Disney Wait Times Are Among The Most Transparent Service Numbers Anywhere

How often does Amazon fail to deliver Prime shipments in two days?  I have no idea -- I know it has happened to me sometimes, but they don't publish the metric.  What is the average wait time on the phone with the IRS?  We don't know.  What is the average wait time at a TSA checkpoint?  We don't know.

One thing we most certainly do know, and can know any time on any day, is the current wait time for any Disney ride.  I bring this up because some goofball in the Obama Administration made this absurd statement trying to justify the lack of transparency for VA wait times:

When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Bruce McQuain rightly points out the downside of a longer wait for Space Mountain is just a tiny bit lower than the downside of waiting for heart surgery.

But I want to add that this statement is not even close to being factually correct on its face.  Here is an example of a site that has Disney ride wait times in real time, but there are dozens of apps and sites with this info because Disney makes the data public in an API most anyone can access.  (My favorite is Touring Plans, which has built a whole Disney trip planning business on top of Disney published wait time data -- as an aside, if you are a Disney fan or future visitor, you should join).

But I would go further.  I know for a fact that Disney spends a ton of time internally planning and improving ride throughput and capacity entirely with an eye to reducing wait times (and also, by the way, to making design changes that make ride waits more enjoyable with in-line activities).  They have a sophisticated operational research staff working on this all the time, and they are constantly tweaking their Fastpass system which would not even begin to work correctly if they did not understand ride wait times down to the second decimal place.  And by the way, if their management found out that some folks in their organization were fudging line wait time data, I am pretty sure the offenders would not be working there any more (as they are at the VA).

Postscript:  I am still amazed by the fail here.  Anyone who has been to Disney even once will know that all wait times are displayed all over the park on boards, and that at each ride, every few minutes a customer will get an electronic card at the beginning of the ride that precisely times their wait.   Seriously, where do they get folks like this who can blithely utter nonsense as if they know what they are talking about.  The whole premise is screwed up.  Yes, good service companies measure overall satisfaction. This is marginally useful data, but what does one do with it?  To really fix and improve the experience, one also has to measure many important bits of the experience.  Saying that one should pay attention to only one output metric and nothing else would get you laughed out of any quality course I have ever been to.

Update:  Also, I would add that there is a lot of market pressure on the wait time issue pushing Disney to improvement on lines, market pressure that does not exist on the VA (which is one reason they totally lack any accountability).  Disney has its FastPass system for helping guests manage ride waits, but both Universal and Six Flags have their own different systems (Universal has a higher level ticket you can buy that gets you preferred access to all rides, Six Flags Magic Mountain has a pager system where you tell it which ride you want to do next and they page you when your place is ready).


  1. Not Sure:

    "And by the way, if their management found out that some folks in their organization were fudging line wait time data, I am pretty sure the offenders would not be working there any more (as they are at the VA)."

    Can't speak for today but it's a fact that in the past, fudging line wait time data would not get you fired.

  2. SamWah:

    Government bureaucracy is the worst-case example, in part because it is so hard to fire someone.

  3. Matthew Teague:

    I want to relate a story about Disney to highlight this post.

    While I was working on a project there, they were expanding fantasy land. They had studied things and realized that the worst situation was at the Dumbo ride... a simple but iconic ride in a plastic dumbo elephant that works like a merry-go round that can also go up and down.

    Guests were waiting in excess of 80 minutes out uncovered in the heat during peak times in order to ride Dumbo for approximately a minute and a half. Not only did Disney double capacity by building a second identical ride next to the first. They also built a large air conditioned room JUST so that the line for this attraction would be covered and cooled.

  4. Solomon Foster:

    To be completely fair, I've been to Disney World four times, and I don't remember any sort of wait time board. Of course, the last time I was there was 1996 -- things may well not match how I remember them. (1996 me would be utterly shocked that I have not made it back since, mind you, but that's the way life goes sometimes.)

  5. herdgadfly:

    In comes the mathematics of Queuing Theory, practiced all over the U.S. by Hospital Emergency Rooms to keep their facilities from getting super backed-up. Every ER has a string of billboards on major thoroughfares to advise wait times at this very minute.

    Rite Aid set up their pharmacy operations to improve prescription filling times and then put pressure on by guaranteeing maximum wait times of 15 minutes .

    Supermarket data permits good stores to man checkout stands with the right number of cashiers in the right locations, thus minimizing overtime through time scheduling and making customers happy.

    This stuff ain't new

  6. mesaeconoguy:

    The VA statement is stupid on its face, as Disney does indeed do extensive study on queuing, and traffic flow, and pretty much everything else (including optimal distance between garbage cans to minimize trash and litter). It is how they developed the Fastpass system, which creates secondary delayed queues thereby reliving some peak traffic issues.

    It is exactly because you don’t always have to wait in gigantic lines for extended lengths of time which makes the Disney experience superior to almost all other parks.

    [Disneyland now has a real-time app for your phone displaying wait times for rides, restaurants, and other useful info.]

    Anyone making the egregiously stupid comment above does not belong in a leadership role in any organization, anywhere. It is further proof that government has attracted the most ignorant and least talented in the country.

  7. randian:

    I don't know about Disney, but many parks deliberately maximize wait times in some circumstances. By that I mean on "slow" days they run fewer lines into rides (they might have only one attendant instead of two or three), shorter trains, and fewer trains. You would think that you could get stellar wait times on "slow" days of the week but in fact you can't.

  8. Kurt Droffe:

    And, to state the obvious: if my experience at Disney, for one reason or another, is unsatisfactory, I won't go there anymore and they lose money. If a veterans "experience" with that government agency is unsatisfactory, he simply cannot leave. At least Disney seems to have a clue about how to achieve customer happiness; nice that they seem to start (!) thinking about that at the VA.

  9. Dan Wendlick:

    The wait tip boards have come and gone. They were deemed redundant by the smartphone app, which is now indispensable when visiting Disney World, and didn't fit into the décor and theming anywhere but Tomorrowland. IIRC, the last of them in Epcot were removed this spring. I will also admit to letting others get ahead of me in line at Space Mountain because I was playing the video games along the wall.
    What the VA seems to have missed is that the wait time is probably the strongest lever on managing the experience scores, other than outcome which has too many uncontrollable variables to manage effectively, as in how sick are the patients when they first present, etc. What happened was that due to a lack of oversight, the employees at the field level quickly realized it was far more resource-effective to game the systems than to provide better service.
    Disney also has a band of what are referred to as "White Shirts", basically roving supervisors who have the job of making sure the rules are being followed., the trash is getting picked up, and everybody is smiling. At the VA, this was supposed to have been the function of the Inspector General's group, but it appears that the focus of this organization came to see its function as protecting the institution rather than the patients.

  10. marque2:

    Never had that problem at any of the amusement parks I have been to. Though I understand having less staff mid week.

  11. Dan Wendlick:

    There is an optimal queue length that balances resources and manpower against rider satisfaction. There is also something called "buzz" or "bustle" that the operators try to maintain. Put simply, a guest may decide that if there isn't a line for it, the ride probably isn't very good.

    Many of the larger attractions at Disney have multiple load points which an be placed into or out of service as waits require. Pirates can be loading or unloading up to 4 boats simultaneously, for instance, and Space Mountain has the Alpha and Beta bays (really two separate mirror-image rides under the same roof). Many of the "spinner" rides have different run programs that vary the length of the ride depending on wait as well.
    This is actually the source of the wits on some of the older dark rides, like Peter Pan and Whinny the Pooh. The older designs do not allow for the multiple loading options, and the capacity is limited by the loading time.

  12. Andrew_M_Garland:

    Comparing the VA to Disneyland is stupid. The VA method of reporting statistics is evil.


    === ===
    [edited] VA starts counting from the day a scheduler returns a veteran’s call or request for an appointment, according to the GAO.

    Draper said the VA should count from the day a veteran calls to request an appointment. Subtract the VA wait time estimate from the GAO wait time estimate, and you conclude that some veterans are still waiting weeks just to get a response to their appointment request.
    === ===

    It is not evil to measure overall satisfaction rather than one characteristic. But, I expect that the exit question would be "what quality of care did you receive?", ignoring other factors. This would be survival bias, literally. The VA might be delivering good care to those who eventually make it to an appointment, but too little of that good care.

    McDonald is asking wistfully to be measured according to his best managed statistic, rather than according to the problem that he and congress were supposed to solve. He may be a goofball, and he is also the top executive of the VA.

  13. jimc5499:

    I occasionally have dealings with the VA. One thing that is usually not mentioned is that the VA is a two tier system. One tier provides the care and one tier decides who gets the care and when. In my experience, once I get past the tier that decides who and when, the care has been excellent. There is an movie that came out in the 80's, "Article 99". It is supposed to be a comedy, but, has more truth than they realized. I've seen the VA system up close and personal. I am having to go there for complications from injuries that I received in the Navy in the 80's and my Father was in a VA Nursing Home from 1974 until he passed away in 1990.

  14. mlhouse:

    This is the health care system that the liberals want to foist on us.

  15. MB:

    Well....actually....IRS wait time statistics[1] are found with just a little googling. As are TSA wait times[2]. It's also not entirely clear[3] that Disney has an official API for times, versus some free market reverse engineering and scraping going on (likely a TOS and possible copyright violation that Disney currently chooses to ignore).

    And, Disney does fudge wait times for operational concerns[4]; of course, their concerns are less to do with oversight than customer experience so they tend to overstate the wait times.

    Doesn't really invalidate your main point - comparing VA to Disney is pretty brain dead for a lot of reasons. Though McDonald is right - every metric can be gamed without improving overall care. Then again, he may be one of the many managers that still don't understand that, seeing as how he mentioned an overall satisfaction measure (which, of course, can also be gamed).

    [1] https://www.irs.gov/uac/taxpayer-assistance
    [2] http://apps.tsa.dhs.gov/mytsa/
    [3] https://www.reddit.com/r/Disneyland/comments/3070ld/disney_parks_wait_time_api/
    [4] https://www.mouseplanet.com/11037/How_Posted_Wait_Times_Compare_To_Your_Actual_Wait_In_Line

  16. Clare Steen:

    As for Universal Studios Florida, this article speaks to my experience. I last visited in the summer of 2015, and as of that date, Universal was also using their Express Pass as an incentive for people to stay in their on-site resorts: Most rooms at Universal Orlando resorts come with free Express Passes for your party. https://www.universalorlando.com/Hotels/Hotel-Guest-Benefits.aspx