The happiest place on Earth is a little less happy these days.
For more than 50 years, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida has been the place to visit for families and big kids. Before COVID, the theme park drew three million visitors each week. The pandemic has caused attendance to drop dramatically, but park experts say the place is bustling again, creating sometimes brutal wait times.
Compounding the problem is Disney’s attitude: Want to ride some of the park’s biggest attractions? Your alternative to waiting half a day in line is to shell out up to $15 for an individual Lightning Lane, a bit of Disney vernacular for a skip the line. That’s per person, per ride, by the way.
“Disney World in particular has become something you have to plan for,” says Graham Brooks of Thrill-Data, a site that tracks amusement park wait times in real time. I’m going to Disney World for the first time in 15 years this summer; Brooks and several other Disney line veterans warn me that my memories of walking around Splash Mountain and the like will be just that – memories.
Third party services such as Thrill-Data, Touring Plans, WDW Passport and Twitter account Walt Disney World wait times mine data mined from Disney’s own API and combine it with their own intuition to try to gain an advantage for their users. In doing so, they generally contradict what Disney tells its customers via wait times posted outside attractions and on its My Disney Experience app.
“They’re definitely not accurate,” says Ryan Austin, who runs Walt Disney World Wait Times. “They definitely increase actual wait times by about 20%. They often use them to steer people away from a ride.
Doug Sisk, who runs WDW Passport, which offers live wait times, says Disney typically inflates times between 25 and 50 percent. The day before our conversation for this story, Sisk compared the wait times displayed with the actual times. “They were almost an hour off most of the day,” he says. (Disney did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Online hacking has long been a strategy used by aficionados to try to make the most of their time at Disney World. In 1985, University of Kentucky operations research professor Bob Sehlinger published The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, a book designed to reduce the time spent waiting in line at the parks. Sehlinger wrote the guide after his own frustrating trip to Orlando.
The unofficial guide comes out every year, and Sehlinger has since gained a co-author: Len Testa, who also runs tour plans and an associated app, Lines, which users can pay to access up-to-date estimated wait times for all attractions. of Disney World. . In a non-pandemic year, between 100,000 and 140,000 families use the paid version of the Lines app for their visits to Disney World. “We believe that for some rides, internal Disney wait times are overestimated about 75% of the time, but underestimated about 25% of the time,” Testa says.
There are questions about why this is. Some say Disney is slowing its wait times to try to spread crowds more evenly around the park and avoid pinch points – the school of thought “they try to make things better for everyone, to the detriment of you, personally”. Others are more cynical, saying the erroneous wait times are a ploy to get frustrated customers to pony up for Disney Genie+, which gives them access to Priority Lanes at certain rides, and Individual Lightning Lanes, for the main attractions.
“They’ve changed direction and they’re trying to recoup the losses they suffered when their parks were closed” during the height of the pandemic, Brooks says. “Now they’re really trying to cash in on the nickel and get every penny they can from the customer.”
There’s yet another line of thought: Disney just doesn’t have the technical know-how to accurately estimate times.
Disney has tried to ease the pain of waiting at its parks with its own recommendation algorithm called Disney Genie. (For those struggling to keep up, Genie – no more – is a day-planning algorithm; Genie+ is what used to be called Fastpass and gives you access to a faster lane in many rides, called Lightning Lane Foreground rides have a third process: the aforementioned individual lightning lanes)
But almost everyone agrees that the system is a mess. “It’s a joke,” Sisk said. “There really doesn’t seem to be any real algorithm that improves your day. This system apparently picks things at random.
Testa is more diplomatic. “One of Genie’s big flaws is that it will tell you to do things that aren’t appropriate or popular,” he says. “It’s a terrible experience for customers who pay between $110 and $160 to enter the parks.” The first thing a route planner app should do is show you the things you tell it you want to do. “Disney doesn’t do that yet, which is a fundamental flaw,” Testa says.
“Because of COVID, disney basically took the whole book and threw it’s going”
Lines – the app version of Touring Plans – claims to do just that. Its predictions are based in part on actual wait times provided by people waiting in line. It’s the theme park equivalent of Google Maps live traffic updates, populated using the plethora of data people are actively inputting.
Still, the models are only as good as the data, and the information available today isn’t great. Brooks’ Thrill-Data has been pulling data from the My Disney Experience app since it began analyzing Disney traffic flows in 2019. “When I started looking at the data, you realize parks are quite cyclical,” he says. “Things seem to happen at the same time every day. Sizes may change, but a particular route is likely busy at any given time.
Brooks admits there’s no foolproof way to accurately estimate wait times, but analyzing past trends usually proves more accurate than Disney’s own predictions. In the end, it’s all just a guess.
And, as Disney parks recover from the pandemic, guessing has gotten harder. Last month, Touring Plans had to revise its predicted crowd calculators for all Orlando parks because the old seasonal rules for park activity simply didn’t actually apply in 2022. That’s because people are traveling in unexpected numbers, but also because the post-pandemic Disney theme park is operating differently from the days of yore.
“Because of COVID, they basically took the whole book and threw it away,” says Sisk. The long-standing Fastpass system was discontinued by Walt Disney World in March 2020, removing years of knowledge of crowd flows, and was replaced by Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. “It’s kind of uncharted territory,” adds Sisk. “We’re here with everyone trying to figure out how it works and if the wait times are accurate.”
Sisk doesn’t think there is much Disney can do to fix the problem except for an increase in the price of admission. “I think it would take at least a $50-per-day price increase to bring the crowds down without negatively affecting the park experience,” he says.
Having some sort of data-driven app — whether it’s the official Disney app or a third-party equivalent — is basically a necessity now for any park-goer, Austin says. “They’re so busy that if you go there thinking you’re going to walk up to any ride and jump on it,” he says, “you’re going to be queuing and waiting most of the time and coming back with a bad experience.
Some would argue that spending your time on your phone rather than checking on Mickey and his friends is itself a bad experience. Testa says he recently received an email from a user who counted the time he spent using the official My Disney Experience app. “Out of five days, they said it was 10 p.m. on their phone,” he says. “It’s not great.”