Taken for a ride 

Paul Pressler had a dream. He wanted to set people free -- but only in a theme-park sense.

Pressler's goal was to reinvent the Disney theme-park experience. He wanted to get people out of those hour-long lines and back where they belonged: inside the shops and restaurants, where they'd be free to spend money.

That's why Pressler, who is president of Disney Parks and Resorts, pushed for the development of FastPass. This virtual queuing system -- first tested at Animal Kingdom in July 1999 -- eliminates the need for guests to stand in line at the parks' most popular attractions.

Instead, guests who stop by the FastPass kiosk at the ride or show entrance feed their park ticket into a machine, which spits out a voucher with a time when they can return for a quick, guaranteed admission. This sends people away happy -- and hopefully right into a souvenir shop.

FastPass was an immediate hit. Within six months it was installed in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios, as well as in the Disneylands in Anaheim and Paris.

More important, it immediately affected Disney's bottom line. Food, beverage and souvenir sales at the parks have increased significantly since FastPass' debut. That's why the Mouse is moving forward with it. FastPass kiosks went up in front of Animal Kingdom's "It's Tough to Be a Bug" show and the Magic Kingdom's "Peter Pan" ride just prior to Christmas. And when the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Play It!" attraction opens at Disney-MGM in February, it too will have a virtual queue.

Disney even used FastPass to justify last week's $2 increase in ticket prices, which raised the cost of a one-day Disney World park pass to $50.83 with tax. Guests are now "spending more time in attractions and less time in lines, so we think that makes the ticket more valuable than ever," said a spokesman.

As such, the Mouse has committed $1.75 million to expand the program. A planned upgrade this year finally will allow guests to hold simultaneous reservations for two different attractions in the same park on the same day.

That was just one glitch. But a bigger problem remains: None of Disney's rides or shows is designed to accommodate the two lines that have resulted -- the virtual one and the usual one. Indeed, despite the FastPass option, guests can still stand and wait to get inside. And after watching FastPass holders being rushed in ahead of them, those guests have registered a lot of complaints.

Sometimes FastPass users are allowed to enter by walking in through the exit. But most of the time, the two lines are positioned alongside one another. And that's where trouble starts. There have been reports of shouting and fights breaking out because a FastPass user teased someone waiting in the stand-by line. Cast members have been verbally abused by guests who felt that FastPass holders were getting preferential treatment.

Many visitors wish Disney would go back to the old way. But not Pressler, who wants to have most stateside attractions wired into the system by 2005.

Still, he might listen to what some senior Imagineers have been saying. They suggest that an unexpected side effect of the virtual queue is that it's actually lowered the parks' capacity.

For example, Disneyland can hold 60,000 people a day. That sounds like a lot, but at least a third of them were likely to be off the streets and out of circulation at any one time, because they were waiting in line for a ride or show.

This past holiday season, 10 Disneyland attractions were wired for FastPass. This meant that thousands of people who otherwise might be standing in line were instead roaming the park. The result was pandemonium. Between Christmas and New Year's Day, Disneyland had to halt ticket sales on three separate days to handle what should have been a manageable crowd.

The Anaheim park never received more negative guest comments than it did after the holiday-week fiasco. Disneyland handed out hundreds of free passes to patrons who dropped by City Hall to complain about the overcrowded conditions. The Disneyland Resort also received tons of negative coverage from the media -- something the Mouse didn't need on the eve of its California Adventure park opening on Feb. 8.

Was the overcrowding all FastPass' fault? No. Christmas week is traditionally a busy time. Add the new, heavily promoted holiday fireworks show and the discounted admission offered to Southern California residents, and it's no wonder Disneyland posted record attendance.

But senior Imagineers argue that FastPass added a variable that Disney had not foreseen. Guests who were left to wander because they'd used the virtual queue transformed "The Happiest Place on Earth" into an incredibly crowded place to be. That's why senior Disney officials in both Anaheim and Orlando are now wondering if -- for all future high-attendance events (i.e., Fourth of July, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, etc.), Mickey might want to play it safe and cut back on the number of people allowed in.

Pressler can't be pleased with this proposal. After all, allowing several thousand fewer people into the parks definitely will affect food and merchandise sales. But at least he won't have to hand out as many free passes to angry patrons. That's a virtual savings ... isn't it?

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