Expectations management (Part V)

Amusement parks, crowd control and load-balancing

A giant nighttime crowd at the foot of Disneyland’s Main St, USA, looking toward the castle. Image: Mike Saechang https://www.flickr.com/photos/saechang/29066900230/ CC BY-ND: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
Image: Mike Saechang/CC BY-ND 2.0

This is Part V 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. In Part III, I described how every fix for long lines just made the problem worse, creating complexity that frustrated first-time visitors and turning annual passholders into entitled “passholes.” In Part IV, I look at the legal and economic dimension of different pricing models for managing aggregate demand.

There’s an old joke about a first-time visitor to a Disney theme park who gets in a very long line on the assumption that any queue that long must go somewhere great.

The punchline is that it’s the line for the bathroom.

Womp womp.


This terrible joke has circulated for decades because it contains a kernel of truth — people join lines for high-demand items on the assumption other people have information that they lack, which makes long lines a signal of good things in short supply. The right kind of line is a sign of both desirability and imminent loss, a self-sustaining phenomenon driven by FOMO, the fear of missing out.

Disney knows this, of course. People who are unfamiliar with Disney rides use queues as guides to the desirability of rides. Rides that have no queue at all are easy to skip over as likely duds, so Disney adjusts the internal structure of its queues to maintain a queue that stretches to the ride entrance, visible from the “street” outside. Many Disney rides have flexible queueing spaces: think of the Jungle Boat Cruise, with its optional additional building and an entire shaded upper level that lets attendants double the number of people that fit inside the show building.

FOMO is a powerful motivator than can shape group behavior. PT Barnum’s infamous “This Way To the Egress” sign drew crowds through the Big Top and out onto the midway, as eager circus patrons sought out the doubtless marvellous “egress.”

The idea that people join queues because they don’t know what’s being handed out but they don’t want to lose a chance to claim it is a recurring motif in the jokes of the Soviet Union, whose long lines were cited by capitalist ideologues as the visible evidence of the impossibility of a good life under Communism.

Signs pointing to signs

The reconfigurable nature of Disney show buildings means that you can’t just eyeball the ride and figure out how long the line is. If the Jungle Boats are lined up to the doorway, that might mean a five minute wait (if most of the internal spaces are roped off) or a 50 minute wait (if the secondary and tertiary queueing areas are in use).

Whether you’re a parks veteran or a first-time visitor, you really need some kind of indicator of the likely wait-time. If you’ve got lunch reservations or a scheduled rendezvous with the rest of your group coming up in half an hour, you want to know in advance whether you’ll have to bail on a queue before you reach the ride.

For decades, Disney parks have posted their estimated wait times on signs outside of individual rides; these were also aggregated on signboards near the park hubs where visitors could get a bird’s-eye view of the overall wait times.

It took a long time for these wait-times to make the jump to an official Disney app. Disney management was surprisingly conservative about fielding an app; a common explanation for this is that they didn’t want a park full of shambling screen-zombies.

If that was the goal, it backfired spectacularly: third parties leapt in with a variety of line-tracking apps, some commercial and some strictly fannish. Visitors connected with one another and the people they’d left at home using social media, not a Disney service. By the time Disney launched its first app, the park was already full of people using mobile devices as part of their day, running third party apps that were out of the company’s control.

Explicit lies

The best of are the apps from Touring Plans, a data-driven, specialized Disney travel agency (they have an app for Walt Disney World and Disneyland). Touring Plans uses researchers and park visitors to aggregate all kinds of data about crowds and waits at Disney parks, including otherwise hard-to-find information like the crowd calendar that predicts future crowds based on historical data.

Most importantly, the Touring Plans apps display parkwide wait times, and note when the posted wait time is significantly longer than the actual wait time.

These discrepancies aren’t a matter of mere prediction errors. If you ask a Disney castmember whether the posted wait time is accurate, they’ll hem and haw and say it’s as close as they can come. But years of assiduous data-collection and experimentation by Touring Plans has shown that Disney deliberately manipulates the wait times as a means of repelling crowds.

After all, only a masochist voluntarily joins a two hour queue. If a part of a park has grown too crowded, Disney simply posts a fictitiously brutal wait-time. Not only does this deter passers-by from joining the queue, but it sends a signal that ripples out instantly to everyone who checks the Disney app or central notice-boards to choose their next ride: STAY AWAY FROM THIS RIDE.

This is a weird kind of routine lie for Disney to tell, but there’s a kind of twisted logic to it, because it lets Disney underpromise and overdeliver. If you join a queue expecting a 45 minute wait and actually board in 22 minutes, you experience it as a stroke of good fortune (by contrast, if Disney posted artificially short wait times, they’d have a park full of furious people who were told to expect a ride in 25 minutes but then had to wait for 45 minutes).

Of course, users of the Touring Plans app are able to pierce this fiction. The app shows you both the posted wait-time and the true wait-time, and even has a mode whereby you can sort all the rides in the park in order of which rides have abnormally short wait-times — that is, which ones are a bargain in terms of the time you’ll spend waiting to board them.

Implicit lies (and truths)

This kind of misdirection is noteworthy because it’s both bold and widespread. This isn’t PT Barnum’s “egress” gaff, the kind of thing that a mark can laugh about after the fact, when a carny wises them up to the dictionary meaning of “egress.” It’s just a flat-out lie, a way of literally tricking people into doing the things park management wants of them.

Fake wait times are blunt instruments for tuning a crowd’s movements through space, especially when compared to the elegant design tricks that are a mainstay of Disney design.

Some of these tricks come from carny midways (but even then, Disney does them better). For example, the use of “weenies.” These are towering pieces of architecture — the castles, Space Mountain, the spires of Galaxy’s Edge — that act as visible enticements to move on from where you are now to wherever that amazing monument is anchored.

Main Street, USA at Walt Disney World. Image: Meuzic https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattcullen/3040182795; CC BY: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Meuzic/CC BY

Other tricks are subtler — Main Street, USA slopes gently up toward the castle, making it seem a little taller when you come through the gates. That becomes a downslope for footsore people leaving the park at the end of a long day, giving them a gravity assist. Main Street is also lined with trees that have been trimmed to get progressively smaller, making the castle seem further away (from the foot of Main Street) and making the gates seem closer (from the top of Main Street).

Subtler still is the general level of detail one finds in the built environment. Disney’s designers and operations people add detail to areas they want to draw you to and hold you at, and reduce the amount of detail in areas they want you to ignore (such as paths that lead to service entrances).

Tokyo Disney Sea

This is a surprisingly powerful tool for directing crowds, something that hit home the first time I visited Tokyo Disney Sea, easily the most beautiful theme park Disney ever built, where the attention to detail is relentless, bordering on fetishistic.

Many times on that trip, I found myself following an intriguing by-way that dead-ended in a utility entrance or a couple of garbage carts waiting to be deployed to the park spaces. The relentless perfection of Disney Sea’s detail is so disorienting that I continue to do this, even after several visits.

Consensual paternalism

The thing about these subtle environmental cues is that they are consensual, not deceitful. Disney doesn’t tell you they’re doing this, but when you find out, it’s a delight — you haven’t been tricked, you’ve been guided.

Contrast this with crude tactics like faking the wait times or refusing to tell prospective visitors which days have the biggest groups — these tactics are kept secret because they make visitors feel like suckers.

Tune in next week for Part VI: Disneyland at a stroll.