The long, complicated history of lines at Disney theme parks

As part of my new commitment to just being me, I hope to share a lot more random stuff around here — just like I used to. Instead of waiting for weeks (or months) in order for inspiration to strike for a longer essay, I want to share the best of the interesting money stories (and semi-money stories) that I find around the interwebs.

Think of it as Apex Money, I guess, but instead of sharing three to five discoveries each day, I may share one or two a week. And instead of editing and polishing these pieces, they’ll just be quick braindumps with minimal attention to detail.

Today, for instance, here’s a 103-minute YouTube video about the lines at Disney theme parks:

If you’re a nerd like me (and I know that many of you are!), this is fascinating stuff.

While this is only tangentially related to personal finance itself, the broader concepts the video explores have a lot to do with how our money is managed in this modern era.

You see, the history of lines at Disney theme parks during the past fifty years reflects broader societal and business trends.

  • Initially, guests at Disney parks paid an admission fee at the front gate and paid nominal fees for each ride.
  • Before long, the “pay per ride” system was scrapped in favor of paper ticket books, where each ticket allowed guests access to rides based on priority.
  • Eventually, even the ticket books were abandoned. When I first visited Disneyland in the summer of 1987, you paid at the gate and then could ride whatever you wanted. The catch? The best rides had long lines. Very long lines.
  • As computer technology advanced, it became possible for Disney to implement its FastPass system, whereby guests could make “reservations” for top rides. This alleviated lines somewhat but began to create two “classes” of park visitors.
  • Over time, the queueing process became even more computerized. By the time Kim and I visited Disney World during our RV trip in 2016, the “classes” of park visitors were even more stratified. If you did your research like we did, and if you stayed in a Disney hotel on their property, you enjoyed privileged access to attractions. If you just showed up — whether because you were a local or because you didn’t know any better — your waits could be excruciating. (And there was a third class of visitor in between.)
  • Now, Disney is rolling out a controversial new system to manage the lines for rides. And in many ways, it’s going back to the beginning where guests have to pay for attractions.

But wait! There’s more!

Throughout these decades of change, Disney has experimented with social engineering. If the line for Space Mountain is 90 minutes, for instance, but less-popular attractions have no wait, they might lie to guests and tell them that Space Mountain has a 120-minute wait. Some folks will still wait in the Space Mountain line, but more people will actually peel off and choose to do something else, thus spreading crowds around the park. And since “do something else” frequently becomes “shopping”, that’s more money in the park’s pocket.

Because Disney isn’t wholly mercenary, its decisions aren’t guided 100% by company profit. They also consider guest experience. (But wait! Are they only considering guest experience because it increases company profit?!?)

Anyhow, I don’t expect to sit through all 103 minutes of this video. But I did. And I enjoyed it. Maybe you will too?

True story: Watching this video also gave me inspiration for the GRS YouTube channel, which I’ve begun working on again. Instead of doing my regular vlogs, I want to try my hand at some longer video essays. Maybe not 103 minutes long haha, but longer than three minutes.

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