Theme Park Apps Give Visitors an Edge

Need maps, wait times for rides and restaurant tips for Walt Disney World and other central Florida attractions? There's an app for that.

Apple's iPhone 3Gs
Jack Guez | AFP | Getty Images
Apple's iPhone 3Gs

Plenty of them, actually. And they could prove useful for visitors heading to Orlando for spring break or summer vacation.

Software developers started tapping into smart-phone users' zeal for theme parks a couple years ago, and dozens of applications are now available for iPhones, Droids and other handheld devices that can make park visits more efficient and fun. A few can be downloaded free, but most cost a few dollars.

Most of the apps available currently are geared toward Walt Disney World, including Disney's own app for Verizon phones, but a handful are available for other attractions, too. For instance a free iPhone app called Universal Wait Times by VersaEdge Software did exactly what it promised when tested recently: provided accurate wait times for rides inside the two Universal Orlando parks.

The app proved to be particularly useful during a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Islands of Adventure, where wait times for the signature ride tend to be much longer than in other areas of the Universal parks.

CNBC - Ctia Wireless 2011- The Wireless Connection
CNBC - Ctia Wireless 2011- The Wireless Connection

There are apps with park maps, some of which work with the phone's GPS function to show your exact location and what's nearby. There are apps for park times and to help visitors choose a restaurant by cuisine and price. Others can research and compare resort hotels, help plan the trip and count down the days, find the right shuttle bus routes and entertain the kids when you get there.

Disney is rolling out its newest version of a "know-it-all" app exclusively for Verizon Wireless phones, called "Disney Mobile Magic." It uses the GPS feature in Verizon phones to help users find character appearances, attractions, restaurants and other points of interest. It checks wait and Fast-Pass return times, provides shopping and restaurant information and even has an interactive trivia game that allows users to play against other users in the same park. The app costs $1.99 and works in Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

"As more people adopt smart phones and get used to using apps — as we all know, they're exploding right now — it may be a good way for parks to deliver information, such as changes in schedule or rides being closed unexpectedly, to guests in the park that day," said Leigh Caldwell, who writes the popular Theme Park Mom blog.

Caldwell said she's experimented with several of the apps when they started coming out and discovered that most of them needed tweaks to be really utilitarian. They'll be most useful for first-time visitors to the big parks, she said. Lately, Caldwell is liking a 99-cent iPhone app called "Things to Do in Theme Park Queues," which provides games and other activities to keep the kids occupied in long ride lines.

Park websites designed for mobile phones have proven valuable, too, Caldwell said, and some parks — Sea World and Tampa's Busch Gardens among them — offer to relay park news to visitors via text message. Users text a code to a designated number when they enter the park to get the texts throughout the day.

Jeffrey Siebert, whose Texas-based Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts was a pioneer in developing an app for its guests, gave a presentation on using apps and other technology at a trade show in Orlando last fall for theme park and attraction operators from all over the world.

Despite the explosion of apps, Siebert, Schlitterbahn's director of communications, predicts park websites configured for viewing on mobile phones will prove to be more useful to park guests and easier for the parks to update. It also eliminates the need for apps to be approved by the phone companies that sell them through their online stores.

"If you start playing with (non-theme-park) apps right now versus mobile sites, you'll see that the mobile sites traditionally are executed better than the apps are," he said. "(Theme parks) are still investing in their apps at this point, but they're putting much more emphasis on their mobile sites, since everyone out there with a smart phone can use it."

Watch CNBC's coverage of the 2011 CTIA Wireless convention on Tuesday, March 22 and Wednesday, March 23 from Orlando, Fla. Technology correspondent Jon Fortt will report live from the convention floor, Jim Cramer will host a special edition of "Mad Money" on Tuesday at 6pm ET, and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera will co-anchor "Power Lunch" from the event on Wednesday at 1pm ET.