Disney may use the pandemic as the excuse to finally overhaul Fastpass and Extra Magic Hours



For years, Disney has been looking at how to adequately address the issues deeply embedded within the FastPass+ system the company spent nearly $2 billion on at Walt Disney World. Now, thanks to the pandemic, it looks like they may have found their solution.

After a fourteen-year run with the paper FastPass system, FastPass+ was introduced in 2013 as part of a more extensive MyMagic+ system at Walt Disney World that encouraged more planning ahead of a trip and more usage of personal cellphones or MagicBands while at the resort. From the very beginning, there were issues with the new system with certain attractions seeing all reservations booked within minutes, and many guests, especially foreigners who may not have readily available data on their phones, left confused. The push to install RFID readers into every single cash register kiosk, hotel room door, and ride entrance took years to complete with the system outdated by the time it was fully rolled out. Since then, the resort has continued to play catchup being one of the last significant resorts to accept contactless payment options, such as Apple Pay and tap-to-pay.

Within four years of the new system’s rollout, there were already indications that a major fix was in the works. Multiple other Disney resorts began rolling out a paid FastPass style upcharge to rave reviews. Meanwhile, WDW’s system, which is free-for-all guests, continued to confuse and disappoint.

Multiple attempts to address the various issues with the FastPass+ system have been instituted over the years, with each adding another level of complexity to the system. Now, all but one of the Orlando theme parks have multiple tiers, and for many planning a trip to WDW requires spreadsheets, planning reservations months in advance, and figuring out where and when you want to dine half a year in advance. A sure guarantee of disappointment was a common theme throughout the past seven years as some of the most popular attractions see their FastPasses fill up in a matter of minutes.

On May 28, Disney issued a news release and Disney Parks Blog post explaining all FastPass+ reservations, dining reservations, experience bookings, Disney Dining Plan, and Extra Magic Hours are now on hold as the resort looks to slow begin reopening in mid-July.
Beginning May 28, 2020, all dining reservations, experience bookings, Disney dining plan and FastPass+ selections will be canceled. Guests with existing Resort reservations will have priority access to the new park reservation system when it becomes available. Additionally, when reservations for dining and other experiences resume, Guests who had existing reservations will receive priority access to rebook. Keep in mind, for dining locations within our parks, Guests will need a park reservation and valid admission before they can rebook dining and experiences.

Guests who purchase a Disney dining plan and tickets for dates between May 28, 2000 and September 26, 2021 will receive an automatic cancellation and refund of their Disney dining plan.

Guests who booked Resort hotel reservations with a Free Dining package for dates between May 28, 2020 and September 26, 2021 will receive an automatic cancellation of their Disney dining plan and are invited to rebook their vacation for later date with a 35% room discount.

Plans to support required physical distancing as well as enhanced cleaning measures, along with a number of other safety and cleanliness protocols, will be implemented as part of the planned phased reopening.
Now Disney has canceled all FastPass+ reservations, opting to use the queue space for allow for easier social distancing when the parks reopen. The move is a temporary one but FastPass may not return in its current form. The lower crowd levels will allow Disney to test different variations of queue management.

At the same time, the company is reportedly looking at keeping some of the pandemic response actions in place permanently, including pre-arrival reservations. The admission reservation system helps provide Disney with more specific data than the FastPass+ system while also helping alleviate many of the inadequacies of it. This will allow the resort more adequately staff and operate the parks while also allowing for a customizable FastPass system to be introduced. The updated FastPass system will be linked to the AI-powered Disney Genie app that will eliminate the current system where multiple-step processes are required to check and change many reservations.
  • Image via Disney
Some, including noted insider Martin Smith, are now speculating that Extra Magic Hours may not be returning; instead, Disney will look at extending other benefits, or “extra wishes,” via the Genie app. These could include things like extra FastPasses, unique character meet-and-greet experiences, or reservations for an upcharge activity, like a dessert party. Unlike Extra Magic Hours, which are available for all on-site guests regardless of room type, the new “wishes” based system will allow for more customizable benefits based on multiple factors, including previous spending and party demographics. It also gives Disney a way to more easily fill upcharge events that may otherwise have not sold out.

The proposed new system is remarkably similar in design and end result as what Universal is now reportedly looking at using for Halloween Horror Nights where guests would use an app to plan their visit and no standby physical queues would be in use. That system is being designed as a way to address concerns related to coronavirus but, like Disney, will likely remain in place in the years to come.

Many of these changes at Disney World, especially the ones surrounding FastPass+, are ones that have been advocated by various leaders within the company for years. Still, upper leadership has been hesitant to move forward with any of them, instead pushing for a more piecemeal approach that addresses specific issues. Now with new leadership in place and the unique opportunity now presented to them, many of these ideas are being reviewed.

All of this is hinges on how guests receive and rate the changes once the parks reopen in July. Multiple insiders have stressed that as of now, no permanent decisions have been made. As one former theme park executive explained, “I don’t believe the changes are permanent; at least not right now. I think there will be a lot of learning over the next few months.” Like the recent reopening of Disney Springs, Disney will have guest satisfaction survey takers out in force once the parks do reopen. It’s anyone’s guess what the survey results will show and what permanent changes will be coming, but, for now, it is clear vacationing at Walt Disney World will never be the same.
  • Photo via LimeBye/Wikimedia Commons
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