Sunday, May 06, 2012

FASTPASS Plus: Pictures, Explanations

The advance-reservation system called FastPass Plus (formerly xPass) is now in testing at the Magic Kingdom. The only users so far seem to be those staying at Disney hotels and using Disney’s Magical Express (not certain on that last detail), and folks arriving at the airport are met randomly by FPP folks and offered the service. Or you can approach them, as one of my friends did. 

They set you up with a menu: choose a few selections from the FIRST menu, and then choose a few selections from the SECOND menu of options. So it’s not a complete free for all where you get to choose, willy-nilly, whatever you want and how ever many you want. They issue you a yellow card made of hard plastic, with the FastPass logo emblazoned on it with red font. And hand-write your name on it with a sharpie. 

Since your selections are made at the airport (are some folks doing it from home, online?), you don’t make additional selections while you are on the vacation (though you CAN also use the "regular" FastPass system with the usual limitations). You just show up during your window, scan your yellow card at the RFID scanners in front of the appropriate attraction, and enter the existing FastPass line. At the “merge” point, you don’t have a ticket to hand them, so you scan your yellow card at a second RFID machine also installed here. In both cases, the scanning results in the Mickey shape on the scanner lighting up green to indicate that you’re here during your return window. 

If you forget when your return windows are, you can check at one of the enhanced FP machines. There are FP machines equipped with RFID readers and screens at a few locations around the MK for just this purpose (they don’t also “issue” return times; they are only there to remind you when your reservations are). Those FP screens are located at Stitch’s Great Escape, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Splash Mountain, and Jungle Cruise. Each is also staffed with a Guest Relations Cast Member, which increases the cost of this initiative. Those CMs are armed with special iPads for this test. I asked if the iPads allowed access to the entire Guest Relations system like they have available at City Hall, and one CM answered with “I wish! That would make life a lot easier.”

On this first weekend, the usage was scant. When asked about frequency, a few Cast Members volunteered that they had seen perhaps only twelve people so far in their shift using the system. That implies the powers that be are being very cautious, and very selective, in how many people get to test the new system. I can certainly understand going slowly and not wanting to overwhelm the system.

We still don’t have clarity about the most pressing concerns for FastPass Plus. It seems clear from various public statements that the existing FastPass system will continue to exist side by side with the new one, but there are lots of operational questions. 

Will this be for Disney hotel visitors only, or open to everyone? Will it cost extra? Will it cannibalize the day-of FastPasses, or will the system result in more FastPass tickets per day of a given ride? That last question is the most urgent one, for me. The devil is in THIS last detail. If the old system gave out 8,000 FastPass tickets (to invent a number) per day at Space Mountain, will the new system give out 8,000 same-day FP tickets AND also give out 2,000 advance FP-Plus tickets? If so, that changes the balance of the day, in favor of reservations and away from standby. 

Or, it’s also possible that they’ll keep to the number of 8,000 reservations, and give out only 6,000 same-day FP tickets and allot the remaining 2,000 tickets to advance reservations. In this latter scenario, the standby line moves at the same speed as it did four years ago. That’s not true in the earlier scenario, if there are more FP tickets sloshing through the system. 

We do know they are “adding capacity” by placing rides on the reservation system that weren’t there before, like the Haunted Mansion (which lost its FastPass some years ago, but does have an RFID scanner. Come to think of it, that will doubtless be confusing to some tourists. There are rides with FP, rides without FP, and then rides with Advance-FP-only??)

The added FP capacity is supposed to even-out the demand. To this idea I shrug my shoulders and say simply “we’ll see.” If it DOES work as advertised, all that will mean is that unwitting tourists will book advance FP for things that don’t need it, like Mansion, and they will “lose” over the course of the day by not knowing the full details. Locals and frequent visitors would win in that scenario.

Still, there’s a silver lining to be had here. Infrequent visitors want to know that their particular ride is definitely going to be available, so there’s some comfort in knowing ahead of time that the “big six” (whatever their six big choices are) will definitely be seen. Locals may care less about that, but a first-time visitor definitely will. That will be seen as a win, and rightfully so, by many.

It’s true that that comes at the cost of demanding forethought and planning. Spontaneity is leaving the parks, though truth be told, it left a long time ago. Restaurant reservations and the existing FastPass system saw to that. Personally, I’d prefer a reservation-free environment, but of course it’s not up to me.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.