The week between Christmas and New Year’s is magical. You get the free Christmas parade in the Magic Kingdom. You get the awesome Comedy Warehouse Holiday Special in Disney Hollywood Studios. You get the deafening Holiday Tag to Illuminations. And this year, we even finally got the Florida heat to finally – FINALLY – give way to cooler temperatures, even if only sporadically. But you also get soul-jarringly dense crowds. It seems like wall-to-wall people sometimes, with expectantly long waits at the rides. And yet, the sharp-eyed visitor will notice something: not every space in the parks is actually being used. For operational reasons, they aren’t truly maximizing every square inch, and in some ways they aren’t even operating on all cylinders, despite the crushing Disney crowds.

Yes, the parks are open later. Yes, they open eateries that sometimes sit dormant until this season (Tomorrowland Noodle Station is a prime example). You know it’s busy when they offer THREE showings of Fantasmic! per night, as they did on Sunday night. They are even running Mickey Mouse shorts in the former Sounds Dangerous building, so it is most definitely busy. It sure LOOKS like they are using every inch they can.

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December 30, 2013 in the Magic Kingdom

 

And yet we get Exhibit A: the end of Mickey Avenue. Pixar Place now dominates the long street called Mickey Avenue, but at the far end, where Backlot Tour is, there is very little “Midway Mania” effect or spillover of crowds, especially at night. We were astonished as we walked by Backlot Tour at 6:45 to see that it was closed down and roped off–is this a daytime-only attraction for some reason? Are there no lights on the sets of Catastrophe Canyon? I don’t remember this being a daytime-only attraction when Disney-MGM was new in 1989 – is my memory off? Certainly I’ve seen it closed in the evenings before over the years (see the picture below) – but surely it would stay open late during the very busy holiday week?

We were headed to the little bar (High Octane Refreshments) there next to Studio Catering Company, and a few moments after we got our drink, got a second shock when it, too, closed down. I peeked around the corner, and Studio Catering Company was also shuttered. It was now 7:00 (mind you, the park that day closed at 11pm). I assume – but didn’t verify – that the nearby Honey I Shrunk Playset was closed too. The entire corner of the park had its atmosphere lights on, but nothing was open.

This was pretty astounding in many ways. The Osborne Lights were so close, we could SEE them from our vantage point at the bar. Just up the street, people were waiting 90 minutes for a chance to fling digital pies in Toy Story Mania. It was one of the busiest operating days of the year, and yet this little corner was quiet and deserted.

mickey avenue 2007-11-04-2965Photo of this area from 2007 (before Midway Mania was here), one hour before park closing. Shouldn’t it be different these days? Wasn’t TSMM supposed to rejuvenate this corner of the park? 

Animal Kingdom has extended hours in this season (until 9pm), but even that says something when you think about it. Why should DHS be open until 11 but DAK only until 9? The answer is pretty obvious: there are fewer attractions at DAK to support such late hours. The standard answer about animal attractions needing to close at dusk is true enough, but that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the answer: there isn’t enough to do otherwise. Put another way: if you wanted to make DAK a full-evening park, you would recognize the animals can’t be tapped for this and you’d build more all-day things. They haven’t as yet (hopefully Avatar will change that) and as a result, DAK closes at 9pm while the Magic Kingdom bursts at the seams. These two parks are not equivalent experiences, and the holiday week is a prime time to see DAK’s weaknesses when compared to the Magic Kingdom.

Speaking of the Magic Kingdom, they really do seem to open every square inch of the park. Well, except for an outlier here or there, such as Aunt Polly’s on Tom Sawyer Island. This snack stand used to be open all the time, then only in summers, and now it won’t even open on the busiest week of the year. It’s not that there are fewer crowds. And with FastPass+ mixing with paper FastPass in this park, you can bet the crowds are in the sidewalks and not in the queues (especially compared to years ago, when Polly’s was open all the time and there was no FastPass), so there aren’t a lot of explanations for why Polly’s is closed except that they don’t want to open it. My educated guess is that the establishment may make a BIT of money, but when compared to other things (like outdoor vending carts), it simply makes less money on the margin. When you stack up “labor percentage of sales” and “sales per labor hour” on a place like Polly’s, it just LOOKS less profitable than your average popsicle stand on wheels, at least on paper. It serves a different purpose and different kind of food, but to realize THAT, you have to be standing in the park watching, not working from spreadsheets in an office somewhere away from the park. And guess who makes these decisions?

Tortuga Tavern is open, though! Yay! Is it ironic we are now cheering when they open up places to sell us things? Shouldn’t these things just be open all the time like they once were?

But hold the applause a bit. Seems this pirate-themed eatery might be a bit different in this incarnation. It’s not counter-service right now, but rather an all-you-can-eat buffet. The cost is advertised as $45, which includes the mandatory gratuity and taxes.

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First of all, why is there a mandatory gratuity? You get your own food from the chafing dishes, so it’s a setup similar to Sweet Tomatoes and other buffets. You are essentially tipping for them clearing your table. It’s worth noting that there no mandatory gratuity on other MK buffets like Crystal Palace.

Speaking of which, Crystal Palace was $41 (before tax) for dinner when we looked on the same day Tortuga Tavern opened. That’s roughly the same price after you factor in tax, and yet Crystal Palace includes characters! So we are really comparing apples to pomegranates here, and yet they carry the same price tag.

Needless to say, Tortuga was NOT crowded when it first debuted. We saw all of one family there 45 minutes after it opened on the first weekend. We checked back on December 30 and saw a few more this time, but the place was definitely way less crowded than the surrounding area.

More crowds on December 30, 2013 in the Magic Kingdom
More crowds on December 30, 2013 in the Magic Kingdom

The culprit in all this is the one-two punch of insufficient park experiences (either because there aren’t enough or they are too stale/old to be interesting to the masses) and operational desire to maximize profit. The attractions being boring, old, or otherwise not a draw leads to crowds abandoning certain areas, especially after dark. Want proof that Backlot Tour is on its last shabby thematic legs? Look at the lack of displeasure that it closed so early. No one seemed to care! It also helps that Disney wants to steer the crowds into only certain areas at night in DHS: Osborne and Fantasmic! being the main receptacles. Long before MagicBands, Disney was a master at pushing the crowd to one area. Part of the reason is that they can save money by closing down other areas, such as the Backlot Tour and the surrounding food establishments. Everything they do now is calculated to maximize profit: save money where they can by closing things, and otherwise open new things with higher prices that they hope will bring even more money (Tortuga Tavern, I’m looking at you).

In the background: a 60-minute line for Pirates. In the foreground: one of a few CM's hawking Tortuga Tavern Buffet menus (there were about five families inside eating)
In the background: a 60-minute line for Pirates. In the foreground: one of several CM’s hawking Tortuga Tavern Buffet menus (there were only about five families inside eating)

When I hired into Disneyland in 1987, my training and inculcation (let’s be honest: brainwashing) included a story about Walt expressing displeasure with the popcorn carts allowing their visible mounds of popped corn to dwindle as the night wore on. One sees the logic of the popcorn-maker. It seemed logical both to avoid the extra work (first you have to make the popcorn and later you’ll have more to throw away) AND to save money by not spoiling food, but Walt would have none of it. He wanted the carts to be full of popcorn even at a late hour, because he didn’t want his Guests to feel like the park was pushing them out, or that the night was symbolically coming to a close. Instead, he wanted them to feel like Disneyland was always a welcome place, right up until the last minute of the night. They were trying to get us into a certain mindset at the Disney University; namely, that the Guest experience is paramount. Show really is supposed to come before Efficiency (or as they called it in those days, Capacity. What it really mean is Profit).

Over in Mickey Avenue, they don’t just “dwindle supplies” as the ending draws near, they actually close down. FOUR HOURS before the park does, no less. Can you imagine Walt stumbling across that one?

I wonder if new hires still hear the story about Walt and popcorn carts?