Disneyworld: The art of managing frustration.

Or: how to make you pay premium for your own time

This article isn't usual for this blog, yet I think it's a a good study case. By deconstructing the tips and tricks used in many attraction parks, we can see how to deal with human feeling and at the same time, extract as much money as possible.

Let's start!

Disneyland / Disneyworld and other attraction parks

I'll focus on Disneyland/Disneyworld here, but what I'm claiming below can apply to many attraction park. In those parks, the main income for the park owner comes from the entry ticket and the goodies you're buying inside the land.

In order to maximize your income, you'll then try to:

  1. Find the maximum price you can bill for the goodies without being clearly outrageous. This includes food and souvenirs, but also immaterial items (like photo printing, right to skip queue, ...)
  2. Avoid any discount or cut on the entrance ticket price
  3. Maximize the image of your park so it's considered as premium and your insane ticket price feels acceptable
  4. Maximize the number of people you accept in the park

This article will not try to explain point 1 or 2, since they are pretty obvious. Just a note here: Disney make sure the low cost manufacturing in China for its souvenirs is locked for counterfeiting. You'll not find (at least, not easily) any items sold in the park elsewhere in usual Chinese wholesaler. So they are free to apply the margin they want.

How to maximize the number of people in the park?

Let's make a simple model here to understand the challenge.

Let's say you have two attractions that are able to consume 20 persons per hour. What is the maximum number of people you can accept in your park for a 10 hours workday ?

The obvious answer would be 2 * 20 persons * 10 hours = 400 persons. In reality, you can account for accompanying people, and also for people willing to try the attraction multiple time, but let's keep the model simple.

Yet, to make your attraction profitable, you need to run it with 1000 persons per day. That seems unlikely to match.

Well, unless the main attraction in your park is the waiting queue. This one cost nothing (except for one time fee when creating/decorating it). It can absorb most of the people you want (you just need to make it as long as possible but without being visible from outside).

In that case, let's say you add 2 wait queues for 30mn in front of your attraction. The storage area in the wait queue will be 30 persons. Instantly, you'll now have 50 persons per attraction per hour over a 10 hour workday, which account for 1000 persons per day.

Your operating cost is now covered and you can make profits.

Yet, in the former model, a person could make as many trips per work day as the attraction duration, but in the latter model, the maximum number of attraction one can do is only 20 (10h divided by 30mn waiting time per attraction).

You would think that no one would accept to pay a premium price for standing up most of the day waiting for, maybe, a total of 30mn of actual attraction time, but you'd be wrong and the real magic of Disney is here.

Managing frustration

The old adage says "Time is money". Usually, this means that you'll use your time to earn money.

Disney has succeeded reverting it: You'll use your time for them to earn money.

The more people in the park, the most profitable is the park. But since attractions only have a very limited hourly capacity, the main trick is to store as much people as possible in wait queues. Once some visitor is waiting in the queue, it's not consuming the park costly features (such as using attractions, or degrading the main street, or dirtying the toilets, both requiring cleaning). She's mainly paying premium for her own time doing nothing.

Yet, even with nicely decorated wait queue, visitors will feel scammed if you present the situation this way. So what can you do?

You'll use the following strategies:

  1. Make an application to list the wait time for each attraction. You appear as helpful giving this information for free. Finding the attraction with the least wait time becomes a game by itself, and running in the park to reach the minimum wait queue becomes a fulfillment for the visitor. She thinks she's beaten the system and is more willing to accept the upcoming wait time.
  2. Allow some visitors to bypass the queue. This is a costly premium, since it would be unsustainable to allow all visitors to bypass the queue. The visitors without the premium access instinctively sort themselves in the low end class. They are less likely to revolt against the system since they know they can't afford such privilege. This level of frustration is deemed acceptable by Disney. However, avoid making the VIP lane visible, in order to limit this frustration. It's different from knowing such thing exists and seeing this thing happens.
  3. Feel generous. Allow parent that can't perform the attraction (because of the attraction limitations in size or height or weight) to gain such premium access. You make them indebted for your grace, so they are unlikely to revolt. Please notice that this is a syllogism: when using of this privilege, the situation for the visitor is worse than without. In reality, the parent that couldn't perform the attraction at first will still wait the wait queue time plus the bypass time plus the attraction time. So it's actually consuming her whole family time here.
  4. Insert advertisement/distractions during the work day. When you run a parade or a public outdoor show, many visitors will stop or prevent their wait time, instead waiting for the show to start / perform / finish. This allows to save a good hour per work day. This is a net gain only if the parade/show operating cost is much lower than the attraction running cost (per visitor).
  5. Arbitrarily close some attraction and communicate about it. People will likely accept to spend more time on the remaining attractions since they intuitively understand that the number of visitor will increase for these attractions. Don't close too many attractions or people will feel scammed about it. A good rate is probably one or two attraction per day.
  6. Distract children. As long as children are busy (playing with some overpriced Chinese gizmo), the wait time feels shorter. Use as much color as possible, and as much sparkling and blinking stuff as possible.
  7. Use alternation of shady and sunny wait queue. This rhythms the wait when you're suffering from the sun and feels comfort in the shade. Use the most sunny area first before entering the shaded area so you feel some progress.
  8. Play dumb music / adverts for the attraction's theme. This sets up the ambiance for the attraction by distracting you from your waiting pain.


I think I've listed the strategies I've experienced in Disneyland park. Please notice that I'm not criticizing what Disney is doing or the quality of park by itself. Many attractions are excellent and very uncommon and are a technical engineering challenge to create and operate. There's a high imbalance between operating such attraction and the actual people rate it can deal with and Disney did an very good job to make this profitable. I hope this article explained the practical crowd management art that Disney used.

Feel free to comment if you think I've missed some of the tricks.

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