Themepark queues and traffic-shaping

Slate observes the phenomenon of theme-park VIP passes, premium admission packages from the likes of Busch Gardens and Universal that allow the bearer to jump all queues. The article contrasts these with the Disney parks' FastPass system, which requires you to go to each ride you want to queue-jump and use a machine to get a time-stamped pass that's good for a no-wait ride later in the day.

Disney's mechanism is egalatarian and has the added benefit of shaping the park's traffic so that individual rides don't bunch up — this is something that the Disney parks lost when they migrated from the A-B-C-D-E ticket-books to flat-rate ride-all-you-want with admission in the early 80s. Because you got more A tickets than E tickets in each book, there was some friction that encouraged visitors to ride A-ticket attractions, like the horse-drawn carriage on Main Street, instead of just queueing and re-queueing for Space Mountain.

The FastPass has a similar — and subtler — traffic-shaping mechanism. Anyone attempting to ride an E-Ticket attraction without a FastPass is, broadly speaking, a sucker. The waits for "standby" admission are through the roof (except at the halt and abandoned California Adventure at Disneyland), but you can only hold one FastPass at a time, so you can't just ask the machine for 100 Space Mountain passes. If you want multiple turns at Space Mountain, you can get a FastPass, then queue up in the standby line while you wait for your pass to mature, then jump on again with your pass after your standby ride. Lather, rinse, repeat. Note how this balances the pleasure of Space Mountain coaster-fanatics with a less-obsessive visitor who just wants to get one ride in during her day at Disneyland. If you're in it to ride once or twice during your visit, there are no lines, and you spend the rest of your trip visiting less popular attractions, balancing crowds across the Park. If you want to ride again and again — as is your perogative — you don't get to pre-empt the pleasure of less-fanatical riders who still want to get one shot at the ride.

The Busch Gardens/Universal system, though, is all about the money. It's a maitre'd bribe: pay out some big bucks and the ride-operators will let you take the best table in the house, for as long as you want. If this program is successful, it will turn the de facto price of admission into the price of a VIP passes, since all the E-Ticket "weenies" (carny term for a landmark, signature ride that draws visitors through the midway) will be saturated from opening to closing by VIP passholders.

Disney has its own premium admission system, of course. If you're a guest at the resort hotels, you can enter a different park an hour early every day, beating the crowds on selected (usually E-ticket and kiddee) rides. And Walt Disney World throws a weekly "E-Ticket night", when people who pay an extra $15 get to stay after closing and ride half a dozen rides that are kept open. Finally, if you take one of the pricey — but wicked-cool — backstage tours, you'll get onto one or two rides without having to wait.

In my experience, early admission and backstage tours are utterly worth it, but E-Ticket nights are filled with hooting teenages, too-few rides, and queues that aren't noticably shorter than daytime lines.

My best-ever Disney queue experience was about five years ago, when I went to Disneyland with a bunch of friends from the WELL, including Evelyn, a woman who is blind and was travelling with her guide dog. Lines melted away from us and our group, Cast Members were delighted to dog-sit her pooch, and the whole gang of us were able to walk onto one ride after another. Evelyn and her dog got to ride the Submarine Ride for its last voyage.

Slightly offtopic: Has Disney taken its themepark webcams offline? I tried to watch the Disney World fireworks online last night, and the cameras appear to be gone (I found a set through Google that appeared to have archived images from May 2001, but nothing more recent).