How can Disneyland fit more guests into the park? With Stardust

January 24, 2019, 8:00 AM · Ever wonder how a jam-packed Disneyland is going to handle what everyone expects to be a rush of even more fans when the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land opens this June?

Disneyland's management has been asking that same question, too.

The crew at Team Disney Anaheim has been looking at Disneyland's crowd levels — and the impending arrival of Galaxy's Edge — the same way that a hard-living adult looks at their upcoming 30th (or 40th, or 50th) birthday, and saying, "Man, we can't keep living this way. We've got to start making some changes."

And so they have. For the past several years, Disneyland has been making over the park in its "Project Stardust," an effort to improve guest flow and show quality through the 63-year-old facility.

"When we look at this work, it’s all kinds of different things," Kris Theiler, Vice President for Disneyland Park, said. "It’s walkways; it’s pinch points; it’s stroller parking; it’s entertainment schedules."

With 18.3 million visitors in 2017, Disneyland is the second-most visited theme park in the world, behind only Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, according to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index report. And that attendance has grown 23 percent over the past decade, in a park that's just 60 percent the size of the Magic Kingdom, making everything in Disneyland a tighter and tighter fit each year. Galaxy's Edge will expand Disneyland by another 14 acres, but might push the park's annual attendance over the 20 million mark. Where will all those people go?

Disneyland invited me and five other reporters to tour the park with Theiler and Walt Disney Imagineering's Kim Irvine before it opened on Tuesday morning, to see the results of Project Stardust and to learn what's coming next to the park. We started on Main Street USA, where Disneyland last year replaced the horse-drawn streetcar track, encasing it in new brick pavement.

Main Street changes

With all Project Stardust enhancements, the goal is to fulfill better Disney's four-step manta of promoting "safety, courtesy, show and efficiency," Theiler said — the lesson that's the first thing drilled into new hires' heads at Disney's "Traditions" orientation classes.

The larger streetcar rail makes it easier on the horses pulling the cars, the two said. The new brick looks better than the old curb-to-curb asphalt, but it also provides better traction for the horses and won't divot like the asphalt did, they said.

For this year, Disneyland is turning its focus to the human beings who roll and push wheeled vehicles up and down the street. Construction walls are up in front of The Emporium and City Hall, where crews are installing curb cuts to make it easier for wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and strollers to access the street's sidewalks.

Disney's design team wanted to keep the curbing along Main Street, for both aesthetic and functional reasons, Irvine said. The curbs make Main Street look like a real turn-of-the-20th century street, and they also provide an easy-to-identify and convenient place for people to sit to watch the park's parades. But people using wheeled conveyances need more curb cuts to be able to navigate the street.

Main Street curb cut

Irvine noted some purely aesthetic changes that Imagineers have been ordering on Main Street, as well, including new paint for the Main Street Cinema, which now reflects the colors of Mickey Mouse: red and black, with yellow at the bottom, just like his shoes.

Main Street Cinema

Once work on Main Street is complete, Disneyland will start making changes to its hub. But don't panic, fearing that Disneyland will mow down and pave over everything the way that Walt Disney World did with its Magic Kingdom hub. Both managers stressed the importance of preserving the intimacy that distinguishes Disneyland's hub from the Magic Kingdom's.

Sleeping Beauty Castle construction

At the far side of the hub, Disneyland is currently replacing the roof on Sleeping Beauty Castle — necessary maintenance after years of loading the roof with various decorative overlays. Irvine also said that the castle's new paint job will retain its sweetened color profile, but will darken the colors near its base, to emphasize better its forced perspective. Once the scaffolding is installed to do that work, Disney will cover it with a scrim depicting Herb Ryman's second concept art for the castle (the one that shows its current front), preserving its value as photo opp for Disneyland visitors.

Ryman concept art

But I'm even more excited by the scrim that Disneyland has planned for the back of Sleeping Beauty Castle. That one will depict a life-sized Maleficent, breathing fire upon Prince Philip's shield. Disney's PR reps shared the concept art with us on the walk-through, but haven't approved it to share with the public just yet. It will be worth the wait. A castle-sized dragon, looming over Fantasyland? Now that's a photo opp I won't want to miss!

Beyond the hub, Theiler and Irvine pointed out changes that Disneyland has made in Fantasyland and Adventureland in attempts to improve guest flow through the often traffic-choked theme park. Managing guest flow through a crowded theme park is an act of both science and art. A few seemingly micro changes can return substantial changes in guest movement. The trick is finding exactly the right changes to make.

"We are doing things, then seeing what happens," Theiler said. "We want to see how these changes affect the experience in the park."

I learned this lesson during a summer working as a lead on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. By moving a few decorative crates on the loading dock and limiting the number of people on each raft, we were able to make more cycles per hour and increase the rafts' hourly capacity by more than 50 percent.

In Fantasyland, Disneyland is trying to achieve similar results by shaving a few feet from planters here and there and reconfiguring the flow of the Peter Pan queue, which routinely chokes traffic coming into the land from the castle.

Fixing the mess in front of Pan is an ongoing effort, but Disney already has seen great results from changing the queue at Dumbo. Imagineers and Disneyland's ops team moved much of the queue from the front of the spinner ride to an under-utilized path behind it. They then covered much of the queue and installed loading zone numbers on the pavement, to help speed the loading of the ride.

Dumbo queue

As a result, Disneyland opened up 10 feet of additional space for traffic between Dumbo and the Carrousel, helping relieve one of the park's most notorious pinch points, while also getting the vast majority of people waiting for Dumbo out of the sun and under shade and opening up better photo angles for parents watching their children on the ride.

Disney is hoping for similar success with its recent changes to the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Disneyland recently opened a new entrance to the Matterhorn queue, which it redesigned so that it will no longer wrap around the mountain in two directions, as it did before. Theiler said that Disneyland already has changed its Fastpass distribution for the ride to help alleviate the crush around it following parades.

Matterhorn entrance

Theiler said that Disneyland is issuing fewer Matterhorn Fastpasses for the period just after parades. That reduces the number of guests trying to get into the already-crowded area and also allows Matterhorn ride ops to draw more people from the standby queue immediately after the parade, limiting its overflow.

She confirmed that Maxpass has led to an increased use of Fastpass at the resort, especially in "shoulder" periods early and late in the day. As a result, Disneyland's operations team is adjusting its Fastpass distribution numbers frequently, to adjust to guest demand and even out guest flow throughout the park.

But physical changes still matter. A tweak to the planter at the entrance of Storybook Land now allows that ride to remain open during parades, increasing overall attraction capacity in the area. Moving the parade entrance near It's a Small World back a few feet allowed Disneyland to construct a new queue area that pulled guests waiting for that ride off the Small World promenade, clearing guest flow toward Toontown.

Stroller parking, however, continues to create problems for Disneyland. Eventually, the park would like to move guests toward using "stroller corrals" in each land, rather than willy-nilly drop-offs in front of each attraction. But where to place them?

Disneyland hasn't found the solution yet in Fantasyland, but it has one now in Adventureland. Theiler and Irvine walked us into that land to show some of the success that Disneyland has found there.

Adventureland entrance

One project yet to come is a redesign of the bridge into Adventureland, Irvine said. The elimination of a wing wall installed in the 1990s will help improve flow into and out of the land, she said. To help guide the redesign of the land's entrance, Irvine said that Imagineers are consulting Sam McKim's renderings, allowing them to return to a more classic look.

The opening of The Tropical Hideaway next door, which serves a wide variety of Dole Whips, is now allowing Disneyland to close the Tiki Room's Tiki Juice Bar Dole Whip stand during especially congested periods, clearing space on the bridge, Theiler said. (By the way, everyone, you must have your Dole Whips from the Tiki Juice Bar, you can get them using the mobile ordering system on Disneyland's app. There is no excuse ever to wait in that line!)

Personal opinion here: If Disneyland would just enable mobile ordering at The Tropical Hideaway, I don't see any good reason to keep the Tiki Juice Bar around at all, which would go a long way toward further easing guest flow between Adventureland and Main Street.

An open-air design for The Tropical Hideaway has helped create a much more expansive feel for the land, which no longer seems to hit a dead end as it did when that space was hidden behind the facade of Aladdin's Oasis. But the biggest improvement in Adventureland flowed from the decision to consolidate its merchandise locations.

That allowed the Bengal Barbecue to expand its seating area into covered space formerly taken by merchandising. That not only helped get people hovering over trash cans eating their skewers into actual seats in front of actual tables, it also allowed Disney to move a grab-and-go food stand next to the Jungle Cruise across the street into the new Bengal Barbecue dining area.

Adventureland

With the former grab-and-go area cleared, that provided the space Disneyland needed for an Adventureland stroller corral, clearing the once ever-present phalanx of strollers from the middle of the street. With the strollers moved and a few planters trimmed, traffic now can flow much more freely through Adventureland.

Much work remains, of course. Autopia will be getting some changes around its exit to accommodate better stroller parking. Yet, the old PeopleMover track stanchions continue to clog traffic in Tomorrowland, with no easy solution in sight. And Star Wars land surely will test Disneyland's Project Stardust efforts in ways that not even the most prescient managers can anticipate.

But as someone who walks around the park on a regular basis, Project Stardust has made things better, even if many fans don't notice the specific changes that made those improvements possible.

Replies (11)

January 24, 2019 at 9:40 AM

I think Disneyland is so much more thoughtful about the overall guest experience than WDW. I'm an Orlando local, but I'm really missing the real Space Mountain and the real Pirates of the Caribbean. Also, I'm really missing the roaming characters. Guess it's time to start planning another trip. Also.....corn dogs *drool*.

January 24, 2019 at 9:56 AM

When space is at a premium, seemingly small adjustments can have a big impact. We haven't been to DL since 2013, but the area I felt was the most congested was New Orleans Square. Not only are the walkways narrow and winding, but the paths to reach individual locations (like Pirates) don't make a lot of sense if you don't know where you're going. It's also a complete nightmare to navigate during Fantsmic!. There's probably not much that can be done there, but it sounds like they probably do the same thing with FPs for the nearby attractions as they noted with the Matterhorn.

It's funny, but whenever I see places make small changes like this to improve flow and efficiency, I think of John Tapper's "Butt Funnel" (Bar Rescue). It sounds really silly, but creating deliberate pinch points and relief areas can be effective in controlling crowds and maximizing revenue. There are "Butt Funnels" in virtually every Exit Gift Shop on the planet, usually accomplished through placement of racks and displays.

Overall, these are all small tweaks to currently accessible areas to make them more efficient and guest friendly. However, did you get any sense of what Disney will be doing in Galaxy's Edge to control crowds? Will they take the dramatic step of physically controlling access into the land to limit overcrowding?

January 24, 2019 at 10:04 AM

Any word on the rumored removal of the Astro Orbiter (currently closed for refurbishment with no reopening date) and the surrounding rock work and moving the spinner ride to the area in front of Space Mountain where the Tomorrowland Theater is currently located?

January 24, 2019 at 10:36 AM

No idea about Astro Orbiter, but it seems like such a crime to not put it back up on top of the structure that used to be the People Mover station. The heart of Tomorrowland is desperate missing kinetic excitement, and while this wouldn't completely fix that, it sure would help and it would also open up more space at the entrance to the land and around the hub.

January 24, 2019 at 11:32 AM

And yet, with all these enhancements, they still aren't addressing the People Mover. It sits there rotting in plain site! I wish they would either refurbish it and open it back up (ideal) or remove it entirely. Yes, I know it's costly and that it would be logistically difficult, but we're talking about the same team that somehow is building a 14 acre Star Wars land on top of what already seemed like a landlocked space. Disneyland knows how to maximize space, but the People Mover still defies reason and remains in place!

On a side note- if crowding is this bad now, how will it look in 10-20 years? It's not like it's getting any better, even amid price increases. I truly believe it would be crowded no matter the price point. Disneyland, unlike WDW, just can't easily increase its boundaries. I love both resorts for different reasons, but I feel that Galaxy's Edge will forever change that park in a way that we've never seen before.

January 24, 2019 at 11:34 AM

I totally agree Rob, the Astro Orbiter should be moved back up to it's perch above Tomorrowland.

January 24, 2019 at 11:53 AM

I completely agree with Rob and Shaun. the orbiter should be returned to the top of the people mover. The Rocket Rods were never a good thing but the people mover was a comfortable quiet ride and I think it should be returned, if not then remove everything on it.

January 24, 2019 at 11:59 AM

I was excited to read the first few paragraphs, but really disappointed to read how few changes are being made to directly address Galaxy's Edge. The changes mentioned here deal with *existing* crowd issues that should have been fixed years ago.

I was hoping to read something about the rumored back exit from Galaxy's Edge so Main Street won't be even more crushed during the exit stampede every night. And I still don't see how the parking trams are going to function at closing with even more cars and guest at the resort.

January 24, 2019 at 12:50 PM

In the 90s sometime, I'm not sure when, they changed the castle bricks to a darker, warmer tone. It made the castle look too brownish. The original bricks were lighter and cool in color, which I think complemented the pinks and golds, so I hope they make the bricks, if not the same as the original, at least cooler.

The queue changes are good, stroller corrals are good, cutting back planters maybe a necessary evil, but I think it's most noticeable in Fantasyland which already doesn't have much greenery. They should just remove the stair entrance to Tarzan's Treehouse, I know the bridge is part of the movie, but I think it could be sacrificed to reduce crowding at that point.

January 24, 2019 at 1:07 PM

I've heard that the replacement Astro Orbiter was too heavy for the platform so they had to place it at ground level. The old one still sits on the perch.

January 24, 2019 at 1:20 PM

FWIW, Disney is promising more walk-and-talks to address additional issues in the weeks ahead, including Tomorrowland and the immediate areas around Galaxy's Edge, which the managers said are still being worked on.

So... stay tuned. The story's not finished yet!

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