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Vote of the Week: Should theme parks make certain attractions available by reservation only?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 25, 2014 at 9:02 AM

When you're spending big money for a day at a theme park — nearly $100 for a single day at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, for example — do you really want to spend a third of your day, or more, waiting in line for a single attraction?

What if that attraction was the one thing your child most wanted to do on your annual vacation?

Princess Fairytale Hall at the Magic Kingdom
"Are you SURE you really want to wait to see Anna and Elsa, honey?"

Still, we're willing to bet that most people would want to find a way out of waiting in that queue. That's why so many parks have created ride reservation or queue skipping systems. Whether they are free (such as Disney's Fastpass+), an add-on benefit to a hotel reservation (such as Universal Express Unlimited) or a straight upcharge (such as SeaWorld's QuickQueue), these systems allow a way out of those hours-long queues. And by doing that, they offer an extra inducement to entice would-be visitors to book a vacation with the resorts that offer them. Come here and use our system, they say, and you can have it all — all the attractions you want, without all those long lines.

But not everyone uses the line-skipping systems. And with many systems, notably Disney's Fastpass+, one's use of the system is limited, and there might be only a limited number of reservations available for a specific attraction at any given time. That leaves plenty of people outside the system, forced to wait in what is now an even longer standby line, as some of the attraction's hourly capacity has been given over to line-skippers.

Two factors determine the length of the wait for a theme park attraction: popularity and capacity. That is, the number of people who want to experience the attraction and the number of people per hour that the attraction can accommodate. Capacity is why it's not accurate to say that one ride is more popular than another simply because it has a longer average wait time. Capacity often explains the differences between attraction wait times, such as why the wait is so often longer for Splash Mountain than Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates can put through hundreds more people per hour than Splash, especially in Anaheim, accounting for the typically shorter wait for Pirates, even though Pirates usually handles more people per day.

So when you see really brutal wait times for theme park attractions, a low hourly capacity usually is to blame. We reported earlier this week that one source has said that the Magic Kingdom's Anna and Elsa meet and greet — by far the longest standby wait time in the park at up to six hours — might have an hourly capacity as low as 89 guests per hour. That's an order of magnitude less than for other attractions considered slow loading by Disney's standards.

Disney has offered its Fastpass+ reservation system for the Anna and Elsa meet-and-greet, but that's not spared the thousands of other Frozen fans who couldn't get those advance reservations the day-killing wait in the standby queue. In an effort to help those guests continue to get more value from their day in the park, this week Disney started a second reservation system for Anna and Elsa, distributing return time tickets in the morning to guests on a first-come, first-served basis. But this meant that there would no longer be a true walk-up or stand-by queue to meet the Frozen stars. If you want to see Anna and Elsa, you would need a reservation — either through Fastpass+ or the new return-time system. Show up at the park too late to get a return time? You're out of luck — no matter how long you'd be willing to wait.

So that raises the question: Should there be situations where theme parks make certain attractions availably only by reservation? Parks long have required reservations for hotel rooms and certain table-service restaurants. Indeed, many visitors have booked tables at the parks' character meals as a way to secure a reservation to meet certain characters, long before systems like Fastpass+ made the regular in-park meet-and-greets available by reservation.

In an ideal world, theme parks would create higher-capacity attractions, so that all wait times could be kept to a reasonable level. (Your definition of "reasonable," of course, might vary.) But, let's face it, we don't live in an ideal world. And it doesn't make financial sense for parks to build individual attraction capacity to handle all of their Fourth of July and Christmas crowds when attendance levels sit much lower for the other 49 weeks of the year. (It's cheaper for parks to throw on some extra parades and shows to handle those holiday excess crowds, instead.)

It's Vote of the Week time. Please select the answer that best matches your opinion on this issue.

If Disney or another theme park company made certain attractions available on a reservation-only system, how might that change the way you plan and go on your theme park vacations? Let's talk about that in the comments.

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