Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WDWNT LLC.
Last week marked my second experience with the virtual queue boarding group process for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. My first encounter was back in December, under the “old system.” Having experienced both iterations of the virtual queue process, I feel I have the experience to critique both versions and offer suggestions for improvement.
Rise of the Resistance Virtual Queue
As background, Rise of the Resistance does not offer FastPass+ and also does not permit guests to wait in a standby line. Instead, the virtual queue system is used to provide guests wishing to experience the attraction with a numbered boarding group. Throughout the day, boarding groups are called and given a two-hour window to return and enter the queue. This is designed to eliminate multi-hour-long queues and allow guests to do other things in the park until their boarding group is called. It’s also in place because the ride doesn’t really work. It has experienced long downtimes which have seemingly only gotten worse as the weeks have gone on.
The boarding group assignments are obtained via the My Disney Experience app, or for those poor souls without a smart device, the Guest Experience Team in the park can also assign boarding groups. Boarding groups can only be obtained after guests enter the park, and only for that day. Once a pre-determined number of boarding groups are distributed, the system switches to distributing “backup” boarding groups that are numbered sequentially from where the regular group numbers left off. These backup groups are not guaranteed admittance into the attraction and will only be called if all of the regular boarding groups are called and the park closing time still permits additional guests to experience the attraction. That being said, it isn’t uncommon for those with guaranteed boarding groups to have theirs cancelled and be issued park tickets and a FastPass to ride the attraction the next day.
This dual boarding group system allows park operations to ensure that the maximum number of guests get to experience the attraction. The number of regular boarding groups distributed on any given day are based on projections of the ride’s uptime and capacity. With the problems that continue to plague the attraction, some amount of downtime is factored in to this estimate. Therefore, if the attraction runs smoothly and experiences little downtime, all the regular boarding groups will be called and the attraction will be able to accommodate more riders, so the backup boarding groups then are called. The only difference between the regular boarding groups and the backup boarding groups is that the holders of backup boarding groups are not compensated if they do not get called.
When Rise of the Resistance opened in December, the first version of the virtual queue system was in place. Generally, the park opened at 7 a.m., and guests were usually permitted to enter the park starting at 6:30 a.m., if not earlier. Once guests pass through the touchpoints, the My Disney Experience system sees the guest has entered the park, and permits the guest to obtain a boarding group to join the virtual queue via the app.
Because guests could obtain a boarding pass as soon as they entered the park, this system was sort-of a first-come, first-served arrangement, rewarding those who showed up earlier with an earlier boarding group. Although guests showed up hours in advance, it wasn’t necessary to get a boarding group that generally could experience the attraction by noon. I don’t know anyone who relished the prospect of waking up only a few hours after they got to bed, but generally guests thought this first-come, first-served system was fair. Throughout most of human history, a first-come, first-served arrangement has been used for all sorts of events as it is one of the most equitable systems for distribution of high-demand, limited availability items.
As I mentioned, there were some complaints with this system, especially from those guests staying on property without a vehicle, because Disney transportation was not available at 4 a.m. Naturally, guests spending the money to stay at Disney resorts have come to expect preferential treatment when it comes to the parks, having Extra Magic Hours, the ability to book FastPasses earlier, etc. But in this instance, guests at Disney resorts were at a distinct disadvantage. Of course, Disney could simply provide bus transportation to the park early in the morning to ensure their guests are able to join the sleepy-eyed crowd waiting at the park gates. Disney chose not to.
However, Disney chose a different alternative. Over the past several years, it seems obvious to me that management doesn’t do anything for the sake of improving the guest experience unless it is also a financial benefit to Disney. Thus, while providing bus transportation to Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 3 a.m. is certainly something that could be done, it would cost money. Also, staffing the parking booths and parking lot, and providing security cast members at the park entrance all cost money. So Disney decided to devise an alternative to the first-come, first-served boarding group system that would eliminate the incentive for guests to arrive more than 60 minutes before prior to posted park opening time.
The alternative Disney chose was to allow guests to enter the park at 6:30 AM as before, but the virtual queue system would not be activated until 7 a.m. Guests now can arrive at the park as late as 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. and still enter the park before the boarding groups become available. What this means is that, at 7 a.m. when the boarding groups become available, there are thousands of people in the park, all attempting to get a boarding group via the My Disney Experience app at the same exact time.
While this does eliminate the incentive for guests to arrive earlier than 6 a.m. or so, it also eliminates the fairness of the first-come, first-served system. Now, getting a boarding group is basically a lottery, but worse. It’s a free-for-all, and to make things worse, not everyone is on an even playing field.
An Uneven Playing Field
How is the playing field uneven? For starters, those without a smartphone or without tickets they can link to the app need to obtain a boarding pass via the Guest Experience Team, as before. But now, with thousands of guests in the park, those Guest Experience Teams are swamped. With boarding groups being fully distributed in just minutes, anyone not first or second in line is not going to get a boarding group. On the morning I visited, regular boarding groups were gone in under three minutes.
But more significantly, the My Disney Experience app is not reliable. Regular users of the app can recount numerous examples of the app crashing, and having the app crash at 7 a.m. on the dot will likely mean that you’ll be getting a backup boarding group. Through no fault of their own, a guest is at a disadvantage due to the poor performance of the My Disney Experience app.
Furthermore, Disney has a pretty bad track record of sizing their servers appropriately for expected demand. Remember the launch day of Disney+? That’s just the most recent example. Having thousands of guests trying to access the app to get a boarding group at the exact same time means that response times will increase and not everyone will be able to click the button to get a boarding group. This exact scenario happened to me. My sister and I were both in the park standing near Echo Lake, furiously refreshing the app and watching for the boarding group button to be enabled. She managed to get boarding group 12, while it took another full minute before the app on my phone even knew boarding groups had become available. This unpredictability is stressful to guests who woke up very early and have been standing in the park in the dark waiting to try to hit the jackpot. Many guests see this system as much less fair than the previous first-come, first-served system. Nowhere was this more obvious than at Disneyland on the attraction’s opening day last week, when one of our reporters arrived early and waited near the front of the line to enter the park, only to lose the lottery and get a backup boarding group that was never called that day due to downtime.
As unfair as the current system is, compared to the previous version, Disney has no impetus to change it because it saves them money. Guests who have planned for months to come to Walt Disney World, and kids who are so excited to ride Rise of the Resistance, have no way to actually ensure they can experience the attraction. It all comes down to your luck with the finicky My Disney Experience app. How are parents supposed to explain to kids that even though they got up at 5 AM, they still can’t ride the attraction because of some app?
Of course, many in the community believe that the Walt Disney Company always does what is in the best interest of the guest and will see all of this criticism and believe our reporting is overly negative. Therefore I will offer several ways that the current system can be adjusted to make it more fair, with no additional labor cost to the Walt Disney Company (and some that would have an additional cost, which I think the company can probably afford, but will increase guest satisfaction tremendously).
Lottery System Without the Hassle of Refreshing the App
The current system is basically a lottery, but as I mentioned above, thousands of people attempting to use an unreliable app at the same time is going to cause issues. If a lottery is what is desired, why not have guests enter the lottery using the app beginning at 6:30 a.m. (or as soon as they enter the park). At 7 a.m., the lottery would be run by computer and boarding groups assigned, with guests notified by push message. This way, the stress of refreshing the app and dealing with app crashes is eliminated, and, just like now, everyone in the park before 7 a.m. has an equal chance of getting a boarding group.
This is almost identical to the system as it is today, but without the unfairness of random app crashes or slow network communication, while also giving those guests without a smartphone equal footing in the lottery.
If the lottery above seems like a good idea, how about having the lottery the night before? As with the morning lottery idea above, this would this ensure that everyone who wants to obtain a boarding group has an equal chance to get one. Open the lottery at, say, 5 p.m., and close it at 8 p.m. Then have the system assign boarding groups and send push messages to all guests who entered at 8:30 p.m. This way guests will know whether they have to get to Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 7 a.m. or can get some extra sleep and arrive later if they get a higher-numbered boarding pass.
But wouldn’t this lead to lots of guests obtaining boarding passes but then not using them? Well, given that Rise of the Resistance is the most popular attraction at Walt Disney World, I don’t foresee a significant number of guests forgoing the opportunity to ride. And even if it does happen, that just means that more backup boarding groups will be called. Analogous to the FastPass system today, where guests not utilizing their FastPass simply enable the standby line to move faster, those not using their boarding group just means that backup boarding groups will be called sooner.
As a bonus, this system could actually save Disney money, by not requiring the high number of staff at the park at 6:30 a.m., since it is likely that many people with a late boarding group would opt to come to the park later in the day.
Lottery With Limits
Another complaint I commonly hear is that locals go to the park frequently and are taking spots from guests who may be here on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Certainly this was much less of an issue when the first-come, first-served system was in place, as locals would have to invest much more time than they do under the current system (some people refuse to believe this). But, with either the first lottery system (the morning of) or the evening-before lottery, Disney would be able to compare the list of guests who have entered the lottery, and check against a list of people who have ridden in, for example, the past seven days. The system could then prohibit those people from obtaining a boarding pass again.
Remember, when the attraction first opened, those with an early boarding group were able to get another boarding group later in the day. Public outcry forced Disney to quickly close this loophole. This arrangement would just be an extension of that idea.
Furthermore, this could even be extended to those with multi-day passes, such that anyone holding such a ticket would only be able to ride the attraction once during the entire validity period of the ticket, whether it be three days, four days, seven days, or ten days.
Lottery With Priority for Resort Guests
Another option with any of these lottery systems would enable Disney to give priority in the lottery to guests staying at Disney resorts, thus increasing the value of the on-property resorts. Imagine if resort guests were given two entries to the lottery, while offsite guests were given one. This would encourage people to stay onsite at a Disney resort, putting more money in Disney’s pocket. Just like the 60-day FastPass window and Extra Magic Hours, this perk to staying onsite would cost virtually nothing while increasing the value proposition of onsite resorts.
The Old-Fashioned Way
Long before FastPass and smartphones existed, and even after those inventions, every theme park attraction opened with one line for everyone. Universal opted for this arrangement with the opening of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Sure there were ten-hour waits, but that brought news coverage from around the globe and highlighted the new attraction to many that had never even heard about it. Whether you consider this to be a PR debacle or a genius move, the ability for guests to self-select for the attraction gave people the option to wait or do something else. They didn’t have to arrive before dawn without actually knowing if they would get to experience the attraction. If they wanted to wait in line, they did. If they didn’t want to wait in line, they didn’t have to. But at least by waiting in line, you’d know you’re going to get to ride (unless there is extended downtime, which happens anyway even with boarding groups). Yes, this would encourage people to show up early, but again, the first-come, first-served approach is at least fair. And yes, they would probably have to provide resort transportation at 3 a.m., but again, this is in the interest of fairness.
Extend Park Hours
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the Magic Kingdom routinely stayed open until midnight every day during the summer. Disneyland still does. Why not just keep Disney’s Hollywood Studios open until 10 or 11 p.m. to allow more guests to experience the attraction? Oh yeah, “Because Money”…
A Few Last Thoughts
No matter whether Disney implements any of the above improvements to the current virtual queue system, there are still some aspects of the situation that are not only maddening to me, but a loss of easy revenue for Disney.
With thousands of people in the park at 6:30 a.m., you’d have to figure that most of them rolled out of bed and headed straight for the park, with coffee and breakfast not even entering their mind. So, wouldn’t it make sense to have abundant options for coffee and breakfast in the park, starting at 6:30? The demand sure is there, as evidenced by the ridiculously long lines for Trolley Car Cafe, Ronto Roasters, and Woody’s Lunch Box. Wouldn’t it make sense to open Backlot Express with breakfast service at 6:30 a.m. so people could at least get some nourishment or caffeine while frantically trying to obtain a boarding pass? Or at least provide some additional ways to get coffee besides the overtaxed Starbucks and Joffrey’s. This is obviously a revenue-generating opportunity that Disney has ignored. And as the temperatures in the 50s this morning will remind you, Woody’s Lunch Box, with its inadequate outdoor seating, isn’t a great option, especially as we head into the heart of winter.
Have you come up with any ideas about how to improve the virtual queue system? Post them in the comments below!