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Pecos Bill and the Prisoner's Dilemma

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Published: October 8, 2009 at 12:07 PM

I tweeted this the other day, but didn't have a moment to raise the issue here on the blog, due to the Blackstone/Busch story sucking up nearly all my time. So let's give it a go today.

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.

Thoughts?

Readers' Opinions

From 217.39.10.114 on October 8, 2009 at 12:23 PM
I remember doing Game Theory in economics so see where you're coming from.

I think the Disney system will work well, as far as efficient seating is goes. My only real issue with it is that it's going to build up crowds around the serving area, with whole families waiting there rather than just a couple of members of the family.

From Bob Miller on October 8, 2009 at 12:31 PM
Sounds like a good idea Robert, since Zachary and I had often eaten at Pecos Bill. Like most others, I too would send Zachary to find a seat just as I was about to order. More than once by the time I had the food, he still had not found us a seat. Pecos Bill is a popular site to eat, and I've always thought there was not enough seating for the crowd, so I've stopped going there.

There's only a small area outside to sit, but it's a choice of last resort because with 95-100 degree temps, people are looking to cool off, not roast to death. Since we go down in the summer months, it's probably different at other times of the year, (sitting outside that is).

From 97.102.157.192 on October 8, 2009 at 12:34 PM
I think it's an excellent idea. I work at one of the theme parks and we would get tons of complaints from people who were mad that people were sitting there without food, especially those who were just sitting at a table enjoying a beer. Another top complaint is the ones who come in during the rain storm just to escape the rain and they aren't eating anything. Talk about mad people! Do you have a suggestion for that?
From Bruce Lane on October 8, 2009 at 12:45 PM
Looked at the site. Cringed at "Follow Shamu on Twitter" (which, as near as I can tell, is nothing more than another way to try and sell a brand with all the truth and substance of a bag of wet marshmallows). Even viewed Jim Atchison's self-congratulatory video.

In two words: Singularly unimpressed.

Sea World's physical plant, animal and veterinary care, are all pretty much beyond reproach. I've never had an issue with that part of their business. However, they still don't seem to have the slightest clue how to properly balance entertainment and education.

Granted, that could change. I'm going to give it a year or so, see what kinds of significant changes (if any) go into place as a result of the buyout (and no matter what the corporate spin-doctors say, there are going to be changes. It's inevitable with any sort of buyout), before I form any sort of revised opinion.

At the very least, it'll be interesting to see what 'Blue Delusions' and 'Deceive' are replaced with.

From 204.149.81.7 on October 8, 2009 at 2:11 PM
Think this is a great idea. The same problem happens at lunch time in restaurants in New York City where I live and work. One local restaurant, Gray Dog's--a great coffee shop/sandwich/salad/brunch place near NYU--has large signs asking you to "Avoid table hibernation during peak hours... Peak = Busy". The staff will ask you to move if you try to hold a table, sit studying or surf the web during the lunch rush. They won't rush you once you have your food, but they do want to make sure everyone who wants a table gets one. When it's not busy, it's easy going.

Contrast that with Chipotle in the Empire State building... as each order is created in front of you, the line can be slow moving at lunch time. So slow in fact that someone can sit down with their food, eat, and be getting up by the time another person goes through the line. Often I see a single person holding a table for fifteen minutes; meanwhile, multiple people are looking to sit and have no where to go. During those fifteen minutes, a table for four would have turned over and been ready for the table hog when their food would be. It's especially frustrating for single diners who don't have the luxury of a table squatter.

From James Rao on October 8, 2009 at 4:10 PM
Great idea...but I gotta ask: why in the world would anyone eat lunch when it is too crowded to find a table? True Theme Park Insiders know that you either eat a little before or a little after the normal lunch rush...never during! But for the layperson: great idea!
From 166.204.166.224 on October 8, 2009 at 4:47 PM
I think there may be some flaws in this plan that may aggrivate some families. The last time I ate at Disney it was not that crowded, but I took the then 8 year old and then 4 year old with me (thier uncle) while thier mom and grandmother purchased thier food and brought it to us. Why would I want to wait in line for food with two kids when I can go ahead and sit down and wait and not have the kids bumping into other people or possibly be aggrivated that they are waiting in a line just to order and eat food. Also, if more family members are waiting in line because they can't sit down (do they have to be in the line que to get a seat or can they meet later?) then would'nt that make the line que area's for food way congested?
I don't think I would want to eat somewhere where seating was that complicated. There were plenty of seats on the day we ate, and since I did not work at Disney maybe I am not seeing it from the same perspective. However, I don't think this plan is going to neccessarilly be one that satisfies everyone from a customer service perspective (I do realize sometimes you can't make everyone happy though). I see some people possibly being aggrivated because they can't sit down and wait and they may already possibly be tired and hungry. I think an important detail on this is going to be if the whole party has to go through the line to get the seats or not. If people are not allowed to grab a table while waiting, they still may prefer to stand or sit elsewhere with kids until the people ordering and getting the food for thier party has made it through the line.
From Anthony Murphy on October 8, 2009 at 7:30 PM
Solves many headaches, but I see guests abusing this alot.

Maybe I am just lucky, but is this really a big problem? The only place I have been that its been an issue was Tusker House at AK, but thats now changed.

I only see it for Pecos Bill.

And yes, I am part of that group that goes and gets a table first.

From Thomas Caselli on October 8, 2009 at 9:26 PM
I think it's a great idea. Disney should have done it along time ago. I have been to Walt Disney World many times. It is unfair for people with a tray full of food to not be able to get a table because there are tables with people at them that don't have any food yet. As long as the cast members keep up with it all, it should work out well. Disney has the best customer service around, so if anybody can do it, they can.
From Wok Creative on October 8, 2009 at 10:55 PM
I agree 200% that no one should be able to "reserve" a table when they don't have food yet. This is one of the most frustrating things at all theme parks. I wish it could be enforced better in all eating areas. Most of the people with food (that are searching) would be able to finish in time for those that don't have their food yet to take that same table after they have waited for their own food to be prepared.
More seating would always help the whole situation, as well as other nearby, shaded benches... that some are looking for.

There seemed to be more of an importance set on benches and rest areas when Disneyland first opened. There still seem to be plenty of places available in most parks to have more benches and shaded areas. This would help to solve (and seemingly inexpensively) the problem of rest areas as well as easing up the dining areas for actual diners.
Just MHO though, I guess.

Glad to see an attempt at trying to help out in one area - hope it works out and grows into a trend.

From 72.47.171.200 on October 9, 2009 at 4:14 AM
My concern is that no one seems to have thought about the other end of the equation - getting tables cleared. My family enjoys eating at a leisurely pace, sometimes returning to the counter to order something extra. How would that work? Would you be required to vacate your existing table and sit at a new one with your new order?

I also worry that it might lead to a rushed feeling while you're eating if CMs are constantly circling to see who's almost finished eating. Not conducive to a relaxed meal, if you ask me. Plus, I've never eaten at a counter service restaurant at Disney and been unable to find seating, even on busy days.

From Rob P on October 9, 2009 at 5:35 AM
If a group of , let's say for example, 10 people go into Pecos Bill's.

With the new system what we'll get is 5 people with cold food, 3 people with tepid food and 2 happy bunnies with hot food. Happy that is until their food goes cold too while they wait to :
1. Attract the attention of a member of staff
2. Wait while that member of staff searches for a suitable table
3.Wait until they get seated at the allocated table

If you're going to have counter service then you have to have counter serviceand if it's table service....well you get the idea.

We have a chain here in the UK that satisfies both. You may have it in the US too. It's called Nando's. They serve BBQ chicken.

The system there is this :
1. You get allocated a numbered table
2. You go to the counter and order and pay giving your table number
3. They bring the food to your table.

It's a bit of both. It solves the existing WDW problem. It uses no more staff than the proposed new WDW system. Everyonegets seated together and everyone gets hot food.

By the way Nando's BBQ chicken is pretty damn good too.

From Mostly Anonymous on October 9, 2009 at 9:11 AM
A nicer solution to the problem is to speed up the throughput of the nearby counter-service restaurant. If people get through the line and get their food quickly, then their group spends very little time sitting at a table without food. And as Robert notes, this reduces people's tendency to want to save tables.

So instead of adding a cast member to seat people at tables, add someone behind the counter to make sure the food gets out more quickly.

This was very visible at Disneyland a few years ago when food service was short staffed. Families began saving tables at eateries where it hadn't been an issue before.

As far as this experiment goes, I expect they'll end up having to make exceptions for families with young children. If you've got a kid or two in strollers, you don't want to take them through the food line - you want to sit down and start feeding them snacks and baby food while your spouse goes to get the meals.

From Stephen Landsman on October 9, 2009 at 9:21 AM
EXCELLENT IDEA!! I recently was the manager of a popular ice cream shop (where the staff would sing stupid little ice cream songs) in Hoboken, NJ. The store had a limited seating area of six tables with two chairs each. Often, I would find four to six tables occupied by people who had separated from their parties to hold the tables for their friends and families who were still ordering or else they would take the chairs from other tables for their friends who still waiting on a long line... the result was angry people standing eating ice cream and rude people sitting and eating nothing. People seem to care little about other people's comfort. If and when I would try to enforce a "No Ice Cream - No Seats" rule, I would be cursed at or worse. I think the new Disney policy is GREAT!
From 200.109.106.155 on October 9, 2009 at 10:43 AM
I think it is a nice idea. A point to consider, though, is what to do if in your party are people with special needs (think pregnant women, senior citizens, parent carrying small children, etc.) and you need to have them seated before you get in line to order. Would you have a special waiting are for them?

Regards,

Luis Rodriguez

From Larry Zimmerman on October 9, 2009 at 10:50 AM
Of course, there's always Eurostyle, where people with food will sit where ever there's an open seat...regardless of who else might be at the table. Unless it's a "reserved" table, you don't table-squat in Europe...
From 209.203.77.11 on October 9, 2009 at 12:55 PM
A Restaurant in San Diego called Phil's BBQ has a great system preventing squatting. There is a greeter that guides people to a register where each customer orders their food. There is staff that cleans up after customers, BUT also helps customers find seats. These staff members also prevent people from squatting or inefficiently using large tables for a small group.

Once you have placed your order, you are given a buzzer that only works within the building. The same kind of buzzer used at some restaurants to tell guests that their table is ready, but in this case, their food is ready to pick up.

Only if you have a buzzer at your table are you allowed to sit down.

The customer service at Phil's BBQ is unreal, and is definitely much better than most sit down restaurants that have waiters. This prevents people from getting rowdy or into arguements about seating. Their "crowd control" is excellent, sometimes even better than Disney's.

From 76.26.235.32 on October 9, 2009 at 2:23 PM
We were a party of 6 when came across this system in operation at Pinocchio's Village Haus at the Magic Kingdom on a crowded day this past July. A CM handed us a menu as we got on the one long line that fed into several banks of cashiers. As soon as we picked up our order, another CM showed us to a table. The process was orderly & efficient from start to finish. It was a perfect case of the right & left hands each knowing exactly what the other was doing.
From 166.204.174.217 on October 9, 2009 at 4:10 PM
I like the system that Rob P mentioned where you get a table number, place your order and then someone brings your food to the table. I would like this system if it keeps everyone in the party from having to go through the line to make the order. Even if they can't sit at the table until the order is complete, atleast maybe they can stand elsewhere (say if they have kids in the group) or sit on a bench somewhere if possible.
The only sit down meal I remember having at Magic Kingdom last time was at a place that seemed to have plenty of seating and it was not that busy of a day so this really was not a big issue that day. I think if the resteraunt would have been that crowded so that this would have been that big of an issue, I would have wanted to not eat there and possibly eat at a different resteraunt or just get some street vendor style food. I don't usually expect a great dining experience with theme park food places, so it would be rare for me to want to eat at a certain food place in a park enough for me to want to have any possibility of the dinner being a hassle due to it being packed or whatever if I can avoid it by eating at a later or earlier time or choosing a different place. If the place is that impressive, then hopefully they will do some sort of reservations system and I will have known about it enough to have made reservations.
From 173.171.53.228 on October 9, 2009 at 5:16 PM
I find fascinating all the comments from people (including Robert) who are jumping to conclusions and judging this process without actually experiencing it. I have news for you. The Orlando Sentinel, pinnacle of journalistic integrity that they are, was late to the story. In fact, Magic Kingdom quick service restaurants began testing "controlled seating" more than a year ago. It's been in full effect during peak dining periods for at least 10 months now. I have personally experienced the system twice, and it made a world of difference. My family waited in line together and talked about our experiences so far that day (no different than waiting for an attraction). After getting our food, we were directed straight to a Cast Member holding a little character sign (Stitch at Cosmic Ray's, Pinocchio at the Village Haus). They then guided us to a table. On one visit, I decided to go back up for dessert, but that wasn't a problem.

Disney's been operating the most successful theme parks in the world for a very long time. They may not get everything right every time (nobody's perfect), but I applaud them for taking steps like this to continuously improve their Guests' experience.

From 70.80.9.31 on October 10, 2009 at 11:18 AM
And where are those family members going to wait while one individual in the party is ordering? Outside?
From 68.202.157.75 on October 11, 2009 at 9:49 AM
I think Disney does not need to regulate what guests do in this situation, since many of these practices are for the guests own benefit and developed over years of park attendance and experience. Leave well enough alone. First hardly any guests come to the parks by their onesies. Therefore almost everyone can assure they have a table or place to sit and eat while the food is still warm (not hot) except maybe the very rare one person visiting guest. Second, the current practice keeps mobs of people who have no need to be in the food line, out of the food line. Lastly, if a cast member needed to hold people up and not allow them to sit when they wanted to sit, it would be viewed as an infringement on personal liberty and also create a lovely long line with all sort of extra guests again standing instead of resting at a second line (waiting to be seated) while their food is getting cold. I think the whole idea is ill concieved and will certainly alienate most guests unnecessarily under the guise of efficiency. Guests on vacation do not like to be governed. They do manage to adapt and make due with limited space to sit. When a family enters Pecos Bill's it is not just to eat. They are satifying several needs besides hunger. They can sit down in and air-conditioned environment for a small amout of time and recharge their "batteries." Disney has all but eliminated the park benches that used to be found all over the parks, so a sit down at Pecos Bill's now serves multiple needs. Standing and waiting in a second line after getting the group's lunch is not something they will look forward to. I for one will forego park food altogether instead of looking forward to waiting in, not one, but two lines, so Disney can pay lip service to some indefinable need or complaint by a few who aren't bright enough to go with the flow and leave someone to secure a seat like the rest of us do. In sum, BAD IDEA !!

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