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Is Walt Disney World's Virtual Queue Fair to Theme Park Fans?

May 27, 2022, 5:15 PM · When too many people want to go a theme park ride at once, what is the fairest way to decide who goes first? Or gets to ride at all?

Walt Disney World revived its virtual queuing system this morning for the grand opening of the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Epcot. Virtual queues are just one of the alternatives to traditional, physical queues that parks have employed in recent years. But which method is best for fans?

Let's start the analysis with an assumption: There's no free lunch. Well, there's no free lunch that anyone wants to eat. If someone built a janky attraction that no one wants to ride, there's no need to worry about how to price it or design a queue. Just make it free, open it to everyone and hope someone bothers to show up and ride. (As a long-time website publisher, I am intimately familiar with this business model.)

Queuing becomes an issue only when demand exceeds supply - in this case, supply being the number of people who can be accommodated at dispatch in any given moment. If supply exceeds demand, it's a walk on - the theme park equivalent to a free lunch. Fans don't need to give up anything extra to ride.

But when demand exceeds supply, the "no free lunch" rule applies. That means that a park must charge some cost to guests to secure their place on the ride. The old, traditional method for that has been to charge the guest's time. The more people who wanted to go on a ride, the longer you had to wait for it.

But your time isn't the only cost of a traditional theme park queue. There is an opportunity cost to pay, as well. While you are in line for one attraction, you can't be in line for another. If you choose popular attractions with long waits, you limit the number of rides you can do in one day.

Theme parks long ago figured out that they could substitute the time and opportunity costs for a financial one, earning them extra income in the process. That's why so many parks now sell upcharge line-skipping services, such as Universal Express, Cedar Fair's Fast Lane, and Six Flags' Flash Pass.

Disney is in that business now, too, with its Individual Lightning Lane and Disney Genie+ products. Disney charges a premium price just to get into the park, so many fans are not happy with the additional charges on top of that to experience popular attractions without extended waits. It's one thing to pay for Flash Pass after getting through the gate on a cheap Six Flags season pass. It's something else to pay for an ILL (seriously, Disney, do you even think of acronyms when naming your products?) after coughing up $100+ a day to visit Disney.

Financial costs also raise social concerns. Theme parks ceased being an affordable option for poor families long ago - if they ever were an option. America's shrinking middle class often needs discounts or to visit on lower-priced dates to afford visits to some parks, especially the most-expensive Disney ones. But those who can afford to get through the gates have been able to enjoy pretty much the same experience as the wealthiest visitors. Only when parks devote a significant portion of their attraction capacity to people paying to skip the regular queue does a park begin to feel like an economically stratified experience.

Unfortunately for those visitors for whom an overdrawn account means a problem for them and not for the bank, some parks seem to be getting to that point.

But charging people money they struggle to afford is not the only way that parks can be unfair in managing attraction access. Some physical queues can be brutal to wait in. Standing for hours in the heat in an unthemed serpentine queue, with no access to a bathroom? Yuck. Parks have an obvious legal obligation to provide accommodation for people who physically cannot wait for a ride under those conditions. But I believe they face an ethical obligation to make their physical queues as pleasant and comfortable as possible, too. It's simply unfair to their guests to do otherwise.

In an attempt to free people from hours-long waits in overcrowded physical queues, Disney has introduced virtual queuing for some of its newest attractions. A virtual queue still costs people their time, but in a far less taxing manner. Yet so long as people still have to pay an opportunity cost, virtual queuing can provide a fair and equitable way for people to wait for their favorite attractions.

But Disney isn't charging any opportunity cost to enter its virtual queues. (Disney also is offering a paid Individual Lightning Lane option on Cosmic Rewind, in case you were wondering about the financial cost option.) While they await their virtual queue "Boarding Group" assignment on Guardians, Disney World visitors may queue up for and enjoy any other attraction in the park. A fairer virtual queue system would restrict visitors to waiting in just one queue at a time, like under a traditional system. Want to use the virtual queue for Guardians? That means no going on Test Track, Soarin', Frozen Ever After, or Remy's Ratatouille Adventure until you are finished on Cosmic Rewind.

Of course, if Disney had that rule, I suspect that fewer guests would try for a Guardians spot when they open in the morning. And some guests who did, but got a later Boarding Group, would choose to ditch their spot in the Guardians queue in favor of trying for other attractions, opening spaces for guests who would be happy to get on Cosmic Rewind at the expense of all other attractions in the park.

With no financial charge, no opportunity cost, and a time cost that is minimized to almost nothing relative to what it could have been, entering a Disney virtual queue is as close to a free lunch giveaway as exists among popular theme park attractions. In what should surprise no one, that has created massive, excess demand for virtual queue assignments. That excess demand forces the virtual queue assignment process to become something that feels more like a lottery than a fair, first-come-first-served way of assigning spaces on a ride.

Yes, a lottery can be "fair" in the sense that every entry has an equal chance of winning. But when overwhelming demand leaves Disney's virtual queue system leaves fans unable to get an assignment to ride, that is unfair to guests who would be willing to pay something - with their time and their choices - to get on board.

Disney is right to want to spare people from spending hours in temporary switch-back queues for a new ride in its opening months, when demand is highest. But sometimes, when a park tries to solve one problem, it creates another.

After all, there is no free lunch.

Replies (13)

May 27, 2022 at 6:39 PM

Good article. As has been said before, the VQ would be more palatable if we knew Disney wasn't purposefully limiting it to drive up the ILL purchases.

My family stopped going to Six Flags because of the Flash Pass. The cost is patently absurd, nothing at Six Flags is worth that much, but enough people buy it to wildly increase wait times, and the way they operate it--allowing everyone with the FP to enter before even a single standby rider can enter--boils my blood. We were in a 15 minute line for a smaller coaster when a huge group with FPs showed up, and suddenly the wait time nearly TRIPLED as we watched these fools board, exit, run around and ride again while we remained stuck in the same place in line. If I'd had a blow-dart gun...

For years Disney had a functioning fastpass system that was egalitarian. Adding maxpass created a little disparity, but really it was only a matter of convenience, you were still on an even playing field in terms of fastpasses you could get and use.

But now Disney is well into Six Flags territory, richy uber alles, and I've read elsewhere they intend to start jacking up the price of Genie+. A pox on Chapek, soon he will have destroyed my goodwill toward Disneyland, too.

May 27, 2022 at 9:12 PM

Disney has become quite expensive. Paying $17 for a lightning lane pass per person adds $68 for a family of four.

It is becoming like the old A,B,C,D,E tickets. At this point, stop charging admission and just sell the individual rides.

May 27, 2022 at 9:25 PM

Go back to the original method used for the Rise VQ: You can only be assigned a boarding pass once you've entered the park. That way, you've created a first-come, first-serve system that still prevents the queue from becoming overcrowded.

Yes, it means Disney has to staff their Cast Members earlier to accommodate all the early arrivals. But if we're to take Chapek at his word, the parks are thriving again, making the cost of such labor chump change.

May 28, 2022 at 1:35 AM

In my book, for a queuing system to be fair, it means that any guest who purchases an admission ticket to the park should have an opportunity to join the queue if they so choose, and if they choose to join the queue, are only denied a ride if the ride cannot perform. By that definition, Disney's virtual queue system is completely unfair, as not only are there barriers to joining the queue, but anyone who doesn't choose to make Epcot their first park of the day is essentially excluded completely. Calling it a queue when it is much more akin to a lottery is poor form, and the fact that Disney is intentionally limiting access to their new attraction in order to drive upcharge sales should absolutely be called out.

Now, it would not be difficult for Disney to offer what I'd consider a fair virtual queue, but here's what it would need: At park opening, anyone present in the park can join the standby line like normal. Once it reaches a certain length (or at a certain time after opening...say an hour), guests are instead asked to scan their ticket at the attraction to join a virtual queue and are given a boarding group. Groups are called throughout the day to maintain a relatively consistent standby wait time, with the current groups clearly visible anywhere wait times are displayed. Disney may stop allowing guests to join the virtual queue several hours ahead of closing, but that time needs to be posted clearly so that those in the park and those hopping from another park can plan accordingly and cannot be simply based on boarding group distribution. Once the distribution of boarding groups ends, everyone with a boarding group is admitted into the queue (as long as they join by closing...ideally for the last couple hours, all remaining boarding groups would be allowed to enter), but guests without boarding groups are not permitted to ride. This would address nearly every issue I have with the current virtual queue setup, as it would allow anyone in the park an attempt at riding, eliminate the chance of missing out due to technological complications, and allow those willing to put in the extra effort to be there at opening the opportunity to ride right away. The only potential issue would be having a rush of late groups at the tail end of the day, but this could be mitigated by cutting off boarding groups in the afternoon and reopening the queue in the evening should it appear the attraction will run through everyone sufficiently early.

May 28, 2022 at 8:24 AM

VQs at Disney create artificial demand as there are those that would not stand in a long line for repeat rides, especially AP holders like Mako and Colonel who stated in another post they rode RotR numerous times when it had a VQ, but would not ride it if they had to wait in a long line.

May 28, 2022 at 11:31 AM

The virtual line algo offers a barrier for those guests Who are not tech savy ( older guest in the majority ) or international guests with a different language. So thats another way the VQ May be unfair to certain visitors. The pox on certain Disney executives has already been conjured, so I Will settle for a particulary nasty kidney stone. So there

May 28, 2022 at 11:33 AM

Still remember in 2012 going to Universal with my dad, we were tempted by the additional cost of a ticket for their "fast pass" version, decided to chance it...and ended up getting very short lines that day so lucked out saving money.

At first, it seemed Disney knew what they were doing here as yes, folks will gladly pay to cut down on wait times and that made sense. Now, it's getting a bit out of hand with my mom complaining on looking at trips and how you have to schedule so much in advance to get on a ride.

Yet, do remember how 25 years ago, my family would have popped for this but just feels too much now and yes, a bit unfair to others.

To me, it robs a certain magic of going to a Disney park in being able to adjust and "go with the flow" at times. Now, has to be fixed to the minute

May 28, 2022 at 9:13 PM

Queues are not sufficient proof of shortage. Here are two examples where they are not. First example. People queue to board an airplane, sometimes for awhile, even though they have an assigned seat. Second example. Every grocery store manager knows that people will queue for a product that is advertised limited (say, five per customer) even if there is lots.

May 29, 2022 at 2:27 AM

Personally not a big fan of virtual queues but I acknowledge they prevent people from spending hours in a line just to end up with a downtime, which isn't as big of a deal at a regional park, but at WDW its a really big deal since people visit from all over the world, spends tons of money, and are there with their whole family. So wasting half a day is a major issue and requires a lot of compensation for a lot of people.

They also keep a 2+ hour wait from happening at park closing, which is a nightmare for transportation (especially since they are already way understaffed with this labor shortage - think thousands of old people driving buses and boats getting scheduled 6 days a week for months straight). It also messes up third shift maintenance work, which is especially important on new ride that needs a lot of work third shift to up the reliability, and makes it difficult to schedule third shift maintenance work around the park because the trucks can't go where guests are walking.

That being said when a ride runs out of VQ that quickly in my opinion its not a good idea to advertise the ride. Disney has gotten a lot smarter now about doing a lot of cast/DVC/AP previews before rides open in order to keep the opening from getting way over crowded, but it appears a lot of APs are still going anyway and hogging spots even if they have already ridden it (some 20+ times).

Fact of the matter is there is nothing WDW (and DLR) can do that is going to make everyone happy. The explosion of population in Florida/the southeast in general, combined with record tourism every year (except 2020), combined with the massive amount of complaints they get about how bad the experience is when their parks are over crowded...the only thing they can really do is jack up the prices and have a reservation system so it doesn't get overly crowded. And those of lesser means are just going to get priced out and that's that.

May 29, 2022 at 12:44 PM

I’m confused - I thought the state punished Disney for caring about diverse people so the park was going to be empty and the sewers were going to back up? They also said there’s No need for a virtual line until they relented and allowed open carry in the parks to protect against the good guys who had a bad day in line ?

May 30, 2022 at 12:27 PM

@twobits To be clear, I'm not standing in a long line that's far longer than it should be because ILL people are allowed to cut in front of me. If everyone were on equal footing and the line was two hours long, I'd standing in it.

But I'm not going to be made to wait LONGER so that rich people can cut in front of me.

May 30, 2022 at 10:01 PM

I think it's according to the needs of each person, if there is a real need, they will accept the queue properly
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May 31, 2022 at 9:47 AM

"Fair" is such a tricky word. The appearance of fairness to one person is obvious imbalance to another. Robert's use of the term "free lunch" is a pretty apt comparison, and the way Disney has chosen to operate their VQs is very much like a "free lunch" for guests that have institutional knowledge of the systems and the right tools to access them. In my eyes, if you want to get on one of the best theme park attractions in the world, you should have to endure some pain or inconvenience. Years ago, that used to mean waking up early, spending hours researching "tricks" and "tips", learning which park paths offered the shortest walk to the attraction entrance, or simply having the patience and bladder control to stand in line for hours if needed. That "pain" is an important tool in crowd control that weeds the real fans from those who couldn't care less about an attraction. Why would grandma who gets motion sickness wait on line for 3 hours for a roller coaster? They wouldn't, but if a virtual queue allows them a shot at riding a coaster with a physical line wait of less than 20 minutes, they might give the ride a try. While that might be good for a park looking to attract new fans, it takes a spot away from a true coaster fan. Disney's VQs essentially take desire and determination out of the equation, and replaces those with technical savvy, institutional knowledge, and luck.

Is it "fair" to significantly handicap a guest's access to an attraction because they don't have a modern cell phone? Is it fair to even have a virtual queue that puts hard core fans on the same platform as guests who'd rather be at a competitor's park?

When it comes to ILLs, it seems that you can't get one right now unless you're an on-site guest anyway, so I suppose those guests are adequately taking advantage of that "perk". I'd question whether that's even really a perk - Stay on site, and get the "privilege" to pay an extra $20 to ride a top attraction (on top of your overpriced lodging with dwindling benefits compared to 5 years ago), but so long as ILLs are selling out to on-site guests and there are free ways to access the attractions for off-site guests, it's difficult to complain about the system.

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