Disneyland at a stroll (Part VI)

Amusement parks, crowd control and load-balancing.

Guests are seen boarding/exiting the original Mad Tea Party in Disneyland’s Fantasyland in this undated photo from around 1960.
Evan Wohrman/CC BY-SA

This is Part VI 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. Part V looked at the paternalistic misdirection and subtle design cues Disney uses to manage aggregate demand.

The human sensory apparatus is marvellously, terribly adaptive. Any stimulus quickly regresses to the mean. I share my office with our family’s laundry room and I have a little sticky note on my podcasting mic (“LAUNDRY”) to remind me to listen for our washing machine. The washing machine is incredibly loud, but after five minutes I literally can’t hear it.

After the Trump election in 2016, there were a lot of cries not to let Trumpism become “normalized.” It was a fool’s errand. Everything, no matter how chaotic or unpleasant, becomes normal. Talk to prisoners, or hostages, or people living with debilitating, painful illnesses. “Normal” is whatever happens normally, no matter how awful.

That’s not an unalloyed evil. Our adaptive capacity lets us tolerate the “intolerable,” live another day, and change our circumstances for the better. And our adaptive nature makes us restless, sends us in search of new experiences, because novelty quickly fades and is replaced by familiarity.

Teacups and tempo

Theme parks have to reckon with this inescapable adaptiveness. Imagine a theme park with no lines, where the exit from one ride leads directly to the load area for the next. Stagger off the teacups and onto a coaster, off the coaster and into a bungee harness, out of the harness and into a flume ride.

This would be pretty exciting…at first. But the physical delights of being crammed into a string of oversized mechanical cocktail-shakers would quickly give way to horror (six minutes on a roller-coaster is a thrill, six hours on a coaster is a violation of the Geneva Conventions), and then, inevitably, to boredom.

But there’s a way to beat adaptation: switching it up. My office washing machine is a noisy distraction every time I turn it on — but only for a few minutes, before it fades into the background. To reset your adaptation levels, take a break from the activity and then return to it. To maximize the reset, vary this pattern — switch up the duration of the stimulus and the rest periods (if the breaks and the stimulus are of fixed duration, they become yet another routine that you adapt to).

Behavioral scientists call this “intermittent reinforcement.” By randomizing the schedule of stimulus and rest, they are able to minimize adaptation and maximize stimulus. Think of how a cat will catch a mouse and then release it, and then catch it, and then release it — it’s hacking its brain’s reward-system by chasing, then catching, then chasing, with each chase and each catch being just a little different each time.

Theme parks need experiential texture to make the highs even higher. The intervals between thrill rides make the rides more thrilling; the intervals between the spectacles makes them more spectacular.

Disneyland’s old ticket-book system imposed this texture on a day at Disneyland, by gently coercing visitors into engaging in activities across a variety of intensities, from thrill rides to scenic experiences to shows.

This texture allowed Disney to heighten the highs of its peak experiences by changing the rider’s frame of mind, not the ride system or layout.

The abolition of ticket books, followed by the institution of an ever-more-baroque ticket system, locked Disney in a Red Queen’s race with its customers’ limbic systems, as repeat visitors perfected the Disney queuing system, allowing them to speedrun thrill-rides, robbing the day of texture and diminishing the peaks. The one-time climactic E-Ticket thrills became progressively hollower and less satisfying.

Escapism and its discontents

The intensifying tempo of the theme-park day mirrored an intensification of life in “the real world.” This is a long-run phenomenon, of course. Artificial light let us carry on our working days after dinner. Industrial production broke down work into specialized, interdependent subtasks, binding us to a chain of workers who produced the inputs to our work, or relied on its output. The assembly line intensified the degree to which our work was coupled with others — a moment’s daydreaming or even a toilet break could shut down the whole system.

As it became possible to work anywhere, at any time, it became necessary to do so. Ubiquitous devices, batteries, power outlets and network connectivity turn every pause into an act of will, rather than a more-or-less welcome necessity. I’m typing these words on a Boeing 737 Max at cruising altitude, on a laptop that can’t run out of power because of my seat’s three-prong outlet. I have internet connectivity, allowing me use Medium’s blog composer interface— but when that connectivity gives out, it uses my browser’s application-specific storage to cache my words and re-synch them when the net comes back. The only reason for me to stop working is my own choice.

Historically, we stopped work because we had to: the light gave out, or the materials ran out, or the rains or snow came, or the dinner-bell rang. Modern efficiencies make our working hours into a choice, but, ironically, the more freedom to work we have, the harder it is to choose not to. When the rhythm of your life is determined by factors beyond your control, you don’t need to develop any sense of when to start and when to stop. Make hay when the sun shines. Stop making hay when it sets.

But it’s not just technology that leads to overwork — it’s also the demands of neoliberal capitalism. Each of us is recast as an entrepreneur, a brand, a self-Taylorizing time-and-motion expert whose success depends on finding and removing “inefficiencies,” planning our tasks so they slide smoothly into the next one. We ration our time, cut it into rice-paper slices.

This was all exacerbated by the lockdown, when Zoom meetings obliterated the necessity of budgeting five minutes between meetings to move to a different boardroom. The gap between two meetings went from minutes to seconds.

Children naturally slice their time thick. When something takes their interest, they stay with it, heedless of the need to do the next thing. Any parent who’s ever tried to get a dawdling kid to put down a screen or a book or a toy and brush their hair and race out the door in time for the school run knows that kids have to be taught “efficiency.”

America has an epidemic of sleep-deprivation among both kids and adults. We work late, we rise early. We don’t nap in the afternoon. We know it’s not healthy. We do it anyway. High schools offer a “Period Zero” class for kids who want to start school at 7 a.m., and then slice the day into surreal, clockwatching intervals, with classes starting and stopping at arbitrary times like 8:11 to 8:59, or 2:17 to 2:48. Whatever notional purposes these strange intervals set, their most enduring effect is to turn a child’s thick-sliced, dreamy, curious time into slices so thin you could use them as tracing paper.


A modified INA Insurance ad, captioned “Carefree in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom,” depicting a family in Tomorrowland meeting a employee costumed as an astronaut.”

Long before the modern day attained its frenetic tempo, we fought for and won the right to leisure. Bronze Age faith leaders decreed that the divine demanded a weekly Sabbath day .The 40-hour work-week was attained through bitter, relentless labor activism, organized under the banner of “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.

Annual vacations went from being an elite luxury to being an expectation of blue collar workers, demanded and won by the trade-union movement. As Pete Seeger’s Talking Union Blues has it:

Now if you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do, you’ve got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. You got to build you a union, got to make it strong, but if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long. You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take the kids to the seaside.

Contrast this with the expectations of the gig economy: turn your unproductive car into a taxi, turn your unproductive spare room into an unlicensed hotel room, turn your unproductive evening into dollars courtesy of the Mechanical Turk.

We’ve lost “eight hours for what we will.” Our weekends are when we chase our side-hustle and catch up on the emails we didn’t have time to answer during the week (creating more emails for our colleagues to answer).

And our vacations? They’re just as frenetic as our work lives.

The FOMO vacation

Disneyland was originally envisioned as a place you went, and not just a bunch of activities you did. It was to be a place to go and stroll, to contemplate, to take in the sights or stumble upon a passing parade.

In the years since, a Disney vacation has become a regimented, high-intensity, high-stress occasion. If you are an old Disney hand, you have a checklist of things to do and ways to do them — Fastpass mastery, early arrival, late departure, all the tricks.

If you’re a first-timer, you’re riven by FOMO and buffeted by information overload. You have to master complex systems, navigate unfamiliar terrain, and make high-stakes judgments based on thin information (“Do I want to stand in wet bulb Florida heat for 75 minutes to ride ‘Big Thunder Mountain?’ What is a Big Thunder Mountain? Will my kids thank me for this death-march or blame me for costing them a ride on Peter Pan?”).

Vintage photo of Tomorrowland‘s entrance.’

Pace yourself

Old photos of Disneyland have a funny character — it’s not the extinct ride or the out-of-date fashion, it’s the kinetics, the sense that the people in the pictures are ambling, rather than racing, through the park. They’re strolling.

I think that stroll was the result of Disney’s expectations-setting, through the ticket-books and a low-cost gate charge. If your day at Disneyland is about slowing down, about taking a break, then racing to do more is counterproductive.

What’s a Disney day?

A young Cory Doctorow in Adventureland, 1977.

The twists and turns of ticketing prices and ride design and virtual queuing systems have created a kind of high-intensity (but still incoherent) message about what a day at Disneyland is for.

With the elimination of annual passes and Fastpasses, Disney seems to be telling its customers (and potential customers) that a day at Disney is more like a skydiving excursion than a day in the park. You should expect physical challenges, you’ll need to do a lot of prep work, it will be expensive, and there will be a high degree of regimentation.

It’s a very zeitgeisty move, a theme-park whose ethos lines up nicely with the worked-to-death, zero-slack days that constitute our working lives.

Bring back the stroll

Guests at Disneyland entry plaza and train station
Orange County Archives

But I think that Disney could go another direction — that they could give people what they need, rather than what they want (or think they want).

Even on a very busy day, Disneyland has a lot of empty space. The problem is, it’s just that: empty space. There’s nothing to do but mill around, often without any shade.

To its credit, Disney tries to provision those empty spaces to meet anticipated demand — from moving in an ice-cream wagon to sliding a parade (or one of the new one-float mini-parades) through a space. But it’s clear that the park struggles with dynamic resource allocation, and their solution to date has been to create reservation systems where people tell them, as much as six months in advance, exactly what they plan to do on their vacation, and at what time, down to the minute.

Imagine instead if Disney oriented its capacity around spontaneous experiences, of the sort it has experimented with at Galaxy’s Edge, where role-playing employees enlist you to various capers and games. Imagine if every space in the park was a potential place for excitement, comedy, music and play.

Rivers of America, Disneyland, 1961 The men in the center of this photo are identified as “”Dad Schmitt and Uncle Fred Hammer.” Behind them is the Chicken Plantation restaurant, where New Orleans Square was later built.
Orange County Archives

What if your Disney app was a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute catalog of all the things the park had to offer, from moment to moment, and if each person who bought a day’s park entrance got a front-of-the-line Fastpass for just one ride, for them and up to three friends, a Golden Ticket that ensured that the ride you just had to go on to make your day complete could be boarded at any time, with no need to rush — with the freedom to lose yourself in a LARP or a show and not worry about the day racing by.

What if the app was a way for you to understand the park, rather than helping the company understand you? Abandoning surveillance vacationalism would allow us to treat people as sensors, rather than as things to be sensed.

To make this happen, the park needs to be weatherized. The new Avengers Campus at California Adventure replaced a Bug’s Life themed area whose rides were unimpressive, but whose shade sails and mature trees made it a cool oasis. The trees and shade are gone and the new area is a punishing blast-oven on a hot day. Disney Imagineers have pulled off so many impressive shade systems over the years — there’s no excuse for this kind of omission.


Wide shot of The Adventurer’s Club
Ben Yanis/CC BY

Disney’s actually really good at building immersive storytelling environments that combine gimmicks, actors, and narrative — that allow people to dip in for a moment or follow a story arc across a multi-hour presentation. This was the design brief for The Adventurer’s Club, a beloved, long-lost bar that was the only good thing about the otherwise doomed Pleasure Island (a collection of ho-hum dance clubs and comedy stages sanitized to Disney standards, where the New Year was rung in every night at midnight).

The Adventurer’s Club mixed cabaret, improv, magic, storytelling, puzzle-solving, and comedy. It had several rotating “shows” that decomposed into individual segments, and no two nights were the same, thanks to the improvisers and the responses they teased from the audience.

Bringing back this kind of entertainment, on a park-wide scale, could bring unmatchable texture to a day at Disneyland. Rather than having a ride serve as the climax of a long queue, guests could be lured into the wide-open spaces of the park to interact with each other and performers, with stories that created an organic reason to move from one place to another.

It could be a place of surprises, a place where you could sit still and watch the world go by, then hop on whenever something fascinating went past.

A sweet send-off

There are many small gracenotes Disney could deploy to make this work. Instead of having people buy and carry purchases from the shops — purchases that burden them and make it hard to move through space — the company could use shops as showrooms, with little or no inventory, and pack orders for pickup at the gate on the way out (and let visitors choose to have their items shipped by tapping on the app and entering an address and paying for delivery).

Freeing visitors from carrying purchases would also free many visitors from the need to rent a dedicated stroller for the day. Parents rent strollers because they know their kids will poop out halfway through the day, then turn the stroller into a kind of shopping cart laden with their purchases. Every busy area in a Disney themepark has staffers whose job it is to corral strollers abandoned by parents who’ve joined a ride-queue; as well as staffers who help parents who’ve just come off a ride find the stroller that’s been tidied out of the way. Vast tracts of precious theme-park real-estate are devoted to warehousing strollers for queued-up riders.

But if parents of older kids no longer need their strollers as shopping carts, all kinds of possibilities open up. For example, Disney could sell you the right to pick up a standard stroller at any ride exit and drop it off at any ride load-area. Dropped off strollers would be whisked away from the ride entrance, quickly sanitized and stacked at the exit. If your kid poops out from 2–5, that’s when you use a stroller. The rest of the time, you let them kid walk around — and Disney can reclaim its swathes of useless stroller-parking.

A young Loren Javier with the sailing ship Colombia, looking dapper in blazer and slacks.
Loren Javier/CC BY-ND

One easy way to change the tempo of a Disney day and leave visitors with a spring in their step is to cut it in half. Offer any visitor who leaves by 5PM the right to return on some other day, after 5PM. No one has ever enjoyed a Disneyland day that started at 7AM and finished at midnight.

It’s 2021, and the world’s tempo is MAX-ALWAYS. We lack texture. Everything is on fire, literally and figuratively. It’s not just our downtimes that suffer in this environment. The cortisol-infused character of our lives is a brutal penance. We need to reclaim the pleasure of doing nothing, of pausing, rather than racing.