The next major Central Florida theme-park magnet officially opens on Thursday at Comcast's (CMCSA -2.77%) Universal Orlando. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a one-of-a-kind richly themed family coaster, is the latest addition in the resort's transformative Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion that has roughly doubled attendance over the past decade.
The new thrill ride has several unique storytelling elements, but perhaps the most relevant thing is that it will be the first marquee attraction to incorporate Universal Orlando's virtual line technology. Disney (DIS -2.21%) has been a market leader when it comes to queue management, but this time it could learn a thing or two by watching its smaller rival.
Everyone starts at the beginning
Comcast's Universal Orlando rolled out its app-based virtual line platform in 2017 with the launch of Race Through New York With Jimmy Fallon. Once guests entered Universal Studios Florida, they could reserve an available one-hour return window from the park's official app, giving them access to the ride building at the designated time for a reasonable wait. The virtual queue was also incorporated at Fast & Furious: Supercharged last year.
Universal Orlando may have had heightened expectations for those two attractions, but they are far from fan faves. Things should be different for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a bar-raising family coaster that will remain popular with guests for a long time. When the virtual line system goes into effect on Friday -- Comcast knows that the official opening on Thursday will be chaos -- guests entering Universal's Islands of Adventure will be able to explore other areas of the resort until their reserved time comes up.
Guests have been willing to give up massive chunks of time when they first experience a new piece of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The initial land's debut in 2010 had some guests waiting for more than 10 hours just to get in, and the wait time for the initially buggy Escape From Gringotts indoor coaster had waits as long as six hours in its first few days of service during its 2014 introduction.
Capacity could be a challenge for this week's debutante, as guests can experience the ride from a motorcycle or adjacent sidecar that will probably take longer to load than conventional coaster trains. The virtual line system will help, and the good news for Comcast is that keeping guests out of lines that stretch out for hours provides a more satisfying experience for guests while also freeing them up to spend money elsewhere in the park.
What's coming will come, and we'll meet it when it does
Disney has known for a long time that keeping guests out of long lines helps spur sales of food, beverages, and souvenirs. It's been 20 years since it introduced FastPass, through which guests would receive return times on paper tickets to enter expedited queues later in the day. The system was upgraded in 2014 to the app-based FastPass+ system, but that still leaves many guests making up gargantuan standby queues for Disney World's most popular rides.
Universal Orlando's Virtual Line could be a game changer, though it may not seem that way right now. Virtual Line was the cornerstone of the Volcano Bay waterpark it opened two years ago, but since waterparks don't draw as well as dry parks and the first two Universal Studios Florida attractions on the platform aren't guest favorites, it's easy to understand why we're not seeing the virtual queueing system in its optimal element.
Things will change later this week. Guests will be encouraged to arrive early starting on Friday, before the reservation windows close to capacity. Those visitors will then find ways to pass the time at the park, and that will probably include having lunch, dinner, and hydration breaks along the way.
Comcast's new system may lack the high-tech bells and whistles of Disney's FastPass+ system, but that doesn't make it inferior. We're about to find out if Universal Orlando has the right approach to keeping its guests happy and its coffers overflowing -- and then see if Disney has no choice but to follow suit.