Back in his first Presidential run, Bill Clinton caught fire with voters partly for identifying what actually mattered to the voter rather than his opponent’s narrative, and the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” would forever be enshrined in the popular culture. In the Disney universe, the same phrase (or rather, a variation of it) was all I could think about when seeing last week’s Disneyland attendance numbers on the MiceAge update. Only it’s not the economy. The big elephant in the room at Disneyland is capacity. The parks look and feel so jam-packed not because attendance has risen so much in recent years. Rather, it’s a series of mostly-operational decisions that is causing the overcrowding.

First, the numbers. As seen in last week’s MiceAge update, Disneyland and DCA were crowded during the Christmas week (with most APs blocked) and even more crowded right afterward. Here’s a snippet:

January 4th, 2017

  • Disneyland Park Planned Daily Attendance – 56,000
  • Disneyland Park Actual Daily Attendance – 64,500
  • Highest In-Park Attendance at 4:00 PM – 49,000
  • DCA Park Planned Daily Attendance – 39,000
  • DCA Park Actual Daily Attendance – 45,000
  • Highest In-Park Attendance At 5:00 PM – 31,500

Total Combined Annual Passholders for 1/4 – 52,000 (more than a tenfold increase in APs from the prior week!)

As the MiceAge article points out, FastPass is a big part of the problem, and that will only increase as they add more rides to the FastPass system once the for-sale MaxPass app goes online. In additional to FastPass, I can think of three other reasons the park capacity has suffered: fewer restaurants, fewer rides overall, and the operational decisions that create on-paper optimization.

I was fortunate to have my Orientation day as a new Cast Member in 1987 fall on Disneyland’s birthday. They fill you with pixie dust at Orientation, you know, and one of the things they said that stuck with me was how proud they were of the recent park attendance record they had just set on July 4: 87,000 total visitors (they did not share what the maximum “in park” visitor count was). It was an easy number to remember: 87,000 in ’87. So I think back to that number when I read modern reports like last week’s. 64,000 total attendance at Disneyland is only 75% of the 1987 record…and the park has added Mickey’s Toontown since then, so they’ve actually increased physical acreage. Yet the park seems more crowded than ever, despite coming nowhere close to the record. I’m going to use 1987 as a barometer, then, to see what’s changed in the park.

We already mentioned FastPass. I’ve been saying this since I happened to be at Disney World for the first-ever test of FastPass in 1999: the proper way to think about this technology is that it creates a clone of you. There’s now the digital version of you “standing in line” for Star Tours, while the real you also wanders the pathways (creating overcrowding) or stands in a different line like Pirates of the Caribbean…which also creates crowding. After so many years of online debate I don’t think anyone argues to the contrary anymore. FastPass just creates crowding.

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I do think a full reservation system done weeks in advance, like you find at Walt Disney World, should be thought about differently from a theoretical perspective. With the paper ticket system at Disneyland, your digital clone doesn’t exist until you show up to get your paper FastPass. The return time is based on how long the line is (more or less). But at Disney World, where you get your return time weeks in advance, if you planned that far, it’s the other way around. The tail wags the dog in this case; it’s the STANDBY time that is variable based on conditions, not the return time. That creates some additional self-regulating. You might not want to stand in a 3-hour line for Frozen Ever After, and you opt for something different. I’d say on the whole the WDW system doesn’t create as much overcrowding as the DL system. True, there’s a digital version of you “waiting” for the FP window, and your real self could be in a different line at the time, but the self-regulation of the system by the standby variability creates some overall smoothness in the experience.

The next big reason Disneyland has capacity issues is another obvious one: simply not enough rides and experiences. You’d think at first this wouldn’t be true. In 1987 there was no Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones, or Mickey’s Toontown and all of its experiences, so shouldn’t the 2017 Disneyland be comparable? Alas, there are a number of rides missing in today’s park, by comparison.

Back then we had the PeopleMover, by all counts a “people-eater” that would get folks on and off quickly without much of a line (its very efficiency is partly what doomed it). I feel lucky to have videotaped (most of) the ride back in 1994.

We had TWO Autopia attractions rather than one. We had the Skyway buckets crisscrossing the park. We had the Motorboat Cruise in Fantasyland. All of the above are arguably “atmosphere” rides–the ones not tied to an Intellectual Property or indeed a story or narrative at all. And those are the ones we see the least of in today’s park.

We also had two Country Bear Jamboree theaters in those days (since Splash Mtn replaced it, arguably I could leave it off this list, the way Circle-Vision doesn’t need mentioning since Buzz Lightyear has replaced it).

In 1987, we still had people using the heck out of Tom Sawyer Island, arguably more than today. Possibly this is a result of who kids are these days, and how often they want to play outdoors. But I wonder too if this was a holdover from the early 1980s (and the decades before it). In 1987, the concept of an all-day passport was still relatively new, having been introduced only a few years before. The park had converted away from individual ride tickets, but had the paying public? I grew up in the area and can recall entire days being spent on TSI. Obviously, as a kid I didn’t pay any attention to how much it cost to do this, but in the 1970s we’re talking still a nominal fee to get into the park and a single ticket to ride the raft to the island. Such activity would have taken my family away from the narrow Adventureland walkways and the lines for Haunted Mansion and so forth, creating less of an overcrowding. This is one of the downsides to the move away from individual tickets, as it created perverse incentives that resulted in making some areas of the park less enticing to linger in. Now you’ve got “free” rides to rush to!

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Perhaps less noticeable is the fact that 1987 Disneyland had more restaurants than today’s version. They have added a couple in those thirty years (Toontown snack stands, Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port), but at the same time they’ve taken many more away, and not replaced them with a different food option. The list of removed eateries includes Tahitian Terrace, Plaza Pavilion, Carnation Plaza Gardens, Town Square Cafe, Space Place, and the Lunching Pad.

Reducing the overall roster of restaurants obviously increases the demand on the remaining restaurants, making them busier in fact (and thus of course, in “feel” as well). Is there more reliance on fast food now? Did people simply want to go slower 30 years ago?

In Orientation thirty years ago, they made a point to tell a story about Walt Disney educating a popcorn vendor that was letting the popcorn supply dwindle as the end of the nighttime approached. Walt wanted the public to see a fully-operational Disneyland at all times, not be reminded the end was near (plus, the product would be fresher).

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I think it’s a given such a story is no longer told to new employees. These days it would be seen as doubly-wasteful. You’ve got all that food which will have to be thrown away, for one. And more importantly, the popcorn stand wouldn’t even be open anymore. It would close along with the other fifteen popcorn stands not in the prominent location on Main Street. That one stand would stay open, serving the needs of the population remaining in the park. More efficient? Yes. It’s also self-regulating like we saw earlier. If people come across the stand and want popcorn, but see a depressingly long wait, they are likely to skip the whole thing. Disney will have lost “marginal sales” in the process, but on paper, anyway, they look extremely efficient. They’ve closed under-performing popcorn stands and made the remaining one earn profit the entire time. What’s not to like?

Something similar happens with the full-size restaurants. They close earlier now than they would have 30 years ago. Part of the reason is that the Walt-era mentality was still enshrined in Disneyland in 1987. Even though Walt had passed away 21 years earlier, his policies (and more importantly, the internal cultural reasons for those policies) had largely stayed in place at the park. Michael Eisner had joined Disney only a few years earlier, and he was focused on the studio and reviving animation much more so than the parks, so things were largely run at a status-quo level.

Over time, that attitude changed. The efficiency drive in international corporations caught up to Disney, and silly programs like the Empowerment Evolution took their toll. Efficiency became more desired, though it was the last of the “keys” to Disney’s success in their little mantra (“safety / courtesy / show / capacity,” as it was in 1987).

The drive for efficiency was there in the closing of restaurants, but also in attractions. Not just the late opening and/or early closing of attractions (though that, too). It’s also there in much less noticeable ways. If Disney can operate three trains on Big Thunder instead of four, they will often do so. Whereas the desire in the 80s and before had been to create a maximum guest experience by reducing lines as much as you can, the new story started to be to “optimize” lines. From a fiscal analyst’s point of view, running the maximum number of Big Thunder trains is wasteful. It costs extra money in worker hours, for one thing. And visitors have started to EXPECT lines either way. So the trick is now to optimize exactly how long the wait should be. We see versions of this in Orlando with the overall timing of vacation planning. It’s not efficient to have “off season,” so they schedule big events (cheerleader, marathon, festivals, free dining, etc) in such a way that historically slow periods are not slow anymore. They tweak staffing so that there is ALWAYS a wait for attractions. It’s just much more efficient. Having the parks be empty is not good business.

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They were reasonably good at this sort of thing even in the mid-1990s, when the world had barely moved beyond monochromatic green computer screens. Imagine the world of optimization now, given the Big Data they have, the automation, and the Internet of Things. In Disney World, Magic Bands and tracking have made it even more “efficient” (keeping in mind the term, as applied here, is generally not customer friendly).

So in the end, yeah, the walkways are more crowded. It’s a by-product of the existence of FastPass, the overall smaller roster of rides, the reduction of restaurants, and the optimization of everything. As Disneyland expands into MaxPass, it would be surprising if this trend did anything other than accelerate.

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Jump into the discussion below and share your thoughts! Counter-arguments are always welcome.