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Universal Tries: Virtual Queue Experiment

Very quietly over this past weekend, Universal Orlando tested a brand new virtual queue (VQ). At present, Universal uses the old-fashioned “standby” line for just about every visitor. Only those who pony up (usually $25-45 per person) for the Universal Express pass get to bypass lines, though these same passes are free for those staying at Universal’s hotels (years ago, a free Express pass similar to Disney’s FASTPASS was available, but this was long ago abandoned).

The new virtual queue approximates Disney’s test a few months ago at the Haunted Mansion and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster: visitors arrive at the attraction, where they are given a free boarding party number (say, Group #7), and then are allowed to mill about wherever they want until their group number is called out loud. They can also use their cell phones to “text in” their group number, and receive a text notification when it’s their turn (this was apparently given a limited test in Halloween Horror Nights last year). Each group at present is 300 guests.

The idea is to increase sales in the nearby merch and food locations, and by all accounts, it’s been a phenomenal success. The area near Jaws, where it was tested, became much more active in the walkways as sales have reportedly skyrocketed in a way that never occurred with the line-skipping Universal Express pass.

A new idea to chew on: a Virtual Queue.

The test was so successful, in fact, that it stretched beyond the original plan for a single day and was expanded to cover a few days beyond the weekend. Early on, the euphoria at the enhanced sales led to buzz among executives that Universal was looking to install this on *all* attractions and—in a bold move indeed—require that it be used… there would be no “standby” line at all. Nor would there be an Express pass option. Taking that notion parkwide, to literally every attraction, would probably have gigantic ramifications. The enhanced sales in the Amity area came at the cost of additional, even hectic, foot traffic. Extrapolating that to the whole park could lead to significant crowding problems indeed. With no people in the lines, they will all be in the stores (good for sales) and in the streets (bad for going anywhere—already things can be too crowded even under the “old system”).

Could wide walkways be a thing of the past?

But two features in the nebulous, subject-to-change ruminations about the plan give additional pause. For one thing, “late return” is allowed. Visitors don’t have to be there only when their window is available—they can come back anytime. Secondly, the initial ideas said nothing about limiting how many VQ passes one can collect at once (Disney limits FastPass to just one at a time, or a second ticket if the “return time” is far in the future). Those two facts add up to one inescapably logical touring plan that I think of as a ‘double loop.’ With unlimited VQ passes and no expiration times, it would make sense to start the day by going quickly around the park, stopping briefly at each ride and collecting a ticket before immediately moving along to the next ride, then doing a second circuit to actually ride everything.

As the test continued, however, executives have begun to re-think certain features. Cognizant of the problems certain to materialize if it’s attached to every ride, they are now mulling making this available only on the rides with the longest lines. On top of that, the VQ may only be used during peak seasons (only on peak days?), so that things can proceed via “normal” standby line when things are otherwise slow.

And the rumors of the demise of the paid Universal Express pass were greatly exaggerated. Someone has woken up to the fact that this program makes a lot of money for Universal, and even more importantly, ensures that the hotel rooms are fully booked by guests wanting to get this perk for “free,” so the Express pass is back at Jaws—with no wait at all. It exists side by side with the VQ. So there’s still a front of the line pass.

How things play out with the Universal VQ (which hasn’t been officially named, by the way) is anybody’s guess, since plans and blue-sky thinking change seemingly daily. As with any new idea or technology in the theme parks, the devil is in the details, and it’s too early without those details to render any hasty verdict. Much depends, for instance, on how quickly the “return times” will be for groups. If it’s two hours in the future and late return is allowed, guests might grumble but accept that a return trip is necessary. If it’s two hours in the future and the return-time window must be honored (no late returns allowed), the grumbling will increase in volume and intensity. Indeed, there’s already been some complaints at Jaws, where some visitors do not like a non-linear day, and others had originally had plans to parkhop to Islands of Adventure. So these and the million other details will dictate whether the idea has merit or not.

You might as well have a bite to eat – you’ve got time!

Another vexing problem they will have to face is the “pre-queue.” You may have seen this at Disney parks, when the FastPass return pathway gets blocked up by people whose ticket is *about* to become valid, but isn’t quite yet. These visitors sometimes amass in such numbers that they block the pathway so effectively that a bottleneck ensues, and people *with* the valid passes cannot get to the front. The problem is duplicated at the Jaws test, where the Group-7 people start lining up when they see that Group-6 is now allowed to board the ride. Remembering that each group is comprised of 300 people, you can now imagine the bottlenecks that could occur.

And one final, perhaps terrible inevitability may finally be coming to pass: the death of the themed queue. Disney was an industry leader decades ago for creating themed queues to entertain and occupy people while waiting for lines, but Universal has narrowed the gap considerably with the Forbidden Journey castle at Harry Potter. Yet such an immersive line will be wholly unnecessary, and indeed actively in the way, in a world with ubiquitous VQs. Will Potter be the last highly themed line in Orlando? People already pay more attention to their smartphones than to the themed environments around them—sometimes even while they are on rides!—so it may be a foregone conclusion that the themed lines will become shorter, less elaborate, and much less common (if not extinct). Do I sound old-fashioned and out of sync with today’s generation if I say this makes me sad?

Disney Lies: “Last” Tour to Endor

The big Star Wars convention named Celebration-V invaded Orlando this past weekend, and with it came the offer of a $75 hard-ticketed event to say goodbye to Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The fact of the matter is, the ride still has a few weeks of operation left in it even after that party, so this is just false advertising (other such examples from Disney could be the “glowing away forever” of MSEP and Light Magic’s “dress rehearsal” party that cost money to attend). Putting that aside for the moment though, it was a worthwhile event in a lot of other ways. It will be nice indeed if they use the experience to expand the free Star Wars Weekends offerings. I only hope they don’t now assume the public wants paid Star Wars private parties akin to the cash cows like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.

The Celebration-V panels, while we’re on the subject, offered a few nuggets of information about Star Tours. Imagineer and author Jason Surrell, who is involved with the new Star Tours, gave a talk that released some details we knew (it will be in 3D and it will have multiple destinations) as well as some new stuff, most notably a trailer for the ride (presumably a video for the new queue) that advertised multiple destinations like Bespin, Endor, and Aldaraan (humorously voted the “safest planet in the galaxy”). It wasn’t too much of an exclusive, though. This same video went online at the Disney Parks blog at the same moment.

The Disney booth had a probot and a few costumed dummies…
and a prominent ad for the hard-ticket party.

What’s not explained is whether these destinations are really where our tour will go. Previous artwork implied Tatooine (pod races) and Coruscant as destinations—maybe the new video is just a pure queue video as if we were in a spaceport? And if there are multiple destinations in the ride, will it be left to chance (like Indy and Tower of Terror) or something you can request? One tiny bit of newness from the panel: we saw a picture of the competitors to Star Tours; other tour operators in the Star Wars galaxy.

And it was great to hear surprise guest Anthony Daniels reveal that he wore sandbags on his feet while doing motion-capture (in jeans, not the C3PO costume!) for the original queue animatronic. This was done to keep him from moving, since the eventual robot would have to be wired to the floor. And did you know it’s Daniels who voiced the “Kuchana, Kuchana” terminal announcement in the queue? I didn’t!

One other panel, on Disney Star Wars collecting, revealed that new versions of the Starspeeder toy are coming. Specifically, I’m excited for the Hot Wheels-sized die cast metal ones; this is exactly the kind of toy I’ve long said should be available for every theme park ride. They are also making an oversized toy playset that can fit regular-sized Star Wars action figures as passengers in the Starspeeder.

The six-pack die cast toys will be 1:64 scale.

Back at the Last Tour to Endor, the stars came out to take part in the Jedi/Indy mashup show called Raiders of the Lost Jedi Temple of Doom. Think of this as the regular Indy stunt show, but starring occasional Star Wars characters whose presence causes brand new jokes and new plot deviations. There was a lot to like in this show, such as the ongoing joke of Star Wars characters mistaking Indy for Solo (it was the same actor, after all!), or Han shooting Greedo *first*, and then Indy shooting Darth Maul rather than engage in a lengthy (light)sword fight. All that and JarJar’s head on a pike.

I enjoyed substituting the stormtroopers for Nazi soldiers (it’s the implied metaphor anyway in Star Wars), and Vader fighting Indy with lightsabers was pretty cool. Indy’s female companion isn’t Marion, but rather Leia (who strips off her outer layer quickly enough to become Slave Leia).

This X-Wing (with Jeremy Bulloch and Warwick Davis aboard) blows up the Nazi plane.

There were a few misfires. Like always, volunteers were recruited from the audience, and as usual one was a plant. This guy was a caricature not of the tourist, but of a blogging, unwashed nerdy fan, and specifically Harry Knowles of Ain’t it Cool News. Unlike the normal show, which doesn’t reveal the plant too early, here the plant was ridiculed early on… derisively. It was uncomfortable, partly because the jokes made fun of the people sitting in the bleachers too (Mom’s basement, anyone?) They never did make it explicit that he was a plant, either, so I’m wondering if some folks who visit less often than us thought the hosts were just being mean to that poor guy. It was just weird, and unfunny. No one laughed at those jokes.

George Lucas walks largely unnoticed across DHS.

Across the park at Playhouse Disney, the Death Star Disco tried to be a dance club, but to little avail. They put projections of X-wings and TIE fighters on the walls, and planted a fake “dish” indent in the suspended disco ball to turn it into the Death Star, but the entire idea was a bit half baked. First, by and large Star Wars fans aren’t the sort to dance that much. Second, the songs were cherry upbeat Aaron Carter type of songs—not what this 30ish and 40ish crowd would care much about. They did have Jedi Mickey and R2-MK in here for meet and greets.

R2-MK is blatantly there to sell merch – but it works.

The other dance party at the Bespin stage near the Sorcerer Hat was more successful in getting the crowd to dance along. First, because the songs were more familiar, and second because they all used “play-along” dances from Thriller to Walking Like an Egyptian. Also, these were quick-snippets of songs, not complete-length tunes. DJ Elliot was funny and quick; a perfect choice for this job.

Other rides were open in the park, but not all. Star Tours of course, but also the Great Movie Ride, MuppetVision, Toy Story Mania, Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, and two odd choices—the American Idol Experience and Voyage of the Little Mermaid, both of which played to nearly empty houses.

After the Bespin Dance Party, a special Hyperspace Hoopla was performed on this stage, which holds a much larger audience than the usual spot near Star Tours. 75% of this show was re-used from past shows, though new songs and a few additions (like Han Solo) kept things fresh. While the insults of the nerd jokes in the Indy show were uncomfortable in a bad way, the incestuous overtones of the Luke-Leia numbers were deliciously uncomfortable in a funny, Steve Carrell way. Comedy, it has been observed, is hard. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Vader may have danced to Thriller, but the song for his arrival was We Are Here to Change the World.

This being a special occasion, the Hoopla was allowed to go on for longer, and we saw the return of the Hoopla Hustle, the dance-along to silly moves like the “I’m a bounty hunter—BANG!” spin or the Jedi mind trick wave. The whole show is delightfully cornball. I lapped up every second, but I found out later that one person near me just hated the whole experience. I guess this isn’t everyone’s taste?

This same person found the Star Wars themed fireworks Symphony in the Stars to be spectacular, though I was less impressed. Perhaps I’m jaded by all the good fireworks in the Disney universe? It wasn’t a bad show, and the explosions were well-timed to the music. It just… didn’t create emotion in me, and this with the perfect music for creating emotion. Like comedy, generating emotion with fireworks and music must be harder than it looks. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it.

One part that didn’t disappoint, at least, is the very last part of the finale, which rang up dozens of explosions packed into a few brief seconds. The show channeled the “World War III” finale of Illuminations’s Holiday Tag with this bit, and it was just as good, but not quite enough to make this show in my Top Five of all fireworks shows. Too bad. It was the part I was looking forward to the most in this $75/person private party.

The brilliant finale.

From there, we crowded over to the smaller stage at Star Tours, where the official shutdown ceremony took place with very little pomp and circumstance.

I’m six feet tall and couldn’t see the shutdown ceremony. What in the world do shorter people do?

A supposed Imagineer (um, Tom Brooks is a “warm up” comedian at Idol, not an Imagineer) is disrupted by Darth Vader and gang. Boba Fett throws a thermal detonator into the bunker, and fireworks explode above/behind the Star Tours building in an impressive approximation of blowing up the ride. No celebrities came, and there were no ‘real’ speeches. It was a letdown.

It’s blown up! Care to ride again?

Oddly, the Star Tours ride itself was still open at this point, post-decommission (and also past the official ending time of the private party). We got in line in a lark, and ended up on the last ride of the day. Many of you readers probably know the ride might originally have been slated to cease operations at this party, but it got a reprieve and will continue operating for a few weeks. That was a fake-shutdown ceremony.

But the people in line around us didn’t get the memo, and they whooped it up. I elected not to ruin anybody’s mood and instead let them pull me in with their enthusiasm. That “final” ride on Star Tours became an audience participation moment, like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was an absolute blast and an unexpected high point to my day. We caught the whole thing on film and put it on YouTube. See if you don’t get the same thrill as the crowd:


The closing crew called it the “emotional last day” in their hearts, if not in fact.

The very next day, Star Tours was open, but it no longer is labeled as such on the maps. Disney now can run the ride when they feel like it, not unlike Wonders of Life. There are rumors that D23 will offer a special event (for yet more money?) for the “real” last ride, but I’m not sure I can be suckered twice. Part of the reason I shelled out $75/person was to really see the ride off, not to say my own goodbyes while it’s still in operation. I can do that with my regular admission. No wonder they were having trouble filling the event and pushing it hard at all the Celebration-V panels.

This private party wasn’t a total rip off. You had nine hours for your $75, since you could get in at 4pm and the special events didn’t really start until 8:00. I’m a bit confused why they do that. If the ticket is meant to get you in at 4:00, it should say so. To not advertise that is to crimp the benefit to those who don’t follow Disney news as religiously, or have an inside track.

Several of us speculated that this event may have been a way to test out new ideas for Star Wars Weekends, such as the Indy show or fireworks. I hope so, especially if they can tweak each. But I do hope they don’t try to make this a hard-ticket event. They’ll see a resounding lack of interest like they saw with the Pirate and Princess party, after the first-time novelty wore off.

The boy wizard and his phenomenal sales have clearly made TDO envious. The sales of Star Wars toys could approximate that success perhaps, but even here there are limits. We saw limited edition Starspeeders ($25, limited to 10,000 units) for sale on the last day of Celebration-V, so apparently they couldn’t sell those out to 25,000 visitors. I have a pet theory as to why: Star Wars fans have a lot of product to choose from, and have been doing it for years. With Potter, there hasn’t been a ton of merchandise before. Star Wars is an aging franchise. One with teeth and legs still, certainly, but aging nonetheless. This private party was worth the $75 precisely because it was a one-off event (and only because I thought it really would be the last night of the ride’s operation when I bought the ticket). Doing the same set of events a second time wouldn’t even be worth $30. I’d rather pay $50 for the Not So Scary Halloween Party.

If Disney really wants a Potter-killer, they can’t make do with special events. They need a fully-realized immersive world like Potter has. I saw something that fit the bill. Star Wars artist Tom Hodges was selling a wall map of a fictional Star Wars Dreampark modeled after Disneyland, down to the dioramas on the “train” and the layout of the lands. When asked about his inspiration, Hodges admitted that DCA’s Carsland inspired the podracing roller coaster in the back of his park. And who can argue with the brilliance of train dioramas for the Dagobah swamp and the Mustafar lava, which approximate the Disneyland dioramas?

Escape from Echo Base, Kashyyyk Family Treehouse, Geonosian Hive of Horror – how can it lose?

Hodges whipped up his ideas in just four months, and it would take Disney many more to design and build such a place in real life. I’m sure it’s not realistic to even explore such things in thought experiments. But if Disney ever wanted to get serious about out-gunning Potter, they have the perfect franchise to do it with.

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee did not receive any payments, free items, or free services from any of the parties discussed in this article. He pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

2010 Kevin Yee

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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdom is a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.