Game Design,  Travel

disney genie plus app and the game design of fastpass

FastPass has been an integral part of my experience visiting the Disney theme parks.  Introduced in 1999, the system was initially designed as a virtual queue.  At popular rides, FastPass kiosks printed a limited number of tickets for time slots later in the day, when you could return to enter the ride through a shorter queue.  This service included special seating at shows and was included in the price of the admission ticket.

Over the years, the FastPass program evolved.  From 2017, a paid offering called MaxPass at Disneyland allowed guests to book FastPasses without having to visit kiosks at the attractions themselves.  The similar free FastPass+ at Walt Disney World allowed bookings up to 60 (for resort guests) or 30 (for non-resort guests) days ahead of time and integrated with guests’ Magic Bands.  These upgraded systems worked more like reservations than virtual queues.

There was also one key change to FastPass that is relevant to this article.  While previously, you’d had to use up one FastPass before getting another, the system now allowed you to book your next FastPass after a two-hour window even if you hadn’t used your previous FastPass.  This was particularly useful for attractions that weren’t available until much later, like the elusive Space Mountain FastPass whose return time always seemed to be in the evening no matter how early you got there.

As I started to visit the parks with friends, my use of the FastPass system became more sophisticated.  One of my most memorable trips was with a game designer friend, during which we talked about our Disneyland experience in game design terms.

Disneyland paper FastPass for Star Tours. Image from: The Orange County Register, photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG.

FastPass as a Game within the Disney Parks Experience

Essentially, we treated the process of acquiring and using FastPasses as a game.  As someone who always wants to make the most of my theme park visits, I relished the game-like strategy associated with FastPass.  Deciding when to park hop from Disneyland to California Adventure, or mapping out which route to take from New Orleans Square to Tomorrowland, added a layer of interaction and fun to a Disneyland trip, especially during those moments waiting in line.

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Seeing the FastPass system through a gamer’s eyes made a lot of sense.  The two-hour wait was a cooldown which we tried to use wisely to get the next FastPass as soon as possible after it expired.  This meant planning our time and path through the parks so that we were at a location to pick up the next FastPass at the correct time.  The fun in this came in the unexpected, too — perhaps a parade would cut off our planned route, the FastPasses at an attraction would run out for the day, or a ride we were in line for would break down and take longer than expected.  These events forced us to think on the fly to optimise our FastPass strategy.

Disney Parks Introduce Paid Line-Skipping App, Disney Genie Plus

On August 18, 2021, Disney discontinued the FastPass program in favour of a paid app, Disney Genie Plus1.  Paper FastPasses would no longer be available at the attractions themselves.  Instead, for $20 at Disneyland or $15 at Walt Disney World, you could book Lightning Lane privileges for many of the top rides, except for a number of extra premium ones that would be on a pay-to-ride basis with surge pricing.

Not surprisingly, fans of Disney Parks have had an overwhelmingly negative reaction to this change2.  Coming on the heels of other losses — the discontinuation of Extra Magic Hours for resort guests, the termination of the free Magical Express bus service from the airport, the removal of free Magic Bands at the hotels — a paid service to replace one that had been included in the ticket price since its inception has proven to be a hard pill to swallow.

The backlash makes sense, even just intuitively.  But I think looking at how the FastPass system has changed through a game design lens can help us shed more light on the reasons for the confused and hurt feelings of longtime Disney guests.

Image from: Disney Genie Service – Full Overview | Walt Disney World & Disneyland Resort.

Inherent Perception of Fairness

Part of the implicit contract between game designer and player is that the game will be fair.  When players decide to take part, they expect that they have the same odds of winning as everyone else, and that everyone starts on a level playing field.

Similarly, stepping through the gates of the theme parks appears to put everyone on an equal footing.  Having the same access to the same attractions is important.  FastPass played a big role in that because it was an equaliser for all guests, since it provided the illusion of fairness.

Knowing that FastPass was included in every guest’s ticket meant that everyone had the ability to get into expedited queues.  This made the “advantage” of line-cutting that the VIP tours or other paid experiences easier for the regular person to accept as fair, because they too could get that special treatment, without the added cost of money, but with a time investment and a little bit of luck.

Pay-to-Play vs. Pay-to-Win

This idea of paying for something with either time or money has been a staple of many games, especially mobile ones.  Often, free-to-play games charge players in micro-transactions to expedite or unlock parts of the game, while giving the alternative of waiting.  If you want more lives in Candy Crush, you can fork over coins to get them right now, or wait a couple of hours.  In Bakery Story 2, you can wait for ingredients to be available, or pay to get them immediately.

This is analogous to paying to replace an otherwise lengthy grind.  For example, when trying to get new cards in Hearthstone, you can play for hours to build up a small amount of gold, or pay to buy card packs up front.

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Like FastPass, these free-to-play but pay-to-win systems give players a perception of fairness despite being skewed heavily towards paying customers.  Regular Ruth, who opts to wait or grind (a standard park guest), feels like she has the same opportunities as Rich Rosie (a VIP tour guest or MaxPass purchaser), who pays to get to the front of the line straight away.  Of course, the truth is that Rich Rosie will get a much better output.  But Regular Ruth doesn’t feel bad because the experience was still attainable by paying with time or effort rather than with money.

Disney Genie Plus, however, changes the game because it moves from a pay-to-win to a pay-to-play system.  This means that in order to even “play”, you need to pay an entrance fee up-front, like apps that cost money on the app store.  By removing the regular FastPass program and making it only available via a paid app, Disney Genie Plus removes the illusion of fairness.

In other words, Regular Ruth will no longer be able to get the same experience as Rich Rosie because there are no alternatives to spending money.  Thus, this new system feels unfair, which feels bad for the regular guest.

This change also shifts the attitude of players.  The included FastPass allowed guests to take advantage of it as they chose, and not feel bad if a ride wasn’t available or if they wanted to make other plans.  On the other hand the pay-to-play Genie Plus system will pressure the guests to make the most of it, lest wasting their bought opportunities.

Standby and FastPass entrances at Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom park. “Splash magic kingdom” (CC BY 3.0) by M. Minderhoud

Physical vs. Digital

Theme parks and amusement parks are physical destinations, and Disney does some of the best theming and design of locations, rides and attractions.  FastPass added to the physical experience of the parks.  For me, going to each location, looking at the return time, and inserting your physical park ticket to get your FastPass was as much a part of the Disney experience as going on a ride.

Additionally, the physical FastPasses made many magical moments possible.  More than once, my family was approached by other guests who gave us FastPasses they were no longer going to use, and I’ve paid the gesture forward on several occasions.  Not to mention Cast Members who would give away extra FastPasses at the kiosks even when they had run out for the day, something that will prove much more difficult (and less magical) to do with Genie Plus.

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While a digital app like Genie Plus will make things more convenient, it takes away from the theme park experience.  The use of mobile phones rather than Magic Bands makes it less special because we use our phones every day, while Magic Bands are specifically crafted for the Disney Parks.  Similarly, Genie Plus removes the part of the FastPass experience that was tactile, which is what theme parks are all about.

Convenience is not necessarily a win, either.  It comes at the cost of paying attention to our phones rather than enjoying the uniquely crafted atmosphere of the Disney Parks themselves.  It pulls us out of Disney’s immersive environments, which are full of careful theming and experience design.  And it takes away the joy from small children who would have been able to print their own FastPasses.

Disney’s Parks were built to be physically immersive, and the layers of digital interaction that have been added as technology has advanced in the last couple of decades need to be designed carefully to enhance the experience rather than disrupt it.

Theme parks, especially new ones, exist in a struggle between the physical and digital, as I’ve written about with regards to Super Nintendo World.  Theme park technology is an exciting space, one that has brought about exciting rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and interactive experiences like the wands that affect the environment at the nearby Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Unlike these, Genie Plus does not use technology to directly add to the interactivity or enhance the physical aspects of the theme parks.  The app is geared towards convenience rather than increased immersion — something, in my mind, we were handling well before, and should not need to pay for now.

References Cited

  1. Maehrer, Avery. “Disney Genie Service to Reimagine the Guest Experience at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort.” Walt Disney World Resort. Disney Parks Blog, 18 August 2021. Web. 20 August 2021.
  2. Francis, Katie. “Fans Make Their Feelings Clear as Disney Genie Videos Receive Over 70% Dislikes on Disney Parks YouTube Channel.” Walt Disney World Resort. WDW News Today, 19 August 2021. Web. 20 August 2021.

Additional References

  1. Barnes, Brooks. “To Skip the Line at Disney, Get Ready to Pay a Genie.” Business. The New York Times, 18 August 2021. Web. 20 August 2021.
  2. Redulovic, Petrana. “Disney replaces FastPass with paid line-skipping replacement Disney Genie Plus.” Polygon, 19 August 2021. Web. 20 August 2021.