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Can virtual queues eliminate all of a theme park's lines?

November 9, 2016, 5:33 PM · Could a major theme park actually use technology to eliminate all its stand-by lines? That's the question I tackle in my Orange County Register column this week. (Which apparently has been picked up by the San Jose Mercury News, too!)

Theme park fans will be getting their first look at a major chain's attempt to use virtual queuing to eliminate stand-by queues when Universal's Volcano Bay water park opens in Orlando next year. The park will be issuing "TapuTapu" wristbands to its guests — which I described last week as a cross between a MagicBand and an AppleWatch. Guests will tap the device to claim their place in a virtual queue for a ride and the wristband's display presumably will alert them when it is their turn.

Virtual queues are nothing new in theme parks. Six Flags and other chains have been selling Flash Passes and the like for years. Throw in ride reservation services such as Disney's Fastpass and line-skipping alternatives such as Universal Express, and visitors have plenty of ways to skip the lines in a theme park.

But skipping the lines is one thing. Eliminating them is something very different.

Volcano Bay will be using virtual queues as a replacement for traditional lines instead of a complement to them. That raises a whole bunch of operational questions that, frankly, make the former attractions host and statistics major in me giddy. I love thinking through all this geeky stuff!

Can you tap for a second ride before going on the first? This is the big question that will affect how many rides a Volcano Bay visitor can experience in one day, as well as how much and what kind of strategy visitors will need to follow to maximize the number of rides they can experience during their visit.

If people can wait in only one virtual queue at a time, then a visit to Volcano Bay will be pretty straight-forward and resemble a trip to a theme or park in the days before parks started offering all these line-skipping options. Smart visitors will want to know all the current virtual queue wait times in the park before deciding where to spend their tap and commit to one of those waits. With that information, planning your day becomes a traditional process of trying to anticipate how wait times will expand and contract during the day and then timing your reservations to maximize rides and minimize waiting time.

But what if Universal allows people to start waiting in another virtual queue before completing their wait in the first? That opens up a long list of operational questions:

Without limits on the use of the TapuTapu, a visitor who entered the park at opening could just run a lap around Volcano Bay, entering every virtual queue — perhaps multiple times — to book places to go on as many rides as possible. And if enough people do that, visitors arriving even shortly after opening might find all the virtual queues filled for the day, leaving them no opportunity to ride anything.

I can't imagine Universal or any other reasonable company allowing that to happen. So there will be limits, whether it's a one-at-a-time rule or time limits on entering queues and returning to ride.

At that point, planning your day at Volcano Bay becomes a process of knowing the virtual queue rules and adapting to them to enter as many queues as possible, as soon as you can, while not wasting any of that virtual waiting time by not being able to return and actually going on the rides when you are supposed to.

And then what happens if Universal makes it possible for some visitors, such as hotel guests, to enter virtual queues in advance? Or to bypass them with a Universal Express-type benefit? All that affects the way that people will experience Volcano Bay.

From the perspective of the park, virtual queuing allows the park to explicitly quantify how many people will go through a ride in any given hour, allowing for more precise planning and load management than possible in a park that's just throwing open physical queues and collecting no more data than an hourly turnstile count.

What if Universal used the TapuTapu display to suggest alternate virtual queues to someone tapping to enter a queue with a longer-than-average virtual wait? That could help the park get the most from its potential capacity by ensuring that people are evenly distributed among all rides, instead of overloading certain popular queues while others go empty. (That's one of the goals of Disney's Fastpass+ system, by the way.)

Even if Universal implements TapuTapu at Volcano Bay in a way that minimizes actual wait times, maximized the number of rides visitors experience and makes everyone deliriously happy, it's not a simple task to scale this system up to a traditional theme park, such as Universal Studios Florida. Water park rides tend to be operationally simpler than theme park rides, given that water park rides rely pretty much on flowing water and gravity. (The Krakatau Aqua Coaster, with its LIM launch, obviously provides the exception here.)

Ride-system breakdowns can disrupt virtual queues just as they do "real" ones. Will a ride closure force its virtual queue to empty? Or does it just hold the queue as it stands, keeping everyone in place until the ride reopens and the queue can start moving again? Can people join a virtual queue when its ride is closed? Does a ride's closure allow people waiting in its virtual queue to join another virtual queue without losing their place in the one for the closed ride?

And what about people deciding to leave one virtual queue to join another, for any other reason? How will they do that?

Can a park maintain an information technology backend that supports all of these virtual queues at once, without fail, every day of the year? Can the park support a wireless data network that keeps all these devices, tap points, and the database backend in continuous communication, to optimize guest flow without frustration?

Theme park companies will need to answer all these questions before implementing a virtual queue-only system in their parks. Those decisions will determine how effectively virtual queuing manages the flow of guests in the park and how much enjoyment guests will get from their visits. I can't wait to see how the TapuTapu system works at Volcano Bay and if it can help inform an improvement in the guest experience at other theme parks.

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Replies (8)

November 9, 2016 at 11:50 PM · I'm curious to see how this system functions compared to the Q-Band currently used at Six Flags waterparks (as well as a few others). With that system, you go to a kiosk in the park and everyone scans their band. A list of attractions then comes up, each with a wait time. After selecting an attraction everyone's wristband begins counting down the time. Once it hits zero, you can go to the attraction at your convenience, tap the scanner at the entrance, and then grab the next available tube (if needed) and head up the tower. Once you get down, you just go to the nearest kiosk (there's one near each slide tower), scan the bands again, and pick your next ride. If for whatever reason you decide you don't want to ride the attraction you currently have reserved, you can visit a kiosk and pick a different attraction, but you will lose any time already invested. Different members of your party can also reserve different attractions, but you cannot later combine reservations without resetting the wait.

Assuming Universal uses something like this, my guess is that they will calculate wait times based on the hourly capacity of the slide divided by the number of current reservations vs. using the length of the stand-by line. To prevent lost capacity, it is likely a short line (5-10 minutes) will be allowed to form at the attraction so that there isn't a dead period if people show up late. Lastly, I'm guessing any line skipping system will simply give people wait times of 50% or less than the wait offered to general guests.

November 10, 2016 at 2:48 AM · Something that is well overdue IMO. Rather than queue why not sit down, relax, get a drink, maybe see a street show., or use the facilities safe in the knowledge you won't lose your place.
November 10, 2016 at 3:01 AM · In the video about Vulcano Bay they talk about 'no standing in long lines'. It's show people standing in short lines and that is needed to keep capacity up. Most of those queue area's (look at the coaster one) are shaded. The coaster would have been the bottleneck of the attractions at the park with low capacity if it was a regular water coaster. The LIM system makes it possible to have many more ride vehicles on it.
There are also a lot of slides in the park. Most adult rides probably having the same length. Not all guests will do the kiddy rides and not all will do the drop-slide and other more extreme rides.
There are 2 rivers (a lazy and a wild one) with no limitations and different pool area's. Add a sit down restaurant, stuff to explore and activate and food and drink location throughout the park and it I think people will be more relaxing then running from slide to slide then in other parks. What also helps is that all rides are spread across the park and not tucked predominantly to one side.
Looking at the stairs and what is being build all guests will be treated equally to give all guests the possibility to stay in line for only a short amount of time and do all they want to do.
November 10, 2016 at 11:41 AM · I'm guessing that Universal didn't spend $1.5 billion on this system like Disney spent on the Magic Bands.
January 28, 2017 at 10:16 AM · That System is the Future of Theme Parks. Most likely it comes with a one-at-a-time rule. Actually it is already in Place at all Major Theme Parks free of charge for all People with ANY Disability and is called Ride Access Pass mostly.

I'm using that System since some Years after finding out it exists and is available also for me since I know that I'm Autistic. Since I know about it I haven't been at smaller Parks that not belong to the Chains (Six Flags, Cedar Fair, Disney, Universal and that Chain that operates Dolly and a couple of other Parks like SDC where I never can remind the Name..) but I know that for Example Lake Canobie also has a System like that (called Easy of Mind Wristband) and it looks all Parks are forced to have it by Law (American Disability Act it is called I think)

I always asked myself WHY THEY NOT OFFER A SYSTEM LIKE THAT FOR ALL PEOPLE? The answer was simple: Money Money Money! For all not Disabled People they can ask for Money for that Convenience what most Parks do! Having that System for ALL People FREE OF CHARGE is much more FAIR!

Leaving any Virtual Line is simple: Just cancel your Valid Reservation and enter a new one!

It would be GREAT if an App make Suggestions on which Que to Enter! That should take in Account also WHERE in the Park Rides are Located and WHERE in the Park the Guest is Located to avoid running from one to an other End. WITH those Suggestions an Series of Reservation would be possible too if the Guest is willingly to follow one of maybe 3 offered Suggestions in which Order to do which Rides. Six Flags over Texas is already offering something like that by alowing Guests with an Ride Access Pass to do All Major Rides in a 15 Min Circle ones after a Time written in your Ride Pass passed. They give you an Ride Pass with something like 15 Pre-Reservations 1 for every 15 min - Very Great!

Like 1. Coaster (you can Choose which one) 9:00, 2. Coastaer 9:15 and so on. As Guest Relations can make the Order for everyone different that works.

November 12, 2016 at 5:52 PM · I think this system is possible in water parks. But not traditional amusement parks. At a water park, hundreds (and more likely, thousands) of people can burn time at the wave pool or building castles on the simulated beach while waiting for their time to queue up at a water slide or water coaster. What does a traditional park have to do between waiting for your turn at an E-ticket ride? Shop for overpriced souvenirs? Eat overpriced food? Watch shows that may not coincide with your queue time?
Having said that, it would not surprise me for a park to try it anyway. Parks will make more money if patrons shop and eat rather they wait in line.
November 13, 2016 at 5:58 AM · As long as the wait time is reasonale, I actually like lines... at least if the line is done right. Imagine Indiana Jones without its line - what would be left is a very short ride part... What? They could invest the money saved on the actual ride? Sure, and they could also lower the admission prices - it is possible, but it will never happen... A line done right sets the mood, gives you time to relax, lets your eyes adjust to the low lights, sometimes, you can even talk to people (just try putting that phone away and look around you...)
What I am trying to say is simply this: No lines *at all*? Does not sound that great to me...
November 13, 2016 at 6:08 AM · "What does a traditional park have to do between waiting for your turn at an E-ticket ride?" Excuse me, but - what???

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