Theme park cast member stories: Drowning under short-term thinking

January 25, 2010, 11:58 AM · Standard operating procedure for Walt Disney World's Tom Sawyer Island rafts dictated that the maximum number of people one should load on a raft is 55.

The most I ever packed onto a raft? 90.

Hey, why not pack on more? You're docked and folks have been waiting 10-15 minutes, or more, to get on a raft. So long as there's space, why not have a few more folks board?

If you can ask folks to push in tighter, to allow a few more people to get across on this raft, why not? After all, the more people you get on a raft, the more people you can get out of the line, and the shorter everyone's wait will be, right?

One of the great things about working in a theme park is how you learn that what seems obvious in the short term turns out to become a really bad decision on a grand scale. It seemed like a good idea to pack people into our rafts like a Kardashian in a cocktail dress. Sure, it might be uncomfortable for that minute or two crossing the river, but it's keeping the line down, right?

Actually, it doesn't. What happens when you put almost twice as many people on a Tom Sawyer Island raft than it was designed to carry? Well, it sinks.

Not all the way (at least not while I was driving). But it does start to take on water, to the point where people riding up front started climbing up the rails on the side of the raft to keep their feet from being submerged.

Heck, we even had a hand signal that cast members working the river attractions could use to tell a TSI raft driver that his front end was taking on water. (Hold you hand over your head, palm down, and pass the hand back and forth over your head.) When you saw the signal, you were supposed to slow down. At full speed, the water coming over the front created additional downforce on the front of the raft, causing it to take on even more water. Slow down, and some of that water would slide over the sides; the raft could straighten out a bit, and you could crawl across the river with less water rushing onto the raft.

See the problem now? With more people on the raft, we had to drive across the river much more slowly than we could have with a properly loaded raft.

Eventually, the light bulb turned on in my brain, and I decided to run an experiment when was I working as a lead. For one hour, we counted the people coming onto the rafts, and cut the load at 55 people. (This required stopping folks at around 45-50 and then asking for party counts, so that we didn't go over 55.) Then, we'd go back to the old way the next hour, then see how many people we put through each hour.

The results stunned me. We put through almost 40 percent more people running the lighter loads.

Why? Not only could we cross the river more quickly because we were running lighter rafts and not having to slow down for water, we were spending far less time in dock, since we weren't spending time asking people to pack themselves in to get a full (over)load. It was just load and go. Even though we were carrying fewer people per raft, we were able to make so many more crossings that our overall numbers were way up.

And no one got his or her feet wet.

It reminded me of a math problem I'd studied in college called the Prisoner's Dilemma. Most folks look at the Prisoner's Dilemma as a lesson in the futility of cartels. But it also teaches an important lesson about the costs of short-term thinking.

A few times during our experiment, the family with person number 56 would complain - pointing out a bit of extra space on the raft and asking why they couldn't cram aboard, too? When we held to our new policy, responding with a smile and a "the next raft will be here in just a minute," while casting off, the numbers stayed up. But when we acquiesced, then the person behind that party wanted on, too, and soon we were back to waiting extra minutes in dock to overload rafts... and slow crossings with wet feet.

So, as long as I was lead, we stuck with the "light load" policy. That summer, the Magic Kingdom West supervisors were running a content among the area's attractions - the one with the best performance in guest counts, guest compliments and "secret shopper" evaluations would win. When we were loading the rafts the old way, Tom Sawyer Island stood in last place among the attractions on our side of the park.

After changing our load policy, we soon moved into first place, and we ultimately won the competition.

For what it's worth, that summer on TSI was the end of my years as a libertarian: If someone isn't thinking about the big picture and the long run, and everyone's just doing what they want for the short term, we're all just going to end up on a drowning raft.

Be sure to check out the archive of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World

Replies (3)

January 25, 2010 at 3:03 PM · Is there also a factor in which the length of a waiting line serves as a deterrent to other guests choosing a certain attraction? If so, then any attempt to reduce wait times by packing the raft might be offset somewhat by additional guests entering the queue because it is no longer unattractive.
January 25, 2010 at 3:38 PM · Actually, to theme park attractions operators the number that's more important than wait time is the hourly count of guests who've gone through the attraction.

If an attraction is hitting close to the number of visitors that it is designed to put through in an hour, operations managers really don't care that much about the wait time - they're putting through everyone they can. If more people than that are showing up, well, there's nothing ops can do about that. (Except make a case for more building attractions, of course!)

The problem is when you're not doing hitting that number, and the number of visitors you're putting through every hour is far below your capacity. That was the problem we had on Tom Sawyer Island with the overloaded rafts - a really low percentage of "theoretical capacity."

So if we hit our highest possible capacity numbers, and that draws people from other attractions or off the street into our queue - fine. We'd rather have a 20-minute wait with us putting through 1,000 people per hour (for example) than a 15-minute wait when putting through only 500. Wait times are only held against operations managers if they're putting through a low percentage of their operating capacity.

January 25, 2010 at 6:58 PM · Well this is a good story. Tell you a story of my own. THis summer I went to hershey park and stayed on the property as a incentive to camp at their camp ground they give you a free shuttle to the aprk every morning. It started to rain on the way back to camp. everyone was running to the bus and trying to get on it. The driver of the bus decides to overload the bus by putting little kids on parents laps so that would free empty seats. This meant that he got more people on the bus and he overloaded this bus probably almost twice the limit because then those families that were extra put kids on laps and that fit even more on this bus. Bottom line is overlading is good in some ways expecially in bad weather.

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