By JERRY HIRSCH
The Orange County Register
The Walt Disney Co. is experimenting with what it calls the "virtual queue," a ride-reservations system that could greatly reduce the time park visitors wait in line.
Disney last week launched one-day experiments using two attractions in The Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks in Orlando, Fla. It plans another test Thursday on the popular Space Mountain indoor roller coaster at The Magic Kingdom.
"Waiting in line is one of the biggest complaints we are confronted with," said David Fisher, spokesman for Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's Glendale-based creative arm.
"Essentially, you get a reservation time for going on an attraction," said Fisher. "Instead of waiting in a long line, you get a specific time — priority admission— and it doesn't cost a dime extra."
Analysts see the potential system as a critical marketing tool for Disney as it faces increased competition on both coasts for entertainment dollars.
Earlier this month, Danish toy maker Lego Group opened a $130 million theme park just an hour south of Disneyland. And Universal Studios will open the multibillion-dollar Islands of Adventure theme park and resort complex in Orlando in May.
A virtual queue or no-wait system would "be a huge competitive advantage for Disney" if it was operational soon, said Linda Bannister, an industry analyst with Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis. "Especially if people think there could be huge crowds at Islands of Adventure."
Moreover, it frees people to spend time buying food and drink and shopping for souvenirs, adding to Disney's profits, Bannister said.
"Leave it to Disney to come up with this type of innovative program for its theme parks. It would be a great marketing tool," Bannister said.
Under the experimental system, a visitor inserts the standard park admission ticket into a turnstile outside the ride.
"The computer reads the ticket, looks at the rest of the day, and assigns an hour for the guest to come back," said Rick Sylvain, spokesman for Walt Disney World.
The machine spits the ticket back out with a ride time window when the guest can return and enter the attraction through a special path. The guest skips past any line.
Kevin Yee, a German lecturer at the University of California, Irvine, used the system on Space Mountain during a test day at Walt Disney World last week while on vacation.
"It worked for us. We walked up, got the reservation and came back at the time and went right in," Yee said. "We waited maybe five minutes."
Yee wondered whether such a system would just redistribute the lines within a theme park by freeing people to stand in other lines while they wait for their reservation at a different attraction.
Yee also noted some bugs in the Disney system.
"You miss all the entertainment and ambience of being in some of the lines," Yee said.
Yee said people who either didn't know about the test or opted to wait in line were stuck outside in the hot sun last week because Disney closed off the indoor, air-conditioned section of the queue to make a pathway for the people with reservations.
"It is just being tested right now, but if it is a success I am sure it will spread to all our parks, including Disneyland," Fisher said.
Potentially, such a system could allow Disney to issue day-long itineraries for guests, guaranteeing them rides on each park's signature attractions.
Sylvain said that if the program moves forward, the initial focus will be on what Disney calls "E-ticket," or the most popular rides. One- to two-hour waits are common during the busy holiday and summer seasons.
He cautioned that the system is still in its initial testing stages and no decision has been made on when it might be operational. The test system requires investment in turnstiles that can read admission tickets and print ride times, and staff to shuttle guests into the correct line.
Other theme-park companies are watching what Disney does with the system.
"Certainly the notion of no lines has been talked about in the industry for years," said Jim Yeager, spokesman for Universal Studios Recreation Group, the movie company's theme-park division.
Yeager said Universal has worked to make the lines interesting at Islands of Adventure. In its Duelling Dragons roller-coaster attraction, for example, Merlin leads guests through a special-effects-filled castle to the ride, two entwined roller coasters themed as dragons.
"There are a lot of ways to approach this issue, and a virtual queue is an interesting notion," Yeager said.