ORLANDO, Fla. — Deep in the bowels of Walt Disney World, inside an underground bunker called the Disney Operational Command Center, technicians know that you are standing in line and that you are most likely annoyed about it. Their clandestine mission: to get you to the fun faster.
To handle more than 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the mega-resort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smart phones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.
And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.
In one corner, employees watch flat-screen televisions that depict various attractions in green, yellow and red outlines, with the colors representing wait-time gradations.
If Pirates of the Caribbean, the ride that sends people on a spirited voyage through the Spanish Main, suddenly blinks from green to yellow, the center might respond by alerting managers to launch more boats.
Another option involves dispatching Captain Jack Sparrow or Goofy or one of their pals to the queue to entertain people as they wait. "It's about being nimble and quickly noticing that, 'Hey, let's make sure there is some relief out there for those people,'" said Phil Holmes, vice president of the Magic Kingdom, the flagship Disney World park.
What if Fantasyland is swamped with people but adjacent Tomorrowland has plenty of elbow room? The operations center can route a miniparade called "Move it! Shake it! Celebrate It!" into the less-populated pocket to siphon guests in that direction. Other technicians in the command center monitor restaurants, perhaps spotting that additional registers need to be opened or dispatching greeters to hand out menus to people waiting to order.
"These moments add up until they collectively help the entire park," Holmes said.
In recent years, according to Disney research, the average Magic Kingdom visitor has had time for only nine rides — out of more than 40 — because of lengthy waiting times and crowded walkways and restaurants. In the last few months, however, the operations center has managed to make enough nips and tucks to lift that average to 10.
"Control is Disney's middle name, so they have always been on the cutting edge of this kind of thing," said Bob Sehlinger, co-author of "The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World 2011" and a writer on Disney for Frommers.com. Sehlinger added, "The challenge is that you only have so many options once the bathtub is full."
Disney, which is periodically criticized for overreaching in the name of cultural dominance (and profits), does not see any of this monitoring as the slightest bit invasive. Rather, the company regards it as just another part of its efforts to pull every possible lever in the name of a better guest experience.
The primary goal of the command center, as stated by Disney, is to make guests happier — because to increase revenue in its $10.7 billion theme park business, which includes resorts in Paris and Hong Kong, Disney needs its current customers to return more often. "Giving our guests faster and better access to the fun," said Thomas O. Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, "is at the heart of our investment in technology."
Disney also wants to raise per-capita spending. "If we can also increase the average number of shop or restaurant visits, that's a huge win for us," Holmes said.
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