Pecos Bill and the Prisoner's Dilemma
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.
I remember doing Game Theory in economics so see where you're coming from.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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?
Solves many headaches, but I see guests abusing this alot.
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.
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.
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?
If a group of , let's say for example, 10 people go into Pecos Bill's.
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.
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!
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?
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
And where are those family members going to wait while one individual in the party is ordering? Outside?
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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