Why Now's the Wrong Time to Visit Disney World (Unless You Stay at Their Resorts)

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Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, Florida, USA
Disney (DIS) unplugged the FastPass machines at its Florida theme parks last month. Now, instead of guests stepping up to machines at every attraction that spit out return times for priority boarding, the family entertainment giant is installing centralized kiosks that can offer reservations for as many as three rides and attractions at a time.

This may not sound so bad at first. Despite having to line up to peck at a touchscreen for the new FastPass+ platform, most would agree that having centralized hubs to square away priority access for more than one ride at a time is an upgrade.

It will be -- in time.

Right now, Disney is going through an awkward tech transition phase that in its current incarnation rewards guests staying at Disney-owned resorts at the expense of everybody else. It won't last, but it will be uncomfortable until advance access to the new FastPass+ isn't just limited to its overnight patrons.

Checking In

Guests staying at one of the many Disney-owned resorts in Disney World receive perks that visitors staying elsewhere don't get. They have access to the park's complimentary shuttle bus service from the resorts to the theme parks, saving them what has ballooned up to $15 a car for parking. They also get what Disney calls Extra Magic Hours -- admission into selected theme parks either an hour before it opens or a couple of hours after it closes.

Disney hasn't taken any kind of heat for offering those benefits. Providing transportation within the resort is a no-brainer, keeping guests from renting cars and straying to rival attractions. It's also not as if the park would be open earlier or later if it wasn't for the incremental Extra Magic Hours.

However, for now, only those staying at a Disney World resort can use FastPass+ to book priority queue access days in advance. Resort guests can book ride and attraction reservations as long as 60 days in advance, and change them after that through Disney's official theme park app.

Day guests and even annual pass holders aren't so lucky. They have to queue up once they get to the park after resort guests have chosen the three rides or attractions that they want expedited access to that day. Limiting everyone to just three FastPasses per day may improve availability, but for now it's resulting in slowing down the experience of those not staying at a Disney hotel by having them queue up to claim what the resort guests left behind.

Tech's Learning Curve

Hotel guests have been getting MyMagic+ wristbands for several months. The RFID bracelets can be used at park turnstiles and ride entrances to store admission information, offering more customized experiences to the gated attractions. However, the FastPass machines were always there spewing out ride reservations for all guests until Animal Kingdom switched entirely to FastPass+ during the last week of 2013. The other three parks followed in late January.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Annual pass holders and other day guests could have enviously eyed the the colorful bracelets, but they didn't necessarily feel as if they weren't first class customers.

That may be hard to dismiss now that the FastPass machines are gone with only resort guests making ride reservations before they arrive at the park.

Minding the Gap Between the Haves and Have Nots

The gap between those staying at the resort hotels and those spending the night elsewhere has never been this wide. It won't last. Disney sent an email to pass holders indicating that they will eventually receive access to FastPass+ plus before they arrive at the park. Other guests will likely qualify eventually as well.

Disney can always argue that it's not the only theme park operator giving resort guests enhanced access.

Comcast's (CMCSK) Universal Orlando offers early admission and perpetual access to its expedited lines. However, day guests can simply purchase Express Pass tickets to get up to speed. Even regional players get in on the fun. Cedar Fair (FUN) allows guests staying at its Cedar Point peninsula properties to ride a couple of its most popular roller coasters an hour before the public is let through the turnstiles.

However, Disney's migration to the new FastPass+ platform is going to confuse and potentially upset many of its visitors until the playing field is level.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney.

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