Universal Express vs. Disney's FastPass+: Two different ways to look at a vacation
Published: December 20, 2012 at 12:21 PM
One option: You are assured of getting on all the attractions you want to see because you've reserved ride times for each of them, in advance. Your lunch and dinners are reserved, too. In fact, all of your meals and snacks are included in the cost of your hotel room, which can range from mid-range to luxury prices. It's pretty much an all-inclusive vacation, with all your activities scheduled in advance, for worry-free enjoyment during your trip.
The other option: You don't have to worry about waiting in lines on your vacation, because when you show your room key, you get to skip them. There's no need to schedule anything in advance, just show up whenever you like and go to the front of the line for nearly-immediate boarding. You can reserve meal times in advance, too, but that's another phone call, and there aren't that many places that take reservations, anyway. Most dining is counter-service, and if you want an "all-inclusive" option, you can buy an additional, inexpensive "all you can eat" plan. But it's honored only at a few, selected locations. The skip-the-lines perks is available only at a limited number of hotels, which start at upper-mid-range go up from there. But if you can afford that, and get a room, it's no worries about ride and show lines or reservations for the rest of your trip.
Regular readers of Theme Park Insider will recognize these options as the (new) Walt Disney World and (existing) Universal Orlando models, respectively. They fascinate me because they really do represent two different views of what a relaxing vacation should be: one where everything's planned in advance, and one in which planning isn't necessary.
Not only that, I think it's fascinating to think ahead about how these plans will influence the future of the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts.
Here's another big difference between these approaches: Walt Disney World's scales, while Universal Orlando's does not. Walt Disney World can continue to add more and more people to its now-very-limited FastPass+ system, scheduling more people into more attraction times at more locations in its parks, replacing the current paper Fastpass reservation times it now distributes. Conceivably, it even could make Fastpass+ a requirement for all visitors, forcing everyone to schedule every attraction visit in advance.
Universal Orlando, however, can't add many more people to its Universal Express line-skipping plan without creating significant waits in the supposedly-no-wait Universal Express bypass queues. That's why, when Universal Orlando announced plans for a fourth on-site hotel, it noted that guests there would not be getting the free Universal Express perk with those rooms. Universal has hit its limit with free Universal Express. The system simply won't scale beyond what it now is.
But hitting the limit does bring one advantage over Disney's system. Universal's system is sustainable. It can go on offering its Universal Express perk to guests at those three hotels pretty much forever, if it would like. The easy scalability of Disney's approach eventually will force it into a sustainability problem. What happens even those ride reservations are "sold out"? You can't keep selling tickets into the park then.
Fastpass+ either will need to be capped, a la Universal's plan, to allow for reasonable stand-by wait times, or it inevitably will force Disney into a system where it must require visitors to specify a date for their visit. Days where all the Fastpass+ reservations are claimed would be days that are "sold out" and no one could buy admission to the park. Since popular dates likely would sell out far in advance, it wouldn't surprise me to see Disney then implement a variable pricing scheme, where park admission on certain dates cost more than on others.
Gaming out the future of Fastpass+ is like watching dominoes fall. If Disney goes with variable pricing, what happens to existing tickets? Disney's always said that a non-expiring ticket is good for admission on any day when the park is open. Now, Disney easily could deny admission to someone with an old "no-expire" ticket on a sold-out day. But it couldn't easily demand that a customer pays extra to use that ticket on an "upcharge" day. With so many no-expire tickets out there, even a variable pricing plan might not keep popular vacation periods from "selling out" far in advance.
So the only other solution is to increase capacity. Hello, Cars Land East. And Avatar Land. And Star Wars Land. Any anything else Disney can envision to increase its parks capacity. Which would be great for theme park fans, unless Disney's bean counters start enforcing a "quantity over quality" approach, only approving new developments that might make California Adventure 1.0 and the woeful Walt Disney Studios Paris parks look like dream destinations in comparison.
And what of people who don't get these perks? With Universal already hitting its limit, the future seems to be the same as it ever was over there. Perhaps Universal will play around more with pay-per-use ride reservation systems, as it has this year. But if Disney expands Fastpass+ beyond the capacity of its current Fastpass system, as it appears bent on doing with all the Fastpass+ infrastructure we're seeing going into non-Fastpass attraction at the resort, visitors who don't use Fastpass+ might be facing longer and longer stand-by waits as a result. At some point, not participating in Fastpass+ might not be a viable option if you want an enjoyable theme park vacation.
So whats the best solution? Honestly, I don't know. So long as I can afford a room at Universal's Royal Pacific, I love being able to skip the lines at that resort. But I totally see the appeal of locking in my no-wait ride times at top Disney World attractions, too, especially if I don't have to book an on-site hotel room to do it.
Let's throw it open for discussion. What do you see the logistics of Orlando theme park vacations changing, as a result of Fastpass+? And how will you, and your family, probably react? Let's talk in the comments.