A whole lot has changed since FastPass made its debut at Walt Disney World 25 years ago. From FastPass to FastPass+ and Genie+, Disney’s engineers have developed three unique and distinct systems meant to help guests “Wait Less, Ride More”.
From the purity of “paper Fastpass” with its inherent equality, to the pre-planning and on-site-prioritizing of FastPass+, and onward to the revenue-generating Genie, we’re capturing “The Good” and “The Bad” of each. Be sure to vote in our poll on the last page to tell us which of these three systems – “flaws and all” – you’d most like to see in place at Disney Parks today.
“Paper FastPass” (1999 – 2013)
We have to remember that when FastPass was first tested in 1999, the concept was revolutionary. Disney’s FastPass allowed any guest the opportunity to gain priority boarding to major attractions, at no additional cost. Initially installed at just one or two major E-Ticket attractions at each park, FastPass soon spread to nearly all major attractions.
In practice, guests could secure a FastPass by visiting a small FastPass Distribution area (usually 4 – 6 tall kiosks) near a participating ride. A clock there would notify guests of the “return time” that that ride was currently distributing for – an hour-long window that advanced in five minute increments as FastPass capacity was booked into.
By scanning the barcode on the back of their admission media (ticket, pass, etc.), guests would receive a paper print-out either confirming their hour-long “return time” window, or notifying them that they were ineligible to join. After all, guests could carry only one FastPass reservation at a time, becoming eligible to collect another either once the “return time” window for the first had arrived, or after two hours had passed since they’d collected the first – whichever was sooner.
Behind the scenes, FastPass was what we’d now call a “virtual queue,” setting aside a portion (usually, a majority) of a ride’s hourly capacity to guests who were not physically waiting in line. In simple terms, imagine a ride could process 1,000 guests per hour. 700 of those “slots” were pre-booked by guests who would be told to return in some part of that hour. So even if only 299 people stood in front of you in the “Stand-by” queue, you were technically 1000th in line, with the “Stand-by” wait reflecting that.
FastPass was “free.” Or, as “free” as things at Disney Parks ever are. It’s probably wiser to say that FastPass was “included” in the often-exorbitant admission prices of Disney Parks. But to a guest, that’s enough, and there’s no doubt that FastPass was a point of pride for Disney and its fans; the kind of baked-in, priceless benefit that competitors couldn’t match.
FastPass was available to all, equally. When you think about it, it’s kind of wild that everyone had the same level of access to FastPass, whether they were staying on-site or off-site; Value or Deluxe; day-guest or Annual Passholder. It wasn’t “for sale” and you couldn’t buy more or better access. Obviously, there’s good and bad to that, but at it’s core, it’s a uniquely well-intentioned part of FastPass’s DNA. That also made it easier to stomach FastPass guests passing you in line for the rides you did not get a FastPass for; it meant that you’d simply prioritized a different ride and chosen to do this one Stand-by.
FastPass was real time and flexible. Whether you loved or hated it, paper FastPass was a system that worked in real time. Guests made choices as they went, collecting nearby FastPasses. (“Oh look! The wait for Indiana Jones Adventure is 40 minutes, or we can grab FastPasses and come back in an hour. Let’s grab FastPasses, do the Treehouse, get a Dole Whip, and stop by the Tiki Room, then it’ll be time to ride!”)
FastPass was easy to manipulate. Theme park pros like us might list this under “The Good” of FastPass, because let’s be honest – we knew how to use it well. It wasn’t unusual for Disney “regulars” to get 6, 7, 8, or more priority boardings in a day while once-in-a-lifetime-ers only managed to get one or two – if they even knew it was free and available.
Technically, FastPass psychologically tricked us into thinking we waited less when we didn’t. Inherent in any line-skipping system is the notion that when some people get priority boarding, others get slowed down. So while an average guest might’ve been lucky to get 2, 3, or 4 FastPasses in a day and feel really good about that, it turned all of their other waits in the day into swampy, stagnant, “Stand-by” lines, meaning their average wait time over the day pretty much evened out.
FastPass required some effort. Surely one of the major drawbacks of paper FastPass was that return times needed to be collected from FastPass Distribution spots located at each individual ride. This task was often given to a member of the group known lovingly as “the FastPass runner” who would need to trek across the park with everyone’s admission ticket in their pocket to collect a FastPass for everyone. This “FastPass runner” needed to be one step ahead, planning out return times in real time and maximizing the payoff. (By late in its use, Disney was beginning to experiment with centralized FastPass Distribution for each land, with guests selecting which attraction in that land they wanted from a touch screen.)
The Long & Short
FastPass wasn’t perfect, but in many ways, the system feels like it still holds up! And not just because it’s nostalgic, but because fundamentally, it still feels fair, equal, and like a point of pride for Disney.
In 2017, Disneyland launched “MaxPass” – an optional, $10 per person per day add-on that basically gave purchasing guests the opportunity to book FastPass from their phone rather than walking to Distribution spots. MaxPass didn’t necessarily give guests more access; just a more convenient way to secure FastPasses, which otherwise remained free to all. In that window when FastPass and MaxPass overlapped, we saw what – somewhere in the multiverse – is still a picture perfect combination where Disney could generate revenue while still leaving the core system accessible to all.
But back in our universe, by time MaxPass debuted, Disney World had long ago done away with paper FastPass… which brings us to our next option…