Please tell me you’ve been paying attention to what Universal Orlando has been doing with their queues lately. Theme Park University has been telling you for weeks now that the Universal Orlando Resort is on the verge of major changes in how guests will do virtually everything at the resort. Let’s take a quick recap, shall we?
In early January 2017, Universal announced that when their new attraction, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, debuts, it will feature a virtual queue. While Universal Express will still have their own designated entrance, the attraction will be the first to give ALL guests a time to return instead of waiting in a standard queue. Let that sink in for a moment. Take that piece of the puzzle and put it in your back pocket. Here is another.
Universal announced in November 2016 that their new water park Volcano Bay will be completely queueless. A wearable wristband queue system known as TapuTapu will allow guests to reserve a time to go back to a particular attraction, very similar to Disney’s MagicBand technology. The primary difference being, this is not an option to ride water slides at Volcano Bay, this will be the ONLY way you’ll be able to get on most attractions. Got that piece of the puzzle? It’s a big one. Take it and put it in your back pocket. Moving on.
Over Thanksgiving week in 2016, Shrek 4-D very quietly started testing a way to reserve a time to come back to the attraction experiencing a minimal wait. This test was done via the Universal Orlando app and it would allow you to return to the attraction with a minimal wait instead of queuing up like normal.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the same Universal Orlando app was allowing guests to reserve times to visit Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. According to the story, guests were being given four-hour return time windows to come back to the attraction with a minimal wait. OK, got that puzzle piece? In the back pocket it goes.
As I write this article on January 19, 2017, testing is underway at the Cat In The Hat Ride at Islands of Adventure. Guests staying at certain Universal Orlando hotels are getting to participate in a test that allows Universal to capture guests faces instead of using a card for their Universal Express pass. Cameras have been set up near the entrance of Cat In The Hat with facial recognition technology. That’s right, operators will be able tell via a computer tablet when the cameras analyze guests faces to see if they have a valid Universal Express pass to enter the appropriate queue. Got that puzzle piece? Let’s lay them out on the table now, shall we?
What you should be asking yourself now is, why are they doing all this? Despite the massive delays and budget issues of Disney’s My Magic Plus service, the entire entertainment industry has been watching how that system has impacted Walt Disney World. How do guests flow through the parks differently? What has become less stressful? What has become more stressful? How much of an impact does the system have to the financial bottom line? Universal Orlando quietly assigned a committee of people to analyze those market trends and specifically Disney’s MagicBands and has taken some careful notes. Now? They’re ready to strike back.
I guarantee everyone on that team is reading this article right now and either chuckling and/or cursing my name. Probably both. What I ask theme park enthusiasts to look at with these puzzle pieces is: what’s the bigger picture? Knowing that you don’t have all the information in front of you and knowing there must be more coming in the near future, how could these tests impact the entire experience at the Universal Orlando Resort?
If you think the facial recognition technology being tested at Cat In The Hat is to combat people who pass on their Universal Express credentials to other guests who haven’t paid for it? You are delusional. Installing several cameras, computers, a new facial recognition database and computer tablets at the entrance to every single attraction on property can not possibly outweigh the cost of a few Universal Express passes being abused. Think bigger.
Imagine a world where you can buy your tickets (and Express Passes) from an app on your smartphone. Plenty of businesses already offer this option now for movie tickets, Broadway shows, concerts and more. You pay for the tickets via your phone and after purchased, it asks you to take a direct photo of each person in your party right there on your phone and save them to the app. Once those tickets and Express Passes are bought, you arrive at the park and without a ticket or RFID band in sight, sharp-eyed cameras can recognize your smiling mug as you cross the bridge to the main entrance. It then verifies that you purchased tickets in the database and an employee holding a computer tablet recognizes you are good to go and greets you by name as you walk in.
Don’t have a ticket? Those same tablets have the ability to sell you a pass on the spot, take your payment and a photo and in less than 90 seconds… you’re off into the park. Science fiction? Nope. This is happening. And it will be happening in the near future at Universal Orlando and, if successful, all other Universal resorts.
Want to take it a step further? Lets assume that you used a credit card to buy your tickets on the Universal Orlando app. That credit card payment info can be stored in a virtual account associated with you and… well… your face. You want to grab lunch at Mel’s Drive In, so you head inside and place an order at a kiosk. Once your order is in, the computer system has already recognized your face and asks if it is ok to charge the meal to your linked credit card as it shows your name on the screen. No swiping, no RFID band, no kidding. Will traditional payment methods still be honored? Of course, lets not get ridiculous. However, the designated photo recognition lines will move at a faster clip than your cash/credit lanes.
Oh man… you must have SO many many questions by now. I get it. And not everything has an answer yet. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. At any moment, Universal could pull the plug on some or all of this project and this theme park vision for the future can never see the light of day. Or… you may see tests that prove my theories in the not-so-distant future. You want to know more right? In due time, friends.
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