This One Thing Could Change Disney and Other Theme Parks Forever

Virtual queues will mark the end of snaking lines and long wait times for rides.

Long lines are practically synonymous with theme parks, especially Disney World. (Looking at you, Splash Mountain.) But in the age of coronavirus and social distancing, tightly-packed waiting areas are the last place anyone would want to be—and for good reason. To make the park experience safer, Disney World and Universal Orlando are launching a full-service virtual queue system.

In March, Disney quietly tested a "My Queues" menu on the My Disney Experience App. This sneak peek sparked exciting conversations among Disney fans that a virtual queue could be expanded to all four Disney World theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) when they reopen.

Luckily, the change shouldn't be too difficult as both Disney and Universal theme parks had already experimented with the idea in the past. In 2017, Universal Orlando debuted its "Virtual Line" for two popular attractions: Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious — Supercharged. In 2019, the park added the option for a third attraction—Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure—after people complained of waiting up to 11 hours to get on the Harry Potter-themed roller coaster. Guests would make a reservation using Universal's mobile app or the kiosks at the attraction entrance, then show up at that selected time, ready to ride.

woman holds up a virtual line app at Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando

Walt Disney World set up a similar system in late 2019 for the much-anticipated Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride. Once inside Disney's Hollywood Studios, guests could open the My Disney Experience app and join a "boarding group," allowing them to explore the park, grab a bite to eat, or go on other rides while they wait. A phone notification would alert them when their group number is called, and they would have two hours to join the line. The only downside? Boarding groups filled up almost immediately by early-risers who got to the park by 9 a.m. In the future, Disney would have to release virtual queues in waves throughout the day, to avoid the morning rush.

Note that this virtual queue system is different from Disney's existing FastPass+ program. With the latter, guests have to book ahead of time, instead of when they get to the park itself, which results in a lot of planning pressure. Ideally, Disney would allow both, so people could book three top choices via FastPass+, then spontaneously sign up for virtual queues based on current wait times once they're actually in the park.

A sign outside the new Rise of the Resistance ride at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge shows the virtual queue closed on opening day, Dec. 5.
Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire / Alamy

As for the waterparks? We expect Disney will look to Universal's Volcano Bay for inspiration. Here, visitors are given waterproof bracelets that connect to Universal's virtual line system. You scan your wristband at kiosks near each slide to secure a ride time. The bracelet has a countdown timer and will vibrate when it's your turn. (Note: You can only tap into one slide at a time, and some will have a "Ride Now!" sign, meaning there's no wait.) To kill time, there are many free things to do like go on the lazy river, jump in the wave pool, or lounge on the sundeck.

The gadget has other nifty features, too. It triggers photos on certain slides—that are then linked to your profile for purchase—and it syncs to certain interactive elements (like water cannons) in the park, so you can "tap to play." You can load your credit card information on it, for cashless payment at gift shops and dining areas, and use it to automatically open storage lockers without memorizing a code.

wristband for rides and slides at Universal Orlando Resort
Helen Sessions / Alamy

All of these high-tech solutions will certainly reduce congestion (and frustration) as fans flock back to theme parks this summer. And for more ways amusement parks may change in the future, check out 7 Things You'll Never See in Theme Parks Ever Again.

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