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Guest Automation at Walt Disney World

Friday, April 13, 2012

One thing is for certain.  The number of guests attending Walt Disney World has increased over the years.  It seems the word is out that Disney World is a pretty cool place to visit for a family vacation.  With its continued and ever-growing popularity come crowds….Lot’s of crowds.  Gone are the days of “dead” theme parks where hardly any guests exist on a specific day.  When you visit one of the four theme parks you can expect the crowds to be there with you and swell throughout the day.


Disney is fully aware of how much more the turnstiles are spinning at its theme parks.  They also know how this is impacting the theme parks and, more importantly, the guest experience.   The number one complaint Disney World receives on a continual basis are the long lines and huge crowds at the theme parks.  In order to address this complaint there are limited options.  Disney could expand its existing theme parks in size and scope.  Some could argue they are doing this today with a few new attractions and the Fantasyland expansion.  Another option would be to build a 5th theme park, but that will probably not happen considering the cost and current scope of Disney World. 

Another option, which seems to have taken hold over the past 6 to 7 years, is to become more efficient with crowds and lines.  You see, if Disney becomes more efficient with their processes the end-result will be lines moving faster and crowds becoming more spread out.  Unfortunately, their attempt at becoming more efficient has bled over into the guest experience.  More and more we are moved through attractions, theme park tours, restaurants, and the theme parks themselves like robots.  That truly unique Disney guest experience is disappearing fast.  We are getting pushed through experiences like a ride vehicle through an automated attraction (Think Carousel of Progress).  Have you ever felt rushed during a table service meal?  Have you ever noticed how food is prepared in the back of a counter service location?  It looks more like a factory than a kitchen.  What about the Fastpass system?  One could argue the thought of getting told when to come back to ride your attraction is a form of automating the guest experience.  These are just a few examples of how Disney is manipulating our time and experiences at its theme parks and resorts. 

The Efficiency, Guest Experience, and Profit Tie-In

I have to give Disney’s top brass a bit of credit.  One of them (maybe more) has figured out by becoming more efficient with their back-end processes it will help solve two of their major problems; a potentially declining guest experience and increased profit.  By becoming more efficient in the theme parks and resorts guests can move more quickly through lines and crowds.  Let’s face it, a guest who is standing or sitting around is not spending their hard-earned money.  In order to move guests Disney has to make their processes more efficient.  If Disney can eliminate a step in a process it will ultimately save the guests time, and quite possibly get them to spend more in their theme parks and resorts.   If guests spend more all of a sudden profits are up and shareholders and Disney execs are happy. 

In some cases, it’s more about speed at Walt Disney World.  In order to make things quicker processes have to constantly be reviewed and refined to see if they can become more efficient.  However, the one X-factor in all of this is how changing the process will affect the guest experience.  I’m sure Disney is very careful at examining how a changed process will affect the guest experience, but in my opinion they are not doing so well.  Guests, especially repeat guests and loyal visitors, are noticing the lack of unique experiences.  We are getting moved through attractions, shows, and restaurants and other experiences as quickly as possible.  Sometimes too much speed and efficiency affects the show, food, or attraction itself.  And if you want that unique, personalized and more relaxed experience it’s going to cost you, big time. 

Manipulating Your Time and Location

As Disney theme park enthusiasts we love to plan.  Some of us go to the extent of planning every 30 minutes of each vacation day at Disney World.  There’s really nothing wrong with that if you enjoy doing it.  But, what if Disney gave you the option or advised you to plan your attraction schedule for each day of your vacation before you even left home?  Basically, your whole theme park day would be mapped out for you before you ever passed through the turnstiles.  If the rumored X-Pass plan comes to fruition we’ll be taking another huge step towards losing our vacation freedom.  We’ll need to arrive at specific attractions at specific times.  The spontaneity of our vacation will be far less than we’d like.  If the goal is to create memories at Disney’s theme parks how can that happen if just about every choice is already decided for us. 

Whether you know it or not there are times in Disney’s theme parks where you may be influenced to move towards a specific area of the park.  Disney has been testing over the past 2 years a system where they’ll kick off a parade or activate a character meet & greet based on crowd levels at certain sections of the park.  For example, if crowds and lines are growing rapidly at Big Thunder and Splash Mountain you may suddenly see Woody and Jessie appear just outside the Diamond Horseshoe for autographs and pictures.  The goal is to draw crowds away from the two attractions and spread the crowds out in an attempt to create a more enjoyable guest experience.  In most cases this is a good idea and can usually work, but the bottom line is we (guests) are directly and indirectly controlled where to go in the theme parks based on Disney’s crowd control processes. 


It’s difficult to put into words how Disney’s attempt at efficiency and refining its processes has bled over into the guest experience, but if you visit the theme parks enough and keep a watchful eye on what’s going on around you it’s hard not to notice other guests going through the exact same experience as you.  One could argue Disney is just trying to provide a consistent guest experience across the board, and that may be true, but there is a fine line between consistency and automation.  Guests shouldn’t be left to think they were part of Disney’s process.  They should feel like they were treated in a more unique and special way.  Just a quick analogy; there’s a big difference in taste between processed cheese and real cheese.  It seems lately Disney has been churning out processed cheese when guests really want the real cheese taste. 

What are your thoughts about your guest experience at Walt Disney World?  When you walk into one of Disney’s four theme parks do you feel like a cog in a wheel, or do you feel your experience is unique?  Do you think Disney does a good job at efficiency without affecting the guest experience?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please leave them in the comments section below or on the official Studioscentral.com Facebook page

The next time you visit one of the theme parks, or even a resort hotel try and take notice of how a lot of what you are doing is very similar to the person next to you.  In some ways it can make you feel like an assembly line part.  I love visiting Walt Disney World because I find their theme parks entertaining and magical, but I hope the Disney entertainment and magic doesn’t run me someday. 

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About this column

Aaron DelPrince looks at the various activities you and your family can experience at Walt Disney World


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