Monday, May 5, 2014

First Experiences with FastPass+ and Magic Bands

I was not thrilled to hear about the end of the original Walt Disney World FastPass system.  As someone who grew comfortable with the paper passes that cut my wait times for the parks' most popular attractions, I was skeptical how Disney's new FastPass+ would really be an improvement and whether it would even provide the same level of convenience as the original FastPasses. The idea of figuring out a new FastPass system also didn't sound very appealing, but with the old system gone I wanted to start learning about the new one as soon as possible. I visited Disney World this past March to see how the new system worked.

Beyond my lack of experience with the new system, I had a number of specific concerns with FastPass+, including: only getting FastPasses in one park each day, being limited in the number of FastPasses you could reserve, being restricted in some cases to what attractions you can choose FastPasses, and not being able to book more than one FastPass for the same attraction in the same day. The old system was free, equally accessible to everyone, reliable, and perhaps most significantly, I was used to the system. When I visited Disney World in March, FastPass+ offered the ability to pre-book FastPass times, but only offered this option to Disney hotel guests.  Since my visit, Disney has changed some policies, including allowing people not staying at a Disney resort the ability to reserve FastPass+ times up to 30 days in advance (Disney resort guests may do so up to 60 days in advance), allowing booking FastPasses in more than one park in a day, and the chance to book more than three FastPasses in a day (though only after you have used your first three experiences). Nonetheless, my experiences using MagicBands and FastPass+ should give readers an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the new system.

I took a short solo trip this past March 23 - 26, staying at Disney's All-Star Music Resort to find out in person how FastPass+ and MagicBands work. Despite my misgivings, there were many times when FastPass+ worked better for me than the old and reliable paper FastPass system would have. Additionally, there is more to MyMagic+ than just FastPass+, and on this trip I also got a little taste of some of those benefits. Here's a look at how I used FastPass+ on each day of my trip.

Arrival Day

I arrived in Epcot just a few minutes before 7:00 PM and was able to ride Test Track at 7:32 PM with a 20 minute wait, rather than the posted 80. This would not have been possible with the old FastPass system, as the passes would have long since been gone before I set foot in the park. A FastPass for a popular attraction when arriving at a park in the evening was my first positive experience with FastPass+.

Behind the Scenes Tour Day

On the first full day of my trip I scheduled a behind the scenes tour that began outside the gates to Epcot at 8:45 AM. The tour returned us to Epcot shortly after 4:00 PM, and knowing roughly when I would be in Epcot that day, I had pre-booked a Soarin' FastPass for 5:00 - 6:00 PM. This allowed me to fly over California after a 16 minute wait, when the posted standby wait time was 80 minutes.  With the previous FastPass system visiting at this time of year, Soarin' FastPasses would either have been gone by this time of day or have only been available for much later in the evening. The late evening times would not have worked for me on this day since I was planning to meet friends for dinner away from the Disney property, so in the past my choices would have been to wait in a long line or skip Soarin' on this day. This was another positive for FastPass+, though this worked out to be a very similar scenario to my arrival day, another late park entry day.

Park-Hopping Day

My second full day in Disney World started in Disney's Hollywood Studios, then included a lengthy break in the afternoon before I visited the Magic Kingdom in the evening. Since one of the limitations of the FastPass+ system was that you could not book FastPasses in more than one park in the same day, I waited in standby lines at the Studios, saving my FastPasses for the evening. When not using FastPasses, arriving for rope drop is pretty much essential if you want to see all the headliner attractions, and doing so still left me waiting in line than I would have in years past. Not being able to use FastPasses in more than one park in the same day was a big negative for FastPass+. Even with the changes to allow limited park-hopping, you will still be competing with those who pre-reserved times well in advance for FastPasses to the most popular attractions if you "hop" to a second park and try to find available FastPass times.

Later on the same day, I arrived in the Magic Kingdom around 8:15 PM, where I had pre-booked FastPasses for Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Space Mountain, leaving time in between for me to see Wishes. I was able to ride Splash with a three minute wait and Big Thunder with an eight minute wait (when the posted time was 65 minutes) before stopping to watch Wishes. I had scheduled Space Mountain for 10:05 - 11:05, so it would be available as soon as Wishes was over, and I rolled through space after waiting only eight minutes when the posted wait time was 65 minutes. Additionally, I received an email noting that Splash Mountain was unavailable during part of my FastPass window (I saw this message while on my monorail ride from the TTC) and because of that attraction outage I now had a bonus FastPass good for many other headliner attractions [Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Buzz Lightyear, Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor, or Tomorrowland Speedway] that was good any time from the beginning of the original FastPass window until park closing.  Splash was back up by the time I actually arrived to ride, so I skipped the standby line there and later used my bonus FastPass to ride Buzz Lightyear with a short wait, when the posted time was fifteen minutes (but the outdoor line looked more like a 20-25 minute wait). Allowing use of a FastPass on another attraction when the selected attraction is down is not a new thing, but the bonus FastPass is. I don't know if this will become standard operating procedure with FastPass+, but if it does, then that will be another thing to enjoy about the new system.

Getaway Day

I frequently leave the last day of my Disney World trips open to visit a park where I may have missed an attraction I wanted to ride or to go wherever I want to spend some extra time before heading home. Since I didn't know in advance what park I wanted to visit the last day of this trip, I did not book any FastPasses until the morning when I was set to leave. Often, on getaway day I won't be at the parks for rope drop, since I need a little extra time to pack or to just relax at the end of a vacation. By missing rope drop, not only would I miss out on the shorter lines in the parks in the early morning, but that used to also mean missing out on some hard to get FastPasses (as the return windows were often for times after the time when I needed to leave for the airport). For this vacation, I was able to book FastPasses for Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom, all in times that would allow me to ride within a couple hours between lunchtime and when I needed to leave for the airport, all from the comfort of my hotel room before I left for the park. This was a huge plus for FastPass+.

Effect on Wait Times

With the current FastPass+ system in some parks guests cannot use all of their FastPasses for headliner attractions (for example, in Epcot you can choose a FastPass for Test Track or Soarin', but not bot, and in Hollywood Studios you can select a FastPass for Rock n Roller Coaster or Toy Story Mania, but not both). I found myself choosing FastPasses for attractions that generally would not have required a FastPass in the past, and it would seem that others are doing the same, thus increasing standby wait times. I observed posted wait times of 30 minutes or longer for Spaceship Earth and for Journey into Imagination at times of the day when I had not seen those sort of waits in years past (while visiting the parks at the same time of the year). Granted, my observations at this point are not very scientific, but the new FastPass system may be altering traffic patterns and driving some people from the headliner attractions to the second tier experiences. The long-term extent of that is still unclear, but longer waits for secondary attractions could be a negative effect of FastPass+.

Odds and Ends

There's more to this new MyMagic+ than just FastPass+. Just about a month before my vacation I received my first MagicBand, which functioned like the old "Key to the World" cards that used to be issued at check-in. The MagicBand opened my hotel room door and could be used to charge items to my room. The front desk clerk offered no explanation of why he did not give me a room key or how I was supposed to open the door to my room when I checked in, so it was a good thing I already knew about this new program before I arrived. Still, I was pleased to see a green light on the hotel room door when I tapped my band against it, and never had any trouble getting into my room. Over the course of my short stay at Disney's All-Star Music Resort I came to appreciate not having to reach into my wallet for a room key when I had my hands full coming from the car. It's not something that I need in a hotel room, but was a nice extra convenience that wearing the bands provided.

As far as whether I was comfortable wearing a band, it wasn't any different to me than wearing a watch. Now, it's been years since I've worn a watch, as I've relied on my cell phone as a timekeeping device for quite some time, but some latent memory kicked as and I found myself occasionally looking at my MagicBand when I wanted to know what time it was (for the record, that didn't work; the band isn't that magic). Not directly related to comfort, but the only challenge I found in using my MagicBand was that it had a way of always being on the wrong wrist.  For example, when returning to my hotel the security guards usually checked the bands to identify me as a hotel guest (and one time, they actually scanned my band), and this worked best when the band was on my left hand.  When it came to opening the hotel room door or tapping the band at a food location I seemed more coordinated with the band on my right wrist. While entering the parks, I use my right index finger for the fingerprint scanner, so it would have been easier to have the band on my left hand (though I managed with the band on my right wrist most of the time). I tried moving the band around, but ultimately felt most comfortable wearing it on my right hand. We'll have to see if over time the wearing the band feels more routine.

I also used my band to charge items to my hotel room, as I was planning to pay for my hotel stay, food, and souvenirs with a bunch of Disney gift cards that I accumulated in recent months. I had already established a PIN number from previous Disney World visits, so I was able to charge meals from one Quick Service location and a variety of Epcot Flower & Garden Festival Outdoor Kitchens. I also charged souvenirs from gift shops and Epcot's Pin Central to my room using the band. Initially, I had some trouble tapping the band in the right place and the right time, but eventually got pretty good at doing so. One clerk at Mouse Gear suggested tapping and sort of rolling the band and that technique worked reasonably well. This isn't any different than the way room and food charges worked with the "Key to the World" card, but did save having to reach into my pocket for my wallet, which while holding a camera and my Outdoor Kitchen food items, was sometimes a welcome convenience. I guess this is a win for Disney, because they are making it easier for guests to spend money, and a win for those of us whose hands are a little freer while we are spending that money.

Overall, I had a positive first experience with MagicBands. I miss some of the flexibility of the original FastPass system, but appreciate the ability to reserve attraction times before I get to the parks and not having to visit an attraction once to get a FastPass and again later to actually ride. Being able to select exactly the times I wanted later in the day, to avoid dinner reservations or breaks away from the parks is also a big plus for FastPass+, as was e-mail notification about an attraction outage, coupled with a bonus FastPass. My MagicBand worked reliably and provided some unexpected convenience, leaving me pleasantly surprised with my first taste of MyMagic+.

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