Universal Orlando’s Virtual Line tries to eliminate the queue

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There are plenty of things that people want to do at theme parks and water parks, including scream like ninnies on thrill rides, be transported to fantastic realms on sophisticated attractions, and cool down on exhilarating water slides. But there’s one thing that nobody wants to do at parks: wait in line.

Universal Orlando feels your pain.

Lines are practically synonymous with theme parks. When tens of thousands of visitors pass through the gates daily, most of whom want to score a ride alongside Harry Potter or aboard Dumbo, that’s to be expected. But parks have been devising ways to mitigate or nearly eliminate at least some of the lines for their guests. Florida’s Walt Disney World, for example, offers FastPass+, a complimentary system that allows visitors to make advance reservations and bypass a few standby lines on select attractions. At Universal Orlando, guests can pay extra for Universal Express, an upgrade that allows them to skip past the lines on nearly every ride simply by flashing their pass. (Some of Universal’s premium on-property hotels toss in Universal Express for their patrons as a bonus.)

Starting in 2017, Universal introduced Virtual Line, its attempt to revamp the waiting-to-ride ordeal. The program comes in two flavors: one for its theme parks and one for Volcano Bay, the water park that it opened last year. In both cases, participation is mandatory. That is, for those attractions that use Virtual Line, there are no standby options. After some initial hiccups, Universal’s new line management program appears to mostly be working well. It may very well signal a radical rethinking of the queue conundrum.

Fallon’s free-roaming queue experience lasts at least 20 minutes

The first attraction to feature Virtual Line was Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, which debuted in spring 2017 at Universal Studios Florida. To gain access to the ride, guests need to reserve a time using Universal’s phone app or kiosks that are located near the attraction. Unlike Disney’s FastPass+, reservations can only be made inside the park on the day guests want to ride. That part of the program works well.

Once visitors get inside the show building, however, they may be surprised to find that they have to wait before boarding the actual motion simulator ride. “We’ve designed it so people are in the environment about 20 minutes before riding,” says Jason Surrell, creative director for Universal Creative, and one of the lead designers of the Fallon attraction. “We have more than one hour of original [pre-ride] content, so guests won’t see the same thing twice,” he adds. It’s a good thing, because visitors sometimes have to wait more than 20 minutes until they can race through New York.

At other attractions, such as the nearby Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, guests with Universal Express show their pass and are ripping, riding, and rocking within moments. But even Express holders, who can walk right into the Fallon attraction without a reservation, have to wade through the pre-ride rigmarole. Except for a few minutes just before they enter the ride theater, visitors do not wait in line in the Race Through New York building. Surrell calls it a “free-roaming queue experience.”

Once inside the building, which is nicely designed to look like the Art Deco 30 Rock studios where Fallon tapes The Tonight Show, “NBC pages” hand out color-coded peacock tickets to guests. Until they hear the NBC chimes and see their color summoned, they are free to peruse exhibits that chronicle the late night talk show’s history. Then they move upstairs where a host of diversions awaits, including performances by stand-ins for Fallon’s Ragtime Gals, photo-ops with Hashtag the Panda, and interactive games on tabletop displays. Or they could just crash on comfy couches and recharge their phones using the many available outlets. When their color is flashed a second time, visitors hand in their tickets and hang for a few moments in a hallway before they are ushered into a preshow room ahead of the main event.

Walk right onto the Fast & Furious ride? Not so fast.

Universal’s second attempt at Virtual Line inside Universal Studios Florida was Fast & Furious – Supercharged, which opened this spring. As with the Fallon attraction, visitors need to pre-book a ride time in order to enter the show building. Unlike Fallon, the wait time before boarding the F&F ride vehicles is not a free-roaming experience. Guests do get to wander through Dom Toretto’s garage and see his souped-up Dodge Charger and other vehicles made famous in the mega-popular franchise. But they wander through in an orderly fashion that can only be described as, well, a line.

And it can be a long line.

There are multiple rooms that visitors need to navigate which include workstations and stored parts on display, (purposely) dingy hallways, and two pre-show presentations. Before they get on the “party buses” that take them on a simulated F&F adventure, there is a final holding area with rat-maze switchbacks that are all too familiar for park fans.

If Universal could pare back the time that guests spend inside the F&F and Fallon attractions before they get on the rides to, say, 15 minutes or less—and it seems like with a little tweaking they could—then they’d have something truly compelling. As it is, the pre-ride experiences seem less like Virtual Lines and more like Actual Lines.

Universal keeps lines at bay in its water park

The promise of Virtual Line is more fully realized at Volcano Bay. Universal attempted something audacious at its water park: banish lines altogether. Visitors need to reserve a time for every water slide and other attraction that would otherwise require a line. They do so using high-tech wearable bracelets that are issued to them as they enter the park. The reservation system is called “TapuTapu.”

To make a reservation, guests tap the waterproof devices at kiosks near each attraction. Until it’s time to ride, they are free to do many things, including ride the lazy river, enjoy the surf in the wave pool, splash with their kids in the play area, and lounge on one of the many chairs available throughout the park. When it is their time to ride, the bracelets alert them. They proceed to the attraction and check in with their devices.

When Volcano Bay first opened, wait times swelled to unreasonable levels, and visitors were only able to reserve two or three rides. Universal has since worked out the kinks of its prototype system. In early May of this year, I discovered wait times that varied from 10 to 75 minutes. A few of the attractions, including the signature Kala and Tai Nui trap-door body slides, had no waits.

“All of the attractions are managed dynamically,” says Krisitn Ong, VP, marketing and experience transformation at Universal Orlando, explaining how TapuTapu works. “It’s not just a linear system. If by chance, guests don’t return or the rides are dispatching faster, it will call guests to their attraction faster.”

If guests don’t want to deal with the TapuTapu system, Volcano Bay also offers the Universal Express system. For an additional fee, which varies according to the time of year, the Express passes allow holders to immediately skip the lines.

While they are waiting to ride, visitors can use their bracelets in other intriguing ways. They could capture images at photo spots and on some of the slides that they could associate with their account and purchase later. They could “Tap to Play” by triggering water cannons and other interactive elements throughout the park. They could “Tap to Pay” by registering a credit card and making cashless purchases at dining locations and gift shops. And they could store their valuables in lockers without having to memorize codes or locker numbers since the bracelets automatically pop them open.

All of the attractions that Universal Orlando has opened over the past year have incorporated Virtual Line. Will that trend continue, and, if so, how might it evolve? Would the parks retrofit attractions to eliminate more lines?

“This is the tip of the iceberg for us,” says Surrell. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s kind of hard to put it back in. However long it takes—it could be ten years, it could be one generation—we’re going to get to a point where a kid could come to a theme park and say, ‘What’s a line? I don’t know what you’re talking about Grandpa.’”

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