Want to skip the long lines for rides and food at Disneyland or Walt Disney World? As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for - because you might get it.
With virtual queues and mobile ordering, Disney has created app-based alternatives to the long physical lines that used to frustrate visitors. Instead of standing behind other guests to order food at a register, now you can use the mobile order feature on the official Disneyland or Walt Disney World app to place your order and pay. Instead of lining up in an endless queue of people waiting to get on a ride, now you can use the virtual queue in Disney's apps to claim a space in line on popular attractions such as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Indiana Jones Adventure and soon the new Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure.
But while these features allow you to avoid time standing in a physical line, they don't necessarily make your wait any shorter. In practice, they're actually increasing the amount of time that many guests are waiting for their food or thrills. When fans asked Disney for a way to avoid long line, the finger on the monkey's paw curled, and we got these new app-based alternatives.
Yes, mobile order and virtual queues can be easy to use. With mobile order, the whole family can take their time looking at the menu, deciding what they want, then communicating that information directly to a restaurant's kitchen, with no risk of a cashier not getting your intended order right. You can decide what to order whenever you want, then skip the line and pick up your meal at your convenience. In an attraction's virtual queue, it's just a click or two on your phone to claim a spot in line, without having to rush across the park and steel yourself for a long wait on your feet. Just wait for your turn to be called via a notification on the app, and you're heading straight in.
Seems easy, right? Well, they might be too easy.
How many times have you seen a long line for a restaurant and ride and said to yourself, "forget it. That's too long. We'll try something else." Long physical waits deter people from going to overloaded restaurants and attractions, distributing guests to alternatives with more available capacity. That helps even the load around a park.
But visitors generally don't care about the greater good of efficient guest loading across a theme park. No one is paying Disney ticket prices to be part of some grand industrial engineering challenge. People want what they want. They just want to get on that ride or order that food that they wanted in the first place.
So Disney found ways to give them access to that. But removing the deterrent effect of long physical queues only added to the demand for rides and restaurants without increasing their capacity. That's why almost everyone visiting Disneyland or Disney's Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort now starts their day before 7am, frantically reloading the page on the official park app, trying to catch it exactly at 7am, when they can submit their request to join the virtual queue for Rise of the Resistance.
Disney's app has no way of knowing which fans would gladly have waited four hours in a physical queue for the award-winning Star Wars ride and who's just trying to get a spot in the queue on a lark, because it only takes a click and people told them it was a great ride. The virtual queue system pays no attention to who's on the final day of their Disney vacation and has not yet gotten the chance to ride and someone's who's been on Rise dozens of times already and is just looking for another go.
There's no merit to the selection process. And with nearly everyone with a reservation to visit that day trying to enter the queue at once, who gets in and who does not is pretty much just a random-chance lottery. For those who lose that lottery, Disney's system to make waiting in line easier has made getting on a popular attraction impossible.
It's less dire for restaurants' mobile order, but still frustrating. Before the pandemic, when relatively few people used Disney's mobile order system, it worked wonderfully. Those who knew to use it could skip long food queue and get their meals pretty much on demand. But with mobile order now mandatory at many quick service restaurants, kitchens are getting slammed with orders just before mealtimes - many more orders than cashiers would be able to take manually in a physical queue. And many more orders than a restaurant would get with a physical line out the door.
To ease the burden on the kitchen, Disney then asks guests using mobile order to select a later pick-up time, so that the kitchen can clear the orders it already has. As a result, if you want to eat lunch at noon instead of 1:30pm, you need to get your order in before the rush. But every day it seems that the time you need to place your order to get ahead of that rush moves up earlier and earlier. We've heard that for some popular restaurants, you might now need to get your mobile order in before 10am if you want any chance to snag a pick-up time before 1pm.
A system that was designed to help people avoid a 20-to-30-minute wait in a physical line has left them in an up-to-three-hour wait in a virtual one, instead.
With so many restaurants using mobile order, there's still a deterrent effect that drives guests to other, less-crowded locations, helping to smooth demand. It's just that well-informed fans are now having to decide about where to eat lunch as soon as they get to the park in the morning, rather than just before noon as they might have before. Poorly informed fans are walking around hungry and frustrated at lunch time, though.
With pandemic restrictions lifting, should Disney retreat from mobile order, allowing walk-up, in-person ordering at more restaurants? Should it further limit the number of mobile orders it takes per 15-minute period to accommodate walk-in orders? Or will more Disney fans just have to learn to place their mobile orders early in the day, as they once learned to make early Fastpass and dining reservations?
And what to about virtual queues? Could adding virtual queues to more attractions actually reduce the load on Rise of the Resistance? It hasn't helped at Disneyland, where the park is allowing visitors to join both the Rise and Indy queues at the same time. Allowing people to wait for multiple rides at once just further increases demand, making the whole mess even worse.
To reduce the demand for Rise, Disney would need to force fans to decide whether to try for the Star Wars ride's virtual queue or the virtual queue for another attraction. That way, some fans who'd been on Rise before - or who don't care that much about Star Wars - might choose to go for an easy return time on another attraction instead of trying for the free shot at another trip on Rise that the current system allows them to take.
Or Disney could bring back the deterrent effect while giving the most desperate Star Wars fans a shot at riding by further limiting the number of available spots in the Rise virtual queue and establishing a walk-up queue that would get a certain number of rides per hour. Of course, Disney's basically had that system for years. It's Fastpass.
Now, Fastpass has created similar demand-and-supply problems over the years, but Disney could help alleviate those by returning Walt Disney World to the "one at a time policy" that Disneyland had before the pandemic led Disney to pause the system on both coasts. Or Disney could leave Fastpass on the sidelines and adopt virtual queues for all attractions whenever they have a wait - so long as guests could wait in only virtual queue at a time.
That's a fascinating scenario to game out. But it might just accelerate many guests' feeling that visiting a Disney theme park is becoming a mobile video game, where you have to make every move on Disney's app before you can do anything in the park itself.
Maybe we shouldn't have wished to get out of those long lines after all.
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