What is the worst thing hurting the Walt Disney World experience right now?
Over the past couple of days, we have talked about upsells and price increases, reservation requirements, and over-reliance on using apps when in the park. [See Why Walt Disney World Is Creating Hard Feelings Right Now and Why I Don't Want to Live in a Metaverse.] But there's one more factor to consider. And it might be the worst offender of them all.
It's the cloning.
No, Disney has not developed the technology to physically duplicate you and your family while you are visiting its theme parks. (At least not yet.) But Walt Disney World does have ways to do that virtually. With mobile order and the Disney Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane products, Disney World - and Disneyland - have created the ability for people to be multiple places at once, at least in virtual space.
You now can place an order for lunch at Pecos Bill Cafe while waiting in line at Splash Mountain. If you bought the Disney Genie+ upsell, you might also be waiting virtually for a return time at Big Thunder Mountain at the same moment, too. In Disney's version of the metaverse, you now can be in three places at once: the Splash Mountain queue, the Pecos Bill queue, and the Big Thunder queue.
That sounds great, right? You are multi-tasking in the Magic Kingdom and getting stuff done! But what happens if everyone else in the park is doing the same thing? If everyone is waiting in three queues at once virtually, instead of just one physically, Disney could need to create up to three times the capacity in the park to avoid problems such as long standby lines or everything booking for the day shortly after park open.
Disney Genie+ and its predecessor Fastpass did not create any extra capacity, however. It's well understood that as more people used Fastpass, standby wait times increased at those attractions, as a higher percentage of the rides' capacities was given over to the Fastpass return queues.
Mobile order extends the problem to "quick service" restaurants, which we often call counter service around here, because the service at them is too rarely quick. Before mobile order, you had to wait in a physical queue to place your order, which meant you were not waiting in another physical queue for a ride or show. That helped keep wait times down elsewhere in the park and made traditional meal times nice times to ride. Now with mobile order, you can place a meal order while you wait or do something else, making those other lines longer again.
I wrote yesterday that I loved mobile order when it debuted at the Disney theme parks. But relatively few people were using the service back then. When the pandemic hit and Disney pushed everyone to use mobile order at its counter service restaurants, the system could not scale. Disney limits the number of mobile orders it will accept, based on kitchen capacity. So people ended up having to place their orders hours in advance, and those who failed to do so found few or no options available. With Disney World's table service restaurants often booking far in advance, that meant scrounging lunch or dinner from food carts.
Meanwhile, those who did manage to get in their mobile orders still found long waits to pick up their food, as short-staffed kitchens struggled to keep with the flood of mobile orders.
I have heard from Disney insiders that customer satisfaction ratings for mobile order flew through the roof when that service debuted. Just as the initial users of Fastpass loved and raved about that service. But as anyone who has worked for any length of time in product development - in any industry - might have learned, sometimes products that perform great in the smaller, testing phase fall apart when scaled up into mass usage.
Any decent-sized theme park can absorb a small percentage of its visitors "cloning" themselves by using things like mobile order and virtual queues. Those become nifty little back doors that fans who have access to them absolutely love. And who wouldn't love saving time like that? But if you back door everyone, then that becomes the new front door.
Queuing is fundamental to the operation of a theme park. There is no way to avoid queuing when bringing thousands of people into an attraction with limited capacity. The only question is how to manage those queues - whether to run them physically or virtually, or to manage queuing through appointments, where visitors must follow a pre-set, scheduled itinerary. Otherwise, you need to limit capacity to such a low level that every location can serve visitors on a walk-in basis. That approach only works for venues on either end of the market, whether they are cheap, unpopular destinations or high-priced, ultra-exclusive ones.
For everyone in the middle - including Disney - it's queues. Virtual queues provide a wonderful alternative to physical queues, allowing people to avoid the drudgery and potential discomfort of shuffling through a slow-moving queue. But if you mix virtual queues with physical ones, a park can end up with capacity problems if it does not sharply limit the ways that guests can use them. Disney CEO Bob Chapek reported that 30% of Walt Disney World guests upgraded to Disney Genie+ when that service launched. That ain't sharply limiting anything.
Disney employs some of the best industrial engineers in the business. They know that there is no free lunch. So when Disney pushes mass adoption of products like mobile order and Disney Genie+, it's because top managers have accepted the trade-offs.
Ironically, Disney's fear of public backlash might be making the guest experience at Walt Disney World worse. Disney Genie+ could make just as much money for the company and have less of a detrimental effect on park operations if Disney charged more than three times as much for it - the current price at Walt Disney World is $15 a day - and fewer than 10% of park guests used it. That would put Disney Genie+ closer to the going rate for similar line-skipping products at other theme parks and allow standby wait time for other guests to fall.
Elsewhere, Disney could achieve some of the labor savings and communication efficiency of mobile ordering by replacing that system with kiosk ordering at its counter service restaurants. Or it could revamp mobile ordering as an upcharge service or deluxe hotel guest benefit to limit the number of people using it to a manageable level.
I am not endorsing any of these ideas, but mean simply to point out that Disney has options - including options that might lead to better in-park operations, even if that means higher upcharge costs for guests. Disney should not allow fear of public backlash against those price increases to keep it from making changes that would improve the guest experience inside the parks for all.
After all, as I wrote about in my first piece this week, the Internet is now designed to provoke controversy and broadcast complaints. Backlash is inevitable, no matter what Walt Disney World and Disneyland end up doing. So forget about trying to avoid that. You can't.
Disney's challenge - as always - is to improve its guests' experience while preserving a return on investment for the company. What is happening at Walt Disney World and Disneyland now is giving the company plenty of information with which it can refine better products and operations going forward.
And they'd better. Because if fans don't like what Disney is doing to earn their money, those fans have plenty of other options for travel and entertainment.
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