Universal Orlando's cashless payment app rolls out new features to keep guests immersed

Universal Orlando's cashless payment app rolls out new features to keep guests immersed
Image via Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando now makes buying things on-site easier than ever — no bracelet needed. In a recent update, the Universal Orlando Resort app began offering contactless payments via the wallet tab.

The app, which debuted in 2014 after a similar app launched a few years prior, has allowed some purchases since 2016, but this is the first time guests can use it to make physical purchases.

Users can link a credit or debit card, then select the Universal Pay option. When purchasing items, users will show the app to cashiers, who will scan an auto-generated QR code. The codes are only good for 60 seconds, ensuring that they won’t be misused. The mobile payment option is available at select Universal-operated locations. It is currently not accepted in stores or restaurants operated by third parties.

Both Disney and Universal have pushed for cashless payments for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated health concerns over handling money. Some businesses are no longer accepting cash at all. Critics have called such moves discriminatory, as they create few options for the more than 7 million Americans who do not have bank accounts. Politicians nationwide have pushed back against cashless stores, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, San Francisco, and Philadelphia all banning the practice.

In Orlando, the potentially discriminatory practice is still in place at multiple businesses in higher-end areas, including a bakery in Winter Park and a foodie park in Lake Nona, but none of the area theme parks have gone this far. Instead, they continue to accept it while discouraging its use.

The move by Universal is more one of keeping people within its app. Smartphone apps have become a major tool in the arms race among area theme parks. Disney’s $2 billion move into guest tracking and automation saw a major shift earlier this year when it stopped sending out complimentary MagicBands to resort guests. Now guests are encouraged to use their smartphone apps.

Reservations, dining menus, hotel information, ride information including wait times, park maps, food ordering and more can now be accomplished within the Disney and Universal apps. Both resorts also offer interactive games and content within the apps. These are designed to help keep guests immersed while waiting in line and provide a reason to open the apps while not in the parks.

Smartphone apps have been heralded as the next step of in-park interactivity, with Disney designing land-specific interactivity for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. That in-app experience hasn’t caught on, getting mixed reviews even from influencers who rarely criticize anything Disney-related.

Still, theme parks recognize that people will keep their phones with them while in the parks and therefore look to understand how to best harness these pocket-sized supercomputers. Just as area parks previously went to great lengths to keep guests on-site as much as possible, parks are now focused on keeping guests engaged with their apps.

One 2019 theme park-focused study by Omnico, a consumer engagement observer known for their annual theme park report, found 95% of respondents said an app could be enough to make them spend more, with nearly half reporting they’d have a greater willingness to pay more via the app if it meant they could avoid queues for food or merchandise. In late 2020, Disney rolled out a skip-the-line option via their app at select gift shops across Walt Disney World.

It’s not just theme parks; more than 50% of Americans report feeling irritated if they have to wait in line to pay for items at a retail store, with nearly three out of four respondents in that survey saying technology will make shopping easier, and 86% report wanting to use scan-and-pay phone apps.

“Our research proves that apps are becoming essential to the enjoyment of a park but that visitors will only download them if they contain valuable functionality,” said Mel Taylor, CEO of Omnico. “Park operators with poorly designed, clunky apps that don’t supercharge convenience risk losing out on substantial revenues from tech-savvy consumers.”

“Parks’ apps must be supported by effective customer-engagement platforms,” added Taylor. “Apps will only meet visitors’ expectations to be a ‘theme-park-in-their-pocket’ and provide sustained revenue-increases if visitors are recognized as individuals at every touchpoint and the level of interaction is highly personalized.”

Apps also allow for a singular point of contact with guests before, during, and after their visit. This enables park operators to gain reliable data from and connections with guests. Attractions.io, a theme park technology firm that has developed apps for some of the industry's largest players, reports one in four guests that use a mobile app opt-in to email marketing. They also say a 42% increase in food and beverage transaction size can be seen from theme parks that add in-app ordering. Within just two months of deployment, Attractions.io reports apps can see a 16x return on investment.

Few other assets have returns of that size while giving operators the data these apps can provide. In the never-ending arms race between theme park operators, apps are becoming one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal. On February 25, SeaWorld confirmed that it would be rolling out a new mobile app that includes customer relationship management features. Details on what exactly the new app will entail were not shared.

While the move to push for cashless payments might be billed as a reaction to the ongoing pandemic, data shows such offerings were inevitable even before the global health emergency. They will also be here to stay long after the pandemic is gone.

The Official Universal Orlando Resort App is available for free in both Google Play and Apple app stores.  

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