Walt Disney World
Disney was the first major theme park chain to offer a park-wide ride reservation system, called Fastpass. Visitors can use their park ticket to collect a Fastpass, which allows them to bypass the stand-by line at a particular attraction one time during a specified one-hour window. Your use of Fastpass is limited — once you get a Fastpass, you can't get another one until your return window opens or two hours have passed, whichever comes first. And once an attraction has distributed all of its Fastpasses for the day, that's it.
You collect a Fastpass by going to the Fastpass distribution location for a specific attraction, usually located near its entrance. Wait your turn to get to one of the Fastpass distribution machines, then stick in your park ticket. The machine will then print a Fastpass with your return time. Not everyone in your party has to wait in the distribution line. One person can bring everyone's tickets and collect the Fastpasses for the group. But the machines will dispense just one Fastpass per park ticket. And, as we said, you can't get a Fastpass if you got another one within the previous two hours and that return time window hasn't opened yet.
Fastpass is free and has been available to all park visitors. However, Disney this year has introduced a new ride reservation system, called Fastpass+. You don't get Fastpass+ reservations in the park — you make them online before you visit. At this time, Fastpass+ is available only to selected guests at on-site Walt Disney World Resort hotels and Disney World annual passholders, but the system is expected to expand to all visitors within the next year.
With Fastpass+, you can make advance reservations for up to three attractions — including character meet-and-greets, parades and fireworks shows — in a single park on each day of your visit. If you don't select specific attractions to reserve, Disney will select ones for you, automatically. Fastpass+ is part of the MyMagic+ system that uses Disney's new RFID-enabled MagicBand wristbands, which you tap at the selected attraction entrance for entry at your designated reservation time. If you have a Disney World annual pass or hotel reservation, Disney will contact you with details on how to use the system. In the future, all visitors will be able to book Fastpass+ times by clicking the MyMagic+ link on disneyworld.com.
With the introduction of Fastpass+, Disney apparently is reducing the number of Fastpass tickets it makes available each day for participating attractions. While all attractions, meet-and-greets, and shows are part of Fastpass+, only the most popular rides and shows have offered Fastpass. With fewer Fastpass tickets available, visitors who don't have Fastpass+ will need to arrive early and get a Fastpass first thing in the morning to ensure that they'll be able to skip at least one line later in the day. Kevin Yee reported on Facebook yesterday that Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios, one of the most popular Fastpass locations, distributed all of its Fastpass tickets for the day within 17 minutes of the park opening one day earlier this week. And this isn't a busy time of year for the Disney World theme parks. That's leading to speculation that Disney eventually might eliminate the Fastpass system in favor of the Fastpass+ and its advance reservations.
If this all sounds too complicated for you, there's an easier solution — but it'll cost ya. While Fastpass and Fastpass+ are free to visitors, Disney also offers a paid solution to skip its lines, and it's much less complex. Simply hire one of its tour guides, and you'll have no-wait access to almost all attractions and shows in the parks. With Disney's VIP Tour Services, you can hire a guide who not only will get you into the attractions of your choice, he or she will offer expert insight to the resort, including its history and behind-the-scenes information about its operations, if you're interested. Prices start at $315 per hour for on-site hotel guests and $340 an hour for those not staying on-site. Prices are per guide, not per guest. Your tour group can include up to 10 people, but everyone has to have theme park admission tickets, which are not included in the tour guide price.
People staying at Disney's hotels sometimes can enjoy shorter lines by taking advantage of the resort's Extra Magic Hours for hotel guests. These are designated times, before or after a park's public operating hours, when the park opens to hotel guests only. Check Disney's operating calendar to see which park has Extra Magic Hours on which day. (By the way, these are the parks to avoid on those days if you are not a Disney hotel guest.)
Up until this month, some Disney visitors also were able to skip lines by using a Guest Assistance Card. Intended for parties traveling with a person with disabilities, the GAC allowed a party to use a designated handicap-accessible entrance at several rides and shows, which effectively allowed them to skip the line at some of them. Disney's replaced the GAC with a Disability Assistance System [DAS], which works more like a parallel Fastpass system, granting persons with disabilities and their party a return time for immediate accessible boarding to an attraction. But the return times will be not sooner than the current stand-by wait time for the attraction, negating any line-skipping advantage. This brings Disney in line with existing disability-access programs at Universal and SeaWorld.
For dining reservations, getting what Disney calls a "priority seating" time is a must at most Walt Disney World restaurants. You can make reservations up to 180 days in advance of the start of your trip, if you're staying at a Disney World hotel, or 180 days in advance of your desired reservation time, if you're not. Popular restaurants, such as Cinderella's Royal Table, book up exactly 180 days in advance, and sometimes within a hour or so of reservations becoming available at 6am Eastern Time. You can make reservations over the phone by calling 407-WDW-DINE, or online via https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/. By the way, if you can't get into a restaurant by calling or booking on the website, Disney's tour guides have been known to access otherwise-impossible-to-get reservations at top restaurants. It's not a given, but paying extra sometimes can buy you extra access.
Unlike Disney, Universal and SeaWorld do not offer free front-of-line ride reservation systems for its visitors. But Universal does offer the simplest and most extensive line-skipping perk in the theme park industry. You have to be staying at one of its three on-site hotels, but if you do, you get front-of-the-line access at all but two of the attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure for the duration of your stay. Just show your room key at the attraction entrance, and you move to the front of the line. (The two exceptions are the ultra-low capacity Pteranodon Flyers flying swing ride and the ultra-popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, both in Islands of Adventure. But your room key gets you one hour of early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before it opens to public each morning, so you still get some preferred access to the resort's most popular ride.) This unlimited Universal Express Pass benefit is included at no extra charge for up to five guests with your room reservation. The Express Pass is good from the day of your arrival through your check-out day, so a one-night stay gets you two days of unlimited access.
If you are not staying on-site with Universal, the resort will sell you more limited front-of-the-line or no-wait access passes. Universal offers everyone paid Express Passes that allow you to skip the line one time at each attraction, for prices starting at around $20-30, depending upon time of year. However, the general rule is… days on which Express Passes sell for their lowest price are the days when attendance is low enough that you probably aren't going to save much time with an Express Pass.
Universal's also been offering a Q-Bot system, which "holds your place in line" without your having to stand in it. Look for signs near the park entrances to see if this option is available on the day of your visit. It's typically cheaper than the Universal Express option, and can allow yo to get more rides done in a day, if you use your "virtual" wait time on one attraction to go ride another with a shorter wait.
At the other end of the price scale, Universal offers a VIP Experience that includes the Express Pass access into a minimum of eight attractions during a five-hour walking tour of the park, starting at $170 per person. If you want to bring a group of up to 10 people, you can book an eight-hour tour of both parks for your group for $2,750. For that price, you've got the run of the place and can do whatever you'd like (within park rules, of course).
For dining, you can make reservations at Universal's table service restaurants by calling 407-224-3613. Universal now offers its hotel guests a dining plan to compete with Disney World's, but at this point, with Universal having significantly fewer on-site hotel rooms compared with Disney World, its dining plan hasn't overwhelmed its reservation system the way Disney's has, and reservations at Universal Orlando restaurants remain much easier to get. Calling a just a day in advance is usually enough to secure a table at any Universal restaurant. (Call earlier if you're wanting to dine on a popular holiday, of course.) If you stay on-site or book a VIP Experience, Universal staff will hook you up at the restaurants of your choice at your request.
SeaWorld offers separate reservation systems for its rides and its shows. The Quick Queue Unlimited pass, starting at $19 (park admission required), allows you unlimited skips for Manta, Kraken, Journey to Atlantis, Wild Arctic, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, Sky Tower, and the TurtleTrek theater. The Signature Show Seating pass, starting at $29, gets you places in reserved seating areas for shows at the park's Shamu, Dolphin, Nautilus, and Sea Lion and Otter theaters. Note that the show pass costs $10 more than the ride pass, which probably says something about the relative popularity of rides versus shows at SeaWorld.
SeaWorld also offers a six-hour VIP Tour, starting at $99 per person (again, park admission required but not included), which includes the Quick Queue Unlimited pass, as well as reserved seating at three shows, plus your tour guide and he the park's All-Day-Dining deal.
Finally, there's one very simple, very cheap option to skip the lines in any of the Orlando-area theme parks: Just visit when there aren't any lines. Being at the park when it opens (at a park without Extra Magic Hours, that is) allows you at least a limited amount of time with minimal queues. And lines typically go down late in the evening, as well. Visiting on weekdays when schools around the country are in session also helps you to encounter minimal waits. But if you don't have that flexibility with your schedule, you do have these other options available.Tweet
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