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3 tips to outsmart Disney theme parks

The local’s guide to 'The Happiest Place on Earth'

One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my father take off at a dead sprint as we passed the ticket gate and entered into Main Street boulevard at Magic Kingdom. Clutched in his hand were our park tickets. He was running away from his wife and two daughters in order to secure a precious commodity: the earliest FastPass ride reservation time for a popular ride, usually Peter Pan Flight. This brilliant man had the insight that the other families didn’t. My father knew that Magic Kingdom was a game and he was playing to win.

disney-baby My first visit to a Disney theme park as a 1-year-old.

Game theory is the study of strategies for competitive situations where the outcome of an individual’s choice of action depends on the action of other participants. My father did what any rational engineering professor would do: viewed his day at Disney World as a game theory optimization problem. How could he maximize his family’s enjoyment of the park by minimizing the amount of time spent waiting, while competing with others who were trying to do the same?

As we grew older, my father retired from his park-optimizing days but not before passing on his obsession to us. Today, I will still run across a theme park if it will save time waiting in line. The competitive spirit, if anything, has increased across generations. This post is a summary of my experiences — gained through instinct, trial and error, research, and observation.


Wait, who is our opponent?

Before we dive into specific tips, let’s understand who we are competing against in the theme park game theory problem.

It seems obvious: you are competing against other theme park attendees who have similar ride and attraction preferences. These are people who will be trying to navigate to the same areas of the park as you and are waiting in the same lines. They want to meet the same Disney princesses or eat at the same ice cream stand.

The bare minimum work you will need to do is understanding your own preferences. These are table stakes. Not knowing which rides you prefer beforehand is like going to the movies without any idea which movie you want to see. By the time you’ve finally chosen the new Star Wars movie and found your way to the ticket booth, someone else already bought the premium seats. So making a shortlist of your top rides will automatically give you an upper hand over the unprepared visitors.

chess-game Don’t get checkmated by the other guests. (Unsplash)

Unfortunately the work is not over yet. According to a 2017 article about theme park demographics, a third of all visitors traveled less than 50 miles from home. If those statistics hold for Disney parks, that means a significant percentage are local residents. Locals have been to the parks before, giving them a huge advantage over first-time visitors. This is like going to the movies unprepared, only to find out it’s opening night—for Star Wars—and a hundred other people who live nearby have camped overnight for all the good seats, except for the front row where you will get severe neck cramps.

You might be feeling discouraged that there are so many people with more experience. But the real secret is that the game is rigged not by these local attendees but rather by Disney. They have more experience and knowledge than anyone.

Disney show-runners care about creating the best average experience for visitors to ensure maximum profit. The playing field is inherently uneven because park designers have enormous resources, with an annual global operating cost of almost $13 billion. The Parks and Resorts division make up 72% of Disney’s total workforce, or 130,000 out of 180,000 total employees. They also have the ability to change the environment itself and are on the cutting edge of technological tools as well. In a previous post, I discussed the enormous scale of tracking and data Disney uses to predict visitor behavior. All of this together generated $2.2 billion in profits from 132.5 million guests in 2013.

What we thought was a chess game against other amateurs is actually playing against a chess grandmaster, the all-powerful man behind the Disney curtain. Keep that in mind as we continue on to the practical takeaways.


#1 — Have strong opinions, weakly held

Although the point was already made in the previous section, it’s worth mentioning again: know your preferences.

A good rule of thumb is selecting three to four attractions per park. It may seem impossible to narrow down your choices to a handful of rides since Walt Disney World is so massive, occupying more than 27,000 acres. (For reference, this is equivalent to the size of all of San Francisco.) But know that the theme parks are deliberately designed to not be “completable” within a reasonable time frame. They want to entice you to return again and again because there is always something that you missed.

magic-kingdom The number of attractions in Magic Kingdom alone is overwhelming. (wdwinfo.com)

The benefit of having a shortlist of three to four rides is focus. Strong opinions on your top attractions makes navigating the parks easier and decision-making faster. Small numbers also works well with Disney’s FastPass+ system which allows you lock in access to the fast lane for up to 3 rides at reserved times. Based on when your time slots are for your FastPass rides, you can check out nearby rides in the same area.

A common mistake that people make when doing research for their visits is to create rigid, inflexible schedules. They usually plan out specific days to visit certain parks and may even plan out the exact order of rides to visit.

itinerary I get stressed just looking at Kellie’s itinerary. (My Disney Devotional)

The problem with this strategy is that there is no ability to adapt in the moment, not to mention the anxiety and stress when you get off-schedule. Remember that Disney is intentionally trying to make the parks seem vast and full of endless possibilities. Plus, not only do they have dozens of rides, shops, and restaurants on the map, they also strategically add events like mini-parades that are not on the schedule. These unpredictable distractions help with crowd control and prevent rides from accumulating catastrophically long wait times.

And though events are unscheduled, they are by no means lower quality than main attractions. The impromptu mini-parades will still have cost Disney thousands of dollars for choreography, costuming and props. So choosing only a small number of must-see rides allows you the flexibility to enjoy unexpected experiences that Disney has provided.

In summary, make strong preferences for a small handful of rides. But these should be strong opinions, weakly held. This means once you arrive at the parks, be willing to compromise and skip out on rides even if it’s in your top three or four choices.

It’s possible that despite all of Disney’s efforts, you are unlucky. Perhaps the ride you have been looking forward to has a very long wait time. Sometimes estimated wait time minutes can be in the triple digits. In my opinion, it’s always better to be actively experiencing the park, no matter how good you think the desired ride will be. In those 100+ minutes, you could be eating Dole Whip ice cream and visiting other rides and shows rather than waiting in line. Park designers have invested many resources and careful planning to making even those second or third tier rides a magical experience.

wait-times Seriously, it’s not worth waiting this long. (WDWMagic)

A final point about strong opinions—so far, I’ve only been discussing opinions in the context of ride preferences. However, there are other preferences that would benefit from being weakly held. A great example is the preference to go on rides as a group. Oftentimes the group lane will be double or triple the wait time of single-rider lanes. If you don’t have any small children that need to be with their guardians, go ahead and split up to utilize the single-rider lanes. The enjoyment in getting on the next ride that much faster is higher than riding as a group, which comes at the cost of a significantly longer wait time.


#2–Go against the flow

Once you have a list of preferred rides, the next challenge is when to plan your trip to Disney World. The important lesson here is to go against the flow. In other words, visit the parks when others are unlikely to be visiting.

A quick Google search of “Disney World crowd calendar” provides plenty of third-party resources for trip planning, often with day-by-day estimates forecasted from years of historical data. These websites provide plenty of high quality information so I won’t bother to repeat the details. Generally, you want to avoid major holidays, school breaks, and weekends.

But even the best third-party sources will not be as accurate as Disney itself. Fortunately, Disney provides information that you can use to extrapolate their projected crowd levels. For instance, in 2016 Disney introduced demand-based pricing for tickets. Certain days are marked as “value periods” with lower ticket prices. These are days with low visitor volume and Disney is incentivizing visitors to plan their trips with these days. In this instance, the goals for Disney and the park guest perfectly align. You want to visit on days where there are fewer guests. Disney wants to more evenly load-balance visitor attendance by shifting guests to days with fewer guests.

Similarly, blockout dates for annual pass holders signal that these are high volume crowd days. Typical blockout dates are December 20th through December 31st. Holiday seasons are so crowded that Disney actively blocks locals with annual passes from attending. Try to avoid these dates unless you can’t help it.

The last first-party signal you can reference is Extra Magic Hours, a resort guest benefit allowing them to enter certain parks before hours and stay after hours. The reason that Disney offers these extra hours is because certain parks have higher estimated levels of crowds than usual. The park operators want to ensure that resort guests, who have spent a lot of money with Disney, will nevertheless have an enjoyable experience despite increased crowds. Sometimes they open the park even earlier, indicated by the creatively-named ‘Extra’ Extra Magic Hours. My suggestion is to avoid parks which have extra magic hours, regardless if you are a resort guest or not.

extra-magic Example: Good idea to avoid Tuesdays/Fridays at Magic Kingdom and Mondays/Thursdays at Epcot.

Going against the flow can also be applied to park navigation. You should aim to navigate the park in ways that the majority will not be navigating. By using atypical movement patterns, you can avoid the peak wait times and accomplish more at the parks than the average guest.

The most common behavior is traversing the park in a one-directional, circular front-to-back motion. Let’s break down this pattern and address its three distinct parts:

  • One-directional
  • Circular
  • Front-to-back

Disney parks are built in a hub-and-spoke shape. The entrance leads directly to the center hub. Once there, you are confronted with your first decision on which direction to begin navigating the parks. To counter the majority, we want to choose the opposite direction that others are moving in. Some research claims that counterclockwise is the right direction to choose based on natural tendencies to go the other direction. On the other hand, when I asked Magic Kingdom cast members what was the best direction, they said clockwise was best since guests tend to turn right due to most people being right-handed. So which to choose?

map-diagram Clockwise from top-left: maps of Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot.

The right answer depends on the day and the makeup of guests. Disney intentionally locates the most popular rides at the far ends of the park: Splash Mountain on the far left and Space Mountain on the far right. The former is more family-friendly and the latter geared towards adrenaline-seeking rollercoaster fans. During summer break with many young families visiting, most groups might head left towards family-friendly Splash Mountain. The best decision is made on the spot — using a combination of observation, expert guidance, and data to inform the decision. Look at where the crowds that day seem to be heading. Factor in that guests tend to go right or left, whether you believe experts or Disney employees more. Check to see rides have longer wait times and go the other way.

Choosing the initial direction is only one optimization, and a small optimization at that. What will have a bigger impact is breaking the one-directional and circular movement tendencies which Disney encourages with its park design. Most groups will try to visit all the rides in a single area of the park and minimize time spent walking. But not you! Zigzagging across the park enables you to quickly move from the extreme left side to the extreme right side. Resist the compulsion to “finish” an area and visit one or two attractions before moving on, even if it feels unnatural. Remember that you can always return to see the other rides in the area. More time walking allows you evade the clustered long wait times from crowds staying in one area.

Avoiding “one-directional” movement also applies not only how to navigate within a single park but between multiple parks. Guests typically visit each park sequentially, first finishing Magic Kingdom in one day before moving on to Epcot or Animal Kingdom. Park hopper tickets allow you visit multiple parks in each day. One location may be experiencing an unexpectedly low traffic day and switching midday enables you to take advantage of the shorter wait times. Staying flexible and resisting the urge to finish an entire park before moving on combats the inflexible tendencies of most groups. Additionally, many visitors incorrectly perceive that it will take a long time to travel between parks but the monorails make travel fast. It is only 10–30 minutes to move between parks, time well spent to escape peak crowd levels.

Finally, countering the typical front-to-back movement will help you get more out of your time at the park. Once groups enter the park, they tend to get distracted by all of the attractions and shiny merchandise. Going against the flow means getting to the back of the park as quickly as you can and then enjoying the park on your return to the entrance. Magic Kingdom even has a train which circles the perimeter of the park. I have observed guests primarily using the train as a fast method of returning to the entrance at the end of the day, when their family is exhausted. Why not instead take the train immediately to the back of the park? Save the spectacular view of Cinderella’s Castle for later once you’ve been on all your top rides multiple times because of the short waiting times.

Going against the flow can also be useful tactic for necessary parts of your day like when to eat food. Choosing to eat at off-peak hours means that you will not only get your food faster but also have shorter wait times while others are having lunch. For the most ambitious, you can skip the sit-down restaurant at off-peak hours and eat on-the-go, either at the many food trucks around the park or even packing your own food.

turkey-leg Eating a famous Disney turkey leg is a great option for on-the-go food (Eater)


#3 — Pace yourself

The last tip to get the most out of the theme parks is to pace yourself. Going to Disney World is a multi-day affair. Even spread out over a few days, walking the entire area of San Francisco is exhausting. You will naturally get tired as the hours and days wear on. So visiting the theme parks is a test of endurance — a marathon rather than a sprint.

You can increase your endurance by making small changes that will minimize physical strain. A great example is being strategic about the order of park visits. Some parks are more energy-intensive than others. Therefore a successful plan front-loads all the high-energy areas. Continuing the marathon analogy, it’s easier to run the steep hill at the beginning of the race rather than at the end.

marathon-1

We can therefore construct a successful schedule to visit all the parks with endurance in mind. Magic Kingdom has a higher density of popular rides than other parks. You want to expend the most energy here, using all the tactics from the last section to get the shortest wait times. Epcot and Animal Kingdom have more sit-down shows and slower walking experiences. Finally Hollywood Studios is the smallest out of the four. Therefore a successful plan might be (1) Magic Kingdom, (2) Epcot, (3) Animal Kingdom, and (4) Hollywood Studios.

marathon-2

Extending your stamina also helps you outlast other park guests. Having the energy to stay later means shorter lines. It’s especially effective to visit popular rides right before park closing, when you can see wait times as low as five minutes. So if the goal is to stay later at the parks it’s important to conserve your energy. The parks are usually open for twelve to fourteen hours and the typical American (myself included) is not used to being on their feet continuously for that amount of time. Therefore deliberately conserving energy might mean riding slower-paced rides or watching parades during peak hours to take a break. Don’t make the mistake of running too fast at the beginning of the marathon and use up all of your energy.

Personally, the shortest amount of time I’ve used to finish all four Disney Parks is two days. We visited Magic Kingdom and Epcot on the first day, and finished with Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios on the second day. This is not a schedule that I recommend to the faint of heart. It’s also not something I recommend doing on your first visit and especially not with crazy jetlag after a flight from Beijing to Orlando. Luckily, I have an unbelievably cooperative and excited partner who had never been to Disney World before, who was willing to do all the zig-zagging multi-directionally back-to-front movements I told him to do.

disney-tired Common sights of exhaustion in the late afternoon. (Capturing Magical Memories)


Extra Tip #4 — Remember to have fun

This article has focused on tips to outsmart your fellow park-goers and the parks itself. We talked a lot about optimizations, both on the macro- and micro-scale, but in the end the most important thing is to have fun. Personally, even after all these years and thousands of words written about Disney, I am still excited to go back to Disney World. The scale of immersion and attention to detail is truly magnificent. Hopefully I’ve given you a framework to think about how to optimize your trip. The rest, especially having fun, is up to you.

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. — Walt Disney


(This article was originally published on Medium, click here to read it there.)

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