Home » Are Disney Parks’ New Virtual Queues a Game Changer or a Flop?

Are Disney Parks’ New Virtual Queues a Game Changer or a Flop?

There has been a disturbance in the Force…

The opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland had unprecedented effects on Disney parks. Along with basically single-handedly saving Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge after a rocky start, the ride also dramatically shifted crowd trends at Walt Disney World. It’s an attraction unlike anything Disney has ever tried before, an 18 minute immersive experience where guests become recruits in a crucial battle between the First Order and The Resistance. Across the board, visitors agree the ride is outstanding, and that has drawn the unprecedented crowds originally expected to accompany Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

To manage the demand surrounding the Galaxy’s Edge opening, Disney introduced a new technology when the land opened at Disneyland and Walt Disney World: virtual queues. While virtual queue tech isn’t entirely new (Universal Orlando Resort utilizes it at Volcano Bay), Disney’s use of it was a little different, assigning guests “Boarding Groups” that would be granted entry to the land in phases. While this definitely helped on both opening days, the system was shelved thanks to just how well Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge handled crowds.

The virtual queue made a comeback with the arrival of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, the land’s second attraction. Demand for this ambitious ride has been insane, especially at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The attraction’s virtual queue has become a hotly-debated source of controversy, especially as Disney has juggled policy changes to try to find the most effective system possible to get the most guests onto the attraction while planning for frequent breakdowns.

Recent guest surveys suggest that the company is definitely considering utilizing the system again for future ride openings—is this a good idea though? With all the mixed press, did Disney really make the right call utilizing a virtual queue instead of a stand-by line for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance? We decided to take a look at the major pros and cons to determine if Disney’s new virtual queues are an industry game changer or a complete flop…

Pros: Virtual queues reduce the worst part of visiting a theme park

Standing in line is the worst. It’s a running joke that most of what people do visiting theme parks is stand in line. The situation is even more brutal at Universal Orlando Resort where guests can’t bring smartphones into many thrill ride queues. Guests who are shrewd with their time will go to incredible lengths to avoid lines or at least reduce their sting during any park visit.

While somewhat long queues are a hallmark of many E-Ticket attractions, brand new rides traditionally tend to draw the fiercest crowds—to the point that a park visitor can lose an entire day standing in line for just one ride. Our editor shared her experience enduring a fourteen hour line at Universal’s Islands of Adventure to ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a rather hellish undertaking despite having absolutely loved the ride. Weather delays and breakdowns caused the queue to swell to absurd proportions, but theme park visitors are so used to correlating long lines with success that Universal just let it be. When the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge didn’t produce the same scenario, people called the land a failure in comparison. Disney Parks chairman, Bob Chapek, countered that, “Ten hour lines are not a sign of success.” He went on to even suggest that such a scene was a sign of failure.

One of the things that surprised us the most about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was how well the land handled extreme crowds—the entire land is a labyrinth of crowd sponges including attraction queues, dining opportunities, and shops that pull guests out of the streets. Virtual queues may have proven unnecessary for the land, but they had a major impact for guests trying to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

This ride is proving to be Disney’s most popular attraction to date, and it has drawn crowds that could easily form 12-15 hour lines without even hitting rope drop. If you happened to be an unlucky soul who ended up in the back of such a crowd, you would basically be paying a full park admission just to stand in line for Rise of the Resistance all day. If the ride utilized standby lines, it’s conceivable the rest of the park would be quite empty, and while that would be great for guests avoiding the new ride, that’s a pretty lame way to spend a quite-expensive Disney day for those in line. With some rare exceptions, the virtual queue completely eliminates the danger of losing a half day or full day to one attraction wait, which leads us into our next pro-point…

Pros: With a virtual queue, stand-by time becomes free time

This is the real game changer, and it doesn’t just affect Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

In a stand-by queue, guests can only do one thing: wait in that queue. No matter how much interactive elements Disney might add to keep guests entertained, a queue keeps guests in one place for the duration of that wait. While lines do act as crowd sponges to keep thoroughfares from getting over-filled, some attractions just consistently draw long waits (at the time of this writing, Avatar: Flight of Passage has a 150 minute wait on a Wednesday in the off-season—three years after opening!). A large portion of your day is quickly vampired away just by waiting in queues.

While Disney’s new virtual queues don’t completely solve the problem of lines, they do make a substantial difference for E-ticket attractions like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. The virtual queue takes the sting out of mega-lines by ensuring that your wait for the attraction becomes an opportunity for you to explore the rest of the park. Overall guest satisfaction is improved because guests really feel like they got to experience more than just a queue and a single ride (even if that ride is as excellent as SW: ROTR). As an added benefit for Disney, this extra time exposes guests to more shops and dining venues, meaning more revenue for the company overall. It’s a win-win situation.

It’s not a win-win situation without flaws, however…

Cons: Arriving ultra-early no longer guarantees a spot in line

Let’s switch over to some downsides for a moment. While Disney’s virtual queue for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance made huge strides for improving guest satisfaction regarding day-breaking queues, it hasn’t come without controversy. One of the biggest debates surrounding the opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance came about due to the irrepressible tenacity of Star Wars and Disney fans.

The Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance virtual queue originally operated on a first-come, first-serve basis. As soon as you could get through the park turnstiles, you could get a boarding pass via My Disney Experience. This resulted in guests arriving as early as 3 AM on some days, lining up in such overwhelming numbers by 5-6AM that Disney was forced to open the park early for safety reasons. While this was a fair system in regards to being first-come, first-serve, it created an issue of moving target opening times: guests were arriving 60-90 minutes before officially published opening times only to find out the park already opened and boarding passes were gone.

Without intending to, the system sharply favored resort guests and immediate area locals who could get to the parks that early—while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it definitely caused some intense guest frustration. While arriving well before rope drop is a traditional requirement for visiting brand new attractions, the ultra-early openings created an unsustainable situation for cast members as well as putting the attraction out of reach for families and others who just couldn’t be up by 3 or 4 AM depending on their situation. It also resulted in many unhappy guests confused by the constantly changing opening times. Disney solved this by handing out free park hoppers to some guests via their Guest Experience Teams, but this also was unsustainable.

Disney finally addressed the problems by altering the system—boarding passes would only become available after the official opening time of the park. Disney could still let guests enter the park early to corral on Hollywood Blvd, but this eliminated the incentive for die hard guests to arrive in the middle of the night. This both served to even the playing field for guests who couldn’t manage ultra-early arrivals and calm crowds a bit (people no longer felt like they were in a race to the turnstiles), but it presented an all-new challenge.

It essentially turned the virtual queue into a lottery. You can, conceivably, be the first person to arrive at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and either get a boarding group that won’t get called for 12 hours or not get a pass at all (usually if your phone glitches out). Sure, you don’t have to wake up at 3 AM, but your chances are much more random now, and that can result in a busted Disney day. While I and many reviewers still favor the new system over the moving-target openings, it can be argued the new system isn’t necessarily fair either, even if Disney does seem to be doing the best they can with the tools available. There’s also one other pretty big problem that complicates things…

Cons: The new system is very glitchy at times

One of the biggest issues with the new virtual queues is the temperamental element of technology: as denoted by the name, virtual queues rely entirely upon integration with My Disney Experience. Don’t get us wrong—My Disney Experience is a great app that has really revolutionized how guests experience Disney parks. Unfortunately, it’s also famously glitchy. While that was already enough of an issue with the old first-come, first-serve system, it’s potentially disastrous under the new rules.

Having everyone get their boarding passes at the same time when the park opens puts My Disney Experience under incredible strain—that’s a lot of guests all trying to use the same action in the app at the exact same time. If your phone is a bit slow or the app bugs out, that could drastically hurt your chances of getting a boarding pass. It’s basically a guarantee for a terrible boarding group or none at all. Guests who don’t have smartphones are basically out of luck—perhaps the first person in line for a Guest Experience Team might get a pass, but with boarding groups disappearing often in less than a minute, guests without smartphones don’t stand a chance.

It’s hard to say exactly how Disney could best solve this issue without reverting back to the problematic early-riser system. Could they release boarding groups in waves? Do they just need to update their systems? Could they rent out smartphones or iPods at resorts with My Disney Experience pre-loaded? Replace the guest experience team with an army of protocol droids fluent in over 16 million forms of communication (and My Disney Experience)? There’s no easy answer.

For now, the best way to prevent a glitch from ruining your boarding group chances is to follow a few tips:

  • Don’t use Disney’s Wi-Fi. Just turn it off entirely. Mobile Data is usually more reliable.
  • Use your smartest smart-device. As a matter of fact, have at least two phones ready to go with the app open before opening time arrives. Obviously, this requires you to be inside the park before then, so you still need to arrive about an hour or so early.
  • Close anything else on your phone using memory or bandwidth
  • When opening time arrives, have everyone in your party going for boarding passes. If someone can get them for the whole group, awesome, but if not, just get what you can on each phone. You can always talk to a Guest Experience team to get everyone into the same group.
  • When you have a group, take a screenshot of your pass, just in case it glitches. Mine glitched out literally as I was walking the last step to check in for the ride. Fortunately, my husband’s pass, the screenshot, and a good attitude got us onto the ride without issue.

Pros: The virtual queue gives guests realistic expectations

As mentioned, waiting in a twelve hour line is a pretty brutal way to spend a Disney day—but even worse would be waiting in a twelve hour line and not getting onto the ride. We’ve had this scenario happen to us many times with shorter queues at Universal Orlando Resort, and stories abound online of guests waiting through multi-hour waits only to not get onto a ride.

The idea of buying a ticket to visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios then not getting to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is pretty unpleasant—however, we have to give it to Disney that the virtual queues create a much more realistic expectation for if guests will be able to get onto the ride in the first place. The minute boarding passes disappear, even the parking cashiers know to tell guests straight up that the ride is at capacity. Signs instantly appear not just all over the park, but outside of it, at Skyliner stops, security checkpoints, and transportation hubs. While this can be an emotionally trying situation to work through, at least its one guests know about immediately rather than 6-10 hours into a wait.

While signage and warnings may not help guests who were already in the park, it does at least mean that guests arriving later have a realistic heads up that they won’t get on the ride and can choose another park to visit if they wish.

Pros: A viable alternative to Fastpass+

Another positive in favor of Disney’s virtual queues is that they introduce a reasonable alternative to FastPass+.

FastPass+ is a great system, but it has its problems. For one thing, it sharply favors Walt Disney World resort guests who can log on 60 days ahead of time to secure passes. While this is fine in most cases, for an attraction as popular as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, relying on FastPass+ would drastically reduce the chances of non-resort guests getting onto the ride. It can also present a false picture of how many guests will actually show up since you don’t have to be in the park to make a FastPass+ reservation—locals take advantage of cancelled FastPass+ slots all the time, but people don’t always remember to cancel their spots in time. On top of this, FastPass+ locks Disney into having the ride available at specific times of day—something that Disney would have a difficult time living up to due to frequent breakdowns on the complicated ride.

Adding a virtual queue creates something like a same-day FastPass+ option without Disney getting locked into specific reservation times—they get to as many groups as they can, estimating each day which groups are “guaranteed”. For the most part, boarding groups aren’t wasted because guests have to be in the park to get one. This also makes the virtual queue more even-handed than FastPass+ since everyone basically has the same shot to get a boarding group as long as you are in the park on time with a working device.

Cons: Ride malfunctions can badly throw off the system

While there are a lot of great positives about Disney’s virtual queues, there are two more negatives worth exploring. The biggest one can be something of a deal-breaker: ride malfunctions can jack up the whole system.

In a way, ride malfunctions are the whole reason a virtual queue is a good idea—a three hour line becoming a six hour one would be an awful experience to be stuck in. Having boarding groups instead of exact return times gives Disney some leeway to deal with breakdowns in a manner that doesn’t inconvenience guests quite as much. However, severe or extended ride malfunctions can wreak havoc on the virtual queue system and lead to desperate measures that negate its benefits.

Recently, Disney had a pretty rough day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance had an extended breakdown so long that even guaranteed boarding groups were potentially not going to get onto the ride. To solve the problem, Disney opened up the full queue area for the attraction and called dozens of extra boarding groups compared to their normal procedure. This meant that some virtual queue guests ended up waiting two and a half hours in line for the ride—normally stand-by time once a group is called is about 15-30 minutes. Disney was laudably apologetic about the situation, and they even tried to improve guest experiences by having characters roam the line and sending cast members to offer snacks, but it was still the perfect example of what can go wrong with a virtual queue.

Disney has also tried other desperate ploys to meet boarding groups when the ride is on the flux. On particularly bad days for breakdowns, guests have reported that Disney sent guests straight to the Star Destroyer portion of the attraction, skipping the pre-ride briefing and transport sequence. Without these components, the story of the ride doesn’t make much sense, which really takes away from the experience. Other breakdowns include malfunctioning animatronics that are replaced by video screens or small ride technologies quietly cut to keep boarding groups moving.

Fortunately, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance continues to regularly improve its capacity and reduce breakdowns, but the virtual queue does put a certain amount of pressure on Disney to get guests onto the attraction even if they only get a halfway experience, which is kind of a bummer.

Cons: The psychology of stand-by lines

Overall, it could be argued that the positives of Disney’s new virtual queues outweigh the negatives—eliminating excessively long waits and giving guests more time in the parks is a big enough victory in and of itself, and the system does set up much more realistic expectations than a stand-by line. However, there is one hurdle that Disney may have a difficult time overcoming.

There is a certain psychology surrounding stand-by lines. Virtual queues are new, unfamiliar, and can be messy, and many guests have been vocal that they would still pick a twelve hour queue over a seemingly unreliable virtual queue. For some, enduring an excessive line or arriving ultra-early feeds a certain sense of accomplishment. For others, a stand-by line is just more tangible than a virtual queue—it feels fairer than an arbitrary list of boarding groups hidden in cyberspace. Stand-by lines are a tried and tested tradition for Disney fans, and some guests are fine with that.

We personally think Disney made the right call in choosing a virtual queue for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance—despite some of the goof-ups, guest experiences would be far worse with fourteen hour stand-by lines than they have been with the virtual queues. The question is, will Disney try this system again for future attractions like TRON Lightcycle Power Run at Magic Kingdom or Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot? With cautious optimism, I’d say they should continue to utilize the technology, and who knows what creative ways the company might find to iron out the kinks by then? Overall, we would call the virtual queue project a success, despite a few foibles.

What do you think of Disney’s new virtual queues? How do you think they could improve them?