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Disney Tackles Major Theme Park Problem: Lines


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Article from the New York Times

Disney Tackles Major Theme Park Problem: Lines

By BROOKS BARNES

ORLANDO, Fla. — Deep in the bowels of Walt Disney World, inside an underground bunker called the Disney Operational Command Center, technicians know that you are standing in line and that you are most likely annoyed about it. Their clandestine mission: to get you to the fun faster.

 

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.

 

And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.

 

In one corner, employees watch flat-screen televisions that depict various attractions in green, yellow and red outlines, with the colors representing wait-time gradations.

 

If Pirates of the Caribbean, the ride that sends people on a spirited voyage through the Spanish Main, suddenly blinks from green to yellow, the center might respond by alerting managers to launch more boats.

 

Another option involves dispatching Captain Jack Sparrow or Goofy or one of their pals to the queue to entertain people as they wait. “It’s about being nimble and quickly noticing that, ‘Hey, let’s make sure there is some relief out there for those people,’ ” said Phil Holmes, vice president of the Magic Kingdom, the flagship Disney World park.

 

What if Fantasyland is swamped with people but adjacent Tomorrowland has plenty of elbow room? The operations center can route a miniparade called “Move it! Shake it! Celebrate It!” into the less-populated pocket to siphon guests in that direction. Other technicians in the command center monitor restaurants, perhaps spotting that additional registers need to be opened or dispatching greeters to hand out menus to people waiting to order.

 

“These moments add up until they collectively help the entire park,” Mr. Holmes said.

 

In recent years, according to Disney research, the average Magic Kingdom visitor has had time for only nine rides — out of more than 40 — because of lengthy waits and crowded walkways and restaurants. In the last few months, however, the operations center has managed to make enough nips and tucks to lift that average to 10.

 

“Control is Disney’s middle name, so they have always been on the cutting edge of this kind of thing,” said Bob Sehlinger, co-author of “The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World 2011” and a writer on Disney for Frommers.com. Mr. Sehlinger added, “The challenge is that you only have so many options once the bathtub is full.”

 

Disney, which is periodically criticized for overreaching in the name of cultural dominance (and profits), does not see any of this monitoring as the slightest bit invasive. Rather, the company regards it as just another part of its efforts to pull every possible lever in the name of a better guest experience.

 

The primary goal of the command center, as stated by Disney, is to make guests happier — because to increase revenue in its $10.7 billion theme park business, which includes resorts in Paris and Hong Kong, Disney needs its current customers to return more often. “Giving our guests faster and better access to the fun,” said Thomas O. Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, “is at the heart of our investment in technology.”

 

Disney also wants to raise per-capita spending. “If we can also increase the average number of shop or restaurant visits, that’s a huge win for us,” Mr. Holmes said.

 

Disney has long been a leader in technological innovation, whether that means inventing cameras to make animated films or creating the audio animatronic robots for the attraction It’s a Small World.

 

Behind-the-scenes systems — typically kept top secret by the company as it strives to create an environment where things happen as if by magic — are also highly computerized. Ride capacity is determined in part by analyzing hotel reservations, flight bookings and historic attendance data. Satellites provide minute-by-minute weather analysis. A system called FastPass allows people to skip lines for popular rides like the Jungle Cruise.

 

But the command center reflects how Disney is deepening its reliance on technology as it thinks about adapting decades-old parks, which are primarily built around nostalgia for an America gone by, for 21st century expectations. “It’s not about us needing to keep pace with technological change,” Mr. Staggs said. “We need to set the pace for that kind of change.”

 

For instance, Disney has been experimenting with smartphones to help guide people more efficiently. Mobile Magic, a $1.99 app, allows visitors to type in “Sleeping Beauty” and receive directions to where that princess (or at least a costumed stand-in) is signing autographs. In the future, typing in “hamburger” might reveal the nearest restaurant with the shortest wait.

 

Disney has also been adding video games to wait areas. At Space Mountain, 87 game stations now line the queue to keep visitors entertained. (Games, about 90 seconds in length, involve simple things like clearing runways of asteroids). Gaming has also been added to the queue for Soarin’, an Epcot ride that simulates a hang glider flight.

 

Blogs that watch Disney’s parks have speculated that engineers (“imagineers,” in the company’s parlance) are also looking at bigger ideas, like wristbands that contain information like your name, credit card number and favorite Disney characters. While Disney is keeping a tight lid on specifics, these devices would enable simple transactions like the purchase of souvenirs — just pay by swiping your wristband — as well as more complicated attractions that interact with guests.

 

“Picture a day where there is memory built into these characters — they will know that they’ve seen you four or five times before and that your name is Bobby,” said Bruce E. Vaughn, chief creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. “Those are the kinds of limits that are dissolving so quickly that we can see being able to implement them in the meaningfully near future.”

 

Dreaming about the future was not something on Mr. Holmes’s mind as he gave a reporter a rare peek behind the Disney operations veil. He had a park to run, and the command center had spotted trouble at the tea cups.

 

After running smoothly all morning, the spinning Mad Tea Party abruptly stopped meeting precalculated ridership goals. A few minutes later, Mr. Holmes had his answer: a new employee had taken over the ride and was leaving tea cups unloaded.

 

“In the theme park business these days,” he said, “patience is not always a virtue.”

 

This is a great article....really opens up some Ideas for the future....What do you think of Disneys new techniques and what type of approach would you like to see them take in the future?

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In recent years, according to Disney research, the average Magic Kingdom visitor has had time for only nine rides — out of more than 40 — because of lengthy waits and crowded walkways and restaurants. In the last few months, however, the operations center has managed to make enough nips and tucks to lift that average to 10.

 

To me, it seems like a lot of effort for 1 more ride.

 

But I can see how this could be helpful in the long run, Cool article!

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Personally I'm most looking forward to the wristband idea. I think it would be really cool and also useful to have an all-inclusive system like the one I think they're talking about. Imagine being able to get a fastpass, buy a meal, and enter/exit the park pretty much hassle free. I always thought the wristband system that the water parks use has been wonderful, now apply that to Disney, but on a grander scale. Glad to see Disney embracing technology.

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I liked this quote: "“Control is Disney’s middle name, so they have always been on the cutting edge of this kind of thing.”

 

Maybe they'll work out how to control Disney visitor's minds, well at least the minority that have a mind. Then the rides will be empty and the resturants and gift shops will be full - evil spider robot Walt Disney (refer Robot chicken for visual) says "buy, buy, buy!".

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^^Keep in mind that your average Magic Kingdom guest doesn't come just for the rides. Guests at that park invest hours of their time doing things like waiting for the parades, castle and street shows, fireworks, character meet and greets, character dining, etc. So while 10 rides may sound terrible to your average TPR reader, keep in mind that the average MK customer may spend a lot of time doing things other than the rides.

 

I'm not saying that lines aren't ever an issue at MK, I'm just saying that someone who is there for the rides can easily get more than that into their visit. Just that many people choose not to.

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Blogs that watch Disney’s parks have speculated that engineers (“imagineers,” in the company’s parlance) are also looking at bigger ideas, like wristbands that contain information like your name, credit card number and favorite Disney characters. While Disney is keeping a tight lid on specifics, these devices would enable simple transactions like the purchase of souvenirs — just pay by swiping your wristband — as well as more complicated attractions that interact with guests.

 

This was a great article. I found the above to be entertaining as it's a twist on the lo-q wristbands by adding "favorites" to the mix. Not sure what it would be used for. Maybe scan your wristband to find out where Mickey is?

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This is a very interesting article. However... if Disney were to introduce a wristband system with the park tracking everyones purchases, rides, food ect.. don't you think there would not be much privacy? I wouldn't care too much.. but I'm sure others would. Very interesting article. I didn't know they launched characters into queues

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I know it sounds impossible when I say that I can finish off every ride in MK in half a day. Now this is because I, like many other Disney gurus, have learned how to work the crowds and times. However I think that the Imagineers need to look into ride systems that can handle larger capacities. An example is Toy Story Mania, which as we all know, has some of the longest ride lines in Disney history. Now Hollywood Studios already is the smallest of the parks, which makes it a very confined area to begin with. So over all, why would you invest in a ride that has such a low rider capacity when the park itself needs rides that can make big hauls. And to top it off, rides with large capacities are left out dated and with low ridership because of their age. If different sets where used on the backlot tour, and the scenery changed once in awhile, those 200 passenger trams would be full! I really think expansion with higher capacity and renovation of the out date is the key to Disney's War on Lines.

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