Now you’ve got two problems (Part III)

Amusement parks, crowd control and load-balancing

Jeremy Thomson, CC BY

This is Part III in this series. In Part I, I opened the with news that Disneyland Paris is getting rid of its Fastpasses in favor of a per-ride, per-person premium to skip the line, and explored the history of Disney themeparks and what they meant to Walt Disney. In Part II, I explored Disneyland’s changing business-model and the pressures that shifted it from selling ticket-books to selling all-you-can-eat passes, and the resulting queuing problems.

Getting your money’s worth

The all-you-can-eat Disneyland admission introduced in 1981 dramatically shifted the character of a day at Disneyland. Under the A-E Ticket regime, the victory condition for a day at Disneyland was to exhaust your ticket book, save for the odd A- or B-Ticket. With most visitors riding ten or fewer rides in a day (and with some of those being less thrilling, more contemplative attractions and shows), the lines were shorter.

Under the one-price regime, a visitor’s victory condition became “Ride all the rides I like, as many times as possible.” The prix-fixe menu had become a buffet. Lines snaked to infinity. Regular visitors felt ripped off by all the dead time spent in line on the way to “getting their money’s worth” (say, by riding Space Mountain four times). First-timers felt ripped off because riding Space Mountain just once meant an hour or more in line .

But once Disneyland abandoned ticket-books, there was no going back. People like all-you-can-eat, feels-like-free offers. Ticket-books forced visitors to explicitly ration their experiences, trading off among the eleven E-Ticket rides to decide how to spend the three E-Tickets that came in a ticket-book. Doing away with tickets replaced the intentional active dilemma of choosing three rides out of eleven with a kind of lottery, where luck, timing and experience might get you on eight E-Ticket rides in one day. Or one. Or none.

Disney needed to do something.

Enter the Fastpass

In 1999, Disney introduced the “Fastpass,” billed as a “virtual queue.” Fastpass was a bid to restore some of the traffic-shaping the parks lost when then ticket books were abolished. A limited selection of high-demand rides were equipped with timed ticket dispensers: feed in the bar-code on your admission ticket and it would emit a ticket good for a ride later in the day.

The regular line for Fastpass rides was rebranded the “Standby” line, and Fastpasses became a guarantee of sorts: return between (say), 1:45 and 2:45PM and you’ll be whisked to the front of the line, boarding in a matter of minutes rather than an hour or two.

Compared with ticket-books, Fastpasses were incredibly complex. The dispenser kiosks were networked and required your entry ticket, which theoretically limited you to a single Fastpass per person at a time (if you were holding a valid Fastpass, other Fastpass kiosks would refuse to dispense another).

But there were loopholes. Once your Fastpass was an hour old, you were eligible to get another, even if the one you already had wasn’t yet ripe. So say you got an Indiana Jones Fastpass at 9AM that instructed you to return at 2PM. At 10AM, you could get a Fastpass for Space Mountain, maybe good for 1PM. And at 11AM, you could get a Fastpass for Star Tours, good for 4PM.

But that was just for openers. For most of the history of Fastpasses, the expiry times were not enforced, so even though your 2PM Indiana Jones Fastpass said it expired at 3PM, you could use it at any time after 2PM.

Canny Disneyland visitors could — and did — maximize this by sending one person off once per hour to another Fastpass station with everyone’s tickets to stock up on Fastpasses for later. Early in the day, when crowds were light, these Fastpasses could be hoarded, and then deployed at 3 or 4PM, when crowds were peaking.

If you arrived at 8AM, your group might get to take seven consecutive Fastpass rides at peak hours, strolling past the sweating suckers lined up in the blazing Southern California heat.

Fastpasses were supposed to be an answer to the first-time visitor’s lament that they had spent their day lining up forever for rides that weren’t worth it (experiences like this made first-time visitors less inclined to return).

But the complexity of the Fastpass system rewarded repeat visitors who could formulate complex strategies. Repeat visitors are more likely to be affluent, and in America, affluent people are more likely to be white. This led to the ugly impression among first-timers — especially people of color, especially people of color who saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip — that the white people all got to go to the front of the lines while racialized people had to line up like suckers, sweating in the aforementioned Southern California heat.

This system was better for repeat visitors, but it still had its problems. Disney rides are typically 5–8 minutes long (a few shows and some of the newer rides stretch to 20 minutes). If you almost never stand in line, and if you’re at Disneyland for 12 hours or more (to “get your money’s worth”), what are you going to do?

There’s only so much shopping you can do (especially during the doldrum years when Disneyland retreated from selling distinctive items in each shop based on its theme, homogenizing the merchandise across all the shelves). You can only eat so many churros and frozen bananas.

And it’s hot. Disneyland’s very long queues extend outside into the elements, but only when the indoor queue areas are overwhelmed by crowds. These indoor queues were largely designed in the days of ticket books, when demand for rides was dampened by the need to split three E-Tickets among 11 rides.

These indoor queues are in climate-controlled show-buildings, and they are extensively themed. They were designed to serve as a transition between the “table of contents” represented by all the rides available as you walk through the park, and the individual tale told by the ride itself.

These queues make a virtue out of necessity. The second generation of impressive Disneyland rides, which piggybacked off the commercial robotics work the company did for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, were largely built outside the park, in huge, anonymous square show-buildings in a former parking lot, painted a shade that Imagineering dubbed “Go-Away Green.”

To reach these rides, visitors traverse a long, underground queue that is actually a disguised tunnel that burrows under the railroad berm that girds the park to reach these show buildings. The waterfall drop at the start of Pirates of the Caribbean, the stretching room and long portrait-lined corridor at the start of the Haunted Mansion, and the beautifully rendered caverns that slope down to the Indiana Jones ride are all examples of leaning into this design constraint.

The addition of Fastpasses whisked riders through elaborate queues that established mood and theme and served as introduction to the story at breakneck speed (Indiana Jones) or bypassed them altogether (Epcot’s Test Track).

And for visitors who mastered Fastpasses, the reward wasn’t just freedom from lines, it was long hours of exposure to the elements without much to do. Womp-womp.

Annual passes

In theory, annual passes (introduced the year after the abolition of ticket books) could have restored the contemplative character of Disneyland, and to a certain extent, it did. Discounts for California residents and free parking meant you could just pop in for a couple of hours, eat a turkey leg, ride a ride, see a parade and head for home (I moved to LA for a Fulbright Chair at USC in 2006/7 and I used my annual pass this way, working on my novel Makers at an off-the-beaten-track shaded seat in New Orleans Square after I finished teaching for the day, before riding the Haunted Mansion and driving home for dinner).

But annual passes were victims of their own success. The allure of all-you-can-ride, 365-day-a-year passes was too much for Angelenos and other Southern Californians to pass up.

Annual passholders —“passholes” in the secret jargon of Disneyland employees —were perfectly poised to master the Fastpass, creating a large cohort of people who weakened the virtual queue’s capacity to balance out the crowds. And while many saw themselves as stewards of the park, helping out others or picking up the odd bit of trash, others waxed obnoxious, thanks to the sense of entitlement that came from spending a larger sum of money than the one-day visitors.

Prices for annual passes went up — and up — and up. But the number of cars driving around Los Angeles with oval-shaped “AP” stickers didn’t noticeably decrease. Some combination of price-insensitivity, lack of other options, inertia and loyalty kept annual pass sales high, even as their price doubled and redoubled. Raising pass prices may have been good for Disneyland’s profits, but it wasn’t great for the character of the park, because once the pass price climbed to $1,400 in 2019, even the most even-keeled passholder might start to feel like the company owed them a little bit of special treatment.

Passed on

Disney took advantage of the pandemic to kill both the Fastpass and the Annual Pass. The company has announced that Annual Passes will not return in their earlier form, while the future of Fastpasses has been left unspecified.

That’s why parks fans were so freaked out by the news that Disneyland Paris was selling a $10/person/ride Fastpass. Years of spiralling annual pass prices (and skyrocketing day-ticket prices) has prepared Disney parks fans for sticker shocks, and if your “normal day at Disneyland” involves eight or nine Fastpass rides for your party of four, that would add $320-$360 to the cost of your day.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I think Disney has to do something to manage aggregate demand at the parks. Adding more rides will not do it: every time Disney adds a blockbuster ride, it draws blockbuster crowds. The 18 months after Cars Land went in saw lines wrapping around California Adventure that were serious buzzkills — miserable kids and frustrated parents sweltering in the California heat, and once they’d gotten through that line, they spent the rest of the day going on more rides, increasing the aggregate demand.

It’s not just adding rides that doesn’t work. Every high-tech solution Disney has tried to date has only made this problem worse:

  • The “Fastpass Plus” — a $10/person/day upsell that let you book your Fastpass via the Disneyland app rather than racing to the kiosks only increased the efficiency with which “skilled” Disneyland visitors used Fastpasses, widening the queueing gap between old hands (who tend to be more affluent and whiter) and infrequent or first-time visitors (who tend to be poorer and more racialized).
  • The Magic Band — Walt Disney World’s elaborate system of RFID tracking bracelets that let you reserve rides up to six months in advance, using a web service that is riddled with glitches backstopped by a phone support system where 3–4 hour waits are commonplace. This system also benefits repeat visitors and widens the gap with first-timers, but more importantly, it annihilates any hope of spontaneity. Remember that picture of Walt ambling through the gates of the Disneyland castle before opening? That is not the picture of a man who booked a ride six months ago and has four minutes to reach it before the reservation expires.
  • Next-generation virtual queues — these were first deployed in Florida for the Star Wars-themed Rise of the Resistance ride at Galaxy’s Edge (this $1B sub-park is easily the most impressive thing Disney ever built, and Rise of the Resistance is the centerpiece), and are now in use at Disneyland for both Rise of the Resistance and the new Spider-Man themed Web Slingers ride. They require that you download and master an app, go through an incredibly complicated setup process with the rest of your group, and then button-mash it at precisely 7AM and 12PM in hopes of getting a “boarding group” that entitles you to ride an unspecified number of hours later. These often run out of passes in less than ten seconds and, once again, favor the repeat visitor who has learned their ins and outs.

But charging more to reach the front of the line is also not a good way to manage aggregate demand. It’s a recapitulation of the error that airlines make when they board first-class passengers first, so the miserable coach passengers can file past them as and see them sipping complimentary Champagne and nibbling on warm nuts. Yes, it certainly shows you what you’re missing, but it’s no way to put someone in a good mood.

In a world where billionaires made $4 trillion during the pandemic and workers lost roughly the same amount, we all know that there are people for whom a $10 front-of-the-line pass is chump change, while for others, say a family whose working parents saved carefully to take their kids on a once-in-a-lifetime Disney trip, that might as well be a $1,000 front-of-the-line upsell.

Charging more won’t solve the problem. Building more rides won’t solve the problem. Adding virtual queues won’t solve the problem.

What will? Tune in next week for Managing aggregate demand (Part IV).