50 Years of Walt Disney World: Keeping It All Afloat

September 26, 2021, 7:15 PM · Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort. To get ready for the big birthday, I have been featuring stories from my book about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

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Standard operating procedure for the 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? Ninety.

Hey, why not pack on more? People have been waiting 10-15 minutes, or more, to get on a raft. As long as there's space, why not have a few more board?

Just ask people to push in tighter, to allow a few more people to get across on this raft. 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?

Working in a theme park, one learns that what seems obvious in the short term may turn out to be 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, people might be uncomfortable for that minute or two crossing the river, but it keeps the line down, right?

Actually, it doesn't. What happens when you load 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 the raft does start to take on water, enough so that the people riding up front start climbing up the rails on the side of the raft to keep their feet from getting wet.

Heck, we even had a hand signal that cast members working the river attractions could use to tell a Tom Sawyer Island raft driver that his front end was taking on water. (Hold your 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 with a properly loaded raft.

Eventually, the light bulb turned on in my brain, and I decided to run an experiment. 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. Running the lighter loads, we put through almost 40 percent more people.

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.

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 overloaded rafts, extra minutes in dock... and slow crossings with wet feet. So we stuck with the "light load" policy.

That summer, the Magic Kingdom West supervisors were running a contest 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 overloading 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 Tom Sawyer Island taught me a lesson that changed the way I think about life in general: Look at the big picture and what's going to happen in the long run.

Because if everyone just pushes to get his way in the short term, we're all just going to end up getting soaked on a drowning raft.

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You can support Theme Park Insider by ordering a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider," available in paperback for $6.99 and for Kindle as an eBook for just $2.99.

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Replies (7)

September 26, 2021 at 10:25 PM

It’s fortunate that you ignoring a safety protocol didn’t get somebody injured (or worse). Is it okay for me to phrase it that way?

September 26, 2021 at 11:49 PM

They actually trained us to overload when I started there. Several of us pushed against that, and that’s what led us to try light loading.

September 27, 2021 at 9:09 AM

Great story, Robert! And a classic example of how sometimes "conventional wisdom" or the staus quo isn't always the smartest thing to do.

September 27, 2021 at 3:07 PM

B0b chapek must be thinking...what if...we charge people to board the raft ONCE they are on the island otherwise they have to wait for the free ride that crosses once every 8 hours in a smaller raft.? Of course only as a genie plus exclusive...

September 27, 2021 at 3:09 PM

All kidding aside...a very good lesson in crowd managment and people flow in a Theme park.

September 27, 2021 at 3:17 PM

@pablo hahaha, it's $20 a head if you don't want to swim.

Great article. Economists would describe the problem as the "tragedy of the commons"-- individuals want to get onboard, but if all of them are allowed to do so, everyone ends up waiting longer.

Robert, in your day did they have the large handicapped bathrooms on the island? We call those the "Rick James Bathrooms," because if you want to get up to something at Disneyland, that's the place to do it. **Whoops, I see you were at Disneyworld.**

September 27, 2021 at 3:52 PM

The coronel ha ha ha ha!! I SEE that You may have some plans for the 50th anniversary !!!

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