Usability for Evil: Six Flags Online Meal Deals

REPOSTING an old post, one of my most popular:

One of my new favorite sites is Usability for Evil, which shows examples of web sites that benefits the companies behind the sites far more than the users of said sites. Well, I had a personal experience with such a site this week and I gotta share it with you…

The site is the one for Six Flags Theme Parks, which I went to so I could pre-order tickets for my family to go the local Atlanta park. At the site they also sell meal and snack vouchers, and if you go here you can see quite a lot of really helpful information that tells you that you can “save time and money” by prepaying for your food. It also implies, by the verbiage and repeated use of the words “online meal deal,” that you won’t be able to get these “deals” at the parks.

My wife suggested I buy some vouchers ahead of time (she, like I, assumed they would save us “time and money”). So I did, one voucher for three refillable drink cups, three vouchers for refillable cotton candy (or popcorn) buckets, and two for funnel cakes.

The vouchers used the same web-based software that the tickets used, and it took several minutes to print them all – one voucher per sheet. “Save time and money?” I guess that didn’t include the cost of the ink I used to print them.

We arrived and I quickly discovered something that started my day of “fun” off on the wrong foot. The price of the items I pre-purchased were EXACTLY THE SAME at the parks. So much for “saving money.” So much for not being intentionally misled. How about time? Surely I’d save that, right?

The first vendor I went to with my voucher for the drink cups said that I couldn’t use that at his station (even though his food booth had a sticker saying that it did). I’d have to go to a nearby restaurant, because that particular voucher could only be used at one of the restaurants (and this was on the voucher – in small type).

So, I went to the restaurant, got the cups, and then later I tried to get the cotton candy buckets.

“Oh, I don’t have any cotton candy buckets. Only popcorn.”

I saw over her shoulder, hanging on the wall, bags of bucket-sized cotton candy. Next to popcorn buckets.

“Can’t you just empty one of the popcorn buckets and put cotton candy in it?”

“Oh, I can’t do that.”


After the third vendor that either A) would not take my vouchers or B) did not know HOW to take my vouchers or C) did not sell the food I was trying to by, I realized the error of my ways.
I had exchanged real currency for fake currency, buying color printouts that were only good at certain places in a theme park. As opposed to the elegant and simple way the Disney Dining Plan works (it’s on your hotel key, and uses a simple point system), the process of exchanging these vouchers was a byzantine nightmare that was certainly not “fun.”

They made buying food an exercise in bureaucracy.

When all was said and done, I was finally able to “claim” all the food I had pre-purchased, but my mood was darkened by a cloud of frustration and anger at incompetent service. How many times have people like me been “suckered” into buying these meal vouchers and then “give up”, never getting the food they pre-paid for? When will my next trip to Six Flags be? Oh, how about never?

(I’ve found in my research over the years that positive experiences are quickly forgotten, and negative experiences linger – like this one).

In closing, instead of taking this as a warning to not buy Six Flags food vouchers, take this lesson to heart if you are a user experience professional. Designing an affective web form or site for a company is not enough if the total user experience the company provides… well, stinks. Instead of enjoying my day, I played “claim your food” and the experience was a pretty terrible one. This is one of the reasons I go back to Disney time and again – I almost never have a bad experience at one of their parks like I did in this example and their staff (gasp!) actually know what they are doing.

Six Flags, good luck. You’ll need it.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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