Not so FastPass

Have you heard what the folks in Lake Buena Vista have been saying about Disney's FastPass system? And no, I'm not talking about how thrilled guests have been with the chance to make advance reservations instead of standing in line for hours for Disney's most popular rides and shows.

I'm talking about the pissed-off Disney management. They're mad that in spite of the $50 million the Mouse has poured into its ride-reservation system, virtual queuing seems to have had no impact on the bottom line.

When FastPass debuted in July 1999, Disney hoped all that free time would translate into significantly higher per-guests spending on food, drinks and merchandise. FastPass has indeed pulled people out of line; exit polls suggest it cuts two hours of waiting time off the typical tourist's day inside the parks.

But what the Mouse failed to take into consideration was one of the hard-and-fast rules of the Central Florida economy: A family with only $1,000 to spend on food and souvenirs during their theme-park vacation will not spend more than $1,000 just because they've been given more time to shop and eat. Even worse, given that extra time, people are less likely to buy on impulse and may just be shopping for bargains rather than grabbing the T-shirt closest to the exit.

Factor in the cost of training the hundreds of cast members needed to operate and maintain FastPass property-wide, and it's easy to see how something that was supposed to be a major money maker could become a loss leader.

While Disney execs were thrilled by the public's quick embrace of FastPass, they still expected a return on their investment. When none appeared to be forthcoming, the FastPass team was told to come up with a way to turn the system around. Their answer apparently tickled management but is almost certain to upset some fans. That's because they want to start charging guests of Disney's on-property hotels an extra fee to use the virtual-queuing system.

Does this seem like a nakedly greedy move on the Mouse's part? Sure. But, hey, it's not like Mickey hasn't done something like this before.

Take, for example, the "Magic Mornings" program. For almost 20 years now, folks who booked their vacations through Walt Disney Travel had the option of enjoying exclusive access into a park 90 minutes ahead of the other customers. True, the packages that included those features were a bit more expensive, but guests thought the extra expense was worth it.

If visitors were willing to pay $50-$100 more per person for their "Magic Morning," might they pay to reserve an entire trip's worth of FastPass tickets? What tourist wouldn't want to fly into Orlando, happy in the knowledge that they're guaranteed front-of-the-line access to such favorites as "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror," "GM Test Track," "Kali River Rapids" and "Space Mountain"?

Disney's being pretty close-mouthed about when this new version of FastPass might debut. However, Mouse House insiders suggest it's likely Disney Travel will offer the perk starting in October -- as an extra incentive to get tourists to book vacation packages to Disney World hotels during the 15-month-long "100 Years of Disney" celebration.

As for how it will work, field tests are currently being conducted in California. Guests who booked a vacation package through Disney Travel to the Disneyland resort in February and March (to catch the opening of Disney's California Adventure park) received a single front- of-the-line-on-any-ride FastPass, to be used at any time of day. Guest reaction will help determine exactly how this enhanced version of FastPass might initially be rolled out in Florida.

Mind you, for every FastPass that might be reserved as much as months in advance by someone staying at a Disney World hotel, that's one fewer pass available for day visitors. And that could lead to complaints about the general public being brushed aside to make way for Disney's top-paying customers.

If so, Disney would open itself up to the same sort of bad publicity Universal is currently experiencing, thanks to its Universal Express ride-access system.

Seemingly rooted in the caste system of 18th-century India, Universal Express is based on a simple idea: Those who spend the most dough get the most go. So those guests who stay at the Portofino Bay or Hard Rock hotels are entitled to almost unlimited front-of-the-line privileges at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

Those who don't stay at a Universal hotel but who bought multiday passes to the two parks get somewhat fewer opportunities to bypass the line. As for those who made the mistake of buying just a single day's admission, these poor souls are Universal's equivalent of the unclean, accorded almost no front-of-the-line privileges.

As might be expected, this tiered access system has generated some angry visitors, particularly among those who sprang for the single-day ticket and found themselves bypassed while standing in endless lines for everything. Most days Universal's Guest Relations staff is also facing long lines ... of folks who are very vocal about their distaste for the Universal Express hierarchy.

Disney likewise might want to think twice about its proposed revamping of the FastPass system. Otherwise, the Mouse's Guest Relations staff could also end up facing endless lines of customers complaining about the endless lines they've already had to stand in.

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