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Six Flags at Half-Staff

Summer vacations are weird, aren't they? You look forward to them during the planning period. You whine when things don't go quite right while you're on them. Then selective amnesia kicks in and you smile back kindly when snapshots bring out the merriest of memories.

Maybe that's why it's probably best to take a break here, at the midway point of my two-week trek, and assess the damage. After taking in Legoland, Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Disneyland and California Adventure and Cedar Fair's (NYSE: FUN  ) Knott's Berry Farm, I was ready for meatier thrills.

So yesterday I went out to Magic Mountain, the coaster-prolific West Coast park in the Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) family. Thankfully, I didn't run into the creepy dancing bus driver from the operator's latest ad campaign.

The park drew 3 million guests through the turnstiles last year, so I certainly didn't expect to have the park to myself. But I didn't expect crowds of Disneyland proportions -- seeing as the Disney property draws four times as many guests over the course of the year.

As fate would have it, the crowds were there, even on a weekday. At least it seemed that way. While I figured we would all be making a beeline to the park's most intense coaster, X, the queues were building everywhere.

Here is where the chain fails. Magic Mountain offers a FastLane option. For $17 you can get four passes to bypass the bulk of the lines and join certain attractions in their loading stations. I'm on vacation. I was willing to make that investment. But as a system, it's a dud. In other parks, Six Flags incorporates a Q-Bot line reservation system. But creating a premium-priced boarding hierarchy service accomplished little. It infuriates the masses. It also keeps them in lines.

Disney and General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) Universal Studios park offer free queue reservation systems because they realize that folks who aren't waiting in line have a good chance of spending money on food, drinks, and merchandise. More importantly, they don't tire as easily, so they can enjoy the park longer and walk away with a more favorable experience.

Five years ago, Six Flags shares peaked at $40. While critics like to fault the company's bloated debt levels for its present malaise, the bigger concern is the lost opportunities. This was supposed to be the year that the company saved some coin by holding back on new ride introductions while turning its attention to improving the customer experience. The "It's Playtime" ad campaign was all about that. Unfortunately, Six Flags is still playing games by holding back on the introduction of a free queue reservation system like its more popular rivals.

Summer's here; have you checked out our Travel Center yet? Will you be hitting an amusement park this season, or are state parks more your style? Where are the best coasters in the country? Is X the best? All this and more -- in the Rollercoaster Loving Fools discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz still expects to ride his 100th coaster before he heads back home. He owns shares of Disney as well as units in Cedar Fair.


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Rick Munarriz
TMFBreakerRick

Rick has been writing for Motley Fool since 1995 where he's a Consumer and Tech Stocks Specialist. Yes, that's a long time. He's been an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and a portfolio lead analyst for Motley Fool Supernova since each newsletter service's inception. He earned his BBA and MBA from the University of Miami, and he now lives a block from his alma mater.

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