Friday, April 17, 2009

How to Avoid being Gouged at Six Flags

There are some awesome things about Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (formerly Six Flags Marine World, formerly Marine World Africa USA). The thrill rides are the main draw for me, but the animal shows and exhibits never fail to entertain customers of all demographics, and the butterfly building in particular is fantastic. What isn't so fantastic is being gouged, and detailed below are examples the worst of the extortionary practices you are likely to encounter and how to get around them.





Parking
The gouging starts before you even get out of the car, with a minimum charge of $15 for the privilege of parking in the dazzling Six Flags parking lot. There is no security guard on duty to make up for this outrageous fee, and even after you have gathered the courage to leave your vehicle to the mercy of who-knows-who, you still have to walk about three quarters of a mile to get to the ticket counter—that is, unless you are willing to pay $25 for "preferred parking." That's right, there is a separate lot just for those who are wealthy enough to pay more than half of the general admission price to park closer to the entrance. I went to the park in Spring 2009, and both lots were at about 10% capacity. Every visitor to Discovery Kingdom that day could easily have parked in the "preferred" lot and saved themselves the long, foot-aching walk back to the car at the end of the day. But common sense convenience is not the goal at Six Flags: it's money, money, money—yours.



How to avoid being gouged for parking:

The Solano County Fairgrounds is right next door, and has a large parking lot. They will allow you to park there if they are having an event of some kind. During these times, there is a parking attendant on the grounds, and parking fees vary with the events featured, and are usually around $5.00. Not only is the price reasonable, but the walk to the entrance gate is shorter than from the general Six Flags lot. Go to the Solano County Fairgrounds calendar to find out if they are going to have an event on the day that you intend to visit Discovery Kingdom.

When there are no events at the Fairgrounds, their empty parking lot does look inviting, but if the police drive by, you can be ticketed with a fine greater even than the Six Flags’ preferred parking fee. The Marriott hotel nearby also (what a coincidence!) charges $15 for parking, so don’t bother trying them.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom will try to sell you on their $45 parking pass—that’s separate, by the way, from their $50 season pass—and you have to decide whether it makes sense for you. Although it's possible, it's not a sure thing to purchase the parking pass expecting to lend it to a friend or coworker, because a black-and-white photo of your face is printed on the pass, and even if your friend resembles you, they can ask for ID. Your best bet is to plan to visit the park on a day when the Solano County Fairgrounds features an event for which they charge low-cost parking.

Lockers
Banks and banks of sparkling blue lockers have popped up at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, and the park motto seems to be “Now that we’ve built them, you will use them—whether you like it or not.”



The strategy they use here is to prohibit riders from leaving their purses, handbags, back-packs, etc. near the roller coaster exit where you would normally pick them up after your two-minute ride. This was never a problem in past years, but now it seems that Six Flags staff has suddenly seen the light as to just how dangerous your pink plastic Hello Kitty pouch can be, and they will make you leave your place in line if you bring it with you.

That pouch—and anything in it that might entertain or hydrate you while you stand in an hour-long line—belongs in one of those pretty metal lockers, sayeth Six Flags. There is speculation that the lockers stand to generate even greater revenue through advertising than the per-use fee foisted on guests: several coaster enthusiasts have noted that the bag prohibition is only in effect on rides that have the new Six Flags TV systems installed, allowing Six Flags to pitch to sponsors that that riders will be so bored standing in line without any personal belongings that they'll have nothing better to do than gaze mindlessly at the commercials flickering overhead. These theories and the press releases that back them up go beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that each time you open that locker, it costs you $1.00. If you need to pop open your bag to grab some sunscreen or a drink of water, that’ll be $1.00. Left your camera in there? $1.00, please. When you want to take your bag to the other side of the park to go on a different ride, the lockers in that area will cost you $1.00, too. In short, the wizards at Six Flags’ social engineering department have found a way to charge you to go on their free rides.

How to avoid being gouged for lockers:

The trick here is to prepare. Instead of bringing bags, remind everybody in your party to dress in clothing with zippered pockets. Sweatshirts, vests, cargo pants, anything with a pocket that can be sealed will help you on your journey through the Land of Rip-Offs. If your friends don’t have zippered clothing, send them to a thrift store. A $2.00 sweatshirt is cheaper than five $1.00 locker changes. Once you have done this, just bring all your stuff with you on the roller coasters. Your possessions won’t know they’re spiraling in free fall, and you’ll feel better knowing you have dodged yet another shakedown.



Drinks

Beverages at Discovery Kingdom are $4.00. Root beer, cola, water, you name it, it's $4.00. Some special drinks, such as frozen lemonade or milkshakes, can be more expensive, but you can generally plan on being charged a minimum of four smackers if you want to stave off dehydration. And don’t waste your energy trying to charm a child-sized cup of water out of the beverage stands—everything costs money. Try as you might to avoid succumbing to thirst, you will probably give in at some point. Despair not!

How to avoid being gouged for drinks:

There are secret water fountains located throughout the park.





Does this area look like it's worth exploring to you?Lo, hidden fountain awaits 'round the forbidden bend.


Countless reviewers of Six Flags complain of being manhandled into purchasing expensive drinks because they could not find the public fountains. This is because park designers have done such a good job of concealing them. You cannot see them from the main path because vending machines, recycle bins, shrubbery, and oddly-placed walls conspire to block these oases from view.

Do you see a fountain here?It lurks behind the foliage.

There is also an unwritten rule at Six Flags that each fountain must be chaperoned by one, preferably two, hulking vending machines to ensure that the free water doesn't get too friendly with the public.

But the fountains are there, and I will tell you how to find them.

Look for a bathroom. It's that simple. Discovery Kingdom has 10 restrooms. One of them is located outside the entrance gates, and one is located within the Information Services building. The other 8 all have clandestine drinking fountains hidden within their walls.

Now, here's the hard part: the water tastes terrible. It tastes like the tepid stuff that comes out of the rusty pipes of the ancient drinking fountains of the oldest buildings of the lowest-funded public elementary schools. Ever.

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this.
1) Bring an empty water bottle with a filter built into the cap. These are about $9.00 on Amazon. That’s expensive, so you have to weigh that option against the how often you expect to be in large public arenas like amusement parks where such a bottle may come in handy.
2) Go to a concession stand and ask for a cup of ice. Some staff will give this to you, and some will refuse—just keep trying until you succeed. The ice will mask the terrible taste. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is the most cost-effective one.
3) Break down and buy one of those souvenir plastic sports bottles that come with free and reduced-cost refills. These electric-orange behemoths will set you back $13.00, but if you are with a large group or if you plan to visit the park numerous times in a season, you can end up saving money. Refills will be free on the day that you purchase the cup, and $.99 on any other day. To make the most of this option, you should plan ahead—have each person in your group bring an empty sippy cup, and distribute the soda among them each time you get your souvenir cup refilled. It holds 28 oz. of fluid, so you can fill 7 child-size cups or nearly 4 adult-size cups each time. This latter option is what I call “gouge-softening.”

Another interesting fact about the souvenir cups is that Six Flags will refill cups from past seasons using the same pricing structure (99¢) as the 2009 bottles. Although they do not advertise this, and even lead customers to believe the contrary in an effort to pitch their current wares ("All season long!"), a glance at the beverage conveyance situation in the park will reveal dots of red and blue floating in the sea of orange, all filled to the brim.

Interviews with owners of these cups confirmed that Six Flags has a quiet policy of honoring its previous souvenir bottles. Since this fact is not widely known, you might find the old cups at thrift stores and score one for 50¢.

Also try emailing friends or strangers and asking to borrow their souvenir cups. More on the souvenir bottle at the end of the article.

Food

More than anything else, customers of Six Flags and other amusement parks complain about the cost of food. It wouldn’t be so bad if they let you bring your own food into the park, but that’s against the rules. Consequently, restaurants in the park are free to offer outrageous “deals” of $40.00 for a family-pack lunch (drinks not included). And none of these “restaurants” offers tables indoors to allow tired customers to sit down.

Incidentally, good luck trying to find any wholesome foods. Discovery Kingdom’s informational map boasts that the park offers “a variety of healthy meal options,” but goes on to state that their idea of health food is a chicken sandwich and a vitamin water. Brand-name establishments like Panda Express and Subway are located within the confines of Six Flags, but they do not feel obliged to offer pricing or selections commensurate with their free market counterparts—you can pay four times as much as you would spend on the outside.

Here are some sample prices for eats.

Cheese Burger: $10.99
Ice Cream (1 scoop): $6.39
Chicken Strips: $9.99
Churro: $3.25
Dippin Dots (small): $4.99
Onion Rings: $6.99
Corn on the Cob: $3.69
Fries: $5.00
Milk Shake: $5.99

The bottom line is that if you follow the rules, you will end up either starving or penniless.

How to avoid being gouged for food:
Do not follow the rules. Into your zippered pockets should go all the victuals you can carry. Homemade sandwiches are what most people think of when they contemplate this bootleg bounty, but you don’t have to limit yourself to PB&J. Think pasta salad in a flat container. Fig Newtons and Pop-Tarts are both flat enough not to create suspicious bulges. Granola bars pack a great deal of nutritional punch for their size; candy bars are an excellent alternative to the $4.00 cotton candy and $10 funnel cake that is sold throughout the park.

It is technically possible for a foot-long sandwich to fit in the zippered compartment of a sweatshirt whose storage pocket spans the left, right, and vest-area of the sweatshirt, though you will probably be more comfortable if you divide it into more manageable pieces.

Do not hide food in a carry-bag (if you bring one at all), as these are given special attention under the guise of a security check. (I suspect that staff find and confiscate far more edible than lethal contraband, but to my knowledge this data is not released.) Some candy bars, chip bags, granola bars, etc. have a thin aluminum coating in their wrappers, which could set off metal detectors in large quantities. A handheld metal detector can run directly over a single metalic wrapper without detection, but if you're really packing it big time, remove these items from their original wrappers and repackage them in plastic baggies.

(And if snack-smuggling sounds too much like stealing to you, then hearing Six Flags' CEO, Mark Shapiro, repeatedly refer to park guests as a "captive audience" might change your mind about who the real thugs are.)

Rides & Attractions

You will be charged extra to go on certain rides or participate in certain activities. Not only are customers not informed of this ahead of time, but prices are not posted on the Six Flags website or anywhere outside the entrance gates.

-Prices as of Spring 2009-
Rock Climbing: $10 per person
Go-Karts: $10 per driver, $3 per passenger
Riding an Elephant: $10 for adults, $7 for children
Sky Coaster: $35 for one person, $50 for two, $60 for three
Feeding sting rays: $1.00
Feeding sea lions: $5.00
Feeding birds: $5.00

The above list is not inclusive, but should give you an idea of what you are up against.

How to avoid being gouged for attractions:
There’s no magic trick here. Talk with your kids/friends about the prices before you go to the park, and decide in advance either to avoid these attractions, enjoy them vicariously (Do you have to be the one dropping the fishes into the seal tank?), or to select just one ride and save up for it in advance.



Most complaints that I have read surround the paid Go-Karts ride, where excited kids get their parents’ consent before the family gets close enough to read the pricing signs, and then Mom & Dad are hustled into forking over the cash rather than breaking their word. (One wonders why Six Flags feels the need to charge their customers at all when the entire Go-Kart experience seems to have a dedicated sponsor: each pint-sized roadster is plastered with a large bumper sticker that declares on behalf of pre-pubescent motorists, "My other car is insured by Geico.")

If someone in your party owns a season pass, there are two-for-one deals in the coupon book for the Go-Karts and the Sky Coaster, but overall, the strength to avoid the gouging in cases like these lies within you and your ability to “just say no.”


Gift Shops
The interesting thing about the gift shops at Discovery Kingdom is that their prices aren't actually that bad. Compared to what you're expected to pay around the rest of the park, $3.00 for a sparkly butterfly wand or $1.00 for a season pass lanyard is almost reasonable. But woe to you if you seek things like Advil or antacids or sunblock, because there you'll be paying $5.00-$10.00 for the skimpiest of quantities. The reason, of course, is that those products are meant to fill actual needs, and without the restraints of competition, the Invisible Hand is free to punch you in the gut.



How to avoid being gouged by the gift shops:

The solution is to remember to pack these things before you ever leave the house. Another tip for season 2009 concerns the bright red and pink superhero capes on display all over the park. They're flapping underfoot everywhere you turn and the kids do look adorable in them, but if your household has a cape leftover from an old Halloween costume, you should tote it along in your purse to head off the begging and save yourself the $6.00 charge.

Other ways to avoid being gouged:
1) Make a fake parking pass. It's dangerous and you could have your season pass revoked if you get caught, but the parking fees are so unreasonable that it can be worth it depending on the frequency of your visits.

2) Construct a fake wristband: On the day you buy an orange souvenir cup, you are issued a colored wristband. That’s how retail stations know to give you a free refill instead of charging you 99¢. The wristbands are made of Tyvek, a lightweight, waterproof, and impressively strong material…which happens to bear a striking resemblance to paper.

You can scan your wristband from your initial purchase, or if you have already tossed it, you can find a printable image of the 2009 wristband design on torrent sites. Print it onto different colored sheets of construction paper and cut them to size. Bring all the colored bands into the park and wait until you see guests with genuine wristbands to determine the correct color. Then don your matching faux bracelet and enjoy the free drinks.

To put this heinous act of forgery into perspective, consider the following. You can get a 2-Liter bottle of soda at any grocery store in the United States for a buck. That souvenir cup cost you $13.00, with which you could have bought 26 liters of soda had Discovery Kingdom not banned outside drinks. This same amount of fluid works out to 52 beverages as they would be sold in half-liter cups at the park, for which Six Flags every day charges guests a total of $208.00, a staggering 1500% markup over retail value. Using your souvenir cup, you are charged 99¢ for 0.85 liters of soda, meaning that your “discount” is actually a markup of 135% over retail. In order to recoup your $13.00 investment, you would have to get your cup refilled—for free—about 29 times. If you didn't do that on the day of purchase, it's hard to feel too guilty about such a useful hack.

3) Make a fake season pass. I'll leave this to you, with the sole advice that the scanning device that staff use upon entry is simplistic and merely verifies that the barcode on your pass is valid. There is no system in place that checks the original photo-ID against what is displayed on the card, and staff at the entrance often just want to keep the line moving.

4) Pack the items on the following checklist.
  • Sunblock
  • Glass case (for roller coasters)
  • Sunglasses
  • Aspirin
  • Antacids
  • Dramamine
  • Earplugs (for carnival-style rides with blaring music)
  • Comfy shoes
  • Food
  • Camera
  • Souvenir bottle/ filtered water bottle
  • Coupon booklet
  • Season pass
  • Parking pass
  • Cup with lid for everyone in your party

Enjoy your visit to the park, and have a gouge-free day!


Reviews and Tips from Other Visitors around the Country

What a "Six Flags Day" Means to Me by Paul Reinheimer, 2009, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey
How to Get A Free Roller Coaster Photo at Six Flags by Money Blue Book, 2008, various Six Flags Locations
Six Flags Great Adventure by Jeff, 2008, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey
Six Flags Requires You to Check All Bags for $1 per Ride article about new locker policy by Meg Marco, 2008, location not stated
Even Lefties Like Roller Coasters, But This is Ridiculous, 2008, Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey
My Six Flags Experience: A Review, by Adam Rucker, 2008, Six Flags Over Texas
Letters to Six Flags by concerned engineer Jeff Harp, 2002, multiple Six Flags locations
Dear Six Flags - funny letter by Gene Doucette, 2001, Six Flags New England
Reviews at Yelp.com, dates ongoing, Six Flags Great America in Illinois
Reviews at TripAdvisor.com, dates ongoing, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California

17 comments:

  1. Very well written, informative, intelligent and funny. You go girl! I totally agree!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  5. GREAT POST! So glad I found it as we are headed to Six Flags this Monday. The way they take our money is so crazy and should be a crime!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for this post! I am going to Six Flags tomorrow for the first time in five years, and was dreadfully nervous about what to pack and etc. This was a huge help.

    ReplyDelete
  7. After getting gouged by purchasing the souvenir cup, where can I store it when I go on a ride?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. the one item you are actually allowed to enter the lines with is your souvenir cup. just about every ride has a wooden block on the exit side with numbered holes where you can leave your cup and pick it up on exit.

      Delete
  8. It is funny how some of the posts were removed by the administrator. I guess they didn' agree with some of your points. Honestly, I think when you go to an amusement park you should expect to pay outrageous prices.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. U should not have to expect that you should expect to just have fun anyway, this park could use some fixing up to do!

      Delete
    2. A lot of comments are just spam, not necessarily legitimate.

      Delete
  9. Great info and so grateful for the tips! Feeling good now that I can be fully prepared and not shocked when we go one day this week ;) I'll fork over the now $18 for parking but save by packing all of our own food!! THANKS!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fantastic article. My daughter is going to Six Flags in two days with her youth group and though I don't have to worry about parking, I do have to worry about food. Your ideas will help me a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Absolutely entertaining read. Informative too! Love the "free ride.... $1" and big lol regarding the water quality at the fountains. Nice job!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Waaay late, but I found this article on google. If you ever decide to update it, you can get clearance from guest services to bring food in with you if you have a food allergy or special dietary need (kosher, halal, etc.) Also, if you have an EPI-pen with you you can get a sticker from medical so you can bring it in a bag with you up to a ride that normally needs a locker.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Fantastic post. I was surprised that in the food section, you didn't include "walk to your car and eat lunch from your cooler." That's what we always do.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Another cure for that water fountain taste are those great individual powdered "punch" packets (Crystal Light, Wylies, etc.) I stick 5 or 6 in my cup with the lid and have a bunch of flavors to choose from throughout the day.

    ReplyDelete

Followers