Crowd Control at Disneyworld

 m

Walt Disney World

Phil Holmes, right, vice president of the Magic Kingdom, in the
theme park’s underground control room.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel, via Associated Press

Crowds line the way to Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom

December 27, 2010

 

 

Disney Tackles Major Theme Park
Problem: Lines

 By BROOKS
BARNES

ORLANDO, Fla. — Deep in the bowels of Walt
Disney World
, inside an underground bunker called the Disney
Operational Command Center, technicians know that you are standing in line and
that you are most likely annoyed about it. Their clandestine mission: to get you
to the fun faster.

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest
time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd
control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it
must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward
impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers
say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney
must evolve.
And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to
address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella
Castle
, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park
maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy
countermeasures in real time.
In one corner, employees watch flat-screen televisions that depict various
attractions in green, yellow and red outlines, with the colors representing
wait-time gradations.
If Pirates
of the Caribbean
, the ride that sends people on a spirited voyage through
the Spanish Main, suddenly blinks from green to yellow, the center might respond
by alerting managers to launch more boats.
Another option involves dispatching Captain Jack Sparrow or Goofy or one of
their pals to the queue to entertain people as they wait. “It’s about being
nimble and quickly noticing that, ‘Hey, let’s make sure there is some relief out
there for those people,’ ” said Phil Holmes, vice president of the Magic
Kingdom, the flagship Disney World park.
What if Fantasyland is swamped with people but adjacent Tomorrowland has
plenty of elbow room? The operations center can route a miniparade called “Move
it! Shake it! Celebrate It!” into the less-populated pocket to siphon guests in
that direction. Other technicians in the command center monitor restaurants,
perhaps spotting that additional registers need to be opened or dispatching
greeters to hand out menus to people waiting to order.
“These moments add up until they collectively help the entire park,” Mr.
Holmes said.
In recent years, according to Disney research, the average Magic Kingdom
visitor has had time for only nine rides — out of more than 40 — because of
lengthy waits and crowded walkways and restaurants. In the last few months,
however, the operations center has managed to make enough nips and tucks to lift
that average to 10.
“Control is Disney’s middle name, so they have always been on the cutting
edge of this kind of thing,” said Bob Sehlinger, co-author of “The Unofficial
Guide: Walt Disney World 2011” and a writer on Disney for Frommers.com. Mr. Sehlinger added, “The
challenge is that you only have so many options once the bathtub is full.”
Disney, which is periodically criticized for overreaching in the name of
cultural dominance (and profits), does not see any of this monitoring as the
slightest bit invasive. Rather, the company regards it as just another part of
its efforts to pull every possible lever in the name of a better guest
experience.
The primary goal of the command center, as stated by Disney, is to make
guests happier — because to increase revenue in its $10.7 billion theme park
business, which includes resorts in Paris and Hong Kong, Disney needs its
current customers to return more often. “Giving our guests faster and better
access to the fun,” said Thomas O. Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and
Resorts, “is at the heart of our investment in technology.”
Disney also wants to raise per-capita spending. “If we can also increase the
average number of shop or restaurant visits, that’s a huge win for us,” Mr.
Holmes said.
Disney has long been a leader in technological innovation, whether that means
inventing cameras to make animated films or creating the audio animatronic
robots for the attraction It’s a Small World.
Behind-the-scenes systems — typically kept top secret by the company as it
strives to create an environment where things happen as if by magic — are also
highly computerized. Ride capacity is determined in part by analyzing hotel
reservations, flight bookings and historic attendance data. Satellites provide
minute-by-minute weather analysis. A system called FastPass allows people to
skip lines for popular rides like the Jungle
Cruise
.
But the command center reflects how Disney is deepening its reliance on
technology as it thinks about adapting decades-old parks, which are primarily
built around nostalgia for an America gone by, for 21st century expectations.
“It’s not about us needing to keep pace with technological change,” Mr. Staggs
said. “We need to set the pace for that kind of change.”
For instance, Disney has been experimenting with smartphones to help guide
people more efficiently. Mobile Magic, a $1.99 app, allows visitors to type in
“Sleeping Beauty” and receive directions to where that princess (or at least a
costumed stand-in) is signing autographs. In the future, typing in “hamburger”
might reveal the nearest restaurant with the shortest wait.
Disney has also been adding video games to wait areas. At Space
Mountain
, 87 game stations now line the queue to keep visitors entertained.
(Games, about 90 seconds in length, involve simple things like clearing runways
of asteroids). Gaming has also been added to the queue for Soarin’, an Epcot
ride that simulates a hang glider flight.
Blogs that watch Disney’s parks have speculated that engineers (“imagineers,”
in the company’s parlance) are also looking at bigger ideas, like wristbands
that contain information like your name, credit card number and favorite Disney
characters. While Disney is keeping a tight lid on specifics, these devices
would enable simple transactions like the purchase of souvenirs — just pay by
swiping your wristband — as well as more complicated attractions that interact
with guests.
“Picture a day where there is memory built into these characters — they will
know that they’ve seen you four or five times before and that your name is
Bobby,” said Bruce E. Vaughn, chief creative executive at Walt Disney
Imagineering. “Those are the kinds of limits that are dissolving so quickly that
we can see being able to implement them in the meaningfully near future.”
Dreaming about the future was not something on Mr. Holmes’s mind as he gave a
reporter a rare peek behind the Disney operations veil. He had a park to run,
and the command center had spotted trouble at the tea
cups.
After running smoothly all morning, the spinning Mad
Tea Party
abruptly stopped meeting precalculated ridership goals. A few
minutes later, Mr. Holmes had his answer: a new employee had taken over the ride
and was leaving tea cups unloaded.
“In the theme park business these days,” he said, “patience is not always a
virtue.”

Copyright. 2010 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved

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