Disneyland lines: what an app can and cannot do

Anyone who has been to a Disneyland on a somewhat busy day knows that the recurring theme of the entire visit will be standing in lines. This is such a painful topic at Disneyland that comedian Jim Gaffigan has said: “Disneyland is like standing in line at the DMV. And that’s it.”

Radiator Spring Racers: possibly the longest line for any ride at the California Disney parks.

Lines at Disneyland are everywhere, and are long, very long. Average wait times for rides have been rising over the past few years. The average wait time for the resort’s most popular rides in the first six months of 2017 was 24.4 minutes. The ride with the longest average wait time at Disneyland was found to be Space Mountain with 65 minutes, while at California Adventures Radiator Springs Racers had the longest average wait time at 86 minutes. These numbers are high considering that they’re averaged across all hours of the day, every day of the week, and busy and less busy months. When we were there recently the wait for those two rides in the peak early afternoon hours was 2 hours and 2.5 hours respectively. Just the thought of standing in a line for so long to enjoy a ride that lasts all of 34 minutes is mind boggling.

Disney knows that long lines aren’t fun and in the past few years has tried three major tactics to shorten wait times. The first two haven’t really worked and the third works for some people some of the time.

  1. Building more “popular” rides. Theoretically, building more rides should spread the crowd across these new rides and thereby shorten the lines at all of them, but this doesn’t seem to work. Instead, the new rides have longer wait times and draw more people to the park. This is also a solution that isn’t that scalable given the geographic limits of the park.  
  2. Charging “surge pricing” with variable ticket prices. Disneyland tried managing capacity by charging a different price for a one day ticket depending on expected attendance that day, with “value” pricing on weekdays, “regular” on most weekends, and “peak” for holidays and school breaks. Yet this also hasn’t had a real effect on crowds as visitors often buy multi-day tickets which are not affected by surge pricing and those peak dates are peak for a reason as local families are on a break or tourists are visiting Disneyland as part of a longer trip and don’t have a choice of days beyond a day or two either way, which doesn’t always help.
  3. Creating a ride reservation system. FastPass allows guests to reserve a specific hour-long time slot during which they can access an attraction via a short, dedicated line that bypasses the main line. At the California parks, 16 attractions currently have FastPass capabilities. These tend to be the rides with the hours long lines.

FastPasses are procured by scanning a park tickets at a kiosk next to the ride and getting a ticket with the time they can come back, if there are slots still available for that day (the popular rides run out of FastPasses before noon.) There are limits to how many FastPasses guests can have at a time and per specific time slot, so that not everyone uses them at the same time, which would nullify their benefit. Overall the FastPasses help ensure that those who want to could ride the popular rides at least once without an ultra-long line.

From the Disneyland app: reporting on the line at Radiator Springs Racers. I’ve seen it reach 150 minutes – 2.5 hours!

Last year Disney introduced a mobile version of the reservation system called MaxPass that, for an extra fee, enabled guests to make FastPass reservations via its mobile app, without going to the ride itself. This is a serious time-saver as the app shows current wait times for all rides and the available FastPass slots for the popular ones. We opted for this during our last visit and enjoyed using it to minimize the time we stood in line for these more popular rides.

What I liked about it:

  1. It has current wait times for all attractions and even though they’re not 100% accurate, they’re close. It’s been said that Disney is constantly working on making sure wait times are accurate. The app also lets guests know when rides are closed. Both are useful to guests trying to decide where to go next.

    Card handed out to us when waiting in line.

  2. The app makes it easy to purchase MaxPasses once guests enter a park and create a group of tickets that can reserve FastPasses together. This allows families to get FastPasses for the same time slot.
  3. The MaxPass-enabled app allows guests to see what rides still have FastPasses available and when, and makes it easy to reserve FastPasses through the app. This is much easier and less time-consuming than going to the ride itself.
  4. The app makes FastPasses easy to use, either by scanning the app or the physical park ticket at the ride’s FastPass entrance.
  5. MaxPass also entitles guests to free photos throughout the day. Those are easy to add to the app either by adding a PhotoCard (which has a code that is scanned by Disney photographers throughout the park) or by adding ride photos by entering their unique code. Photos can then be accessed and downloaded from the app and from the Disney website. 
  6. The app makes all reservations at the Disneyland resort, including dining, hotels, and FastPasses, easy to access.

What I didn’t like about MaxPass, even though it worked for our group:

  1. FastPass is not an easy concept to understand. I’m guessing that this is intentional, so that FastPass-using guests don’t overwhelm the rides but to truly understand how FastPass works and how buying MaxPass improves the process takes an effort beyond reading the Disney site. This is something that harms older guests, foreign guests, and first-time visitors to the park.
  2. MaxPass flow can be clunky at times, with several steps needed to reserve a FastPass. It can be nerve-wracking, especially as time-slots become unavailable while guests are in the reservation process. The app can also be slow at times which, considering that hundreds if not thousands of guests are accessing it at once, is understandable, but makes it a bit more challenging to use.

Changes I’d love to see in the app but also in Disney’s overall approach to line managment:

  1. Make FastPass more accessible. One way is to have guests go through a one-time “survey” as the enter the park for the day and check-off which attractions that have FastPass in the park they’re at that day that they’d like to ride. The app can then return a FastPass time for each of those. To be fair, that would exhaust the guest’s ability to get additional FastPasses that day and availability for rides would depend on when the guest entered the park. FastPass distribution could align to times where Disney knows the rides are less busy and could better distribute guests throughout the park.
  2. Make FastPass more proactive. I’m curious if there’s enough of a similarity between road traffic and park line traffic to adapt a navigation approach to distributing traffic to lines at a park and whether Disney can take an active role in managing pedestrian “traffic.” Drivers used to take a passive approach to traffic: listening to reports on the radio or on online before they started a drive and then taking that route. Flexibility was added as drivers were able to do both on the way and adjust their route accordingly. Now, apps like Waze go beyond simple navigation by actively monitoring traffic conditions, constantly recalculating drive times for various routes, and changing routes on the fly without the driver having to take any action.

Disneyland knows what rides have long lines and, perhaps via its app, knows where people are in the park. Could it use that data to steer guests towards some less-busy attractions and away from the busy ones via selective app notifications? Say send some guests in busy Tomorrowland a notification that the Teacups ride in Fantasyland has a short ride? Could it take a proactive approach to mitigating congestion and long lines in its parks?

It seems like there are already third-party apps that, for an additional fee, will use data provided by Disney regarding line lengths and its own prediction models based on historical data and will tell users what to do at every particular minute to optimize their time at the park. I learned about it only when writing this post and am a bit curious to see how it works. Reviewers have said that on one hand they’re great at saving time but on the other hand it feels too structured and rushed. The drawback is that their optimization is for individuals and not for mitigating congestion in general. It also doesn’t take into account actual conditions but only historical ones. Disney, with its deeper understanding of line waiting time cycles and patterns, can probably do better.

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