The happiest place on Earth is a little less happy these days.
For more than 50 years, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida has been the place to visit for families and big kids alike. Before COVID, the theme park resort attracted three million visitors every single week. The pandemic decreased attendance significantly, but according to park experts, the place is now bustling again, creating sometimes brutal wait times.
The issue is compounded by Disney’s attitude: Want to ride some of the park’s biggest attractions? Your alternative to waiting half a day in line is to fork out up to $15 for an Individual Lightning Lane, a bit of Disney vernacular for a queue jump. That’s per person, per ride, by the way.
“Disney World in particular has become something you have to plan for,” says Graham Brooks of Thrill-Data, a site that tracks amusement park ride wait times in real time. I’m going to Disney World for the first time in 15 years this summer; Brooks, and several other Disney line-time veterans warn me that my memories of just wandering onto Splash Mountain and the like will be just that — memories.
Third-party services like Thrill-Data, Touring Plans, WDW Passport, and the Twitter account Walt Disney World Wait Times are harnessing data pulled from Disney’s own API and combining it with their own intuition to try and eke out an advantage for their users. In so doing, they’re typically contradicting what Disney tells its customers via posted wait times outside attractions and on its app My Disney Experience.
“They definitely are not accurate,” says Ryan Austin, who runs Walt Disney World Wait Times. “They definitely skew about 20 percent higher than actual wait times. They do often use them as a way to pull people away from a ride.”
Doug Sisk, who runs WDW Passport, which offers live wait times, says that Disney usually inflates times by between 25 and 50 percent. The day before we spoke for this story, Sisk compared posted wait times with the actual times. “They were off by almost an hour most of the day,” he claims. (Disney did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Line-hacking has long been a strategy used by aficionados to try and make the most of their time at Disney World. In 1985, University of Kentucky operations research lecturer Bob Sehlinger released The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, a book designed to shave time spent waiting in line at the parks. Sehlinger wrote the guide after his own, frustrating trip to Orlando.
The Unofficial Guide comes out annually, and Sehlinger has since gained a co-author: Len Testa, who also runs Touring plans and an associated app, Lines, which users can pay for to access up-to-date estimated wait times for all attractions across Disney World. In a non-pandemic year, between 100,000 and 140,000 families use the paid version of the Lines app for their Disney World visits. “We think for certain rides, Disney’s internal wait times are overestimated about 75 percent of the time, but are underestimated about 25 percent of the time,” says Testa.
There are questions about why that is. Some say that Disney gooses its wait times to try and more evenly distribute crowds through the park and to avoid pinch points — the “they’re trying to make things better for everybody, at the expense of you, personally” school of thought. Others are more cynical, saying that wrong wait times are a ploy to get frustrated patrons to pony up for Disney Genie+, which gives them access to priority lines at some rides, and Individual Lightning Lanes, for the top attractions.
“They changed leadership, and they’re trying to recover those losses they had when their parks were closed” during the height of the pandemic, says Brooks. “Now they’re really trying to nickel and dime and get every penny they can out of the customer.”
There’s yet another line of thought: Disney simply doesn’t have the technical know-how to estimate times accurately.
Disney has tried to ease the pain of waiting at its parks with a recommendation algorithm of its own called Disney Genie. (For those struggling to keep track, Genie — no plus — is a day-planning algorithm; Genie+ is what used to be called Fastpass and gives you access to a speedier lane at many rides, called the Lightning Lane. The top-tier rides have a third process: the aforementioned Individual Lightning Lanes)
But almost everyone agrees the system is a mess. “It’s a joke,” says Sisk. “There really doesn’t seem to be any kind of actual algorithm that improves your day. This system is just seemingly picking out stuff randomly.”
Testa is more diplomatic. “One of the big flaws of Genie is that it will tell you to do things that either aren’t appropriate or that aren’t popular,” he says. “It’s a terrible experience for guests who are paying $110 to $160 to get into the parks.” The first thing an itinerary planning app should do is show you the things you tell it you want to do. “Disney doesn’t do that yet, which is a fundamental flaw,” says Testa.
“Because of COVID, Disney basically took the entire book and threw it away”
Lines — the app version of Touring Plans — claims to do that. Its forecasts are based in part on actual wait times contributed by people standing in line. It’s the theme park equivalent of Google Maps’ live traffic updates, populated using the plethora of data that people actively input.
Yet the models are only as good as the data, and the available information at present isn’t great. Brooks’ Thrill-Data has been pulling data from the My Disney Experience app since he first started analyzing Disney traffic flows in 2019. “When I started looking at the data, you realize the parks are pretty cyclical,” he says. “Things seem to happen the same time each day. The magnitudes may change, but a particular ride is probably busy at a given time.”
Brooks admits that there’s no foolproof method to accurately estimate wait times — but analyzing past trends generally proves more accurate than Disney’s own predictions. Ultimately though, it’s all a guess.
And, as Disney parks bounce back from the pandemic, guessing has become harder. Last month, Touring Plans had to overhaul its predicted crowd calculators for all Orlando parks because the old seasonal rules around park busyness just weren’t bearing out in reality in 2022. That’s because people are travelling in numbers that weren’t expected, but also because the post-pandemic Disney theme park operates differently than the days of old.
“Because of COVID, they basically took the entire book and threw it away,” says Sisk. The long-extant Fastpass system was scrapped by Walt Disney World in March 2020, removing years of knowledge of crowd flows, and was replaced with Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. “It’s kind of uncharted territory,” Sisk adds. “We’re there with everyone else trying to figure out how this is working and if wait times are accurate.”
Sisk doesn’t think there’s much that Disney can actually do about the problem, save for a bump in the price of admission. “I would think it would take at least a $50-a-day price increase to bring down crowds without negatively affecting the experience of the parks,” he says.
Having some sort of data-based app — whether the official Disney one or a third-party equivalent — is basically a necessity now for any park goer, says Austin. “They’re just so busy that if you go in there thinking you’re going to walk up to any ride and jump on,” he says, “you’re going to be sitting in line and waiting most of the time and will come back with a poor experience.”
Some would argue spending your time on your phone rather than watching out for Mickey and friends is itself a poor experience. Testa says he recently got an email from a user who tallied how much time they spent using the official My Disney Experience app. “Over five days, they said it was 22 hours on their phone,” he says. “It’s not great.”