The Crush of Disney Crowds Masks Park Flaws

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Animal Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World

Tagged: ,

frontpagepic_KY

Published on December 31, 2013 at 3:00 am with 27 Comments

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.

IMG_5577

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.

2013-12-22-3869

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?

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida.

Browse Archived Articles by

27 Comments

Comments for The Crush of Disney Crowds Masks Park Flaws are now closed.

  1. As always Kevin, I enjoyed reading your column.
    Thanks
    Searl

  2. Yet we still pay full price for a full day. Our paid ticket allows us access until the park closes, that access should include everything.

  3. I was under the impression that the tram tour always closed earlier; at least that was the case during a trip of mine several years ago (2009?), when we walked back there only to find that entire end of the park deserted, since it wasn’t during the holiday season

    When the park first opened, I think they knew that it had limited possibilities for nighttime operation. I’ve heard stories that they knew it was only a half-day park, so they paired it with Pleasure Island and Typhoon Lagoon to add to length-of-stay without needing to invest as much in the theme park infrastructure. 25 years later, and it’s still suffering from it

  4. I remember riding the Backlot Tour at dusk, but not at night. I have some pictures of Residential Street with the lights on inside, so I know they are capable, but the sun was still out. But, I do know that the Honey I Shrunk The Kids playground closed down at night. And, why is this is this still around? Why hasn’t it been replaced or repurposed with a Bug’s Life theme. I loved the film and the 90′s, but this thing stinks of its own era.

  5. Thank you for the very interesting read, like always. They should really be maximizing everything they have at this time and to leave areas empty when others are packed seems wrong.

    Love reading quality WDW stuff on here, only wish there was more instead of the occasional article from you and Dateline Disney World.

    • Howdy DisneyDesi,

      You may not have noticed but we significantly ramped up our WDW coverage this year. On a normal week we’ll often have WDW content every day. ImagiNERDing on Mondays, Kevin and Parkhopper on Tuesday, Round Up and Dueling Disney on Wednesday, Park Wise on Thursday, Dateline Disney World on Friday, Weekend Update and Cast Blast on the weekends, PLUS Wakefield Report, Tim Grassey, UUOP, and guest columns scattered about. All focused primarily on Orlando parks and info. That’s about equal (or a bit more) than our Disneyland coverage. MiceChat is now a leading source of Disney World news and discussion and it’s our fastest growing content section.

      Keep on checking the site every day and we’ll keep writing!

      Dusty

  6. I agree completely, and I have a theory that there is going to be an abrupt drop-off in attendance at some point in the future that is going to catch Disney completely by suprise. I work in the travel industry, and the one big trend that emerged after the recession is that people stopped traveling to exotic destinations and started traveling closer to home. Travel to North America has skyrocketed since 2008, travel to places like Asia, Africa, or South America is virtually non-existant. I’m sure Disney has been the benificiary of this trend, but it won’t last forever. Eventually people will start traveling to those places again and attendance will go back to normal (pre-2008). However, when people really start noticing that Disney parks are not as good as they used to be and that Disney is charging them more and more and they’re getting less and less for their money, then they’re going to start looking around and noticing that there are a lot more options now that are higher quality and less expensive.

    • Don’t lump Disneyland and California Adventure in with the DisneyWorld Parks. The DLR has never been better. And if they didn’t raise the prices then everyday would look like the crowded pictures above.

      • Very true.
        Disneyland is making the most of their limited land and trying to serve the guests well.
        WDW is shaking down wallets in attempts to drain guests of their cash without giving anything new apart from more revenue centers such as restaurants, snack stands, stores, photo ops and rockwork.
        This will catch up to them as guests leave the parks feeling underappreciated and that the value they received was poor. This will take a while but critical momentum will have an appreciated affect.
        The most knowledgeable theme park guests already know this is true. The laggards will come to this over time and the last 2-3 “WDW can do no wrong” folks will never come to this truth because they are blind due to this due to their working for WDW or significant others do.

  7. Excellent points above, Big D. Indeed, right now Disney is effectively cashing in on their reputation and the fact that most Americans don’t have a passport. But as the economy turns around, and Universal adds more and more value at their parks, Disney is going to have to scramble to compensate. And the whole Magic Band thing certainly isn’t it!

    If we look at the current situation at Walt Disney World, it’s not good from any long term perspective. As a guest, we want more attractions and more food options. As a stock holder, we want better maintenance of the existing infrastructure and more investment in future growth. Disney must spend money to make money long term. They cannot continue to cash in on the ignorance of their guests, as a travelling carnival would operate.

    Word will get around that things are lacking at Disney parks. Then it will be very difficult for Disney to turn around this perception. As I like to say, people will stay home in droves. Or they’ll simply drop their money at Universal parks or overseas destinations.

  8. Thanks again for another great article. As a person that grew up with 1am closings for Disneyland, I can definitely relate.

    Disneyland used to bounce back to life after the fireworks and Electrical Parade, as if a calm happened during the show and then the park caught its second wind. A 1am closing really meant 2am as you could still hop on a ride right before closing and grab something to eat on the way out of the park.

    Now if feels like Disneyland is in shutdown mode starting at 10pm. I wonder if the only reason they stay open until midnight is to prevent a 10pm stampede after the fireworks.

    Even worse is the walk of shame after the second World of Color show. The dark and definitely not magically exit half an hour after the park closed is not a good closing memory.

    • Agreed, it would be nice for some longer park hours in DCA.

    • I completely forgot that Disney used to do that. As a child (I’m almost 40 now), I remember fondly the warm, magical feeling of leaving WDW and everything was in full operation mode even after the clock said Disney was closed. That feeling left me believing that the Disney parks were still “alive” even after the people left.

      With the parks shutting down before closing time, it just feels like a mall now. During my first trip to DLRP in Sep 2009, I saw a row of cast members shooing out guests away from Phantom Manor toward the exit of Frontierland (or whatever it’s called). There was plenty of daylight left, but the park closed at 1900. It took me until just a year ago to see the park lit up at night and that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the new Disney Dreams show at the castle (which was phenomenal BTW).

      However, beginning last year, DLRP will not allow any guests to sit inside the ONE heated, indoor seating area at the park unless you buy their food. WEAK! WEAK! WEAK! It rains and is cold almost year round and I can’t have my family of 5 eat indoors unless I spend $20 on a burger, fries, and a coke? I had an annual pass for my last months in Europe, but I’ve had all I think I ever want with Disney. IF I can ever get back east to my home state of Florida, Uni is going to get my money.

      Disney–you’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The gig is up.

  9. If there were a demand for the Backlot Tour or Backlot Express after dark, Disney would keep them open. Especially with food locations, Disney doesn’t turn down the opportunity to make money.

    What happens is that Disney actually looks at their numbers. When a restaurant location starts to COST them money, rather than MAKE them money, it gets closed. They’re not doing it to rob Kevin of his magical experience. They’re doing it so they can stay profitable.

    So many people expect Disney to operate like a charity, eschewing profits for the pleasure of the guests. That is a completely unrealistic expectation.

    You can continue to complain about all the things Disney isn’t doing, but I’d rather see them turn a profit so they can continue with plans for a major revamping of DHS with Star Wars land, rather than just see them open an under-utilized counter-service restaurant.

    • I might agree if it didn’t cost me $100 to get in the door.

    • Uh no, wrong sir.

      Avatarland rumored to be PARTIALLY complete in 2017 is not supportingt the guests experience.

      THREE years and counting for a c-ticket kiddie coaster is not serving the guests.

      WDW has been successful, in large part, due to serving the dreams, memories, and hopes of it’s guests. Walt understood this and the profits came. You don’t understand this and niether does current WDW mgt which leads me to consider you are one of them.

      As guests are treated like wallets rather than treasured, appreciated GUESTS the gates will slow and profits suffer.

      Watch and learn the elementary.

  10. As a lead designer for Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas, nothing kills a guest perception more than a closed down space. For your regular guests, they notice when a space may be closed often and, in their mind, when it does re-open, it is viewed as a “secondary experience”. It’s too bad that Disney actually owns their properties, because if they were leasing every ride, retail space and food & beverage establishment you would certainly believe they would maximize their use. Who wants real estate that is not making money. Malls certainly don’t. Anyone been to the Burbank Media Center Mall lower level where the carousel is? Ghost town of retail space, yuck. One day perhaps, Disney will be lead by a showman again and then the experience becomes the whole reason for being.

    • Excellent point about closed down spaces. That’s why I consider DHS a secondary park and AK a day only park. The four park business model works if they maximize attendance and the real estate. They seemed to have decided the effort to earn money is not worth it. This is odd since the chance to earn money is “at the moment”. If the buffet costs $30, I’ll consider it. It is not surprising that they are tied to their own expectations than the customers.

      • It’s funny, I realize theme park prices have always been some of the highest prices you’ll pay for food & beverages anywhere (save Hawaii perhaps), yet at $45 a pop for the buffet..WOW. At my hotel, Wynn Las Vegas, our buffet is typically priced at $40 on an average day for dinner and IS one of the highest priced buffets in all of Vegas, however, it also includes crab, lobster, steak and more fancy desserts than you can shake a stick at. We are a Five Diamond rated hotel as well, so the price I suppose is justified. The line actually looks like Splash Mountain on a holiday like Thanksgiving too. Different guests I suppose, seeing WDW can only get five families in the door at their $45 price tag for much less.

      • @Haven: I stayed at the Wynn 3 times. It was a marvelous experience with the best rooms and the great food. The buffet is worth the prices, but I received complementary meals as a Red card member with highly discounted rates and free Le Reve tickets.

        Compared with Disney, Wynn is a bargain, but we know that gambling pays the bills. Disney should try harder especially as a premier attraction. At times, Disney can be awfully cheap, yet you pay for the neglect as if you deserve it. You don’t get my business from not trying.

    • I was on the opening team of Bellagio and I know Steve Wynn was (is?) a big fan of what Disney has done over the years in regards to theming and the guest experience. Now that I’m back in driving distance to Vegas, can’t wait to get back down there and try that buffet you reference below.

      • @ WesternMouse & StevenW:
        Would love to see you both at Wynn the next time you are in town. If you ever want a tour of our resorts from a designers point of view, let me know in advance of your visit and I can point out all the behind the scenes stories that went into the making of both Wynn & Encore. Speaking of Bellagio, we are currently hard at work on designing our newest resort in Cotai, China, just a few miles across the harbor from our sister resort in Macau. It will prove to be as massive as Bellagio and lavish beyond all reason :)

      • Haven–

        I’ll definitely take you up on the offer. I love that sort of thing. Having worked for Disney, I’ve always taken in design details. I shared all I was taught about the design of Bellagio to everyone who came to town. Love it!! I’d absolutely love to see Macau, but doubt I’ll ever be able to afford that plane ticket.

  11. [...] for Epcot's bag …Why go to Disney World on a busy, busy holiday?Orlando Sentinel (blog)The Crush of Disney Crowds Masks Park FlawsMiceChatNew Year's Eve: Disney World almost at full capacity as fans usher in [...]

  12. Great article. The most disturbing thing you are saying is that the guests don’t care and you are right (except for my family, I stopped going to Disney years ago). Disney can still keep rising prices each and every year and not invest in new rides or shows people care for and still make an enormous profit.
    On the other hand they showed to themselves that they can rebuild a park and make it as successful (and profitable) as Disney Land with California Adventure.
    They hear Universal saying after investing a bit of money creating Springfield that food spending went trough the roof and actually didn’t negatively impact food spending in other parts of the park. So WHEN you spend money WISELY to build stuff people actually CARE for they will SPENT MORE MONEY.
    But Disney spent money in timeshare buildings so they know guests will come for 30 years because they already plunked down an significant amount of cash. No need to build new rides. Just sell some limited t-shirts of attractions and rides you killed off and they are happy, or are they?

    • Teilo–right on.

      Disney has built a captive audience with their 99-year time share lease, so there’s no incentive at all to attract people to the parks. Disney is more interested in their real estate cash flow.

  13. Hi Kevin,
    Thought I would weigh in on Tortuga Tavern. From the article one would get the impression that the buffet was the only option. In fact, the ‘normal’ menu and service was offered through mid afternoon, with the standard closing time. The buffet was run by another team (I’m guessing Event Services or Catering) and opened at 5:00. I suspect the low crowd was due to the fact that the offering didn’t appear until mid December, so nobody knew about it when they were making their 180 days out plans.

    We did see it, and had ADR for the 30th; given the crowds in the park it was great to have something like table service rather than counter service food balanced on top of trash cans for lack of available tables. Turns out it was a very nice meal, in a rather quiet setting amid all the craziness.

    I do agree that the price and gratuity caught me by surprise…a bit higher than expected, but Disney does ‘surcharge’ at peak periods.

    All things considered, well worth it.

    Gary Brueningsen