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Congrats to Universal for dumping Express passes

2006-02-14

By Robert Niles: Now that Universal has officially shoveled dirt on Universal Express, allow me to say a word about the passing of this ride reservation system:

Good riddance. Now if only FastPass and more of the industry's ride reservation would follow.

Ride reservation systems are fine for hugely popular rides when they first open. I'd rather get a reserved ride time for Expedition Everest (or, for past examples, Top Thrill Dragster or X) than blow three to five hours of my paid-admittance day waiting in a single line.

But when ride reservation systems start going on decades-old attractions where wait times rarely exceeded 90 minutes anymore, we've got a problem.

Why? Let's do the math. A ride reservation system does nothing to increase an attraction's operating capacity. In practice, these systems can reduce it if queues slow down while attendants check return tickets and admit reserved guests.

Plus, those ticket machines and readmission points must be staffed by attraction personnel who would better be deployed policing queues, grouping parties on the load platform, or ushering guests quickly through the unload area. From my experience working at and visiting parks, the number one cause of attraction downtime is slow guest loading and unloading, causing ride cascade failures as those slow guests stop the circuit. Trained, experienced attraction operators in those positions can, and do, prevent those incidents.

At the very least, ride reservation systems make park visits even more of a logistical headache for new and infrequent visitors who have not done extensive research to figure out how to game the system. Life was much easier when every line was the standby line, and visitors didn't have to keep track of lines, plus their reservation tickets and their new reservation eligibility times, when trying to make their way through the day.

Universal is keeping its Express Plus program, which allows a limited number of people to buy their way to the front of the line. And on-site hotel guests will continue to have front of the line access. So long as the number of those passes remain a small percentage of park visitors, that's fine. A few paid passes should not slow standby lines significantly, and I'd rather see front of the line passes as a hotel bonus that early openings, which can build up queue times before "normal" guests have a chance to get to them. (After all, getting to a park at opening is the best way to bag several popular attractions without long waits.) Better to distribute those hotel guests throughout the day, than loading them all into the morning "prime time."

In California, Disneyland's bagged FastPass on Pirates of the Caribbean and appears to be operating it less frequently on other attractions. Here's hoping that the rest of the industry comes to its senses and starts finding ways to make theme park visits less confusing and more enjoyable. Restricting ride reservation systems to first-year thrill rides would make an excellent start.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on February 14, 2006 at 2:50 PM
Not a Fastpass fan? I am actually suprised because I do believe it is one of the best thing Disney has done in awhile. Maybe the reason why I like it so much is because it seems to work at Disney World! Why do you hate it so?
From James Adams on February 14, 2006 at 3:43 PM
Amen Robert! Finally someone has spoke out against this vile invention. Let's face it folks, it does not make you wait in less lines. Think about it, the fastpass system makes all standby lines LONGER. So for a whole day at a park your wait times all average out. It works like this: you spend 0 minutes on a fastpass line, 45 minutes on ride 2 and 45 minutes on ride 3; a total of 90 minutes. Now, a non-FastPass system you spend 30 minutes on ride 1, 30 on ride 2 and 30 on ride 3 (because they are all shorter without fastpass); a total of 90 minutes -EXACTLY the same. Honestly, I would rather spend less time on each ride than take one fast and others really long. Also, it makes the trip more stressful, especially when you lugging around kids.

Now if we can just get rid of the whole stay at Universal, ride as much as you want deal. There needs to be controls because I swear that some people spend their whole day riding Men-In-Black over and over.

From Gareth H on February 14, 2006 at 4:05 PM
Now James. It almost seems like that last remark was directed at me personally. Ride "all day" at Men in Black. Maybe a few times in a row. And then I take advantage of the Single Rider Queue.
Now before you say it, i know you didn't mean me.

I do agree with the boss man about needing better control & loading onto rides. Men in Black is a great ride to mention.
All too many times has this ride been sent out with seats empty, and not just 1 or 2. I've seen it very otfen with entire rows empty, because the "loaders" have been dealing with other issues (Families moving down the single rider queue and then whining at the end when 6 year old Johnny doesn't want to get seperated from his mummy).
Lets move on to THE HULK. Only once, in the near hundered times i've ridden this ride, has there been someone loading people onto this ride. Normally its a big free for all, so, you get seats empty, 3 out of 4 seats in a row unoccupied. A single rider queue would have really helped this ride out.

But ultimately, getting rid of the express pass, in my opinion, was a bad idea. You can't give a kid a lolly and take it away again with someone crying....

From Chris Walton on February 14, 2006 at 4:51 PM
I disagree, Express Pass was a great thing. You could get an express pass for an attraction with a 90+ minute wait, go ride 2 or more attractions with waits of 35 minutes or less, go back and ride with your express pass, and repeat the whole process over again. Besides, since they still sell express passes there will always be a "stand by" line, granted people in the regular line may not have to wait quite as long since people are more reluctant to purchase these passes, but it will still be a "stand by" line nonetheless. I think this was a huge mistake for NBC/Universal!!!
From Mark Hollamon on February 15, 2006 at 4:35 AM
Completely off base Robert. FastPass allows a person to take in more of the park and less of the queue. If you are satisfied with spending 90 minutes of your day waiting in line for something then God Bless you! Enjoy your expensive vacation looking at somebody's backside!

As for me, I do not mind waiting up to 20 minutes, but after that go to the FastPass or avoid the ride altogether. I guess that's a perk of living in Orlando and having season passes to everything.

I do agree that paying for the express pass is a slap in the face to consumers and a shameful attempt to generate more revenue, but even in that regard, if people have the money to pay for the luxury, then who are we to gripe about it! There are many levels of resorts at Disney that have a great variance in price when in reality most of the rooms look about the same. To me that's a similar issue.

From Jayson Myers on February 15, 2006 at 7:29 AM
I think your right. Getting rid of fastpasses will decrease line times around the park.


This is how we do theme parks. We have Disney, Seaworld and Universal passes. We will get a fastpass for a ride we HAVE to ride that day (like Test Track), we will then walk around the park. If there is a ride with a time less than 15 mins, we will get on. Otherwise, we shop, take pictures, eat, talk, hang out, have fun. We don't get in another ride line if it is over 15-20 mins.

If Disney did away w/ Fast Pass, b/c of how busy they are, we would stop buying our passes. I don't want to waste my time standing in line. I'd rather not go. That's just me. W/ fastpass I can ride rides (albeit not as many as someone who would stand in line), but w/out I guess Disney does not get my money.

I will not be renewing my passes at Universal.

From Pete Brecht on February 15, 2006 at 9:06 AM
I thought that these parks make a substantial portion of their money on in-park spending. The beauty of Fastpass/Express is that I can be spending money while I'm effectively waiting in line. If I'm waiting in a real line for 90 minutes, I can assure you that I'm not going to be in the mood for purchasing trinkets at the gift shop. I love going to theme parks, but if I regularly have to wait more than an hour for the big rides, I'll just take up another hobby.
From Robert Niles on February 15, 2006 at 10:27 AM
How about this argument, then? Take the money a park spends on FastPass machines, personnel and marketing... and spend it on a new attraction instead. That actually will increase overall park attraction capacity, and give people more to do.

For me, I'd rather wait in themed queue for an attraction than in a line in a store or restaurant. And I'd rather be able to walk around the park without having to navigate a crush of people. But when parks dump their queues into stores and pathways, that's what you get. Ride reservation systems don't reduce the amount of waiting in a theme park. They merely shift the location of your waiting elsewhere, from places designed to accomodate waiting to places not.

From Gareth H on February 15, 2006 at 10:43 AM
While we are on the subject, if there was an award for best ride queue ever, it would have to go to duelling dragons! Freaks me out when i'm on my own!!
How about that Robert, an award for best ride queue!
From Anthony Murphy on February 15, 2006 at 11:29 AM
All I know is that if it wasn't for fastpass, I would never ride Test Track, Indiana Jones, or Soarin! Also, it will be the only way I will be able to go on Everest at AK!
From Pete Brecht on February 15, 2006 at 11:37 AM
Robert, I think that it's pretty naive to assume that a modern theme park will take the savings from the elimination of a program like Express and plow them back into the park. I'd be surprised if Universal did anything with the extra cash other than adding it to the bottom line.

Themed queues are a lot better than unthemed queues, but they still don't keep me entertained for long before I get annoyed at having to wait in general. Maybe I'm weird that way....

Your contention that Fastpass/Express leads to gridlock in the shops/restaurants/paths is a headscratcher to me. I've never visited a park with front-of-the-line privileges where I've seen this to be the case.

One of the things I like about Fastpass/Express is that I enjoy having a system to game, and I'm smart/motivated enough to do pretty well at it. I realize that the majority of park visitors may not want the hassle of figuring out the system, but to me that's part of the fun.

A simple way around this is to ensure that there are enough high-capacity rides to prevent absurd lines in the first place, but most parks are pretty inconsistent about this. One exception to this is the Busch parks, which manage to handle pretty large crowds without a Fastpass-type system.

From Chris Walton on February 15, 2006 at 12:34 PM
I don't see how Universal is going to save a substantial sum of money by eliminating Express pass, much less enough money for a new attraction. I do agree that a good queue goes along way and that is probably the only reason I would regret using an express pass, but it just doesn't go far enough. Time is such a valuable limited resource for visitors who shell out time and money from their busy lives to enjoy going to a theme park for a day alone, it is these people who deserve to have the express pass option, not the people who live in Orlando and are passholders (like myself) who can enjoy these parks at their leisure, it's for the people who don't make it often and want to see as much as they can in the little time they have. Even if they stay in Orlando a week or two, the likelyhood of them visiting the same park twice is pretty low, so let them have their express passes.
From Robert OGrosky on February 15, 2006 at 12:34 PM
I also dont agree with Robert N.
I think fastpass is a great addition to the park and i know it makes my visits much more enjoyable and saves me time because i know how the system works and use it well.
And unlike the system Universal now will use and SF already uses it doesnt try to screw there guests out of money by trying to get them to pay for the privliege of skipping. I cant speak for Universal, but i know SF most of the time runs rides short of capacity and im sure this is in attempt to get people to pay money to skip ahead. I have also found no longer lines in rests./stores as a result of fastpass, it justs gives you a option of doing more than one thing at a time and doesnt make one pay for this privilege.
I would perfer all parks have a free fastpass system and also agree that Universal wont add anything to the park with the money they are saving(not that they have added much to the parks anyway ion recent years), but will instead try to0 save money as they are losing attendance at the gate big time.
From Robert Niles on February 15, 2006 at 1:05 PM
The downside of overimplementation of ride reservation systems was more apparent at Disneyland than Walt Disney World, which has much larger pathways, shops, etc, to accomodate people than does Walt's original park. Here in SoCal, that queue space is needed to physically handle the load of bodies in the park on a busy day.

The key to my comment on expense was *marketing.* Parks have marketed ride reservation systems as attractions unto themselves, instead of having to develop a real new attraction to market. That's not as big a deal now, but it's not a coincidence that Disneyland didn't roll out as many new rides when it was rolling out FastPass.

Again, I'm not against ride reservation systems for attractions that would be otherwise pulling 90 minute-plus waits. But slapping it on half a dozen rides, or more, in the park serves primarily to increase confusion and anxiety among a significant percentage of guests (granted, usually not the ones who do the advance research such as visiting a site like this). And it doesn't help more than a small fraction of visitors go on any more rides in a day.

When a park diverts half or more of its hourly boardings to the reservation system, that forces everyone to play, or suffer with longer waits, even if those visitors do not want the hassle of juggling reservations with standby lines. That forced participation seems to me inefficient for a system that ultimately benefits only a few.

Better then to restrict the number of boardings to that small fraction, as not to disrupt standby times for the others... and charge those who do want the reservations for the convenience. Just like Universal is now doing. That way, the reservation systems provides a real benefit, in allowing you *to* do more rides in a day, while letting others who don't want to have to figure out that additional variable when planning their day to ignore the system entirely without significant consequence.

Short answer. Wanna keep your customers happy? Then keep their transactions with you simple.

(By the way, I'm thrilled to see so many comments on a Blog Flume item. Just a reminder, whenever you see a newsworthy development involving theme parks that you think people would be interested in talking about, you can submit it to the Flume. Thanks.)

From Jessica Warburton on February 15, 2006 at 1:50 PM
I think it is stupid to get rid of this system. In peak summer times in Orlando it is sometimes the only way you can ride a ride. I love Fast pass at Disney. It means i can ride Tower of Terror whilst waiting for my fastpass time on Rock'n' Rollercoaster to come round. Its an easy way to fit in more things with less queuing time. As for charging for an express pass i think that is awful. Getting rid of the Express pass but keeping this one they are charging for means anyone not willing to pay extra will have huge lines to wait in because people will buy these passes. I think its unfair and dont understand why they have got rid of it as it was working!!!
From Chris Walton on February 15, 2006 at 2:30 PM
I suppose it is all in one's perspective(even though the majority of peolple were for express pass rather than against it). If they must get rid of "free" express pass, then they should get rid of express passes altogether, then there will be no "standby" lines, just your good ole' fashion regular line.
From Jayson Myers on February 15, 2006 at 2:54 PM
I don't know. I know I don't usually (although I do sometimes), I think most people do in fact stand in line while waiting for their fast pass time. They get to ride two rides in the same amount of time (at least it seems like that to someone at the park).
From big bell on February 15, 2006 at 6:12 PM
Sorry to offend (which I know I will), but a totally moronic opinion piece. Anyone who has been going to the 2 big parks for any length of time over the years KNOWS that the wait times have improved tremendously (even with the vastly increased attendance) due solely to the "fast pass/express pass systems" inovations. It was the single biggest change in queuing since the "themed" and winding lines were "invented". Who ever thought it up should be applauded. Universal used to be TERRIBLE for wait times before they copied Disneys fast pass (which by the way improved Disneys wait times greatly even though they were never as bad as Universals). I'll never forget the days of 2-3 hour waits for the Back to the Future ride or King Kong, etc. They kept me/us away from their parks until they opened I of A and we stopped going again after 2003 when they started the "pay extra" for the privilege of using the express lane. It just wasn't worth going anymore. Universal only changed the system for one reason....short term cash flow...period! It will backfire and they will either change their ways and remember that they are a "service industry" or be sold within the next 2-3 years, mark my word on that. Attendance will suffer greatly do to the lines and the backlash of having a "class system" in an amusement park which is supposed to make you forget about the "real world" for a few hours. Shame on Universal and you as well Robert.
From James Adams on February 16, 2006 at 6:42 AM
Look, it's simple logistics. The FastPass system does not make people magically disappear from the parks - they are still there and they are still standing in lines. All the system does is shift people around more and give them a false sense of control. Now, I would agree that if you are young and like running around the park running calculations in your head about the times and which rides to do next and which passes to get next, and etc. etc. then you might be able to fit a little more ride time into your day. But I would rather not do the mess and I have no interest in a false sense of control.

Now, I actually have season passes to all of the central florida parks (a little extreme but that's another story). Universal still has those crazy wait times during the summer like they always did. Also, Busch and Seaworld (non FastPass parks) do not have this huge backlog of wait times. The reality is that my trip to those parks is not different - long waits in summer, short waits in winter.

Another major irritation with the system is that you have to get a pass to the most desirable rides early or they will run out. That's just unneeded and unwanted stress. I think when I was younger and my wife and I didn't mind running around it would perhaps be different. But now, I lug around a whole flock of kids. And, so since I don't want to work the system, I will suffer from it. I say, down with the system Man, down with the control!

I agree withe class thing though, that REALLY sucks.

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