Why virtual queues need to become a theme park standard

December 7, 2019, 1:35 PM · For the third day in a row since it opened, fans filled Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance's virtual queue to capacity in the early morning hours today. Granted, an attraction's daily throughput remains a function of its capacity as well as demand, and Rise has been suffering frequent downtimes during its operation. But Disney's virtual queue system has spared its guests from the ordeal of having to wait in a physical queue for hours upon hours as they await their turn on the ride.

The situation this week at Disney's Hollywood Studios contrasts starkly with that at Universal's Islands of Adventure this summer, when fans waited in a physical queue up to 10 hours to ride Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, another world-class new attraction with initial uptime problems.

What's the best way for theme parks to handle demand for their attractions, especially ones with uptime consistency issues? Over the past generation, theme parks have reformed their approached toward queuing, introducing alternatives designed to minimize the time that at least some guests must spend waiting in line.

Once upon a time, Disney and other parks limited demand by charging a separate price for each attraction. Most parks just put a price on each ride, but Disney hid that cost with its A through E ticket coupon system. Yet when Six Flags introduced a "one price" admission system with its opening of Six Flags Over Texas, waiting in physical queues became the industry standard. But as parks looked for ways to accommodate people who complained about long wait times, they got creative in designing solutions.

Disney's Fastpass system operates as a ride reservation system, assigning people return times to board an attraction. Maintaining such systems demands exacting data and modeling to estimate accurately how many people an attraction will be able to board in any given hour, so that you do not over-commit the attraction with too many return times at once. That's why Disney sometimes opens new attraction without Fastpass, because it needs to collect real-world operational data before it can build its mathematical model to assign return times for a new ride or show.

Universal Express and Cedar Fair's FastLane function instead as line-skipping passes, where guests can bypass the regular physical queue and proceed directly to load without waiting for an assigned return time. Again, there's a challenge here, as if you distribute too many of these passes, a long queue of passholders can build up at load, defeating the passes' purpose and also making the "regular" queue intolerably long.

In both ride reservation and line-skipping plans, parks must account for balancing the number of guests using a traditional queue versus those using the alternative queuing scheme. Get too greedy selling the line-skipping passes, and people who don't buy them might never return to your park if they get too frustrated with long waits in standby queues. With reservation systems, a park could simplify things by eliminating the standby queue, allocating all of an attraction's capacity through reservations. But that would require training visitors to plan everything during their day in advance - something that many vacationers might resist.

A virtual queue provides a third alternative that avoids some of the logistical challenges with reservation and line-skipping systems. It functions just like a single physical queue except that places in the line are kept by some system rather than physically standing there. At Disney, fans are alerted by the My Disney Experience app when their "boarding group" is called, allowing them to enter the attraction. Unlike Fastpass, there's no assigned return time, only a broad estimate of "morning," "afternoon," or "evening," eliminating the need for a precise estimate of hourly capacity to model more specific return times.

That makes a virtual queue a great system for new attractions with inconsistent operations, such as Rise and Hagrid's. People need nourishment and relief. Standing in a 10-hour queue is just physically impossible for many people, and it's certainly uncomfortable even with the park providing waiting guests with food and beverage vendors and bathroom breaks. With a virtual queue, people can enjoy their day in the park, riding other rides, eating, drinking, and shopping, all while keeping their place in line in the virtual queue.

It's curious that Universal Orlando announced that Hagrid's would use a virtual queue after its first day of operation... but the resort never implemented the system. That's ironic in that Universal has been an industry leader in the development of virtual queuing, having used virtual queues for its Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious attractions as well as opening Volcano Bay as a park using nothing but virtual queues.

Virtual queues do have some downsides for a park. Say what you will about the hassle of waiting in them, but physical queues are people eaters. They take people off the "streets" at theme parks, easing demand for other attractions, restaurants, and shops, making those locations more accessible to others. Drop physical queues and you've actually reduced the overall guest capacity for a theme park, forcing the park to develop more attractions, restaurants and shops to hold those people who would have been waiting in lines. That can be a high price to pay to buy the additional guest satisfaction that virtual queues can deliver.

And writing here as a former attractions operator, the most important element of a queuing system to the ops team is that it delivers a consistent flow of guests to the loading point. Holding dispatch to wait for stragglers is the most useless excuse for compromising an attraction's capacity. This is why you often hear spiels to "keep up with the party in front of you" and to "fill in all available space" when you are awaiting a theme park ride or show. Operators want to send ride vehicles and start shows as soon as those vehicles and show are ready... and not have to hold them to wait for the guests.

That makes some physical queue necessary for any theme park attraction where demand exceed capacity. You just can't allow people to stroll up to load at their convenience, without any line of people, if you want to run an attraction at its full capacity. Operators need time to screen for restrictions and explain safety procedures, too. A physical queue provides that.

This is why there's always at least a short wait with Fastpass and Universal Express tickets. And preshow guest collection areas with virtual queues, too. Given the need for at least some physical queue to ensure smooth operation, there's no real point in offering these queuing alternatives on attractions that do not consistently have traditional waits of at least 30 minutes or less.

But that does not describe Rise of the Resistance or Hagrid's. Or Flight of Passage, Slinky Dog Dash, Radiator Springs Racers, or any other attraction that continues to demand hours-long standby waits long after their openings, for that matter. With admission prices in excess of $100 a day for some visitors, world-class theme parks need to be providing a world-class customer experience. That means using virtual queues instead of physical ones for attractions where demand exceeds capacity to the point where people would have to wait for multiple hours in a physical queue.

So bravo to Walt Disney World for offering a virtual queue on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Now let's see virtual queues on more attractions. If you're spending anywhere near $100 a day to visit a theme park, you simply never should have to stand multiple hours in a line for a single experience.

Replies (20)

December 7, 2019 at 2:50 PM

Once again Robert you are bang on the money.

Could not agree more...

December 7, 2019 at 6:16 PM

It is interesting as still see some folks old-school enough to wait hours on end to ride when chances of it breaking down are clear. But to each their own as this is much easier in many ways for those who'd rather visit the rest of the park then spend half the day for one ride.

December 8, 2019 at 11:29 AM

Nothing like the joy of visiting a theme park … only to find out that the virtual queue is filled for the day and you have no chance of even entering a regular line if you wanted to.

December 8, 2019 at 11:31 AM

I'm definitely in the old school camp and I didnt mind waiting 3 to 4 hours for a new attraction but that was then and this is now. Maybe somebody can help me out as it's been years since I've been to orlando. From what I'm hearing and reading, me and my family pretty much have to arrive when the park opens to have any chance to reserve a popular attraction for that day? If we stroll in around 11 am or noon there is a very good chance that attraction fast pass or boarding pass will be gone for the day? My understanding of a virtual queue is this. So unless I have a boarding pass, I'm not able to physically stand in the line when I arrive at the park? Again, I get it as these theme park popularity has sore over the years, but I still enjoy not having the ability to be ruuning around chasing things and not be worried what I'm going to miss. It just seems if you are not a disney pass holder, expect to spend 3 days at disneyland to be able to enjoy all the rides. Another thing that worries me if things are going to be 100% working when I do get on for the first time. I remember when I got on cars for the first time and a few things were not working. I was disappointed but I still rather have disney shut the ride down and experience it 100% even if I ride it on my next visit. I guess that why Busch garden and dollywood balance things out because I can pay way less, show up around 11 am and still get on every ride.

December 8, 2019 at 11:43 AM

Disney finally sees sense and has stopped people boarding RotR more than once a day ... but it took them 4 days to shut that loophole.

Still poor decision making though not having a standby line as well.

The groups were all gone before 8am this morning.

December 9, 2019 at 12:44 PM

@Makorider - I'm still unsure how guests were able to get multiple rides on the attraction, because as you have noted, Boarding Groups have been filling up before the park even opens for the day, and Disney continues to reduce the number of Boarding Groups each day as the ride has been unable to meet anticipated capacity, leaving guests with a late day Boarding Group without a ride on the attraction. I have been skipping over much of the back and forth on the message boards about the nitty gritty of what people are doing, but I'm not surprised that they quickly closed this loophole. I actually think closing it within 4 days is pretty fast for Disney, and I'm a bit surprised that they didn't let the status quo stay in place for at least a week.

I'm not sure what a standby line is supposed to accomplish here. If they are filling the entire day's expected capacity with Boarding Groups, thus liberating guests to roam the park until they are called back to the attraction, why would anyone in their right mind wait in a standby line? The only way Disney is going to tap a standby line is if the attraction exceeds the expected capacity for the day (hasn't done that yet), or guests don't show up when their boarding group is called. That means anyone waiting in the standby line is hoping against hope. If for some reason people are not returning to the attraction, Disney will simply page the next Boarding Group until there are guests queued up to ride, so anyone waiting in a standby line will be waiting until the very end of the day. A standby line would only come into play in the final hour or 2 of the day, and if Disney did manage to run through all of the guests in the Boarding Groups from the start of the day, they could easily fill the new found capacity by opening up additional Boarding Groups, leaving the standby line standing by.

Robert makes a great point here, and what I had always envisioned would happen with FP. Unfortunately, it sounds like some guests really do enjoy standing in lines, and even the notion of being stuck in one place for 4+ hours doesn't discourage them from queuing up. If Disney wanted to, they could easily transition every single attraction that's connected to FP to a Virtual Queue system and eliminate standby lines altogether. That would be the ideal use of the broken FP system, but I think the Luddites would storm the castle if that ever happened.

I think Disney is embarrassed to admit that Universal came up with a system that's better than what they have (Tapu Tapu), and continues to plod along with FP+, which is about as backwards and broken as it's ever been. The Boarding Groups for RotR are a breath of fresh air, and if virtual queue were in place for every attraction at DHS, it would make everything work more smoothly.

December 9, 2019 at 1:27 PM

Russell ...... are you calling me a Luddite ? .... LOL .... :) :) 'cause yes, you'd better believe I'd be storming that castle if they ever got rid of FP+.

What Disney needs to do is allocate, let's say, 15000 RotR places to the virtual line, and 5000 to a standby line. That way if you arrive early, but not early enough to get into a VBG you can decide if you want to stand in line for a few hours. At the moment you have to get to DHS before 7am at the very latest to have the slightest chance to get on the ride. Don't forget a lot of people have 1 shot at this due to their vacation itinerary.

You're right, some people are quite happy to spend 5-6hrs in a standby line, so what not give them the chance to do just that.

From what I heard, the 2am early birds in the first groups were getting thru and finding the app was still accepting boarding groups so they were taking them again. One guy on the Disney blogs was bragging he'd ridden it 2.5 times !! Supposedly the 1/2 was because it broke down. Kudos to Disney, and as you've said in the past, they were no doubt trolling that blog and saw the comment.

A work colleague and his family went Sunday and arrived "just before 7" He got a boarding group, but didn't get on the ride until "after 10" due to breakdowns. That's one looooong day !!

December 9, 2019 at 2:02 PM

I'm not calling you a Luddite, just those who'd rather stand in a physical line instead of using available technology to avoid it.

I see what you're saying about splitting the number of places between a virtual and standby line. However, it doesn't really make any sense to manage two separate lines, and you're still going to have the situation of people getting turned away. If they did as you say and allocated 15k to the Virtual Queue and another 5k to standby, you have to decide how those lines mesh. Do you continuously merge the lines together all day, or do the people in the standby line sit around all day until the 15k guests in the VQ get their ride? Then, if you've already accounted for the 15k rides through VQ, you would then have to cut off the standby line after 5k people enter that line, which still introduces the likelihood that guests showing up in the middle of the day will miss the cutoff, especially if they're meshing the standby and VQ lines throughout the day.

I'm sorry makorider, but I think the solution is a pure VQ, which is what they're doing right now. However, I do think (and this has been suggested elsewhere) that Disney would be wise to hold back spots in the VQ from the morning distribution (particularly on days with EMH, where only on-site guests are in the park), so the guests who physically can't make it to the park by 7 AM are not missing out. Disney would have to be really clever and random about when and how many spots they release later in the day, but I think that's probably the only way that you could manage it fairly, along with strictly enforcing the 1 experience per day rule.

December 9, 2019 at 2:50 PM

Agreed ... it's not as simple as just splitting the allocation, but somehow I think people willing to stand in a physical line should at the very least be given that option.

How long will they operate the VQ, that's the next question. Do we think it will be well into 2020, or once the holiday rush is over, will it go back to standby only ?

Let's not forget M&M's runaway train is due to open on March 4th, so that may well prove to be the tipping point for VQ's or standbys or FP+.

I've also considered the idea of staggered VQ allocations, but that would probably tie people to their phones even more so than FP+

Despite the bitter hatred for FP+ by many people on this blog, you know it's coming .... and then all hell will break loose ... :)

December 9, 2019 at 5:44 PM

Ok I am still on the fence about this one. Just visited Disney and experienced Rise of Resistance. Excellent ride by the way. It is wroth standing in line for. But it was a pain in the butt to plan a day around. Arriving at 6am does not guarantee a ride. Nor does 5am or 4am. Disney could improve when they open the queue. The queue does not necessary open with the park. They let us in the park about 1 hour before the queue opened. They announced a time and then opened it earlier. Those who waited for the communicated time did not ride. I lucked out and tried it early. Got in group 84. Which gave me a load time of 8pm with 2 breakdowns. I cannot imagine a park full of virtual queues. One is enough to manage. Having 5 or 10 random times to show up for different rides would just drive me insane faster than a family meltdown in Orlando during August. After paying the high cost to get into a park offering us a Fast Pass for the next day feels wrong especially when it is your last day and you got the whole family up at 4am. Even worse, having to buy another days worth of tickets for the family if you can stay another day. Now, with the venting turned off, it is convenient so you do not have to stand for hours. At least you can enjoy or leave the park or sleep. I hope they can better tune and communicate the opening procedures of the queue process because it has some advantages.

December 9, 2019 at 7:05 PM

@Ieroyk and Russell. You both make a great point of why for me visiting Disneyland will now be every 4 or 5 years. I have a 4 year old son, so the days of me standing in long lines is over for now until he gets older. At the same time, he's still young that it make is impossible to be standing in line early. Two years ago we took him and we got into the park at around 11 am and the lines was not that bad in September. As Ieroyk pointed out, If I'm going to spend that kind of money and spend some time planning each day, I rather just go for 4 or 5 days every 4 years vs going every year for 2 or 3 days. I'm just thankful we have this site and provide me some insight and knowledge of what people are dealing when they visit Disneyland and Disney world. Cause if I didn't know, heck yeah I would be mad I didn't get a chance to ride a new attraction cause I was out of the loop!

December 10, 2019 at 12:17 AM

Something else that isnt being talked about is that using a virtual queue allows the ride to have it's full downtime each night. If there was any standby line in addition to the virtual queue, the ride would have to stay open many hours after closing, limiting maintenance time on a ride already having issues with downtime. The virtual queue will hopefully prevent a Hagrid situation in which they have to close the ride early or open it late every day

December 10, 2019 at 2:12 AM

Well.... NO
No way.
Exagerated wait times, either physical or virtual, are symptoms of .... either visitor's hype lunacy, or conceptual capacity failure. Or both.
It is the exact opposite of any mention of "relaxed free time enjoyment".
It's cloned from stressed work-time.
A theme park should be built, to offer the most total, guaranteed relaxation time, exempt from any form of planning !

No way to make a marriage between stressfull Agenda-planning, and enjoying Free time....
Theories, won't change that.

December 10, 2019 at 2:24 AM

Surely a new world-class attraction like RotR is ALWAYS going to have problems when it opens dealing with the people who want to experience it. There are likely to be more people who want to experience it than can physically ride it for many weeks so there is in effect no 'fair' system that allows everyone to do so. A physical line just means misery for most people who wold spend the entire day in the line and even then some of them would not get to ride. A virtual line seems more fair but only if the time that you can sign up for it is clearly advertised and not brought forward without warning. But either way some people are not going to get to ride it and no system can solve that problem.

December 10, 2019 at 9:36 AM

I think what a lot of people are missing here is that RotR is extremely unreliable right now in addition to being a brand new attraction with just theoretical capacity and idealized loading procedures. What is happening right now is essentially a soft open (just like the reservation process that Disney did for Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland during the month of May). I think Disney really should be more upfront about this, and is reaping what they sow here by declaring a grand opening of such a technologically advanced and unproven attraction. The other issue is that whether purposeful or not, or whether they're trying to be "fair" or unpredictable to give less obsessive people a chance at riding, the way they've chosen to open the Boarding Groups at seemingly random times each morning is not helping anyone. It puts an element of chance into the whole process that guests dedicated enough to arrive at the park at 5 AM don't want to take, and frankly if 15k people show up at the park before me to ride a ride, more power to them.

Overall, the biggest issue here is that the number of guests arriving at DHS each day (demand) is exceeding the number of guests RotR can reasonable accommodate on a given day right now (supply). When demand exceed supply, you either need to create price controls or expect long lines and angry customers left out in the cold. I still think it's far better to know that the day's capacity has been reached when you enter the park (or before you leave for the park) instead of standing around in a line for hours on end.

Who knows how long this process will continue, but it took FoP nearly 3 months until it was able to operate anywhere close to its full theoretical capacity (it reportedly still can't operate all 4 theaters simultaneously to reach the capacity that Imagineers initially planned). Beyond getting the attraction running to optimal capacity, Disney still needs to collect enough real-time data before they can make any calculated estimates for a potential FP+ implementation - and honestly, I think Disney is learning that people are much happier with the VQ than they are with FP+, which might encourage Disney to overhaul how FP+ is administered throughout WDW, perhaps morphing more into what they do at Disneyland/DCA with MaxPass. Given the intense crowds and current unpredictability of the attraction, I highly doubt Disney will go away from the Boarding Groups on RotR before mid-January. However, I wouldn't be surprised if they continue to tweak how they operate the VQ to keep guests from settling into a pattern that leaves thousands of first timers and technophobes that may have planned a holiday trip to WDW explicitly for Galaxy's Edge/RotR on the sideline. Until the performance of the attraction become more predictable and crowd levels and demand for the attraction normalize, there's no way Disney is going to put FP+ on RotR. It's possible that MMRR, which hopefully will have a far more reliable, predictable, and robust capacity, may help things out, but I think the only change that new attraction will elicit will be a reworking of the Tier 1 attractions (perhaps moving ASS and TSM off Tier 1 with MFSR adding FP+ as a Tier 1). Though, if Disney starts to move completely away from FP+ and into a construct that is more like a VQ, then all bets are off the table.

December 10, 2019 at 10:20 AM

I think it's wishful thinking on your part Russell, to consider the idea of Disney moving away from FP+.

They have just completely overhauled the way it works, and I can't believe they'd have spent all that time and money on a system that's going away soon.

And yes ... that's my wishful thinking .... :)

December 10, 2019 at 10:51 AM

As Robert wrote on today's front page, if enough people tell Disney that they like the way the Boarding Groups system (VQ) is working in comparison to FP+, and that seems to be a frequent sentiment I have been reading, particularly from those that anguish over those 60+ day advanced booking windows but also from APs, then managers will have the ammunition to take to their bosses to institute a change, regardless of any prior investments.

As far as changes to the current FP+ system, there really haven't been that many to the way the process works, just a re-working of the Tiering system as a way to force guests' hand and the adding of the 90-day advanced upcharge option for Concierge Level guests. In reality, FP+ hasn't really changed systematically since it replaced the old paper system, so if Disney has evidence that transitioning it to more of a VQ-style or MaxPass-esque system would be more efficient and accepted by guests, they would be foolish not to look into it.

They're obviously not going to make drastic changes based on data from a couple of days, but if the VQ provides guests with a better customer experience and is a more inherently "fair" system, then they at least need to consider keeping it around, perhaps integrating it alongside FP+.

December 10, 2019 at 2:28 PM

VQs will be the new normal for new E-ticket Disney attractions from here on out. I hope that they will not implement VQs at two or more attractions in the same park, as that means a guest may have to choose to do one attraction or the other(s).

Of the upcoming new attractions, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy coaster will have a virtual queue. It will be wildly popular and, if Hagrid is any indication, a story-telling coaster is likely to have frequent breakdowns. The Tron coaster may also implement it, but it being a copy of an existing attraction overseas, Disney may have a better idea how long it will take to tweak the ride. Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway will be the next major attraction to open in March, 2020, but if RotR continues to be as wildly popular as it is, I doubt M&M will open with a VQ (unless Disney puts a VQ on both rides and as I already stated, hope would never happen).

December 11, 2019 at 5:33 AM

If the THRC in design planning phase is allready WAY to low, nothing ever will solve any problem. (An OHRC is even lower)
This attraction is the first ever, what I would call "F-ticket" sized one in the history of Disneyland. Measured to the average daily attendance of the park, my best guess is that the THRC should be at least 3500, probably even better in the range of 3600-3900 ...
What do we get ? (anyone knows the actual troughput?) Best guess : just under 2000 ? (I could be wrong)
That's PRE-designed operational misery.

(In operational feasibility studies, THRC advice is computed towards 2 main factors : the daily attendance in the park, and the total number of rides & shows to choose from in a one day-visit. The outcome is different for every individual park. The number of attractions is very high in Disneyland compared to most theme parks, worldwide, which allows for somehow lower average THRC rates on all attractions, but the park's attendance is still amongst the highest on earth, which asks for very high basic troughput, at the most popular attractions , anyway.)

December 11, 2019 at 10:32 AM

You make a good point Herwig, but in the case of RotR, Disney had a distinct size limitation that they were working with. Even though RotR has opened first in DHS, the attraction was originally designed for the footprint of Disneyland, which as you may know is a significantly space constrained park. The rumor is that when the ride is running at its peak efficiency, it can take on over 2,000 pph, which would give it one of the largest capacities of a non-omnimover dark ride in the world. Certainly, Disney could have built in more capacity for the attraction, but they also have to weigh the costs of that. In Disneyland, that probably would have come at the cost of other parts of Galaxy's Edge to make the footprint of RotR larger. At DHS, if it didn't mirror DL's version, would have come at the cost of unique design costs that would have negated the efficiency of installing identical rides/lands in 2 different parks.

I don't think the problem here is capacity, it's that Disney is unable to operate RotR at its ideal capacity because they didn't perform adequate load testing on the attraction before opening it to the masses. I think once they get through this shakedown period and demand dies down a bit (along with the addition of another D/E-ticket attraction in MMRR), RotR wait times will settle in with other high-demand attractions in the respective parks. DL obviously has the advantage of the shear number of attraction to take the pressure off RotR, but DHS also had a number of highly regarded attractions (just about every one is considered a "must do" by guests), which will spread crowds around the park.

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