Universal discovers the challenges of a park-wide virtual queue system

May 26, 2017, 11:19 AM · Universal Orlando's new virtual queuing system got its first large-scale, real-world test yesterday as Volcano Bay visitors pushed the park's new TapuTapu system to its limit on its first day of public operation.

TapuTapu is a wristband with a screen that Universal is using to manage virtual queues on each of the park's water slide attractions. Visitors tap their TapuTapu on stanchions outside the attraction they wish to ride, which claims the visitor's place in a virtual queue. The TapuTapu screen will alert the visitor when it's time to return and go on the ride. Each tap station has large display screens that show what the estimated wait time for the ride will be, so visitors who are paying attention can make an informed decision about which virtual queue to commit to as the decide what to ride.

That's all great in theory, put theme park operations is where theory goes to die.

Volcano Bay visitors yesterday found wait times up to six hours, with that top wait for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. (Surely everyone read my endorsement?) And many visitors didn't understand that they could wait in only one virtual queue at a time, meaning that people who tapped into that six-hour wait were locked out of going on anything else that required TapuTapu before that time passed.

So here are the issues facing Universal as it implements a "no lines" virtual queuing system for Volcano Bay — issues that will face other parks considering such systems as well.

1. Universal doesn't have any real-world ride capacity data.

Hard opens are bad enough. A hard open with an untested virtual queuing system is the theme park equivalent of entering the Indy 500 just after getting your driver's license. Manufacturer data on their rides' theoretical capacity is nice, but from experience, let me tell you that theoretical capacities don't tell you squat about what's really going to happen in live ops. Without an accurate count of how many people a ride can handle in five-minute period, Universal doesn't have an accurate number of "taps" it can assign to each return window before moving visitors into the next. That lead to long actual queues of people waiting to get on after their return time — defeating the whole purpose of the virtual queue.

2. No one has a tested strategy for visiting the park

At Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida (or anyone major theme park), fans with experience or solid research know exactly where to go first in the park, and what to do when, in order to minimize their wait times. But with a hard open at Volcano Bay, no visitors had any real-world experience to lead them through the park. For fans conditioned to following a plan when visiting a theme park, the lack of guidance just lead to chaos.

3. Many people don't realize that they need to research which queue to commit to

The TapuTapu system tells you the estimated wait time you're committing to when you tap in. But too many people yesterday didn't realize the commitment that tapping makes. It's not that you tap into one thing then go ride another. You tap in, then hit the beach, bar, or river during your wait. That beats standing in a physical queue, but it isn't the carefree, just go ride on anything experience that many people envisioned when they heard that Volcano Bay would have "no lines."

4. The park really needs wait time boards and to include wait times on the app

Volcano Bay is not a small water park. If you take the time to walk around and look at the posted wait times on all the TapuTapu check in stations, all those virtual queues are going to blow up while you try to make up your mind. Universal needs to add real-time wait time data for Volcano Bay attractions to the park map on its official app, the way to does for its other two parks. And with many people not carrying cell phones around a water park, Universal should add real-time wait time boards next to each TapuTapu station, telling people the estimated waits at other comparable attractions so that people can decide whether to make the walk over elsewhere to tap in.

5. Universal needs to address cultural challenges with virtual queuing

The most interesting observation I heard from first-day visitors to Volcano Bay was that it was British quests who were freaking out most. Britons are the world champions of queuing, so a boarding-time allocation system that doesn't let them do that isn't going to sit well for many. Several visitors from Britain didn't understand that they actually were queuing when they used TapuTapu, but they just didn't have to stand in the actual line. To those visitors, that's kind of like saying that while you are eating fish and chips, you're just not putting anything fried into your mouth and chewing. What's the difference? queuing is such an ingrained part of the theme park experience for many visitors, so Universal is facing an immense education challenge in teaching people another way to wait to get on a ride.

That said, virtual queuing eliminates a ton of problems, including line jumping, guest discomfort, and the need to time meals and bathroom visits around queue waits. Not to mention the engineering, construction and maintenance expense of creating physical queues that are accessible to all. So I applaud Universal from taking a step in this direction.

But no worthy journey is completed in just one step. What Universal does in addressing the Day One issues with TapuTapu either will provide the rest of the industry with a map to a successful virtual queuing implementation, or cast a chill on others thinking about this important switch.

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Replies (29)

May 26, 2017 at 11:42 AM · It's going to be SO much fun to watch and see how successful this is. In theory, it's a perfect thing. Getting people to understand how to take advantage of it is going to be quite another thing.
I was made to understand that a person could in fact tap into Krakatau Aqua Coaster AND have another attraction booked, but due to the expected popularity of Krakatau it was going to be the only attraction that could be booked on top of another attraction.
Questions - what information does it give you when you tap in? Is there a window to return like FastPass, i.e. "You can return between 1:20 and 2:20" or are you just given a buzz when it's time to return to the entrance. Can you cancel a reservation once made if you want to do something with a shorter return time?
May 26, 2017 at 11:50 AM · The biggest problem I see with a system like this is that there is no standby line at all. If everyone is waiting in a "virtual line", what happens if someone in that line bails, shows up 5 minutes early or 5 minutes late? Who fills that person's spot on the ride? What about people who can walk up the stairs much faster than others and reach the top of a slide 3-5 minutes faster than slower guests? It theoretically could create a situation where there's no one standing at the slide waiting to ride, and ride ops are twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next person to get on the slide, further decreasing ride capacity.

Also, my understanding is that pretty much every single slide requires TapuTapu, so while you could ride the lazy river, hang out in the pool or take a nap on the beach, it means you're not riding the slides, which is a primary differentiator for Volcano Bay over resort hotel pools. Why would someone pay for a water park where you're limited by a computer as to how many times you can ride the slides? I'm not sure how the queues are set up, but it sounds like they might need to go to FastPass like system that creates a standby line to allow those willing to wait an avenue to fill any empty spaces in the virtual queue.

I had read other accounts that described queues forming to tap in to walk up the queue to ride. These lines by some observations were in excess of 15 minutes, just to get to the front of the line to be allowed to walk up to the slide.

There are growing pains with any technology, but something like this should have been limited to a couple of attractions, not every slide. Let people TapuTapu for the water coaster and the trap door slides, but all the other standard slides should be standby queues until the virtual queuing technology has been fully vetted. Honestly, that's how I thought it was going to work, but it seems that every slide is stuck with TapuTapu.

May 26, 2017 at 12:06 PM · Guests are actually allowed to queue for Krakatau and one other attraction simultaneously. They don't have to commit to not doing anything until their wait for Krakatau is over...
May 26, 2017 at 1:32 PM · It's only been a day and this technology is brand new, so glitches are to be expected and those visiting now should bring their patience. That said, if Universal can't get the system working reliably within 2-3 weeks, they better have a plan B because bad word of mouth could kill what otherwise looks like a top tier waterpark.

Based on what I've read, I think three big changes need to occur ASAP if this is to be a successful system:

1. Move reservations from slide entrances to centralized kiosks (this is what I thought they'd do when the system was announced). Instead of requiring guests to run around the park to reserve rides, have 3-4 kiosks from which guests can reserve any attraction. This would allow guests to see all wait times easily and reserve one they're willing to wait for rather than joining a queue just because they're at that attraction.

2. Disable Tapu Tapu if the wait time is short or add stand-by lines as an option. Nobody wants to stand in line for 30+ minutes at an attraction, but no attraction should be idle because everyone is in line for something else. Either only enable reservations when a ride already has 15-20 minutes worth of people lined up, or allow guests to wait in a standby line to fill in gaps.

3. Make capacity estimates very conservative, at least at first. Theoretically, something like the Krakatau Aqua Coaster can do about 700 riders per hour, and by filling every raft it is not that hard to get close to that value. However, most other attractions (especially body/mat slides) are going to be delayed due to the amount of time it takes guests to clear the splash pool. Best case scenario, most body slides are only going to get about 100 riders per hour per flume (roughly 50-60% of the theoretical capacity).

May 26, 2017 at 1:49 PM · "Not waiting in long lines" doesn't equal "not waiting in lines".
The system will always make sure there is a bit of a line to keep the attraction filled.

I think the all or nothing method for ride reservation in a park will (eventually) work better than the WDW way. If anything the lines got longer.

Taking the park is open for a day. Not everything works fine yet. The lazy river was down and TM's need to find their way to see how guest react on certain rides rides and vehicles. I'm sure all (including the software) needs to learn and optimize.
I think a ride time table makes it easier to select less crowded rides to kill time. In the end, not waiting on stairs in line is great. I'd rather like to kill my time on a beach than in the queue.

May 26, 2017 at 1:50 PM · I used the tap reservation system when they were testing it out at Wet n' Wild, so it's disappointing to see that they're having massive issues like this. Kind of makes me wonder what they learned from that experience. I've read some speculation on other sites saying that due to the virtual queuing that Volcano Bay should have a substantially lower attendance cap than other water parks. Why wouldn't they just build a bigger park from day one? Given all these issues and the already announced expansion, I'm planning on just waiting it out until they iron out the kinks and build the expansion.
May 26, 2017 at 7:28 PM · They need to have a way to exit the line and ride something else if you change your mind, just like you could do if standing in a real line.
May 26, 2017 at 8:04 PM · One of the interesting things about TapuTapu is that it gives us another example to show people the differences between virtual queues, ride reservations, and front-of-line passes.

TapuTapu is a virtual queue. You can't get into another line because you are "waiting" in this one - even though you are not physically there.

Fastpass is a ride reservation system. You have a reservation to come back at an appointed time. You are not in a queue, so you are free to join a line at some other ride while you wait for your Fastpass return time.

Universal Express is a front of line pass. You don't need a reservation and you do not need to claim a place in a line - real or virtual. Just show your pass and head to the boarding area.

May 26, 2017 at 8:11 PM · AJ, some TapuTapu stations did display a "ride immediately" message when their slide was a walk on, during the media day. No need to tap. But people do need to know which rides in the park are walk-on without having to hike all over the place.
May 27, 2017 at 3:12 AM · I know it has just opened and we are a long ways off probably but do the slides look as if they could handle longer lines in case Taptapu were to go down or possibly go away in the future? I'm wondering if they should have lowered the ticket cost and then make Taputapu an add on.
May 27, 2017 at 6:49 AM · I am British and visited the park yesterday with my family.
It looked impressive but we didn't manage to get on a single ride,my kids were really disappointed. We taputapu on one ride which said 90mins then the time didn't go down it just went up and up. Went up to 130 mins which is ridiculous. When people have paid alot of money then glitches like this are not acceptable. Also some staff didn't seem to have a clue. Also Lockers should have been free considering the huge entrance fee. I will go to Disney waterparks next time as at least parking a is free!!
May 27, 2017 at 10:23 AM · Since everyone in the park is now waiting in line for a ride, the lines will be longer than a typical water park. While I think waiting in a virtual queue is better than waiting in a physical queue, it will be hard for Universal to explain the longer wait times to the masses.
May 27, 2017 at 1:47 PM · Patience.
May 27, 2017 at 3:50 PM · The wait times at Twitter are ridiculous. 2 hour minimum for each slide. This means everyone is trying hard to get at least one ride in. Maybe bring back wait lines for most slides except for the aqua coaster.
May 27, 2017 at 6:35 PM · The fact that you can't leave one of the virtual queues is ridiculous. What happens when people just leave the park that are in a virtual queue? Does the wait time still stay the same because the system doesn't know those people physically left?
May 27, 2017 at 9:51 PM · By all accounts the system is not working (evidenced by Twitter posts of a seemingly empty park with 3 hour waits for each slide). Perhaps a complete overhaul is needed.
May 27, 2017 at 10:11 PM · Like all Universal Parks, they do offer that add on known as Express Pass for Volcano Bay, is that working as it is suppose to for this park?
May 28, 2017 at 5:38 AM · >>>1. Move reservations from slide entrances to centralized kiosks (this is what I thought they'd do when the system was announced). Instead of requiring guests to run around the park to reserve rides, have 3-4 kiosks from which guests can reserve any attraction. This would allow guests to see all wait times easily and reserve one they're willing to wait for rather than joining a queue just because they're at that attraction.

Wait, there are Kiosks?

I think they would have been better getting some waterproof Q-Bot device. No need for a kiosk, just simply select the ride on the screen and go. I know its generally used as a fastpass system, but I can't see why it couldn't just be used as a virtual queue (thats how I always use em).

In general, it seems to me like they've just misjudged the capacity of the park.

May 28, 2017 at 8:21 PM · They misjudged a lot, even finishing time to complete the park.
May 28, 2017 at 10:05 PM · Chad, to my knowledge Volcano Bay doesn't use kiosks. Instead, they require you to go to every ride and reserve your time at the ride entrance. My expectation was that their system would mirror the Q-Band system (the waterpark equivalent to Q-Bots) Six Flags uses in their waterparks. In that system, you wear a wristband that you can scan at any of the terminals located around the park (typically by the bottom of each slide and in other high traffic areas). Once you scan your band, the screen displays a list of available rides and their wait times, then you pick the one you want to reserve and your wristband begins to count down. Once it hits zero, you go to the ride, scan in, and generally board within 5 minutes or so.
May 29, 2017 at 11:17 AM · I was there on friday and it was ridiculous to say the least. You were between 120-400min for a ride. And as mentioned on some comments once you add yourself to the virtual queue you can't join another, or if you want to join another ride if the time is less then you can but it will remove you from your previous ride you had checked in for. Also you have to treck around the park to each ride to find out their wait time!! And sometimes the tapu tapu was going up in wait time I had a ride go from 190min down to 130 then back up to 170min. And when it's time to go to the ride you still have a 20/30min queue. The tapu tapu is good in theory but does not work. They also hit capacity on Saturday and couldn't allow anymore people in aftwr 12pm.
May 29, 2017 at 11:50 AM · I think it's worth considering that if Universal had built physical queues for its attractions, the wait times would have been the same. The only difference with the virtual queue is that you are not trapped in that line for the entire time.

That said, it's possible that such long wait times would have prompted visitors to abandon the queues at some point, reducing the wait time below what it was with the virtual queue. But not having the virtual queues wouldn't have gotten more people on more rides.

The big problem, as I am now seeing it, is operational. Universal needs to get better at 1) loading and dispatching people more quickly and 2) learning what the realistic capacity for each slide is, so that it can consistently predict more accurate wait times for the virtual queues.

I think it's the slow and inconsistent loading that's too blame for the fluctuations in the TapuTapu wait times, just as they would be for a "real" queue's wait.

May 29, 2017 at 4:00 PM · Universal has no customer service. o this does not surprise me. Maybe someday they will get it but not with my money. I will stick with Disney, Legoland, Sea World and the other non-Universal Parks in Florida. If more people would stop the twitter complaining and just stop going maybe things would improved. Which is what I have done. It is too bad that Universal doesn't get it because they have some great themed attractions I would like to visit but am unable due to their policies toward handicapped and people with certain medical devices that they require to have for their life. This just adds another to the list of things wrong with Universal Florida. The policies at Florida do not match California as I understand it. All I can see with this is for Universal to soak everyone for a limited experience. To top it off people are dumb enough to go and then complain about it after they had been warned.
I take my hat off to Universal for upping their game in disappointing their guests. Didn't think that was possible. If I want to sit in the lazy river instead of riding things then I would. The other thing with no ques, people are mislead in the wait time.
I think Disney got it right with Fastpass. That system seems allows the best experience for the guest. I am not a big fan of the new system but it is still leaps and bounds better than this virtual ques system, especially at the amount of money that you pay for admission.
May 29, 2017 at 4:28 PM · I'd like to know what idiot thought it was a good idea to implement a new technology on a holiday weekend.
May 30, 2017 at 3:42 AM · New parks that hard open are always plagued with problems ... all the way back to the original Disney parks. The pressure to meet an opening deadline with the amount of money riding on the line has to be insane.

With that said, anyone that went this weekend or in the coming weeks should continue to expect growing pains.

Which is why as Universal APs, we have no intention of ...

a) even attempting a first visit to Volcano Bay until the fall
b) won't even consider whether or not we want to make an investment in adding Volcano Bay to our AP until after the final finished product and operation has emerged

May 30, 2017 at 8:24 AM · I attended Volcano Bay on Monday, which was another at capacity day. I went in with an open mind, knowing that the park just opened, and is using brand new technology that is likely to have some bugs. I figured if I got to see the park, float around the lazy river, have a couple drinks and some food, and maybe hit up a slide or two I would be happy. Realistic expectations for a grand opening of anything.

I created my Universal account in the app, paired my pass, and created my pin a couple days before attending. When I arrived at the park, they assigned me my Taputapu, and sent me on my way. I paid $7.50 for a small locker (cheaper but smaller than Disney's $10) and could use my Taputapu to open it. I started my adventure into the park, and attempted to check in for a wait time at the water coaster. My Taputapu had an error, and I was directed to speak with a team member. Knowing that it was brand new technology and likely to have a bug here or there, I happily went to a concierge booth to get assistance. The staff were super friendly, and tried for 20 minutes to get things working right for me; unfortunately the system was not cooperating. They gave me a new Taputapu that was not linked to my account so I could get on the rides, and advised that I would need to bring payment to purchase anything, and will need a locker attendant to open my locker. They are working diligently to iron out the bugs in the system, but with anything custom or new it will have issues.

The staff member at the concierge escorted me to a ride to make sure the new device would work, and even got me into the queue without having to wait for a return time. They do queue up about 15-30 minutes worth of people at a time, so there is never a time where the staff are just twiddling their thumbs waiting for customers to return. With 15,000 people in the park, of course there will be long waits for things. Everyone is excited to see the new park, and this is the busiest it will ever be.

The rest of my day went well, with my next ride having about a 60 minute wait for my return time, followed by another 25-30 mins in queue. Again, busiest the park can possibly be, and will get better once the newness of it wears off.

The last two things I queued up for were the aqua coaster and one of the tall body slides in the volcano. Both had a 300 minute wait, so I spent my day enjoying the amazing food, both the lazy rivers, and the main pool. The aqua coaster showed delayed at one point for about an hour, but when the timer came back, it seemed like it had still been keeping up with the other countdown, still estimating my return time to be about where it should have been if it was not delayed.

As time went on, and people are started leaving the park, my times dropped down even faster. In the event I wanted to change my mind, I could have used my Taputapu on any other ride, and cancel the body slide I had already queued up for. I was advised that when you turn in your Taputapu at the exit gate, that all remaining queues are cancelled to allow other users to move up to a faster time.

All things considered, the estimated wait times were long, and for the most part fairly accurate. I could have been standing in a five hour line for the aqua coaster with a traditional line, but instead spent my time enjoying the scenery, lazy rivers, food, and cocktails.

The food was the best I have had any water park, and better than some theme parks even. For lunch I had the curry chicken, and dinner was jerk shrimp mac and cheese. The cocktail I had was a bit strong but tasty, and the volcano blossom beer was a bit fruity but not sweet or cloying.

The staff were bombarded with rude customers, 100 degree weather, and troubleshooting bugs with a brand new system that they have not had much time to work with themselves. They handled it like champs, and every staff member I spoke to was super friendly, and went way above and beyond. Under the circumstances I would have expected the staff to be frazzled, but they were professional and courteous throughout. The staff get a 10/10 in my opinion.

As for the technology, I think it is amazing, and will be perfect once they have had a chance to iron out the bugs. Considering they pretty much built an entire theme park in about 6 months, I would say it is not 100% ready yet. It is ready enough to be an amazing and fun experience, but if you are looking for something fully polished give it a couple more months. There were still construction areas with some paths not opened yet, and silt fencing around some of the gardens to prevent erosion while things have a chance to grow in. Same thing with the trees and bamboo, which had thin leaves since they were freshly planted.

Overall, the park exceeded my expectations for something that would be at 100% capacity, where staff have not had time to become fully experienced yet, and they were using technology that had not been tested yet under real life circumstances. If you go into it with this understanding, I would say things are going perfectly.

In a couple weeks updates to the software that runs the technology will iron out the bugs that could only be discovered in a real life scenario, that would not have been found during pre-testing. In a few months the newness will have worn off, and the park will not be at capacity every day. In that time, the foliage will have had time to grow in, and the park will have cemented itself as the best water park in town. Even with the issues, I prefer this to any other water park I have been to.

May 30, 2017 at 10:19 AM · Great report! Thank you for taking the time to share all that detail.
May 30, 2017 at 10:45 AM · it was my pleasure to write the comment above, it even inspired me to register. I figure if you go with the right expectations in mind, you will not have any disappointment.
May 31, 2017 at 5:56 PM · @ - Your comment very much seems to be a non sequitor. I don't see any evidence in this about them having "zero customer service". Things are busy on opening day, thats not bad customer service. Trying to elimate the physical queue for a virtual queue where you can go do something else to me is evidence of them trying to imrpove customer service in the theme park industry - and not pushing it as an upcharge is a welcome change of pace.

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