Disney's FastPass: A Complicated History
How much do you know about lines? A line, or a queue, is an organized group of people or, in this case dots, waiting their turn for some... thing. The amount of time it takes to get from the start of the queue to the end of the queue is the wait time. In its simplest form, the wait time is affected by two factors, the service rate, and the arrival rate.
The service rate is the rate at which people get pulled from the queue to do the thing. The arrival rate is the rate at which people arrive to the queue. Speed up the service, and the wait time decreases. Increase the arrival rate, and the wait time increases. At its core, this is all a line is. How fast do people get in line, and how fast do they get out, but in any real-world scenario, queues become anything but simple.
And there’s no better showcase of this complexity than the Disney Parks. Disney is world-famous not only for their wait times, but for the bold strategies that they have implemented to cut them down. To truly understand this topic, it is not enough to simply learn the history.
We must deep dive into the technicalities and psychology of queuing and fully examine the many ways that Disney has tried to tackle the issue of lines, and unfortunately, there is no FastPass for this explanation. So without further wait, let’s take an excruciatingly deep dive into everybody’s least favorite aspect of theme parks. On October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World opened to the public with two resort hotels, and one theme park, the Magic Kingdom.
Within the first year of opening, Walt Disney World began to experience the problem that had long plagued Disneyland Park in Anaheim. Long waits for attractions. Two of the most dreaded waits were for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride and the Country Bear Jamboree show. The wait for 20,000 Leagues consistently sat at one hour, and the wait for the Country Bear Jamboree could go over an hour on busier days.
This might be surprising to you if you’ve visited the parks recently. Today, the Country Bear Jamboree almost never fills its theater, and 20,000 Leagues no longer exists. However, when Magic Kingdom opened, these two attractions had some of the longest waits in the park. This can be explained by looking at the arrival rate and service rate of these attractions. The service rate for theme park attractions is generally measured in hourly capacity, or how many guests can board an attraction within one hour. 20,000 Leagues was a low-capacity attraction, only able to accommodate around 1200 guests per hour.
Compare this to the Haunted Mansion, which can accommodate around 2800 guests per hour. This difference was due to their ride systems. The Haunted Mansion is a continuously operating omnimover system, while 20,000 Leagues could only seat 40 guests in each submarine, and could only operate up to 9 submarines at a time. So in a 12 hour day at the park, over 33,000 guests could ride the Haunted Mansion, while only around 14,000 guests could ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Looking at this difference another way, if 1000 guests were in line for both attractions, the wait time for the Haunted Mansion would be 35 minutes while the wait time for 20,000 Leagues would be 1 hr and 20 minutes. The Country Bear Jamboree had an even lower capacity than 20k leagues, but its issue was less in its service rate, but more its arrival rate.
While the capacity of a ride is determined by design and operation, the arrival rate is mainly determined by guest demand. This demand can be influenced by such factors as the quality of the ride and the marketing done for the attraction. The demand and capacity relationship is somewhat similar to the relationship between the supply and demand of a product, except rather than determining price and quantity, demand and capacity determine the wait times and number of riders. Today, once a guest has entered a Disney theme park, they are able to ride any attraction they choose, but there are only so many operating hours each day, so time becomes a currency that they must spend.
For instance, a guest might want to ride the Jungle Cruise if the wait were 30 minutes but that same guest might not want to ride the attraction if the wait was one hour. In queuing, this is called balking, when someone decides not to wait in a queue due to its length. This can reduce wait times by turning people away that were not determined to experience the attraction. The situation becomes even more complicated when guests are spending both their time and money to ride rides. When it opened, Walt Disney World utilized a ticket book system in which guests needed to purchase tickets both to enter the park and to ride the majority of the park’s attractions, with each attraction distinguished with a letter A through E, with E being the most thrilling and popular attractions. This was the same system used at Disneyland, and it became so well-known that the term E-ticket became a common phrase to refer to something as premium or exciting.
By charging guests more to ride the popular attractions, Disneyland was able to curb demand for these rides. However, at Walt Disney World, this system often had the opposite effect. When the resort opened, guests knew little about the park’s unique attractions, but they already understood the A through E ticket system. So when visitors made their decisions, they often looked at how Disney ranked and priced their own attractions. The Country Bear Jamboree, a musical show with animatronic characters unknown to guests, was listed as an E-ticket, while the Mickey Mouse Revue, a musical show with animatronic characters well known to guests, was listed as a D-ticket. This led many guests to assume that The Country Bear Jamboree was the better show, resulting in a false demand, leading to longer lines.
This false demand was recognized by a Disney employee named Bruce Laval. Laval graduated from the University of Florida with an MBA, specializing in operations research, and he joined Walt Disney World right as the resort opened in 1971 as an industrial engineer. Industrial engineers are specialized in studying and optimizing complex systems and processes, finding ways to make systems more efficient, a field that Disney was increasingly relying on as their theme parks became more complex and brought in more people.
Laval was among the first industrial engineers to utilize computer simulations to optimize systems, impressive considering at the time computers looked like this. Within the first few years he worked for the company, Laval noticed the false demand being created by the A through E ticket system and argued for its removal. The idea made it almost to the testing phase for Magic Kingdom when top Disney executives, resistant to change, learned of the plan and shut it down. However, it was soon decided that Disney’s third theme park, EPCOT Center, would not use the A through E ticket system, so the decision was made to discontinue the system at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World as well. After the switch, Laval’s theory was proven.
Wait times at E-tickets went down, and more guests visited the underutilized attractions. Long lines were by no means eliminated from the guest experience after the A through E ticket system was discontinued. In fact, lines were the number one guest complaint at all three Disney parks. This is why when Disney opened its first international park Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, many within the company were surprised at the patience and endurance of Japanese tourists to withstand long lines, especially when compared to Americans. This is because different cultures have different reactions to queuing, with Americans tending to be some of the most impatient, right up there with the French, which Disney would learn soon enough.
Also, people’s reactions to queues change significantly over time, and the Disney Parks have played a major role in this evolution. The most common type of queue at Disney is called the switchback queue, in which guests snake back and forth in a zigzag motion. This was pioneered by Disney’s Imagineers at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The lines for Disney’s attractions at the fair were long and out of control, so Disney developed the switchback concept which organized and condensed the line. Reportedly, Walt Disney himself also felt the concept had a psychological benefit. Because guests were moving back and forth, they were face to face with other guests, allowing them to interact with strangers back when people were into that sort of thing.
Switchback queues were soon implemented throughout Disneyland, then at Walt Disney World, EPCOT Center, and eventually everywhere, but since queueing is always evolving, by the mid 1980s, distaste for the switchback queue had grown. People were no longer tricked by its condensed nature, and the endless zig zagging soon became grating. To combat this, Disney went back to the drawing board, coming up with a simple three-tiered strategy to improve guests' time in line. Number 1: Keep waits to a maximum of 15 minutes. Number 2: If a guest must wait more than 15 minutes, give them entertainment, such as immersive queues and pre-show videos.
Number 3: Hide the queue from view, sectioning off different parts of the queue so that guests can’t see how long the line really is until they’ve already waited in it. This strategy really came down to one basic principle. If you remove the guests’ ability to visualize the wait, the wait itself will feel shorter. In 1987, Bruce Laval was named director of the Studio Tour for the soon-to-open Disney MGM-Studios. The new theme park was designed to focus primarily on the tour of the new film and television production facilities being constructed alongside the park, so when Disney-MGM opened in 1989, it had few attractions, and worse, few productions.
What it did have was an excess of people. Crowds flocked to Disney-MGM to find long lines and little to do. The issue was widely reported on, and when asked about the crowds, Laval said “You could have the greatest show in the world, but if you have a three-hour wait out there people are going to leave the park dissatisfied.” Immediately after this article was published, the Orlando Sentinel received a call from a man, named Michael Eisner, who was the CEO of Disney at the time. Eisner assured the public, as well as the Disney employees quoted in Sunday’s paper, that the park would be expanded with more attractions, stating “We do not want the lines to be that long. We are trying to rectify that as soon as we can.”
In 1995, Laval was promoted to Executive Vice President of Operations, now assuming responsibility for all park and resort operations at the Disney Parks. Laval had held many different positions at the company, but his industrial engineering background had stayed with him, and the mounting issues with wait times led Laval and his team to develop something big. In the mid 1990s, Laval and his team began experimenting with the idea of transitioning certain attractions at the Disney Parks to a reservation-only system. The idea was to give guests a reservation time for an attraction so that they would not have to wait in line. Similar to a restaurant, guests would simply arrive at the attraction for their reservation and would be seated immediately.
While the idea would eliminate waits for guests at the park's most popular attractions, there were obvious issues with the concept. First, it was nearly impossible to ensure that park guests arrived for their reservations on time. Often they would be doing something else around the park. When a guest would miss their reservation time, this would leave empty seats on the ride, therefore reducing the total capacity of the attraction. Second, if the attraction experienced downtime for any reason, then the guests holding reservations during this downtime would no longer be able to ride, as reservations for the rest of the day would already be filled, or if they were allowed on, the ride would now have a line of people for the rest of the day, defeating the point of the system.
The idea was abandoned for these reasons, and it seemed that reservation-based attractions was a dead concept. This was until Laval had an epiphany, not while at work, but while on vacation. In 1997, Laval went on a skiing vacation in Colorado. While on the slopes, he observed the queue to get on the ski lift.
Each lift chair held four people, and the queue was split into two lines, a regular line and a single rider line. Laval viewed how the single riders were squeezed in the empty seats on the ski lift when a party did not fill an entire chair. He realized that this was the compromise to the reservation-based system.
Rather than a regular line and a single rider line, Laval could have a reservation-based system and a standby line. Whenever a guest would be late for their reservation, operators could take someone from the standby line so that the attraction would never lose capacity because of the ebbs and flows in guest behavior. Plus, if the attraction did experience downtime, then the ratio of reservation based guests to standby riders could simply be adjusted to favor those that had reservations during the downtime. Despite the idea coming from the initial reservation-based concept, what Laval was proposing was closer to a virtual queue.
A virtual queue functions similarly to a normal queue just without the physical line. A common example of a virtual queue can be found in many quick service restaurants, in which guests take a number and wait for their number to be called. Unlike reservations, this still retains the first come first serve nature of a physical line but it removes the ability to visualize the wait, therefore, increasing the quality of it. After returning from vacation, Laval pitched the concept to other executives, but he was met with skepticism.
Believing in the idea, Laval proposed that he test the idea to prove that it could work. Using the newly opened Animal Kingdom due to its limited amount of attractions, testing began with a select group of guests who were given paper diaries to keep track of their day, including how long they waited in line. The test subjects were split into two groups, a control group and a group that would use the virtual queue system.
The control group simply logged their day at the park, while the other group were told to approach cast members at attractions entrances, who would hand them a ticket with a return time on it. This return time was equal to the time that it would have taken guests to wait in the line for the ride. The test subjects were then encouraged to explore the park, and return at the time listed on the ticket, where they would then be allowed to skip the line.
The test was a huge success. The virtual queue subjects were able to experience 25% more rides than the control group, and their wait times were reduced by 50%. The virtual queue subjects left the park much more satisfied and far more likely to return than the control group. If this was not convincing enough for executives, the tests also showed that those using the virtual queue system spent more of their time at gift shops and dining locations, resulting in more spending when compared to the control group. Executives approved the concept for further testing, which continued throughout early 1999, both at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
That summer, testing focused on Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, which often had the park’s longest wait. In these early tests, Cast Members were physically writing return times on cards and giving them to guests, while using handheld clicker counters to keep track of how many were handed out and how many guests returned. The tests were often haphazard and chaotic, but they were successful enough to prove that not only the system could work, but it would make guests happier and more likely to spend money.
Many within the company, including Laval, felt that the system should be free and available to all visitors so as not to create different classes of park guests, citing Walt Disney himself, who was known to wait in the park’s lines with his guests. With the tests labeled a success, executives approved the permanent installation of the new virtual queue system, officially titled... “Hey, did you know that you don’t have to wait in line to ride some of your favorite attractions? Just look for the signs at selected attractions and insert your park ticket. You’ll get a complimentary Fastpass with a return ride time stamped right on it.”
Guests who entered a Walt Disney World park in late 1999 were met with a brand new system, FastPass. On the surface, the system was simple. Guests would approach an attraction where they would be able to view the posted standby wait time. If this was manageable, they could join the standby queue right away. However, if the wait was long, they could instead choose to receive a FastPass at the kiosks placed outside of the attractions. Guests inserted their park admission ticket into the kiosk to receive their FastPass with a one-hour return window listed on it.
They could then enjoy the rest of the park, and once their return window arrived, they would hand their ticket to an attendant and enter the FastPass queue, boarding the attraction with a minimal wait. Each guest could only hold one FastPass at a time, and they could not receive another until their return window arrived. Behind the scenes, the system was far more complex. Each attraction’s FastPass data would be stored on a local computer housed in each attraction, controlling the standby wait time display, keeping track of how many Fastpasses have been handed out, and determining the return times being printed on each FastPass.
The computer was connected to a server so all wait times could be monitored throughout the park, and so that the system would know when a guest had already been given a FastPass to prevent them from obtaining another. The system also allowed ride operators to tell the computer when an attraction was experiencing downtime, and in response, the kiosks would slow down or cease disbursing FastPasses until the attraction was operating again. Some Cast Members reported this feature not working properly or not implemented on some rides, resulting in ride operators having to go to the FastPass kiosk, manually disburse a stack of paper Fastpasses so that return times were pushedd back, and then immediately throwing those FastPasses in the trash. When news broke on FastPass in the summer of 1999, Laval said quote, “We are going to use it on the three, four or five attractions that historically have the longest lines at each park.” By the end of the year, thirteen attractions at Walt Disney World utilized FastPass. Five at Magic Kingdom, two at Epcot, five at Disney-MGM, and 3 at Animal Kingdom.
In early 2000, FastPass was implemented in Disneyland on three attractions, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin with plans to expand the program. “One way to keep it moving is called Disney’s FastPass. Mi un favorito.
Check this out. We roll up to the FastPass kiosk. Boom. Boom! Kicks back a ride time. Then you just come back to the ride at that time and giddyup.
Pretty sweet little invention. Let’s hit it.” FastPass was a huge learning curve for guests. Despite heavy marketing, many guests did not know about the program and even fewer understood it.
In the early days, it was referred to as Disney’s best kept secret, and many guests waiting in standby lines were visibly and vocally frustrated to see priority being given to those that had FastPasses. Believing that they were being skipped or cut in line, which in a way, they were. Some people believed that FastPass was simply holding their place in the attracion’s line, which is not the case.
The FastPass kiosk and ticket system was a virtual queue, so there was a first come first serve system built into the program, but that just determined guests return windows. Once guests redeemed their pass, that queue was over, and they were admitted to a new preferred queue that shared the service rate of the attraction with the standby line. The arrival of FastPass guests did affect the rate at which guests moved through the standby queue. There were a few exceptions to this, such as with Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, which has two separate tracks. So if operated as such, one track could be standby only, and the other could be FastPass only. If this is the case, then FastPass guests are not skipping or cutting the standby line, they essentially just have their own attraction, as there are two separate service rates, and the arrival of FastPass guests have no impact on the standby line.
The main issues with implementing FastPass beyond the learning curve for guests was perfecting the technology for the kiosks and finding space in each attraction for two lines. Luckily, many attractions already had two lines, and guests were given the choice of either the left line or the right line when they entered. A common advice from vacation planners was to always go left, because the majority of people are right handed and thus tended to go right, a phenomenon found outside of Disney’s parks and studied by queuing experts for some time. Some attractions already had a split point, but not until later on in their queue. For instance, Space Mountain at Walt Disney World had a wide single line hallway up to the ramp leading to the main show building. Here, a railing was added and all guests had to go to the right side, so that Cast Members could walk on the left.
This made installing FastPass fairly simple because Disney only needed to extend the railing to the beginning of the queue and build a staircase to the entrance so the left side and the right side remained split the entire time. Reviews from those guests that used FastPass were overwhelmingly positive. On average, guests that utilized the system waited 75% less throughout the day. A few skeptics believed that the system would increase standby waits significantly throughout the park. Laval responded to this concern saying quote, “It’s only a problem if they don’t self-select.
The only challenge has been getting people to understand FastPass.” He added that quote, “People go on to what you might consider the secondary attractions in that area of the ride they have the Fastpass for. We found that these were typically attractions that they didn’t go on before because they were spending too much time in line. This does increase rides per capita by backfilling less-attended attractions.” FastPass also had the potential in certain situations to reduce standby wait times because it altered the arrival rate of popular attractions. By giving guests return windows, it spread out arrivals more evenly throughout the day, flattening the mid-day rush and reducing standby waits during this peak period.
Those that loved FastPass argued that the system should be added to all of the rides in the park. Dale Stafford, VP of Operations Planning and Development for Walt Disney World believed that this was not practical, saying quote, “If you did it everywhere, you wouldn't have enough space in the park. Where would everyone go?” One year after FastPass was introduced, both guests and Disney officials were confident in labeling the program a massive success.
Eisner said quote, “They now have more time to spend money and to do other things. They’re also a lot happier not having to wait in line.” In August of 2000, FastPass was recognized by the Florida Engineering Society and was awarded a 2000 Governor’s New Product Award.
Laval said quote, “FastPass continues to exceed our guest expectations. It’s a free service and it’s making their time in the parks more fun and productive.” Laval retired in 2000 after 30 years with the company, with FastPass being his last major project. Perhaps the greatest success of FastPass was the name.
It was catchy and concise, so much so that it immediately became a household name and a colloquialism for any sort of expedited line. It also pushed other parks to develop their own expedited queue systems and it even inspired a hit song. “‘cause if you like it then you shoulda got a Fastpass. If you like it then you shoulda gotta Fastpass.
Don’t you hate on me because you came in last. If you like it then you shoulda gotta Fastpass. Oh oh oh.
Oh oh oh oh oh. Oh oh oh oh.” It was not long until touring experts started to learn best practices for the FastPass system. For instance, guests still needed to arrive earlier in the day to receive FastPasses with optimal return times. If a guest arrived at the park’s opening they could receive a FastPass with a return window only an hour away. However, by mid-day, many FastPasses return times could be four to five hours in the future, and on busier days, FastPasses for popular attractions would run out by 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
While the system itself worked well, there were a few issues. One was the decision to not allow guests to receive another FastPass until their return window arrived. This left many guests upset when they went to get a FastPass for an attraction only to realize that the return window was hours away and they could not get another FastPass until then.
The solution to this was allowing guests to receive an additional FastPass 2 hours after receiving their initial one. Some less than honest guests found that they could simply keep their FastPasses from previous days or trips and reuse them over and over again. To combat this, Disney changed the design of FastPass tickets to more clearly show the date, although this did not entirely curb the practice. Others found ways to best the system to get as many FastPasses as possible. Guests found that some attractions did not communicate with the rest of the park’s computers, so if they were to get a FastPass from one of these rogue attractions, they would not communicate that the guest already held a FastPass and they could therefore obtain another. FastPass kiosks were also used in creative ways.
For instance, guests obtaining a FastPass for Who Wants to be a Millionaire Play It! might have received a special ticket inviting them to sit in one of the special contestant seats at the attraction. Sometimes the kiosks were used to direct people to other attractions by giving them a bonus FastPass, such as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh which sometimes dispensed bonus FastPasses for Mickey’s Philharmagic. On February 17th, 2003, the 100th Million FastPass was distributed to the Dillon family of Atlanta, who were given a special Golden FastPass that allowed them FastPass access to all attractions at the resort.
Mike Dillon said quote, “Things like this don’t happen to the Dillons.” On a particularly stormy night in the year 1871, Jebediah Dillon stowed away on a cargo ship named the Queen Marge, which would soon navigate the tumultuous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, bound for the… whoa, think I lost my thread there. Sorry about that. Where was I? By 2003, FastPass had grown significantly to 263 attractions at Walt Disney World. Five at Animal Kingdom, Six at Disney-MGM, Five at Epcot, and Ten at Magic Kingdom.
Disneyland Resort now had a total of 16 FastPass attractions, 9 at Disneyland and 7 at California Adventure. The significant increase in FastPass attractions was due less to logistics and more to the monetary benefits of the system. During the late 90s and early 2000s, Paul Pressler, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, had instituted drastic cost cutting measures, slashing budgets across the board to increase profits. At the same time, Pressler, whose background was in retail, dramatically increased the amount of shopping and merchandise carts throughout the parks. FastPass was a quick fix in many ways.
Not only did the system promise to get guests out of line and into gift shops, but FastPass itself could be marketed far and wide as if it were a new attraction, during a time when Disney didn’t have anything else to promote. For a period of time in the mid-2000s, FastPass was used as a perk for vacation packages, namely once booked through Triple A, which allowed guests access to what was referred to as Enhanced FastPass, which removed the 2 hour limit on guests tickets, allowing them to obtain as many FastPasses as available, with the only restriction being that they could not receive multiple passes for the same attraction until the first pass for that attraction had expired. With this, guests could enter Disneyland Park in the morning, obtain a FastPass for every FastPass attraction in the park, exit Disneyland Park, walk over to California Adventure, obtain a FastPass for every FastPast attraction at that park, and now holding, 16 FastPasses, have the best day ever, with the only downside being that they now have to experience seven attractions at a mid-2000s California Adventure.
The over-implementation of FastPass did exactly what Stafford had predicted, and walkways at the park were more congested than ever. This was especially noticeable at Disneyland which is a much smaller park in comparison to the Magic Kingdom. The park was designed to have people waiting in line, but now, with most attractions using FastPass, guests found themselves wading through a sea of people, all waiting for their return time to arrive.
Also, standby waits for high-capacity attractions, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, were noticeably increased with FastPass, In 2002, Paul Pressler resigned to model for the Gap, where he would also serve as CEO. He was replaced by the Chairman of Disneyland Paris, Jay Rasulo. When Rasulo and other management took over, they reevaluated Disneyland’s FastPass system, determining that the best solution was to begin removing FastPasses from certain attractions.
At Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie the Pooh, and Star Tours had its FastPass kiosks removed, and Haunted Mansion’s FastPass would only be utilized for Haunted Mansion Holiday. In California Adventure, It’s Tough to be a Bug and MuppetVision had their FastPasses removed as well. Eventually, the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom would have its FastPass removed as well.
While FastPass worked well on some rides and did increase customer satisfaction significantly, the over implementation within the first few years of its debut seemed to be clear proof that it was a bad idea to put FastPass everywhere. It is now September of 2007. It has been two years since Bob Iger became the CEO of Disney after an embattled Michael Eisner resigned, FastPass has just turned eight years old, and Jay Rasulo is still heading the parks division. It has also been recently announced that Disney was patenting a technology that would utilize a centralized computer system to manage FastPass tickets throughout Walt Disney World and Disneyland, allowing guests to obtain FastPasses from their mobile devices, which at the time looked like this, so most of the plans relied on sending text messages to guests.
The patent application also stated that the new system could allow quote “spending per guest at hotels” to determine hierarchies of access to Fastpass. Disney stated publicly they had no plans to change FastPass at the moment, merely that they were monitoring how to take advantage of technological developments. However, within the company, executives were formulating plans for a massive project in complete secrecy. In 2007, Jay Rasulo and four other senior Disney Parks officials formed an exploratory committee to determine how the ongoing technological revolution could reinvent the guest experience.
Like Walt Disney and Imagineers in the 1960s and like Bruce Laval in the 1990s, discussions once again centered on how to improve crowd control and wait times. The group was exploring multiple concepts when one member had an epiphany. While on a flight, VP of Business Development John Padgett was browsing through the in-flight magazine, SkyMall, when he came across a magnetic wristband that promised to improve balance and reduce joint pain. This was of course a scam, but it gave Padgett an idea. What if Disney Parks guests had their own wristband that contained technology that they could use around the park. It would be like a magic wristband, so naturally, they called it the experience Band, or xBand for short.
The team opened a testing space for the xBand in the abandoned Body Wars attraction in the Wonders of Life Pavilion at Epcot. After an ideation phase, Disney CEO Bob Iger was given a tour where the team explained their idea for the xBand. The proposal was to house an RFID tag inside the band that would allow guests to interact with touch points throughout the park. The xBand could act as guest’s park tickets or their hotel room keys. They could even use it as a credit card.
When Iger was shown the technology, he was impressed enough to give the project a proper budget. In 2008, development officially began on Disney NextGen Experience, an initiative that promised to bring the guest experience into the modern age. This encompassed multiple strategies, ranging from reinventing the way guests order food at the parks to experimenting with different queue-types to increase guest enjoyment while in line. Perhaps the most ambitious part of NextGen was MyMagic Plus, a complete overhaul of Walt Disney World’s technological infrastructure and the introduction of a new website and mobile application. “Ever wish you could have the magic of the parks right at your fingertips” Wait, what is this? “Thanks to Disney Parks...
This is not MyMagic Plus I don’t know what this is. “Introducing Mobile Magic. A magical app that will turn your Verizon mobile phone ” Ugh. Exclusive to Verizon? “...super easy to use.
Just touch characters. Look, Mickey… Ahh. Oh gosh, I forgot about this. Ok, so real quick, in 2009, Disney and Verizon partnered on a new mobile app named Mobile Magic, that allowed guests to see a map of the park, view showtimes, and play trivia for $9.99 every 180 days, geez. And you had to send a text message to download the app? Ugh. Most impressive, the app allowed users to view wait times and FastPass return times from their phone, with real time information from the park’s computer system.
They could not book or view their FastPasses from the app, but this was still a powerful tool for the time, and it had a valuable feature. Guests could now balk at an attraction’s wait time from the other side of the park. Understanding the power the app had over guest decisions, Disney began to inflate posted wait times to point guests in certain directions. For instance, if there were too many people in Tomorrowland, Space Mountain’s posted wait time might be adjusted to 90 minutes despite the actual wait only being 60, in order to dissuade guests from visiting the crowded area of the park. This also served the additional function of improving guest satisfaction, as actual waits were almost always shorter than posted waits, and giving ride operators a buffer in the event of delays or downtime. It is unclear when this strategy began, but it would become an integral part of MyMagic+’s crowd control features when the new app launched.
In November of 2009, two years into the development of Next Gen Experience, it was announced that Jay Rasulo would become the CFO of the Walt Disney Company, switching places with then CFO Tom Staggs, who would be taking Rasulo’s position as the head of the Disney Parks. The switch was Iger’s decision, and it was done to see which executive adjusted better to their new role. This was a way to help Iger determine his successor, as he planned to retire from the company in 2015. Staggs was inheriting the NextGen program and MyMagic+, and the pressure was immediately on for him to deliver on the team’s plans, which had only become more ambitious. Not only did the NextGen team want to reinvent park tickets and hotel keys, they wanted to completely overhaul FastPass as well.
The new system would be titled XPass, and it was the key feature of NextGen’s Guaranteed Experience initiative. The philosophy behind Guaranteed Experiences was to increase customer satisfaction and guest retention at the resort by removing unwanted variability in vacations. The program sought to ensure that guests would be able to eat at their favorite restaurant and ride their favorite rides during their vacation.
This is where XPass came in. Guests would now be able to book multiple FastPasses before they arrived at the park, and rather than using paper tickets, they would use their xBands to enter the expedited queue. In late 2011, news broke on XPass, mainly focusing on a rumor that FastPass would cost money.
People took that great, but despite the uproar, the rumor turned out to not be true, at least not entirely. FastPass would still be available to everyone, but priority access would be given to those staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel. The plan was for guests to be able to book between 2 and 4 FastPasses before they arrived. The specific number would be different for each park and would vary based on attendance. On the busiest days at Magic Kingdom, guests would only be allowed to book 3 Fastpasses, but on most days, they would be able to book 4.
However, at Epcot, which had significantly less attractions, guests would only get to book 2 FastPasses on busy days, while most days they would get to book 3. The times for the reservations would be determined by guest preferences. Guests would input which attractions they wanted to ride, and an itinerary would be created with FastPasses to optimize guest flow throughout the park. When paired with the rest of the NextGen technology, this had the potential to radically redesign crowd control.
There was just one problem. Actually there were a thousand problems, but this was one of them. XPass sought to offer multiple FastPasses to the majority of guests before their arrival. The problem was there were not enough FastPasses available at the resort’s FastPass attractions to do this. In the original FastPass system, popular attractions would run out of FastPasses for the day by noon or even before, and that was when people could only obtain one FastPass every two hours.
Since FastPass already took up the majority of a ride’s capacity, and most rides at Walt Disney World were already operating at maximum capacity, it was not feasible to simply give out more FastPasses for these rides. When the industrial engineers ran models for XPass, it became apparent that there was not enough FastPass availability at the parks to make the system work. The engineers quickly realized that in order to offer multiple FastPasses to guests before they arrived, they would need to add FastPass to nearly every attraction at the resort. The total number of FastPass attractions at Walt Disney World would increase from 28 to 50. When the industrial engineers put the increased FastPass availability into the model, it still didn’t work.
Even with an additional 22 attractions, there were still numerous days throughout the year where FastPass availability would be gone before a significant amount of guests could book all of their passes. To solve this, it was suggested that FastPass be added not just to every attraction, but also to things that were not typically considered attractions, such as meet and greets with characters. Apparently, this still wasn’t enough, so it was suggested that guests could obtain FastPasses to things that don’t even have lines, such as firework shows or parades. Rather than skipping the line, special viewing areas would be created for these experiences and guests could book a FastPass to gain access to them. Finally, this increased, or more accurately inflated, the amount of FastPasses that could be offered, which helped support the idea to offer multiple FastPasses to guests before they arrived. With the basic framework figured out, plans moved forward on XPass as NextGen and MyMagic+ continued to develop.
In February of 2011, the Walt Disney Company’s Board of Directors approved MyMagic+ with a budget of around $1 billion. Iger reportedly sternly told Staggs, “This better work.” Which became a mantra for the entire team. Staggs was under enormous pressure to deliver on a project that didn’t really make the parks or Disney money. “Now when I put this in, does money immediately begin flowing out of my checking account?” “If it’s working correctly, yes. Yes.”
“Yeah.” In a shocking twist, most of the rhetoric surrounding NextGen and MyMagic+ internally was not about the potential profit from the system. Those developing the new technology and even much of the executive team, believed in the more altruistic benefits of the program. The ability to guarantee experiences for vacationers, to simplify the experience of visiting the resort, to improve traffic flow and crowd control at the parks, to create an IT infrastructure that could be built on over the coming decades, even to make Cast Members jobs easier so they could focus more on providing great interactions with guests. These were the key components of the pitch.
This is not to say that there were not some ulterior motives. Disney definitely wanted to impress with the program to establish themselves as a major player in the tech space, but this did not create a clear path to generate income. Apart from the new digital PhotoPass system, which had direct monetary benefits, the revenue that the billion dollar MyMagic+ overhaul would generate was almost entirely theoretical. Maybe guests would think less about their purchases when using their xBands which would then lead to more spending.
Maybe the novelty of the xBand would encourage more people to stay at Walt Disney World resorts which would increase revenue. Maybe the data collected from everyone’s xBands and account profiles could be leveraged in ways to increase spending. Maybe a few Cast Member positions could be automated with the system which would save money. Maybe the traffic flow improvements would be so great that more guests could fit into the park? And the biggest maybe that the entire project was predicated on, maybe MyMagic+ would create such a wonderful experience for our guests that they would be more likely to return and more likely to recommend that others visit. Sure, the end goal was to increase revenue, but Disney’s focus was on improving the guest experience, and hoping that the money would come as a result. This optimistic and almost quaint approach seemed to be at odds with the $1 billion dollar price tag, but Iger, Staggs, Rasulo and other executives believed in the program enough to keep it going.
Others throughout Disney had a much different opinion, which quickly led to infighting. Disney hired multiple tech contractors to manufacture and deliver much of the MyMagic+ technology, and it was an open secret in the tech industry that they hired subpar firms that saw the project as a cash cow, over charging and under delivering. These firms also did not get along with the park’s IT team, especially when major issues were found with implementation.
Walt Disney Imagineering was not all in on the MyMagic+ technology either. The parks hoped that the Imagineers would take advantage of the Magic Band technology to deliver unique experiences in attractions, but Imagineering viewed the xBand’s as a gimmick, and a risky one at that. Plus, placing xBand readers throughout the park’s lands so that guests could redeem FastPasses clashed with the theming. Imagineer Joe Rohde said, “If I’m supposed to be living with fairies, fairies don’t have iPhones or MagicBands.”
The Imagineers ended up barely integrating the xBands into new attractions, with EPCOT’s Test Track being one of the only real benefactors. “What’s FastPass+ you ask? Come on, I’ll Show you. It makes your stay a treat. Reserve that meet and greet. Come on, get it now. Make your trip go wow.
It’s sweet.” That is technically my second favorite FastPass parody song, but it’s really not even a competition. In January of 2013, Disney officially announced the creation of MyMagic+, along with the introduction of new high tech wristbands, now renamed to Magic Bands. XPass was also announced, renamed to FastPass Plus. The system had been altered slightly, and it would allow guests to book three FastPasses in advance. This static number applied to all four parks rather than XPass’s proposed dynamic system.
As rumored, guests staying at Walt Disney World resort hotels would get early access to FastPasses. Hotel guests would be able to book their Fastpasses 60 days in advance while everyone else could book 30 days in advance. When guests went to book their FastPasses, they were given a list of attractions that had FastPass available. They then selected three of them, no more, no less. If the guests didn’t select three, the system picked two at random.
After the selections were made, the computer would intelligently create multiple itineraries that guests could choose from. After this, guests could still edit the selections, either by changing the time of the FastPass reservation or by selecting another attraction within the initial attraction’s time frame. FastPasses were now redeemed with MagicBands or guests park tickets, but during the initial rollout, paper FastPass kiosks would still be available.
MyMagic+ was introduced in phases throughout 2013 and early 2014 and issues with the system were immediate, apparent, and overwhelming. Reportedly, those on the rollout team and IT pleaded to executives to pull the plug, as the tech was making operations much worse, to which executives essentially responded, “We know, but we’re in too deep.” Spotty Wifi, malfunctioning MagicBand readers, website crashes, an at times unusable mobile app, and many more issues plagued the system and thus the resort.
There are too many issues with MyMagic+ to discuss, but if you’re curious here are a few. The biggest disappointment with the system was that the tech was so broken that it was never able to take the guest experience to the next level. At best, it worked, but it never impressed in the ways that the team had hoped, and many of the more ambitious plans for the technology, such as leveraging data to give guests recommendations or even being able to communicate to Cast Members via MagicBands that it was a guests birthday, could never be implemented, because IT was too busy keeping the entire system afloat to ever have time to take it to the next step. Most damning, by and large, Cast Members hated it, and it made many positions much more frustrating to work at. It automated few if any jobs, and because of the issues, Disney had to triple the size of its customer support department.
Despite all of the issues, Disney publicly labeled MyMagic+ a success, and Staggs even said that thanks to the system’s ability to distribute guests more evenly throughout the parks, Magic Kingdom’s maximum capacity was increased by 5000 people, although it is unclear whether this has anything to do with the New Fantasyland expansion that also debuted around this time. Staggs was determined to be the winner of Iger’s competition, and Rasulo stepped down from CFO in 2015 while Staggs was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, with Bob Chapek, the president of Disney’s consumer products division, was promoted to head the parks. Stags would leave the company the following year, with no confirmed reason for his departure. Overall, My Magic+ and MagicBands streamlined the guest experience as much as it stalled it.
Some guests loved it, some guests hated it, and others simply didn’t care. In many ways, the introduction of the technology was a wash. A $1 billion wash. But what about the new program’s headlining feature, FastPass Plus? By the end of its life in 2014, the original paper FastPass system was still operating off of a Windows software from the late 90s, so the update in technology, as buggy as it could be, was definitely a welcome one, but FastPass Plus was much more than its touch points. It was an entirely new system, and like the original FastPass, it was a huge learning curve for guests.
The new system could only be accessed on the website, on the My Disney Experience app, or with a Cast Member at one of the FastPass kiosks set up throughout the park. During the initial roll out, this led to huge lines for the FastPass+ kiosks, or to put it another way, there was a line to get the pass to skip the lines. While guests adjusted to the new system, the system itself was undergoing constant adjustment.
In November of 2013, Epcot and Hollywood Studios transitioned to a tiered FastPass+ system, in which the park’s most popular attractions were separated from the rest and only one popular attraction could be held at a time. In February of 2014, the transition to FastPass+ was complete and all paper FastPass kiosks were removed from the park. Rumoredly, the speed of the transition was part of an effort to force guest adoption of the new technology to prove its efficacy.
Two months later, the system was altered once again to allow guests to receive additional FastPasses after they redeemed their first three. Once guests redeemed their third FastPass for the day, they could go to a FastPass Plus kiosk and choose one additional pass. After they redeemed this additional one, they could select another, and repeat the process until the end of the day. The next major change would not come until mid-2016, when the itinerary system was dropped, and now guests had to choose each of their FastPass times themselves.
This also removed the three initial FastPass rule, allowing guests to select only one or two FastPasses without forcing them to start with three. Finally, guests could now choose their additional FastPasses from the My Disney Experience app rather than only at the kiosks. It would not be until 2017 that Disneyland would update their FastPass system.
Rumordely, Disneyland was set to receive MyMagic+, MagicBands, FastPass Plus, and all, but the major issues with the system resulted in the expansion being cancelled. Instead, Disneyland would receive an entirely different system called MaxPass. For $10 a day, visitors could book FastPasses from their phone, except they could only do so when inside the park. Like paper FastPass, users could only receive one FastPass at a time, unable to receive additional passes until the first return window had arrived or 90 minutes after the initial pass was booked. The system received mixed reviews upon announcement, but after installation, many warmed up to it, believing that MaxPass was superior to FastPass Plus, which by this point, was the subject of a heated debate. FastPass Plus was a divisive program, and many had strong opinions on it.
There are pros and cons to the system, so I’d like to take this moment to examine the biggest ones. Before we get into this, I want to mention that we will not be discussing or factoring in other ways guests are able to cut the line, such as with tour guides or the Guest Assistance Program. These systems have their own complex histories during this period that, while interesting and important, are not factored into this list or this discussion on FastPass in general.
That said, here are some of the pros and cons to FastPass Plus. Pro #1 You get to skip the line more. Obviously.
Pro #2 Improved traffic flow throughout the park. One of the biggest downsides to the original FastPass was that guests had to travel to an attraction’s entrance to obtain a paper FastPass just to return to the same location when it was time to ride. This backtracking was causing major traffic flow issues, so allowing guests to make reservations from their phone eliminated this unnecessary foot traffic.
Plus, it was more convenient for guests. Pro #3 Reduction in length of stay. As park attendance climbed through the early 2000s, FastPasses for major attractions ran out earlier in the day, so in turn, guests arrived earlier in the day, resulting in more people arriving in the morning and staying for longer, which increased the amount of people in each park. With FastPass Plus, guests would know three of their FastPass reservations before arriving, which would encourage guests that had FastPasses for later in the day, not to arrive until later, thus relieving morning and mid-day crowds. Plus, guests no longer had to wake up early to rope drop FastPasses, allowing for a more relaxing vacation.
Con #1 Irrelevant FastPasses. In the mad dash to add as many attractions to the FastPass system, the implementation of certain attractions were less thought out than others. For instance, FastPasses for Monsters Inc Laugh Floor and MuppetVision 3D rarely saved guests any time, as these attractions were theater shows that held guests in large waiting areas before the next showing. Guests who had FastPasses for these types of attractions soon learned that all their FastPass did was give them a different entrance to the same giant room where they had to wait with other guests. Con #2 Long FastPass Lines. Many using FastPass Plus reported waiting longer after redeeming their FastPass than they did with the original FastPass system.
The original intention of FastPass was for guests to wait no more than fifteen minutes before boarding, but with FastPass+, guests were now having to wait over half an hour at certain points. This was in part due to the fact that FastPass plus was basically guaranteeing that an attraction would be operating sixty days in advance. As previously explained, paper FastPass had a built-in response to downtimes, or at the very least a ride operator could throw a bunch of FastPasses in the trash to give operations some wiggle room.
This was much more difficult with FastPass+, when an attraction went down, it might have already had an entire day's worth of FastPasses distributed. If the downtime was significant, anyone with FastPasses during the downtime were given an any-use FastPass with which they could use on any ride they chose, which backed up FastPass lines at other attractions throughout the park. If the ride was delayed but did not completely shut down, this caused a backup in the FastPass line for that ride.
When there was a backup, the FastPass to Standby ratio had to be altered to get the FastPass line under control. This was the same compensation plan as paper FastPass, but the new system seemed to be disbursing any use FastPasses much more frequently, leading to Disney to eventually put limits on these passes. Con #3.
The FastPass to Standby Ratio. We have yet to discuss the FastPass to Standby ratio in detail. It is no secret that of the two lines, the FastPass line was given priority over the standby line. In fact, that’s the whole point. The question is how much was FastPass favored over standby.
There is no definitive answer to this, because it was different for every attraction and ultimately up to the Cast Member stationed at the merge point. Bruce Laval recounted that this was the most difficult position to train, and it was the key position to getting the original FastPass system to work. This Cast Member not only had to keep the attraction’s ratio steady, but they had to manage the expectations and frustrations of two very different lines of people experiencing two very different waits. The FastPass to standby ratio cited on the original FastPass patent was 80/20, or in other words, for every four FastPass guests, 1 standby guest was let through.
This is consistent with Cast Member and guest recollections of the system at the time. The 4 to 1 ratio remained standard after the transition to FastPass Plus, but with backups occurring much more frequently, Cast Members at merge points had to modify the FastPass to Standby disparity more often. There were three phases Cast Members had to go through. Phase 1 was standard operating procedure with a 4:1 ratio.
If there was a backup in the FastPass line, Cast Members would go to Phase 2, which was a 20:1 ratio, and if the backup was significant enough, Phase 3 would be initiated, which was for every 1 standby guest, 100 FastPass guests were let through. Once the FastPass line was under control, Cast Members would return to Phase 1, but the disparity of Phase 2 and 3 was infuriating to guests waiting in the standby queue, which during these phases would almost completely stop. There was also a psychological gamble to FastPass.
Disney was banking on the idea that guests would not remember the three or four times they were cut in line, they would just remember the one time they got to cut the line. This seemed to pay off, but they were also working against another issue with the psychology of queueing. Now that FastPass was slowing down the standby line, the pace at which guests moved through the queue was much slower.
In most cases, people prefer to spend 20 minutes walking at a steady pace rather than spend 20 minutes standing still, but the latter was now happening frequently on FastPass attractions. In the pre-FastPass days, lines often stretched out of an attraction’s dedicated queue, but it is important to remember that back then, these lines were moving three, four or five times as fast. With FastPass, guests found that the amount of people waiting in the standby line was less than before, despite the wait being the same or longer.
Con #4 FastPass Availability After guests became accustomed to the FastPass+ system, it didn’t take long for them to figure out the best ways to use it. In turn, FastPass availability was running out extremely fast for popular rides. Practically every day of the year, popular attractions would run out of FastPass availability completely before the day of operation. This was the case for 5 attractions at the Magic Kingdom, 3 at EPCOT, 3 at Hollywood Studios, 2 at Animal Kingdom, and 4 meet and greets throughout the resort. This meant that nearly 17 experiences were out of FastPasses before guests even arrived to the park. This prompted Disney to hold back a small amount of FastPasses until the day-of, where they would then drop these held-back passes at different points throughout the day.
This also gave them the option to not drop these additional passes at all if the attraction was experiencing downtime. Still, unless a guest got lucky and snagged a FastPass during one of these random drops or after another guest modified or cancelled theirs, if they wanted a FastPass for a popular ride, they had to plan in advance. Which leads me to Pro #4 and Con #5, Planning. Many people love planning their Disney trips, and do a lot of research and groundwork beforehand.
MyMagic Plus and FastPass Plus significantly increased the amount of planning necessary to have a consistently good experience at Walt Disney World. FastPass Plus was supposed to give guests the option to plan their trip in advance, but in practice, the system forced guests to plan their trip in advance or risk not getting to experience the most popular attractions without an extreme standby wait time. Hotel guests could book an entire trip's worth of FastPasses 60 days out from their check-in date.
This allowed some guests to book as many as 70 days in advance, resulting in certain attractions like Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios and Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom running out of FastPasses even before the 60-day mark. Securing these FastPasses practically became a sport, and everyone had tips and tricks to snag those passes. “Alright, so we’re going to start with prep you need to do beforehand. So you get three FastPass+ reservations per day.” “So once you hit the 60 day mark from your first night at your hotel, you can actually go on and book FastPasses for the whole length of your stay.” “Start with the last day of your vacation first.”
“So the further out you can make it, the more likely you are able to get it. Also, if you take a longer trip, you are more likely to get it too, so if you need an excuse to take a longer trip, there you have it.” “So, on my 60 mark day, I log on to My Disney Experience and I can start making FastPass selections at 7am eastern standard time. Or 6am central standard time, which is where I live.” “Because you want to make sure that you are logged in about 5 minutes before your FastPass window opens.”
“If at all possible, book them early in the day, that way you can get different FastPasses for different parks later in the day.” “You save that first hour of the day to ride some of the smaller rides, but then you try to set up your three FastPasses as soon as possible after that hour as close as possible together.” “I have filled in a vague idea of what I want to do.” ”I make a FastPass+ list with all of the days, times and rides I’m hoping to reserve.” “All it takes is some luck. That is a huge part of it.
Please do not be thinking that this is like a super guarantee.” “So I guarantee you, by the time your 30 day window comes up for off property guests...” “Flight of Passage...” “Flight of Passage…” “Gone.”
“Slinky Dog.” “Gone.” “Seven Dwarfs.” “Gone.” “Keep checking the app. Seriously, keep refreshing, refreshing, refreshing.
Last minute FastPasses pop up all the time.” “You’ll be able to click hour by hour and if you just keep clicking hour by hour it will reload and reload and reload and reload. That’s called ‘pounding the app’ by seasoned veterans of Walt Disney World.”
“And there are also tickets that are available like after 5pm tickets. What you can do is buy these tickets and essentially, what that gains you is three extra FastPasses. And I would put this under a dummy name and then what you can do is use it again the next day because you never enter the park with it.” Some savvy guests that knew how to use the system loved the new FastPass, and the extra planning was a welcome activity, adding even more anticipation to their upcoming trip while also guaranteeing certain experiences during it.
Others knew how to use the system, but did so begrudgingly, disliking the overplanning and longing for the days of flexibility. Many more guests did not know the tips and tricks of the system, and thus missed out on the most valuable FastPasses, leaving them with only one option if they wanted to experience these popular rides. Con #6 Standby By far the biggest complaint with FastPass Plus is the belief that the new system drastically increased wait times throughout the parks. When the system was first introduced, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, two attractions that did not previously offer paper Fastpass, reported consistently higher wait times.
On the other end of the spectrum, Space Mountain and Expedition Everest saw their standby waits decreased slightly. As the system was fully implemented, standby waits appeared to be longer, and for years, fans have argued back and forth whether or not FastPass increases or decreases standby waits, increases or decreases overall waits, or increases or decreases the amount of attractions a guest can experience in a day. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to answer these questions.
Statistics like these have not been reported by Disney, and wait times before FastPass were not consistently recorded, and even if they were, it would be unfair for numerous reasons to compare these numbers. Even doing the math ourselves would be almost impossible. The equations necessary to determine what a virtual queue system such as FastPass does to a theme park is much too complicated for a spreadsheet.
In order to answer these questions, we would actually need to create a computer simulation, like one of the one’s Bruce Laval created during his time at the company. Even then, this is no small task. Someone would need to pay an industrial engineer to create a complex computer simulation of a theme park populated with agents, all with unique preferences, riding attractions of varying capacities and run times in order to compare and contrast wait times, number of rides ridden, and other factors with and without a virtual queue system just to get to the bottom of