Disney Works Its Magic on Wait Times

Jan 06, 2011

By Tom Ryan

Walt Disney, already praised for its crowd control expertise at
its theme parks, is taking the managing of wait times to another level. The
investments come as park managers told The New York Times that
video games and smartphones are feeding "a cultural shift toward impatience."

Walt Disney World in Florida, a "Disney Command Center" under
Cinderella Castle uses video cameras, computer programs and digital park maps "to
spot gridlock before it forms and deploy," according to the Times article. Screens
depict various attractions in green, yellow and red shades to represent wait-time

If a "yellow" or dreaded "red" alert occurs, several
actions can take place:

  • Rides can be adjusted to handle the larger volume. For instance, the Pirates
    of the Caribbean attraction can send out more boats.
  • Disney characters (Mickey, Captain Jack Sparrow, etc.) can be sent to entertain
    people while they wait.
  • If one section (Fantasyland) is packed, a miniparade can be held in another
    nearby section (Tomorrowland) to shift traffic.
  • At restaurants, additional registers can be opened or greeters dispatched
    to hand out menus to people waiting to order.

"It’s about being nimble and quickly noticing that, ‘Hey, let’s
make sure there is some relief out there for those people,’" Phil
Holmes, vice president of the Magic Kingdom, the flagship Disney World park,
told the Times.

Longer-term tactics Disney has used to manage traffic have been determining
ride capacity at each location by analyzing hotel reservations, flight bookings,
historic attendance, as well as weather patterns. Its FastPass system allows
customers to skip lines for popular rides.

More recently, Mobile Magic, a $1.99
app, was introduced. Typing "Sleeping
Beauty" reveals directions to where the princess is signing autographs.
In the future, typing "hamburger" might reveal the nearest restaurant
with the shortest wait, the article stated. Video games have also been added
to some wait areas, such as Asteroid-themed games in the queue for the Space
Mountain ride.

Blogs following Disney’s parks predict wristbands containing
dense information (credit card number, favorite Disney characters, etc.) will
eventually create a quicker and more personalized experience.

"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," Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive at Walt Disney
Imagineering, told the Times. "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."

Discussion Questions: What lessons does Disney offer to retailers in managing
crowds and line waits? What are some obvious and less obvious ways retailers
can better manage checkout lines? Do you agree that consumers are becoming even
more impatient over line waits?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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10 Comments on "Disney Works Its Magic on Wait Times"

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Bob Phibbs
11 years 4 months ago

Great use of technology to humanize the experience. What retailer wouldn’t love the need to be able to create a diversion to control crowds?

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
11 years 4 months ago

Disney is masterful at making the wait for a ride or attraction part of the experience. And it seems they’re raising the bar once again.

Most retailers are more concerned with squeezing another dollar out of the consumer by funneling them past chewing gum, lighters and magazines. Even Walmart shows you video of product specials while you’re waiting to leave the store. Isn’t that a little late to show me what’s on “rollback”?

The answer for retail is to abolish the line entirely. Let the consumer check themselves out in the aisle or equip Associates with mobile checkout. Let’s end the misery once and for all.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
11 years 4 months ago
When it comes to food shopping, there are two caveats: the longer a customer stays in the store the more they buy and the quicker they check out the quicker they return. Yet for most supermarket shoppers there still remains the dreaded checkout. While self-checkout has allowed the shopper to have more control of the process, the data does not indicate that it speeds up checkout. While Disney continues to develop new technologies for its theme parks, supermarkets continue to frustrate shoppers. How about employing current technology like the Fast Pass concept? The shopper enters the supermarket, swipes her frequent shopper card, which analyzes the shopper’s purchasing habits and provides a separate checkout line with a range of times to check out. Obviously, the more the customer spends, the more precise the time assignment. We know checkout is a problem. This would be a terrific use of the frequent shopper card, namely, rewarding high-volume customers in ways more desired than simply a “free frozen turkey” during holidays. Technology is available to solve this key shopper… Read more »
Susan Rider
Susan Rider
11 years 4 months ago

Consumers are demanding. They want it their way and NOW. This is a great example of answering the main objection of Disney’s consumer and using technology to enhance the experience. Retailers can also do the same thing. Empower the managers to serve cookies and milk if the line is long. Give a discount; even a small one will show they care. Give samples away in apology. Kind of like the airlines; if they’re late because it’s their fault, drinks are on them.

Steve Montgomery
11 years 4 months ago

Queuing in an interesting issue. In our work we have found there are two types of “time”–real and perceived. Technology has long been used to impact perceived time going back to what was called Silent Radio (LED screen behind a cashier with various messages) to the use of TV as the gas island. The mention of self service checkouts not having a actual impact on waiting time illustrates my point because the fact the person is doing something (checking themselves out) does impact perceived time.

I agree it would be great to get to a point that the shopping basket handles the check out but for most people the impact on the time it takes will be limited by two factors–having to still pay and the bagging process. I can see technology solving the payment issues but groceries will still have to be removed from the cart and placed into something for transport to the home.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
11 years 4 months ago

The biggest lesson here from Disney is their recognition and commitment to the overall experience as their primary value equation. They are not selling rides and hamburgers, they are, in their case, selling family fun.

All retailers could benefit from taking a more holistic view of the customer’s overall experience. Too often, the focus is on, in order of importance: 1) the product, 2) the price, 3) checkout time, and 4) service levels. While it’s true that 1 and 2 are the reason the customer comes into the store, 3 and 4 are what bring them back as loyal customers.

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 4 months ago

Disney had this down to a science and then took it several steps forward. Imagine knowing flight bookings in advance can now lead to staffing levels based on it. The “eye in the sky” allowing them to know line/wait capacities then leads to opening more registers, staff increases to the areas, etc. It is amazing when you step back and think of the creative minds developing these systems.

The next line I began thinking of was in the grocery stores. Sure, some are using self check out lines now. Others are not. That brings me to a pet peeve of watching extra clerks or even managers watching lines increase and doing nothing, even as simple as adding baggers, to speed the process.

Bill Bittner
Bill Bittner
11 years 4 months ago
Anyone who has ever operated a cash register at the front end of sparsely occupied store knows the fallacy of “exponential arrival rates.” The fundamental assumption behind front end simulators for labor scheduling has always been that customer arrivals are independent of one another. But the lone cashier quickly learns that there must be some type of telepathy that sends the few customers shopping to the front end at the same time. It never seems to fail. Perhaps the customers are subconsciously happy to roam the store until they see the first one break for the front, then they all charge to the front in order to avoid the emerging line. One of the big advantages online retailers have is their ability to “shape demand.” Dell was one of the first to use customer incentives to shift demand based upon inventory. That special discount on the slightly larger disk drive is as often a result of inventory status as it is a manufacturer discount. Online retailers can also use this technique to shift demand. Brick… Read more »
David Biernbaum
11 years 4 months ago

So much of what Disney enacts for crowd and line control comes down to basic planning and common sense. Here are some basics that retailers could and should emulate:

1. The next person waiting should be the next person served. Checkouts should not be all based on luck. Consumers get frustrated when one line (not the one they are standing in) moves a lot faster.

2. When larger than normal crowds form have a system to bring in more “boats.” (Disney example)

3. When one consumer is occupying much more time than what’s normal, at all other consumer’s expense, have a system to remove them and deal with them separately.

4. Have someone available in every store that specializes in dealing with problems and issues.

5. Find a way to entertain people stuck in line. Better yet, put something out to “sell” to them!

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
11 years 4 months ago

Nothing is more frustrating that when you do to your local A&P or Kroger and there are 40 people in two lanes with 5 people standing around. I admit there is a huge difference between the two Krogers I attend. One in Anderson Township will open up more lanes as demand increased, but the one in Mount Washington will have people standing around as lines increase in length.


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