If we told you two years ago that FastPass would be a thing of the past, you probably wouldn't have believed us. But here we stand, at the precipice of the Year of the Genie. Disney's new paid-for priority boarding system is the talk of the town, both for ways its serves as a return to the tried-and-true rules of the past and how it requires a PhD level dissertation to understand. It's probably a good time to examine how Disney's line-skipping system works today... and to compare it to its nearest neighbor, Universal's Express Pass.
Today, we're diving deep to dissect both Genie+ and Universal Express to see how these two systems approach priority boarding very, very differently. We'll dig into the pros and cons of each, examine how each one works, and ask you for your input – do you prefer Genie+'s low-cost system dictated by rules, reservations, technology, and microtransactions, or Universal's high-cost, all-in, VIP solution for guests willing to spend big to get stuff done?
Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane
How it started
Disney Genie+ is the once-in-a-blue-moon product of a planetary alignment between the pre-pandemic announcement of the complimentary Disney Genie trip-planning software, Bob Chapek, COVID-19, FastPass+, and the age of per-capita-as-key-performance-indicator.
As much as Disney’s public relations team would prefer that it not be discussed as “paid-for FastPass,” there’s no doubt that the story of Disney Genie+ begins with our in-depth look at Disney’s FastPass service – a “free” (which really means, included with the cost of admission) system that allowed guests to join virtual queues at select attractions and be assigned an hour-long window to return to the ride and join a “priority boarding” queue.
From humble beginnings in 1999, FastPass grew into a monster of a system, made all the worse by 2013’s FastPass+, which digitized the system, massively expanded its footprint, and led to guests booking hour-long return windows months before their trip, leaving off-site guests with the ride reservation equivalent of scraps.
FastPass+ certainly made in-the-know guests feel that they were getting away with murder, skipping the waits at three or more in-demand attractions each day… but of course, outside of their three pre-booked FastPass slots, every other wait was relegated to a slow-moving, swampy “Standby” queue, each created like a toxic byproduct of FastPass.
COVID-19 gave Disney a rare chance to suspend FastPass entirely, all but assuring that if the system returned, it would look a whole lot different. After just over a year of having good old-fashioned “lines,” the shareholders came to call, officially killing another Disney guest perk and replacing it with a new upcharge. In October 2021, Walt Disney World launched Disney Genie+ – essentially, a service that restores virtual queues to day-of, rolling reservations like the paper tickets of yore, but operates entirely through the My Disney Experience app. Which brings us to…
How it works
Anyone who remembers legacy, paper FastPass will catch on to Genie+ pretty quickly, because the new system is dictated by the same general rules: day-of, one-at-a-time, hour-long return windows distributed on a rolling basis throughout the day. In fact, Genie+ is nearly identical to the upcharge, app-based MaxPass that Disneyland tested from 2017 to 2020 (with the added complication of two high-demand rides per park being excluded from the system and purchased a la carte, like Disneyland Paris' Premier Access system).
The day begins at 7:00 AM, when anyone who’s bought into the Disney Genie+ service (regardless of staying on-site or off) can book their first return window through the My Disney Experience app’s new Genie Tip Board. Just like the days when guests would race into theme parks and run to a FastPass kiosk to secure a return time for later in the day, the digital rush at 7:00 sees some high-demand attractions “sell out” of Lightning Lane "slots" right away – hours before the park even opens.
Also like in the days of FastPass, that first, high-pressure booking is merely the start of a day that takes planning and work to get "right." You probably shouldn't have to read our Genie+ 101 guides for Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom to get the most of your money, but knowing the "right" rides to pick in the "right" order and knowing the "rules" of Genie+ can make or break a day and your wallet.
At a November 2021 investor’s call, CEO Bob Chapek reported that about a third of Disney World guests had opted to upgrade their tickets to include Genie+ during the service’s first month. If that’s true, it surely suggests that Disney visitors either didn’t mind the upcharge or – perhaps more accurately – begrudgingly accepted the inevitability of the change and deemed the relatively low entry cost worthwhile. Trust us: Disney is fine with either.
What it costs
Access to the Disney Genie+ service costs $15 per person, per day at Walt Disney World. Genie+ can be pre-loaded to the length of a ticket like Park Hopper (for example, a five-day ticket can be upgraded to include Genie+ for a flat $75), or Genie+ be purchased one day at a time, on the day of its intended use. (For example, you could wake up at 6:55 on January 24, buy Genie+ for that day for $15, complete the transaction in the My Disney Experience app, then book your first Lightning Lane at 7:00.)
As anyone will tell you, though, even $15 per person per day won't quite recreate the full FastPass experience of old. Remember, at each park, two of the most in-demand rides are excluded from Genie+. Their Lightning Lanes can only be accessed with (comedically named) "Individual Lightning Lane" purchases, which range from $7 to $14 per person, per ride. (Note that Individual Lightning Lane access goes on sale to on-site guests at 7:00 AM, but off-site guests need to wait until park opening, by which time Lightning Lane access to the two premium rides may be sold out, requiring Standby waits.)
In other words, if you're taking a once-in-a-decade trip to Disney World and have just one day at Hollywood Studios, it's not outrageous to suggest you might buy into Genie+ ($15 per person) to make reservations for most Lightning Lanes, then also opt for upgraded access to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ($14 per person) and Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway ($10 per person). That grand total – $39 per person, or $156 for a family of 4 – will more or less restore the (free!) FastPass experience you might remember from 2010. Repeat that across Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom and... yeah...
There's no denying that the out-of-pocket cost of Genie+ – even including one-off Individual Lightning Lane add-ons – is relatively low per day. But the real question is...
Is it worth it?
If you were to ask 100 Disney Parks aficionados if Disney Genie+ is "worth it," you'd get 100 different answers. After all, given that the upcharge service maxes out at approximately equivalent to the formerly-"free" FastPass, of course, it doesn't feel good or worthwhile or fair to pay for something that used to be standard. For some, the argument ends there.
Further complicating the "worth" discussion, Walt Disney World’s second, third, and fourth theme parks have surprisingly few rides to begin with, so pulling two (and by design, the two most popular) from each park's lineup as "Individual Lightning Lane" rides A) is a bad look, and B) lowers the "worth" of the system considerably. At Animal Kingdom, for example, Genie+ only buys you access to four rides' Lightning Lanes: Na'vi River Journey, Dinosaur, Kali River Rapids, and Kilimanjaro Safaris – and it's up to you to know which to prioritize, in what order to book them, and how to secure them.
That said, without Genie+, you're going to spend a very, very boring hour in the Standby line for Na'vi River Journey, Kilimanjaro Safaris, or both. Aside from an early morning wakeup and a lucky position at rope-drop, Genie+ is really your only chance to avoid that... and even if you can absolutely complete all of Disney's Animal Kingdom rides in a single day using Standby alone, most people probably feel like $15 per person isn't such a bad deal if it can skip even a few of the most painful Standby waits... The assurance Genie+ gives you means you can have a low key morning enjoying walk-on rides on Everest and Dinosaur, enjoying a coffee, or, y'know, seeing animals. That's kind of nice. So I guess in that regard, Genie+ is "worth it."
To be clear – Genie+ is no panacea. As its relatively low price should tell you, it's not an unlimited, VIP, "front-of-the-line," "get-out-of-jail-free," "perfect-Disney-day" system. Like FastPass of old, those "in-the-know" are much more likely to use the system to its full potential, and even that requires pre-planning, study, tech skills, setting alarms, and vigilance throughout the day, nose buried in the phone. It's a definite boost, but cynics might remind us that Genie+'s primary purpose is to allow guests to escape the slow-moving Standby lines that Genie+'s existence creates...
Ultimately, Disney knows that we, the fans, will whine and complain and gripe and grumble, but that most of us will opt for the $15 a day at least. Some may say that echoes the short-term gains of the late-'90s when executives cut costs and services, inflated prices, then congratulated themselves over rising revenue... only to see it all collapse when decades of earned good will cratered. Will fans stop buying Genie+? Will guests return home with poor word of mouth about upped prices and having to pay for what used to be free? Or will the added "microtransactions" of Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lanes be written off by tourists as an inevitable cost of visiting?
In any case, Genie+ isn't the only "priority boarding" system in Orlando... Let's head up I-4 to Universal Orlando to dissect a very different kind of line-skipping system...