, Ohio – Long, dreary and crowded waits can take the wind out of even the most eager thrill seeker. So to keep guests happy, amusement parks (search) these days are using beepers, special tickets and hand stamps to encourage people to cut the line.
Front of the line privileges for popular rides cost extra at some parks and are free at others. Parks benefit because less time standing means visitors can spend money in shops and restaurants instead.
"No matter where you are people are generally impatient," said Chris Knauf, assistant manager of ride operations at Cedar Point amusement park, which gives out hand stamps that allow visitors to skip ahead later.
The trend began five years ago with the FastPass reservation system (search) at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom (search), and has trickled down to regional theme parks. Long waits had topped the list of complaints, said parks spokesman Dave Herbst.
So the park came up with a solution. Visitors can avoid standing in packed queues for the top 26 attractions, including The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Space Mountain.
Guest surveys show that those who use FastPass, which tells guests when to show up for the ride, have a better experience and are able to see 25 percent more attractions and shows.
"We're hitting at the one thing they dislike," said Todd Evans, manager for attractions at the Florida parks.
While the Disney system is free, Six Flags parks charge a fee for getting to the front.
Six Flags, with 28 theme and water parks nationwide, sells front of the line tickets at most of its parks. Five parks rent an electronic device that works like a pager.
The costs vary at each park. At Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags Over Georgia it costs $10 to rent the device and another $10 for each person using it.
Guests insert the palm-sized device at a sign near the ride and reserve their time to come back and get on a roller coaster with little or no wait. The device, called a Q-Bot, vibrates and beeps when it's time to ride.
The system was developed by an English company, Lo-Q, and is used at Six Flags parks in New Jersey, Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and Georgia.
Leah Moss, director of Lo-Q's U.S. operation near Atlanta, said more people would visit amusement parks if they knew they could avoid waits.
"We're looking at people who work really long hours and don't have much leisure time," she said. "People have more money than time these days."
Not everyone thinks it's fair for some guests to buy their way to the front.
Sean Flaharty, a roller coaster enthusiast from Columbus, said the system can produce longer lines. Some parks reserve coaster seats for people who have front of the line passes, and those seats sometimes go unfilled.
"I can see why people get angry because that makes the line actually go slower," said Flaharty.
To make sure there aren't problems, some Six Flags parks have put employees in the lines to explain how Q-Bot works.
"The program is fair because people are still waiting for rides," said Kristin Siebeneicher, a spokeswoman for Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. "They just can do other things while they wait."
The park typically rents 250 of the devices on an average day.
Amusement park operators say the front of the line systems are popular. At Disney, at least half of all visitors use FastPass on a typical day. The number of Q-Bot users at Six Flags doubled last year to about 750,000.
Cedar Point has a more low-tech solution to long waits. Its hand stamps allows guests to bypass the lines on six of the park's 16 roller coasters.
The stamps are free and available to anyone willing to wait from a few minutes to a half-hour. Lines start forming early, and a day's supply of stamps for the two top coasters can be gone in half an hour.
Greg McNeely, of Lafayette, Ind., who was waiting to get a hand stamp at Cedar Point, said his family can't wait in long lines because their son has diabetes and needs regular snacks and two insulin shots each day.
"This allows us to plan our day and make sure he has everything he needs," McNeely said.