Pecos Bill and the Prisoner's Dilemma
Published: October 8, 2009 at 12:07 PM
Walt Disney World is testing a new seating policy for some of its counter service restaurants, including the wildly popular (i.e. crowded) Pecos Bill in the Magic Kingdom. Under the new test, people can't send some of their group to save a table while the others queue to order. Instead, a group must wait until they have their food, then a Disney cast member will find and show them to an available table.
Every Disney visitor has witnessed this scene before: Dozens of families circling a dining area, heavy trays in hand, searching for an empty table. Meanwhile, a near-majority of tables are occupied, not by diners, but by other families waiting for their food.
Indulge me slipping back into geek mode here, because this is precisely the sort of social dilemma I studied in college. It's a theme park variation on the classic Prisoner's Dilemma: everyone acting in his own self interest creates a situation in which everyone is screwed.
One family figures out that if they send some folks ahead to save a table, they'll be guaranteed a place to sit in the busy restaurant when they emerge from the food queue. But taking that table forces another family, with food, to wait. Seeing people waiting for a place to sit, more families entering the restaurant send folks ahead to save tables. So more people with food end up having to wait.
Eventually, you've got a restaurant of people without food sitting at tables and people with food walking around, looking for a place to sit.
The solution is to keep people without food from claiming tables. That doesn't guarantee every family emerging from the food window an immediate place to sit, but it does guarantee "maximum seating efficiency" - that all the tables with be filled with people who are actually eating.
A few months ago, I submitted a tip that people should wait until they have their food before sitting, but readers soon voted it off the page. Which is understandable. Any individual who opts to behave this way is just putting herself at a disadvantage. Her family will be waiting longer with food, because every other family will have sent someone ahead.
No, the only way to make this system work is to have some outside agent enforce it, so no one can claim a table early. (Ultimately, these social dilemmas are why societies need occasional government regulation.) So Disney's now done that.
The trick, of course, is having cast members who can swiftly identify empty tables and move people toward them, while keeping "cheaters" out of the way. If Disney's CMs fail, then complaints will grow, and Disney likely will return to the old "land rush" system. But if they can, this should be a more efficient system in terms of keeping tables filled with actual diners.