Contradictheory: Why do people queue for hours at Disneyland when they don’t have to?


  • Travel
  • Sunday, 21 Oct 2018

One of my relatives visited Tokyo Disneyland earlier this year, and experienced that magical thing that only people who are lucky enough to go to Disneyland get to experience: A four-hour queue for a four-minute ride.

Given that Tokyo Disneyland has a maximum capacity of 85,000 people – and occasionally has to close its doors because that many are in the park – it means that they all are crammed into a park measuring 46ha. To put it in more familiar terms, that’s roughly all the inhabitants of Pulau Langkawi crammed into Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, presumably on a busy Sunday.

The other Disneyland parks around the world have similar capacities (the one in Florida maxes out at about 100,000), so you can understand why crowd control is such an important issue. And Disney welcomes large crowds, because large crowds make them money. But people standing around in queues aren’t buying merchandise or eating at their restaurants.

How much standing around? In 2017 The Los Angeles Times analysed data from the website touringplans.com and concluded that the average Disneyland visitor waited an average of 24.4 minutes per ride.

Which is long, but not four hours long. How did that happen? Because attendance has peaks and troughs. Generally speaking, crowds are lowest when the parks first open (sometimes as early as 7am), and build up until about midmorning, staying steady until younger guests go to bed, and you have low numbers again (if the park closes late).

So the queues are very low, high and then gradually go down again. If there was only a way to queue without queueing. A way to “chup” your position in the line.

Unsurprisingly, there is a way. Disney calls it “Fastpass”. It allows you to book a timeslot when to go on a ride. So it’s as if you’re queueing to get on at a certain time, except you can go around and do other things until your allotted time.

Naturally, there are a limited number of spaces for each slot, but one thing it almost guarantees is that with a Fastpass, you won’t have to wait much more than 20 minutes to get on, usually even faster.

This is because Fastpass holders get to cut the queue. What you will usually see are two entrances to a ride at Disneyland, the normal one and one for Fastpass holders. The two queues will usually meet at a kind of junction manned by a Disney employee, and this person will let through many more Fastpass holders than those waiting in the normal queue (I’ve seen sometimes people let through at a ratio of 20-to-1).

This is what is really interesting about the way Disneyland does this: Other theme parks (like Universal) have something similar but you have to pay for the privilege, which sometimes effectively doubles the price of an entry ticket; however, Disneyland offers the Fastpass feature effectively for free (technically, in some situations you may be paying a nominal fee).

What this means is that the only real barrier to using Fastpass is your knowledge of how to use it. I believe the difference between those who use Fastpass effectively and those who don’t use it at all is just whether you have researched how it works. It sort of creates two classes of visitors to the theme parks.

Despite this and other strategies Disney employs, it seems that the average visitor at Disney only goes on eight to 10 rides in a day. However, somebody who understands when crowds are lowest and knows how to use Fastpass efficiently can easily double that number. In fact, extremely dedicated individuals challenge themselves to go on all 55 rides in one day in the Disney theme parks in California.

Those who don’t take advantage, frankly speaking, are not very clever people. Yet you still get long lines at Disneyland, sometimes for up to two hours. Why? Do the queuers not know about it? Or do they, for some reason, enjoy waiting in line?

Well, it seems the good people at Disney wondered the same thing originally as well. Fastpass was clearly working, with people getting on more rides and (more crucially) spending more money. But there were still people joining long queues. Why? The answer they, found out, was simple: Many of those waiting in queue already had a Fastpass, and were willing to wait in queue for their allotted time.

This surprised me. I assumed people wanted to minimise their wait times overall but I guess others felt that it was OK to queue in one attraction if you know you will skip the queue at the next. It reminded me that humans are quite bad at trying to maximise returns.

I did for a while wonder if something like this would be of interest to companies in Malaysia. I remember once about a phone company that literally had me on hold for 10 minutes before answering. If they had said, give us a 15-minute window when you would like us to call you back, that would have probably made my life easier.

Or even government departments. Immigration had already made great strides when they shortened passport processing times from a week to a single day. But if they could give me a time slot when they could guarantee my passport would be done in 20 minutes, it’d be even better. And its important to give that choice, that if you can’t make the window, then you have to join the general queue that takes hours.

Some may argue that Malaysians in general are not good at planning for appointments.

Certainly, my relative who waited in line for four hours did not know about the Fastpass system, and when he did find out, he decided since he had waited for so long already, he might as well just wait until the end.

Never mind, at least he was having a holiday of a lifetime at Disneyland.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.

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