Facial Recognition is coming to the Orlando theme parks—and not just to Epic Universe, as has been reported by other outlets. This new “frictionless” entry technology is expected to make its way to all of the Universal Orlando parks, and soon.
But what do we know about this “Photo Validation” system, as Universal is calling it, and how will it be used at Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay, and eventually Epic Universe? Let’s go over the official details, publicly filed patents, permits, and even some new rumors to see what we can learn. See the video version of this story for additional visuals.
Mark Woodbury, the Universal Destinations & Experiences CEO, revealed that they are planning to utilize facial recognition at the upcoming Epic Universe theme park, as well as their other Orlando parks.
Speaking at a conference earlier this month, Woodbury said that Epic Universe is going to be the “most technologically advanced park” yet for the company, and that it will use a “facial recognition/photo validation technology” that will allow it to have a “frictionless experience.”
Continuing the theme of a technologically advanced theme park, he also said, “We have the benefit of new technology that we’re deploying in terms of managing ticketing, revenue and revenue management across each of those platforms.”
While Woodbury was mostly describing what the company is planning for the new park, it has been rumored that we could start to see some of these new technologies testing at the existing Universal Orlando parks, and soon.
Universal Orlando had been tested an early iteration of facial recognition for its on-site hotel’s free Express Pass system for years, and for other various use cases, since 2017. Walt Disney World tested its own variation of the technology for turnstiles in 2021.
How soon could we see facial recognition be utilized at the existing parks for turnstile entry? Well, it would appear that the first facial recognition turnstile has already been installed, and has been sitting at the Islands of Adventure exit for months now.
Seen in these photos covered, this turnstile has already been in use, as a regular fingerprint entry turnstile, without what could be a screen portion uncovered.
A few years ago, when the system was being developed for Epic Universe’s unique set up, (more on that later,) the company patented a piece of technology that may be related to their version of facial recognition.
Named “Efficient management of facial recognition systems and methods in multiple areas,” this patent from 2020 explains how a theme park could capture a guest’s photo at the entrance, and then utilize facial recognition scanners to allow or disallow entry to specific sections of said park.
The patent describes how upon arriving to the theme park, the guest would have their face scanned and then connected to their park ticket or other credentials. This would then connect their facial image to their account, so the system will know what type of access they have throughout their visit.
According to this patent, the facial image information would be removed from the database upon the guest exiting the park. The patent describes how this would reduce processing power, by only having to match facial images to guests who are actively inside of the theme park.
Something Woodbury said at the conference is worth keeping in mind. He called this type of facial recognition, “Photo Validation.” I do believe this is the term Universal may employ, which may help remove some of the stigma against this type of technology.
The cameras are not recognizing you, they’re just validating your photo to pull up your ticket. In many ways, this can be seen as an evolution of the fingerprint biometric scans currently employed by the Orlando parks.
While it is currently possible to opt out of fingerprint scans at the parks, by showing your ID instead, it will likely not be possible to not have your face scanned by sensors at the park entry, as it will have to scan all guests entering to function.
That said, the original patent does include the following text: “Guests may opt out of using the facial recognition technology of the theme park, and instead opt in to using alternative access grant methods, such as the wearable device.” Keep in mind that patents tend to include more information than needed, and this does not mean an opt out function will in fact be utilized, or at least utilized in this manner anyway.
Universal has also patented several other technologies that are likely intended to work in tandem with this Photo Validation system. A couple of these focus on integrating all of a guest’s park credentials and cross referencing them with other profile data. When coupled with the Photo Validation system, this could mean walking directly into an Express line without the need to scan your Express pass, for example.
At Epic Universe, they may be planning to take the tech to another level, by allowing anyone into the central hub of the new theme park, but restricting the lands and rides to paying guests only.
A longstanding rumor for the design of Epic Universe relies on the Photo Validation technology working out. “Open Hub” as it is often called by theme park fans, is a rumor that would have anyone allowed into the central part of Epic Universe, but require a theme park ticket to enter the themed lands themselves.
Since all of the four themed lands of Epic Universe only have one entrance in, which are called “portals,” it would be easy to require validation of theme park tickets at these checkpoints. However, to prevent lines forming at the entrance to Super Nintendo World, for example, they would simply have facial recognition scanners installed at the warp pipe themed entry. These scanners will match your face to the photo on file for the day, and then allow you entry, “frictionlessly” as Woodbury put it. If for some reason you do not have a paid theme park ticket, a Team Member could step in and disallow you from entering this area.
Now, this open hub rumor has evolved over time, and may not be employed exactly like this when Epic Universe opens in mid 2025. The current rumor is that we may see the hub open to anyone after a certain time, like 6PM, for guests to dine and shop without forking over a theme park ticket fee.
To further add evidence that some type of open hub concept is still on the table, what appear to be attachments for overhead sensors can be seen in recent permit filings for the new park. These elements are located within portal entries, as well as some Express line entries, which may mean they are related to a Photo Validation system.
Other ways the Photo Validation system could be utilized include Virtual Line return validation, hotel guest access at the back of the park (by linking your reservation information,) event ticket authentication like Halloween Horror Nights, and as mentioned prior, Express Pass validation.
A key element of this system, in addition to making it seem “frictionless” when moving through a park, land, and even Express line entries, is that it would reduce the number of staff required for each of these positions. Rather than manually validating each guest, a Team Member may only be needed when the system does not recognize a guest, or they do not have the necessary requirements on file to enter an area.
Of course, Photo Validation is only one part of a much larger project for Epic Universe. Another aspect involves combining the security check and turnstile entry into one seamless experience.
Since Epic Universe will not have the luxury of being attached to the parking garages and security rotunda of the existing Universal Orlando Resort, it will require its own security checkpoint outside of the park.
A patent for “Unified Access Control System” from Universal shows a combination security check—complete with x-ray bag check and metal detectors—that includes its own scanners for authenticating a guest.
The layout for the entrance area for Epic Universe includes what permits describe as a combination security AND turnstile entry area. This patent is likely showing what we may expect to see when entering the new park. That way, when we get to the main portal arch into Epic Universe, we can just walk in, with no need to show our ticket.
We talked about how a new type of facial recognition is expected to begin testing soon, and through 2024, in a ParkStop Podcast episode from July of this year. You can hear more about it here, and learn how it will be tested ahead of Epic Universe’s opening. You can also learn more about the patents described in this story in a video from last year, seen below.
Stay tuned for more news and rumors for Epic Universe and the rest of the Universal Orlando Resort as they happen. Be sure to subscribe to our news feed to never miss an update!
Subscribe to the news feed or enter your email address below to never miss an update. Official Art: Universal Orlando | Aerial Photos: Bioreconstruct | Permit Documents: fasttrack.ocfl.net | Graphics and Overlays: Alicia Stella | Patent Images: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office | Other photos as captioned