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.Tweet
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