ORLANDO, Fla. -- Glenda Calkins felt like a celebrity as she ushered her family to the front of the lines, bypassing hour-long waits at some of Walt Disney World's hottest attractions. ``A lot of people were trying to figure out who we were,'' chuckled Calkins, a California grandmother. ``You could feel their stares.''
But Calkins and her family aren't VIPs nor were they afforded perks not available to any Disney World guest. They didn't pay extra, either.
Calkins and her gang simply used FastPass, Disney's new line-busting system that's winning raves from park-goers -- especially those with kids -- and already is being copied at other theme parks, including Universal Orlando, and watched carefully throughout the industry.
That's especially good news for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who are among the more than 28 million families, according to the Travel Industry Association, who spent part of their summer vacation last year at a theme park.
Anyone who has ever waited 45 minutes or more on line on a hot summer day with fidgety children for a ride that will last two minutes can understand why: for example, just as you get to the front, they have to go to the bathroom or, worse, decide they really don't want to ride after all. They are invariably hungry/thirsty/squabbling with siblings the entire time. No more, we parents commiserate on every line.
No wonder these days we want to kiss Mickey Mouse instead of leaving his house fuming. FastPass works like this: Instead of waiting in line, though that's still an option some 15 percent of park goers prefer, Disney officials note, customers insert their admission ticket in a turnstile at the ride. The machine spits out a free pass with an hour-long window when to return -- to the front of the line.
By this summer, at least 15 rides -- from Space Mountain and Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom to Tower of Terror and Rock'n Roller Coaster at MGM Studios to Test Track at Epcot to Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom -- now are part of the FastPass system. (Disneyland, celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, also has FastPass at favorites like Splash Mountain and plans to add more this summer. Universal Studios Orlando will initiate a similar system by July. Already, Universal is permitting those with multi-day passes early entrance to the park and guaranteed express access to the rides until 10 a.m.
Six Flags is working on a plan for its parks as is Paramount, which hopes to have it in place next season, spokesmen there said. Texas-based NBGS International, known for water attractions, has developed a lineless water park -- the first one already open in Dubai.
This comes at a time park attendance is rising -- some 300 million visitors to sites in United States last year, according to Amusement Business, which tracks industry trends -- and park goers seem to have less tolerance for waiting.
``In our culture, especially with the Internet, people are used to getting what they want instantly,'' observed Susan Lomax, a spokesman for Paramount Parks. ``They don't want to waste a minute.'' That's especially true when they're paying upward of $50 each for the privilege.
Too bad every theme park can't get on the no-more-lines bandwagon in time for this summer. Busch Gardens won't. Neither will Knott's Berry Farm in California or Cedar Point in Ohio, spokesmen said.
Lines are theme park goers' No. 1 gripe, and their impatience clearly has increased in recent years, agreed Dale Stafford, Disney World's VP of operations and planning who is charged with getting rid of lines and helped spearhead FastPass.
``You wonder why you're wasting your time this way,'' explained Joe Trope, a Floridian waiting on a Disney World line recently. ``It's no fun.'' Still, families rank theme parks in their top five picks for vacation fun. Last summer, more than a third of family vacations included a theme park on their agenda, according to the Travel Industry Association, and the parks are expected to be as crowded this summer.
Park managers, for their part, have long been aware of their customers' frustration with lines but, until now, have worked to make the wait more palatable rather than eliminating it, explained Tim O'Brien, who covers theme parks for Amusement Business and is the author of ``The Amusement Park Guide: A Guide to Nearly 300 North American Theme Parks'' (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95). They've added sophisticated pre-ride entertainment from magicians to DJs, TV, even air conditioning. They sell food and hand out water.
But now new technology and Disney have shown there's a far better approach. ``We were able to do so much more,'' said an enthusiastic Joe Fialka, a police officer from North Carolina. ``It was so much more relaxing. We didn't have to rush from ride to ride.'' ``We even went on some rides three times!'' said Calkins, remembering days as a young mom at Disneyland when her family took just three rides all day, spending the rest of their time on line.
Disney's Stafford explained the technology essentially figures out the time you would have spent in line, based on the crowds and the ride's capacity. ``The big win is the other attractions,'' said Stafford. `Attendance is up 25 percent.''
The one hitch: Park goers can get only one FastPass for one attraction at a time. And many park goers still don't seem to know about or trust the system. ``They can't believe it's for free,'' said Stafford.
Even better is that go-to-the-front-of-the-line glow. Just ask VIP-for-a-day Glenda Calkins.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate