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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