Home » 5 Ways Disney’s Operations Are Making Their Parks Worse, Not Better

5 Ways Disney’s Operations Are Making Their Parks Worse, Not Better

Magic Kingdom Hours

If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, then you likely have a hard time going to regional amusement parks around the country. They’re fun, yes, but they always seem to have something … missing. 

There’s actually quite a few things missing, really, when you compare the two. For one, background music tends to be a bit less atmospheric. For another, theming often gets neglected or even removed over time. But the most glaring difference, in my mind, is with the level of care and dedication within the operations team.

It’s really hard to run a theme park or an amusement park. With so many people trying to do all the same things at the same time, managing those crowds effectively while ensuring everyone has a nice time requires the herculean efforts of a team of thousands. It’s an intricate dance, making sure each vehicle is loaded and dispatched swiftly, deploying parades and shows at strategic times to lure guests away from crowded areas, turning over tables and areas so the next set of guests can enjoy the same experience. For decades, no one has managed that task quite as well as Disney.

But, while many things at Disney have been getting better and better, for some reason, operations seems to be in the midst of a bizarre overhaul. Perhaps it’s due to the sudden transition of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts President Bob Chapek into the CEO role for the entire company. Perhaps it’s due to some other invisible force. But, whatever the cause, what’s clear is that the parks feel more crowded, lines feel longer, and the general level of smoothness has dramatically declined.

Why? Let’s look at a few possible reasons.

Decreasing Park Hours

Magic Kingdom Hours
Image: Theme Park Tourist

For most of Walt Disney World’s history, when you bought a park ticket, it was a pretty simple concept. You gave Disney money for a one-day ticket, let’s say, and they gave you a piece of paper that gave you access to one of its parks for the entire day. If you wanted to show up right when it opened and stay until it shut down, you could do that. If you wanted to arrive at noon and go home in a fit of exhaustion at 5:00, you could do that too.

But, over the last several years, Disney has made the concept of “park admission” ever more complex. Now, when you buy a ticket, there are several caveats: Is there a hard-ticket event in the morning of evening that my ticket won’t let me into? Have I purchased a ticket for the right theme park? Is this ticket I bought actually good for the day I’m at the park?

Moreover, Disney’s parks have, for years, had long hours to accommodate as many guests as possible. On some days, parks have opened just after sunrise and don’t close until well after midnight. But, recently, it seems like such days come less and less.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in particular, has been the center of many of these frustrations. Despite opening the most popular theme park expansion on Earth with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the park itself rarely stays open past 8:30 PM. This, when the Magic Kingdom also rarely stays open past 10:00 PM – the latest closing time during this busy season – actively makes the parks feel more crowded, as guests are forced to cram their tours into smaller time frames. 

Cutting Showtimes and Shows

Star Wars fireworks
Image: Theme Park Tourist

The main reason Disney has had such good operations for years while regional parks can’t keep up is actually pretty simple: Good operations cost money. It’s much easier to employ highly trained staff in several shift segments when you’re one of the biggest entertainment companies on earth. It’s a much harder task when the bottom line for your company is missing a few zeroes.

But, the curse of modern market economics requires even the most successful companies to show not only that they make a lot of money, but that they’re making more money today then they did a few months ago. And so, once you’re as big as Disney, you start having to shave off costs in uncomfortable places.

One such spot is in Walt Disney World’s entertainment offerings, which are dwindling by the month.

It’s actually pretty interesting. You see, attractions obviously cost an awful lot of money to construct, but once they’re built, the costs of running them are relatively small (usually). Shows and entertainment are a bit different, because while the startup cost is much smaller than an attraction, the ongoing cost of talent can make a show feel more expensive to run. Obviously, a band performing in the Morocco Pavilion isn’t anywhere near as expensive as Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run to operate. But, fewer people also engage with it in a day.

So, to some in the company, it’s a question of value-added, and as such, a lot of shows have gotten the axe in recent years, or have been scaled back in how often they’re offered. The problem with this is that shows and events often pull guests away from other headlining attractions, keeping the crowds more evenly distributed throughout the parks. In fact, this was a promised innovation of My Disney Experience when it was launched – Disney argued that it could see where crowds were getting too heavy and deploy a spontaneous dance party or parade to an area nearby to entice guests to spread around more evenly. That never came to pass.

Yes, the parks feel more crowded today, and it’s because guests tend to go to the same handful of experiences – in part because there’s simply fewer things to do overall. 

Defocusing on High-Throughput Attractions

Universe of Energy
Image: kathika, <a href="https://flickr.com/photos/kathika/2452112671/">Flickr</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">license</a>)

One of the biggest factors in guest satisfaction is how many rides they experienced in a single day. While those of us who fancy ourselves experts at navigating the parks can hit upwards of 15 or 20 attractions in a day without breaking a sweat, first-time guests often report woefully low numbers. One of the biggest reasons for this is, of course, waiting in line.

Disney has, throughout its history, masterfully figured out ways to increase throughput in its attractions to absurdly high levels. Carousel of Progress, for example, was designed specifically so that as many guests as possible could see a lengthy stage show. Yes, the rotating theater is fun – but it’s also practical.

But, when you look at Walt Disney World, it’s kind of scary to realize that its five highest-capacity rides were all conceived right around Walt Disney World’s opening if not long before. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority, Carousel of Progress, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, its a small world, all boast large capacities – and two of the five were designed over half a century ago.

Disney still can build high-capacity rides. Soarin’, despite its lines, is a relatively large loader, and the Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror’s clever ride system enables high-throughput of far more guests than you’d expect.

But gone are the days of Disney innovating in the areas of capacity. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run has roughly half the capacity of Carousel of Progress. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, despite seemingly accommodating larger groups, isn’t actually that much higher. Now, yes, intimate ride experiences often have lower throughput, and that’s a tradeoff that’s worth it on rides as magical as those two. I understand that.

However, Disney has gone all-in on these types of rides, at the cost of people-eaters like the Universe of Energy and even the Studio Backlot Tour. That’s to say that those rides shouldn’t have been replaced, but Disney should be far more concerned about overall attraction capacity than it currently is.

What is the Point of Fastpass?

Fastpass terminal
Image: Theme Park Tourist

When Fastpass first launched at the Disney Parks over 20 years ago, it was hard to grasp how it was possible. Even more than that, it was so absurd to think that the service was free that many guests opted not to use it, thinking it was somehow too good to be true. But, the underlying system made a lot of sense: Instead of waiting in line, you stood in line virtually – returning at the same time to ride as you would have, if you had stood in the standby line.

That was, at least, the theory. In practice, the existence of FastPass slowly changed guest behavior over time. As awareness of it spread, guests would enter the parks and head straight for a ride not to ride it, but instead to get a FastPass for it. Return times would quickly balloon, and popular rides would see distribution completed by early afternoon. FastPass changed guest habits, and warped how the system was supposed to function.

So, when the company revamped the system in the middle of the last decade, the goal was to more evenly spread guest wait times out throughout the day. However, the resulting system has created a kind of chaos for most guests visiting the Disney Parks. Tier systems, ride exclusions, and different systems overlapping make a trip to the Parks more akin to doing your taxes than planning a vacation. Not only do you need to book your FastPass+ reservation months in advance, but you also can only do so for certain rides. Once you’re in the park, you can also book a separate boarding group for some rides, or run to a queue for another ride. In all, the simple concept of “waiting in line” is more confusing than ever before.

What is the point of all of this? Originally, the goal of FastPass was to reduce idle time and let guests use that time instead for other pursuits. Sure, standby queue waits increased slightly, but it was worth it because guests liked being able to skip the line on occasion. Modern FastPass+, however, seems to have altered this calculus. Guests now often wind up with FastPass+ reservations for rides they don’t need them for, and end up waiting much, much longer than they should be for other headliner rides.

Disney has always been a place where research and expert knowledge help, but the gap between a first-time neophyte and a seasoned vet has never been higher, and that’s an operations failure.

Increasing Ticket Prices

Ticket Booths
Image: Theme Park Tourist

I know, I know. It’s simple supply and demand: If the parks are too crowded, Disney should increase ticket prices to reduce demand. And, to some extent, it has worked.

But there is a downside to this proposition, and it’s the simple fact that when someone pays a high cost for something, they expect it to be worth that increased cost. Now, with the preceding operational issues, it’s not hard to walk away feeling like you’re paying a lot more than you used to but you’re getting a whole lot less.

Operations aren’t just there to increase efficiency for efficiency’s sake. They exist so that guests can feel like they’re having a good time and getting their money’s worth. That, in turn, makes them want to come back again and again and tell their friends to do the same. Disney is generational; we enjoy its movies and parks, and we teach our kids and loved ones to do the same. There’s a reason children today know who Simba or Ariel is, and it isn’t the new live action films.

As long as Disney is asking guests to pay top dollar for access to its parks, it needs to provide a top dollar experience. This is, of course, Apple’s model – one of the few companies that outscales even Disney. Disney is trying to replicate that model of luxury goods at luxury prices, but what it doesn’t understand is that you cannot cut back on areas that guests or customers engage with directly. If a MacBook were confusing to operate, or if it constantly needed to get fixed, or if you kept having to pay more and more to use it at certain times of the day, Apple would be worth a fraction of what it is today. Disney, unlike Apple, can weaponize nostalgia, but nostalgia only works when you have something to be nostalgic about. When you’ve priced out so many people, there’s a lot less nostalgia to go around.

Operations are the most important infrastructural part of Walt Disney World, and they have noticeably declined over the last several years. Now, the man responsible for those operations has been elevated to the highest role in the company. The effect that will have cannot be known today. For now, we wait.

And we can’t get a FastPass+.