Disney World's Rival Raises the Bar on Virtual Queues

Image source: Universal Orlando.

Disney (NYSE: DIS) has the ambitious Pandora -- The World of Avatar opening in Disney World this summer, but it's not the next major attraction to roll out in Central Florida.Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando is introducing Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon in three months, and it will be the resort's first ride to feature a virtual queue.

Fallon himself offered up details of the new 3-D simulator on his show last week. The ride will whisk guests through New York City after Fallon challenges them to a race through the city. They go underground through the subway, get wet as they splash down in the East River, and even smell New York pizza. We'll find out soon if parkgoers dig it. The ride is now set to open on April 6.

The attraction's most notable feature will be that guests won't have to snake through long queues to check it out. Race Through New York will be Universal Studios Florida's first attraction to feature what Comcast's resort is calling Virtual Line. Kiosks outside of the ride entrance or the official Universal Orlando app will allow guests to reserve a return time. They will then be virtually waiting in line while they can enjoy the rest of the park until it's their time to experience the attraction.

Everybody wins

The benefits of a virtual queue are fairly obvious. It's a win-win deal. Patrons get to spend less time in tiresome lines, experiencing less fatigue and getting more done in the process. Theme parks are even bigger beneficiaries. Guests that can spend more time exploring stores and eateries as they are virtually queued up will spend more money than they would if they were trapped in a switch-back line. They can also spend that time in line for other rides, sure, but just keeping crowds on the move opens up the opportunity for incremental sales.

The new Fallon ride won't be the end of virtual queues at Universal Orlando. When the resort's Volcano Bay water park opens two months later, swimsuit-donning guests will be given waterproof TapuTapu bracelets that can square away wait times for signature attractions. The wearable tech buzzes when it's time to ride.

Disney is no stranger to using technology to shave wait times. Guests can reserve access to expedited queues for as many as three attractions a day through its FastPass MagicBands days before their actual visit. Disney World also opened a spruced up Dumbo attraction at the Magic Kingdom five years ago with a virtual system where riders receive pagers. Patrons could then explore an interactive circus tent-housed playground until their time to ride comes up.

Comcast smells synergies

It's not a coincidence that Fallon is the host of the attraction. The Tonight Show is NBC's late-night talk show, and Comcast owns NBCUniversal. Fallon may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the marketing opportunities are juicy. Nearly 9.6 million guests went to Universal Studios Florida in 2015, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association, and exposing them to Fallon and The Tonight Show is branding genius given the competitive nature of late-night television.

Disney isn't asleep at the wheel when it comes to queue technology. It reportedly invested $1 billion in the MyMagic+ platform that powers the MagicBands that facilitate park entrance and FastPass access. However, with some Disney visitors fretting about the advance planning that it takes to maximize the FastPass perk, it's neat to see a high-tech digital solution that can be fired up on the fly.

The big unanswered question is if Universal's Virtual Line will remain a complimentary offering. It won't be charging for the service in April, at least not directly. Some will argue that Universal Orlando's big price hikes for passes in recent years already price in these innovations.However, as it raises the bar on convenience by rolling out more rides on the platform -- and that is highly likely to happen -- can Comcast truly resist not making the perk an actual upcharge item?

Disneyland turned heads last week, announcing that it will be charging $10 a day for access to a new MaxPass service that provides digital access to the California resort's old school ticket-based ride reservation system. Universal Orlando already charges for its Universal Express plan, a more open-ended and convenient form of Disney's FastPass. Virtual Line is going to change the theme park experience in a few months, but the real test will be what it does to Comcast's bottom line.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.