Disney

How Disney manages its legendary lines

Disney has made major changes to the Dumbo ride at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Here, guests are seen snaking through the line in this May 2007 file photo.

Disney has made major changes to the Dumbo ride at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Here, guests are seen snaking through the line in this May 2007 file photo.  (AP)

In recent weeks, two politicians invoked the Disney name when discussing the drudgery of waiting in long lines.

First in the queue was former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who suggested two weeks ago that Disney, not the Transportation Security Administration, should manage airport security lines, because “nobody runs lines better than Disney.”

Next came Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, who last week compared long waits at VA hospitals to the lines at Disney amusement parks. "When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line?" McDonald asked reporters. (He apologized the next day.)

There’s no question that Disney has extensive experience in managing crowds.

The company operates eight of the 10 most-visited theme parks in the world, including the world's most popular: the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida, which had more than 20 million visitors last year.

But has Disney’s experience with its legendary lines made them any shorter? In some ways yes, but in others no, the experts say.

“Lines are a function of three things: the number of guests in a park, the interest in a particular attraction and the ability of the park to move people through the line,” said Arthur Levine, theme parks expert at About.com.

Some rides have long lines simply because there is a limit to how many people can ride at once, Levine said, and Disney has come up with creative solutions to move some of those lines faster.

The most dramatic example may be the iconic Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction in the Magic Kingdom. “It’s always been a high-demand ride,” Levine said, “but it had very low capacity because there was a single boarding platform, and they could only put a certain number of people on the ride in an hour, so the lines used to get crazy long.”

The fix? In 2012, Disney built a second carousel, which doubled the ride’s capacity. Now there are side-by-side Dumbos, along with another huge perk: “They also built an air-conditioned circus tent where guests can wait,” Levine said. “Inside there is playground equipment and interactive games for kids. Guests get restaurant-style pagers that alert them when it’s time to board the ride.

“It’s definitely a good way to keep young kids from melting down in the hot sun while waiting.”

But contrary to Secretary McDonald’s assumption, Disney does measure wait times.

“Yesterday, when I was at Hollywood Studios, lanyards were being given to guests when they entered a line and taken away when they got to the load zone. It’s how Disney records how long people are spending in line,” said Deb Wills, founder of the Disney planning site AllEars.net.

“Disney is always looking for ways to make lines shorter, because, quite honestly, they want you to be buying food and drinks and souvenirs, not standing in a long line.”

The length of your line also depends on when you start planning your visit and when you are actually there.

Last year, in an attempt to shift demand, Disney changed its annual-pass system, and in February it introduced a surge-pricing model that raises ticket costs at the busiest times of year.

In May, Disney announced that attendance slipped slightly at Disney World in the first three months of 2016 compared to 2015, but higher per-guest spending – pricier tickets, higher merchandise sales and higher hotel rates – brought an overall revenue gain of 4 percent.

“If revenue is up and attendance is down, the new pricing model seems to have had the intended effect,” said Levine.

Another way Disney manages crowds is by incentivizing guests to visit during off-peak periods. The theme park schedules popular events like half-marathons and the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival at slower times of the year, according to Bob Sehlinger, author and executive publisher of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

But the biggest change in line management came in 2014, when Disney World introduced My Disney Experience, a planning system to replace its old paper ticket system. “It was a sea change in the way that the queues are managed at Disney World,” Sehlinger said.

Estimated to have cost over $1 billion, My Disney Experience uses a smartphone app and MagicBand bracelets with embedded RFID chips that guests use to schedule ride times, character meet-and-greets, parade viewing, dining and more. And by using FastPass+ from home, guests can adjust their schedules as much as 60 days before they arrive.

“FastPass+ was predicated to force people to choose which park they would visit and to make reservations for rides and dining a long time in advance,” Sehlinger said. “If you’ve got tickets and have a FastPass+ reservation for an attraction in the Magic Kingdom three weeks from now, you’re going to be in the Magic Kingdom three weeks from now.”

So has the new system shortened lines?

For early planners, the answer seems to be yes. If you use the app and reserve ride times in advance, you are guaranteed a reasonably short wait for up to three attractions in a single park. At your designated time, you just enter the attraction’s shorter FastPass+ line and bypass the longer standby line.

But for day visitors who arrive without reserved ride times, the day can be very frustrating, said Wills, who laments the days when she could spontaneously pick which attractions to visit. “Now if you just show up at the parks, it’s very likely that all of the FastPass+ opportunities are booked for the most popular attractions. If you don’t plan ahead, you will miss out.”

“The new FastPass+ system rearranged the traffic flow within the parks,” said Sehlinger. “It used to be, with the old system, that you could walk on some less popular attractions, such as It’s a Small World, and any number of other attractions, any day, any time, and there would never be a queue.

“The FastPass+ reservation system now includes attractions that never needed FastPasses before. There’s been a redistribution of the traffic flow throughout the parks, and now there are longer stand-by queues for everything.”

“Standby wait times do seem to be longer these days,” said Wills. “I walked by Toy Story Mania yesterday and there was already a 120-minute wait at 11 a.m. That’s crazy, but that’s also a very popular attraction.”

The takeaway? Here are a couple of tips for avoiding standby lines:

--Plan ahead. Use My Disney Experience to book attraction times with FastPass+.

--Get to the park when it opens. Early risers can probably ride a top attraction at least once, and maybe twice, without needing a FastPass+.

As for Kerrey’s suggestion that the TSA take line management tips from Disney?

Said Levine, “That’s probably not a bad idea.” 

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.