In a previous article, I wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition to automated and self-service economies for all industries. However, one transition that was already well underway prior to the coronavirus crisis was the shift to reservation queuing systems in the hospitality market. And nowhere is this more evident than in theme parks.
Reservation queuing is not a new concept. I worked for the Walt Disney World Resort about 15 years ago, and the Disney “FastPass” system was already in operation at that time. However, the system’s technology left much to be desired.
Problems with the FastPass Machines
Under the old FastPass model, guests could make a FastPass reservation by going to the entrance of the ride or attraction that they wanted to schedule. There, they would find machines that looked like ATMs. They would insert their theme park ticket cards, and out would pop paper tickets for a time to board the ride later in the day.
There was no option for the guests to choose the time. The FastPass machines simply spit out a ticket for the next available time slot, based on the set number of available reservations per five-minute window throughout the day.
The machines were also notorious for mechanical problems. They would eat park tickets, suffer paper jams and just flat-out stop working. I know this because one of my various assignments as a theme park “cast member” was to attend to these machines. I spent countless hours fixing them and helping guests with ticketing problems.
Disney Now Uses a Better Reservation Queuing System
Those days are fortunately a nightmare of the past. Since then, Disney has revolutionized its reservation queuing system with “FastPass+.” The new system works via a downloaded Disney smartphone app, which no longer requires guests to actually visit the attraction ahead of time, nor does it necessitate the use of clunky and unreliable ticket dispensing machines.
Rather, guests use the app on their phone to choose a FastPass+ time slot reservation. With this new technology, guests can choose among all the available times in a given day, rather than being forced to take a predetermined window of time.
There is no physical paper FastPass+ ticket either. Guests use their phone or their Disney theme park wristband equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to “check in” for their reservation when they arrive at the attraction later in the day.
The advantages of the new FastPass+ system for guests are obvious. No one likes to wait in line. To be fair, Disney and other theme park operators go to great time and expense to make their physical queue spaces visually interesting and entertaining.
But guest boredom and annoyance can only be avoided for so long. No matter how thoughtfully designed a queue is, eventually guests will get tired of waiting, especially when standby (i.e. normal) queueing times reach hours in duration, which is not at all uncommon for today’s most popular rides and attractions.
Guests also look at queuing time as a loss of value. They pay good money — in the case of Walt Disney World, nearly $100 — for a ticket that is good for just one day. And every minute they spend standing in line is a minute they aren’t enjoying the other attractions and amenities of the park.
So reservation queuing systems are a big plus in any form. They were still advantageous even when they were clunky and unreliable, and they’re even better today. They allow guests to maximize the value of their theme park experiences and avoid the torture of standing in line — often with anxious children in tow who have even less patience.
Other Advantages of Queuing Systems for Park Operators
But the benefits to park operators are a bit more subtle. Sure, there’s the obvious benefit that, if reservation queuing makes guests happier, they will leave the park more satisfied. And consequently, they might be more likely to visit again and tell their friends and family to do the same.
But there are at least two other less obvious — but no less important — advantages to reservation queuing for park operators. The first is labor savings. Even with the old and clunky FastPass of yesteryear, having a reservation queuing system meant that we park employees could meter a significant portion of our attraction attendance. By allowing us to project and control the volume of FastPass guests throughout the day, we were able to better plan and organize our work for optimal efficiency.
Theme park attractions typically operate around a metric called operational hourly ride capacity (OHRC), which is the measure of how many guests the attraction can handle in a given hour. Obviously, more is better when you can reduce wait times and increase guest satisfaction. The target was always to maximize OHRC however we could without sacrificing the quality of the guest’s experience.
When everyone uses the non-reservation standby lines, hourly attendance is hard to predict. But when people reserve time slots, we can gauge volume in advance based on demand for reservations. This allows us to better plan our work to manage the attraction.
Labor Savings Have Gotten Even Better with FastPass+
Labor savings have gotten even better with FastPass+. With the old and clunky system, some labor efficiency was lost with the addition of cast members (like me) who had to stand around the ticket machines all day and troubleshoot their chronic technical issues.
But with today’s advanced smartphone app system, those machines — and the cast members who were needed to support them — are completely gone. So Disney has vastly improved the guest experience, and they’ve done it with fewer labor dollars.
Better Reservation Queuing Also Improves Ancillary Spending
The other less obvious advantage to reservation queuing is what the industry refers to as “ancillary spends.” These are the things that guests pay for after they buy their ticket (the “gate”) to get in the door.
Why is this important for reservation queuing? Because when guests aren’t forced to wait on long lines for an attraction, they have free time in the park. And what do they often do? They buy things.
Food, beverage, souvenirs and other ancillary items all contribute to increased sales volume when guests have more free time to shop. So all things being equal, parks actually prefer that guests spend as little time as possible in line waiting for their rides and attractions.
Park operators know that when guests stand in line, they’re not purchasing anything. But if they’re liberated from that line, there is at least the possibility that guests will use their free time to increase ancillary spending.
For all these reasons, reservation queueing systems are very likely here to stay. They are a win-win for both guests and parks. As such we can expect that operators like Disney and others will expand them to the fullest extent for use by their guests.