When too many people want to take a ride to a theme park at once, what’s the fairest way to decide who goes first? Or happens to ride at all?
Walt Disney World relaunched its virtual queuing system this morning for the grand opening of the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Epcot. Virtual queues are just one of the alternatives to traditional physical queues that parks have used in recent years. But which method is best for fans?
Let’s start the analysis with a hypothesis: there is no free lunch. Well, there’s no free lunch anyone wants to eat. If someone has built a janky attraction that no one wants to ride, there’s no need to worry about pricing or designing a queue. Just make it free, open it up to everyone, and hope someone bothers to show up and ride. (As a longtime website publisher, I know this business model intimately.)
Queuing only becomes a problem when demand exceeds supply – in this case, supply being the number of people that can be accommodated on the expedition at any given time. If supply exceeds demand, it’s a ride – theme park equals free lunch. Fans don’t have to give up anything extra to ride.
But when demand exceeds supply, the “no free lunch” rule applies. This means that a park must charge customers a fee to guarantee their place on the ride. The old traditional way was to charge for the guest’s time. The more people who wanted to take a ride, the longer you had to wait.
But your time isn’t the only cost of a traditional theme park queue. There is also an opportunity cost to be paid. While queuing for one attraction, you cannot queue for another. If you choose popular attractions with long waits, you limit the number of rides you can take in a day.
Theme parks have long realized that they can substitute time and opportunity costs for financial costs, allowing them to earn additional revenue. That’s why so many parks now sell paid line hopping services, such as Universal Express, Cedar Fair’s Fast Lane, and Six Flags’ Flash Pass.
Disney is also in this business with its Individual Lightning Lane and Disney Genie+ products. Disney charges a hefty price just to enter the park, so many fans aren’t happy with the added fees to experience popular attractions without a long wait. It’s one thing to pay for the Flash Pass after walking through the door with a cheap Six Flags season pass. It’s another thing to pay for an ILL (seriously, Disney, do you even think about acronyms when naming your products?) after shelling out over $100 a day to visit Disney.
Financial costs also raise social concerns. Theme parks stopped being an affordable option for poor families a long time ago – if they ever were an option. America’s declining middle class often needs discounts or tours on cheaper dates to afford to visit certain parks, especially Disney’s more expensive ones. But those who can afford to walk through the doors have been able to enjoy much the same experience as the more affluent visitors. It’s only when parks dedicate a significant portion of their attraction capacity to people paying to skip the regular line that a park begins to feel like an economically stratified experience.
Unfortunately for visitors for whom an overdraft is a problem for them and not for the bank, some parks seem to come to this.
But charging people money they can’t afford isn’t the only way parks can be unfair in managing access to attractions. Some physical queues can be brutal to wait. Standing for hours in the heat in an unthemed serpentine queue with no access to a bathroom? yuck. Parks have a clear legal obligation to provide accommodation for people who physically cannot wait for a ride under these conditions. But I believe they also face an ethical obligation to make their physical queues as pleasant and comfortable as possible. It is simply unfair for their guests to do otherwise.
In an attempt to free people from the long hours of waiting in crowded physical queues, Disney has introduced virtual queuing for some of its new attractions. A virtual queue still costs people time, but in a much less taxing way. Yet, as long as people still have to pay an opportunity cost, virtual queues can provide a fair and equitable way for people to wait for their favorite attractions.
But Disney charges no opportunity cost for entering its virtual queues. (Disney also offers a paid Individual Lightning Lane option on Cosmic Rewind, in case you were wondering about the financial cost option.) While waiting for their “Boarding Group” virtual queue assignment on Guardians, visitors from Disney World can wait in line and enjoy any other attraction in the park. A fairer virtual queuing system would limit visitors to waiting in one queue at a time, as in a traditional system. Want to use the Virtual Guardian Queue? This means you can’t go to Test Track, Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, or Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure until you’ve completed Cosmic Rewind.
Of course, if Disney had this rule, I suspect fewer guests would try to secure a spot for Watchmen when it opened in the morning. And some guests who did, but got a group boarding later, would choose to give up their place in the Guardians queue in favor of trying other attractions, opening up spaces for guests who would be happy to ride Cosmic Rewind at the expense of all the other attractions in the park.
With no capital cost, no opportunity cost, and with the time cost reduced to almost nothing compared to what it could have been, entering a virtual Disney queue is as close to a free lunch gift as are some of the popular theme park attractions. In what should come as no surprise, this has created an excessive and massive demand for virtual queue assignments. This excessive demand forces the virtual queue allocation process to become something more like a lottery than a fair, first-come, first-served way of allocating spaces on a ride.
Yes, a lottery can be “fair” in the sense that each entry has an equal chance of winning. But when overwhelming demand leaves Disney’s virtual queuing system, fans can’t get assignments, which is unfair to customers who would be willing to pay something – with their time and choices – to ride. on board.
Disney is right to want to spare people from spending hours in temporary lines for a new ride during its first few months when demand is highest. But sometimes when a park tries to solve one problem, it creates another.
After all, there is no free lunch.